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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Cloister nuns reach out through world wide web"

From the Times of Malta
By Fiona Galea Debono

St Ursula's Monastery in Valletta may not be as cut off from the outside world as it would appear through the bars that block away the nuns beyond - it plans to move with the times, as far as possible, and its own website is testimony to that.

Although the cloister nuns do not have direct access to the feedback they receive, any e-mails are printed out and forwarded to them, while the seminarians handling the site reply on their behalf.

And computer-literate Sr Christine Vella, 28, who brought the first PC into the monastery with the money she received when she entered in 2002, has more IT-advanced ideas.

She is not excluding the possibility of introducing the internet into their midst, aware, however, that she may not have the time for it. Apart from being busy, the last time she had access to the internet, she became addicted to chatting.

More importantly though, it would not be readily accepted by the other nuns, in particular the more elderly, for whom "it is not a part of their lives as it is ours".

It is not surprising that one of the older nuns was bewildered when she received digital photos from her relatives in the US. She asked how they got there... and was shown the "magical" pen drive, the gadget Sr Christine passes back and forth through the metal mesh as a means of exchanging information. The mesmerised septuagenarian still cannot grasp how it works.

The nuns have, however, warmed up to the website, appreciating the response and the community promotion it is aimed at.

"It is still early for the internet but the fact that they have accepted the website is a major step," says Sr Christine.

And she does understand the concerns surrounding its infiltrating the monastery, whose inhabitants only leave it once a year - normally for health reasons.

"It is mainly the pornographic material and filth that is keeping the internet out. It takes nothing to press the wrong button and find a pornographic scene in front of your face," Sr Christine says.

The self-confessed addict to chat rooms would spend hours at it while she was at the University and even recalls the indecent advances she would receive from a "sex-saturated" cyberspace, openly listing the impertinent questions about her likes and dislikes, which often compelled her to log off.

Sr Christine is on a mission to attract more nuns to the cloistered community - and judging by her jolly demeanour and passion for life, cutting off from the world cannot be such a scary notion.
In fact, for Sr Christine, leaving the monastery is far scarier. "Even before I entered, I used to be unnerved. Now, I feel it even more. We all get a dizzy sensation when we walk out of the door and come back feeling faint."

Fifteen nuns, aged between 18 and 81, live in the monastery and two more entered over the last two years. But there are gaps when no one knocks on the door three times - as the entry ritual requires.

"The more, the merrier," she giggles through the grille, admitting that outside prayer time, it is a party inside and "we have such a good laugh together".

The cloister nuns are by no means a dying breed. In fact, they are the youngest community, she declares. But the reality is "it is never enough".

More nuns are also needed to carry out all the "obediences" - Sr Vella is responsible for looking after the sick but she is also helping out with the cooking these days.

"The safety of a nation depends on the number of contemplatives," she proudly quotes. The words had struck her and she explains that "our role is to build a closer union with God. The monastery's charisma is, after all, intercessory prayer".

The media-savvy nun is using any means to recruit more girls, reiterating that it was an interview in The Times on the monastery in 2001 that sealed the deal for her. She had been toying with the idea for six years but when she read it she knew where she wanted to go so she quit University.

God had used the journalist to accomplish His mission, she laughs, reassuring that it was not the latter's sole responsibility.

But it is probably her down-to-earth, no-frills approach that has the most magnetic pull - Sr Christine admits she only decided to spend her first weekend at the monastery to take a break from her studies... That experience grew from a weekend to a lifetime.

The website, www.orderofmalta-malta.org/stursula, offers information on the monthly meetings organised for girls aged 12 upwards.

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