High-tech nuns

The sisters of Poor Clares have an unlikely ally in their mission of prayer: a customized news reading device

Ross Parry Agency LTD

The Monastery of Poor Clares on Lawrence Street in York, England, is home to just over a dozen nuns.

Most are over the age of 80 and, having taken vows of poverty, chastity and enclosure, haven’t left the convent in 30 years but for doctors’ appointments. And yet their prayer must be “pertinent,” because practical prayer is part of their mandate to bring the world closer to God. So the nuns listen to the radio, surf the Internet and answer letters and emails from people requesting prayers. Now, they have another tool to keep their prayers up to date: Goldie, an electronic device that displays rolling headlines from 25 news sites, including the BBC, the New York Times and Reuters.

The nuns began their technological upgrade quite by chance, in the spring of 2007, when it emerged they shared a garden wall with a researcher on an academic project focused on developing technology for aging people. Mark Blythe invited them to collaborate, and they began figuring out what technological gadget might best complement their lives.

Two years later, the team revealed Goldie. “The content was selected to provide a broad and global view of events,” says Nadine Jarvis, team member and research assistant at Goldsmiths, University of London. The device also picks up “statements of feeling” posted by people on select social networking sites— “to provide a zeitgeist of people’s feelings,” says Jarvis. The team had to revisit the ratio of real news to social network “news,” because the latter can be banal (“I feel 34,” read one). But the “I feels” were kept partly because they provide comic relief: at one point during the study, Goldie had all the sisters laughing after a headline read: “I feel pretty, oh so pretty, I feel pretty and witty.”

When Goldie was unveiled, the sisters were amused to see that it resembled a tau cross—a T-shaped ancient symbol of Christ’s cross associated with Saint Francis, the other founding saint of the Poor Clares sisterhood. It’s placed at the bottom of a major staircase the nuns use when going to the refectory, the garden, or to say the Divine Office prayers.

After using the device for a year and a half, the nuns say Goldie has helped them advance their mandate of practical prayer. “A thought’s just come to me,” said the Mother Abbess in a taped discussion during the project. “It’s like putting salt on your dinner. You know, to enhance your dinner.”

Goldie explores the potential benefits of transnational prayer. Last week, Candy Gunther Brown, associate professor in the department of religious studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, published an international study of the efficacy of prayer; it suggested that being physically close to prayer helps a person’s healing. “I was frankly surprised that we found people’s vision and hearing actually changed quite a bit through these practices,” says Brown, who measured improvements in people’s vision and hearing when they were close to praying. Asked about the healing powers of the nuns’ distant prayers, Brown says some could exist, though the evidence is inconclusive.

That’s the least of the sisters’ concerns. Reached on the eve of the Feast of St. Clare—“the foundress of the Order”—the nuns were “up to their eyeballs” with work. But their prayers, as always, continue along.