My conversation with a coding nun

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(Bloomberg) -- Hi, everyone. It’s Nate Lanxon in London.

“Cloistered Benedictine nun,” “web developer” and “finance industry,” are a trio of terms I never anticipated I’d one day write in the same paragraph. But today I’m pleased to say the opportunity has arisen.

That’s because I recently spent some time talking to Sister Catherine Wybourne, a self-taught web developer and coder at her rural English monastery. Prior to taking holy orders in the 1980s, she enjoyed a career in the banking industry.

Nuns like Sister Catherine typically spend life within the confines of their religious grounds, leaving for medical reasons or other unavoidable necessities. So, keen to raise funds and awareness for her order, she turned to technology and taught herself to code via the internet.

“It enabled me to learn a bit more about how things actually work from within the confines of the monastery,” she said. "There was a period when I actively designed websites for other people and that was very useful because it gave us an income. But I do much more consultancy work now.”

It was upon hearing this that I realized I had more in common with a nun than I anticipated (which, to be fair, was not very much), because this was exactly how I taught myself to code in the 1990s. But the tools available to curious would-be programmers are far more sophisticated and accessible today — Apple’s Swift Playgrounds and Codecademy’s courses remain favorites of mine — which made me think there may be hidden pockets of tech-loving nuns around the world.

“I think there are probably more of us than people would expect,” Sister Catherine said, adding that some of the earliest printing presses — very much the Adobe InDesign of the 16th century — were built within monasteries. “I think we're great adopters of technology,” she said.

One of the most well-known “digital nuns” was the late Mary Kenneth Keller, from Cleveland, Ohio. In addition to being a nun, Sister Mary is also widely considered to be the first woman in America to complete a Ph.D in computer science. She ultimately went on to help develop the influential BASIC programming language.

So what's Rome's position on this? While the Pope is one of the most subscribed-to figures on social media with 17.9 million Twitter followers, he was recently reported to have advised nuns to be careful with technology and use social media apps “with sobriety and discretion.”

Sister Catherine, who has about 20,000 Twitter followers herself, had received the guidance but wasn’t entirely convinced it was necessary.

“What always strikes me is that Rome doesn't really take into account the fact that individual communities may actually have a policy in place about the usage of such things as the internet and the web,” she said. “We sat down back in 2003 and said the most appropriate way for us to exercise Benedictine hospitality is by going online.”

What does it mean when faith collides with technology? Are we going to see an even greater social-media presence by organized religions? Spiritual algorithms? The holy ghost in the machine? Or maybe it’s the other way around. Has technology become our new religion?

For Sister Catherine, the more mundane dilemma she faces isn’t the sluggish uptake of technology in Rome, but the “pathetic” speed of her monastery’s broadband. “It’s 4 megabits per second,” she said. “Max.”

I’m not a religious man, but I’d happily pray for every cloistered Benedictine nun to one day feel the joy of 1-gigabit-per-second internet access. Those download speeds are heavenly.

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