The sisters of Poor Clare take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure. When the study began there were 11 nuns. 3 have since died. The nuns did not view the deaths as sad. Indeed, when a nun dies, the others celebrate with a biscuit at breakfast; a very rare luxury! Though they miss their departed sister, they are confident that she has gone to her reward for a life devoted to manual labour and pray.
Their way of life may seem harsh. They rise at 5:30am and follow a strict routine of work and prayer. The Abbey is freezing in winter and they wear heavy coats indoors. Yet the Abbey is a very beautiful and serene place. It is clear that the sisters are happy. How then, could technology possibly enhance their lives? How can we address the needs of people who consciously deny themselves all material comforts?
The Extern nun, Mother Abbess and other sisters were generous with their time in explaining their life of pray. Although the Poor Clares are a meditative order, their meditations are not directed towards inner peace or necessarily themselves. As the Extern Sister put it, their role is to “…stand in the presence of God…” for those that can’t because they are leading their own perfectly good but busy lives or because they do not believe in or know God. Although the sisters withdraw from the world, their pray life is entirely directed towards it.
The Poor Clares have a long tradition of intercessionary prayer. Anyone can request the sisters to pray for them or their loved ones. They also have access to news sources such as the radio, and pray whenever they learn of specific disasters or upheavals in the world. It became clear that if technology were to enhance their prayer life it would not be in meeting any unmet need but in helping them in their role as witness to God for the needs of the world. The design team became fascinated by the question of what the nuns prayed for. If radio sources were relied upon, could media bias interfere with their choices? Could RSS feeds and online web resources be used to inform their prayer life?
The design team from the Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths, University of London, worked on a number of designs for a ‘Prayer Companion’ (called ‘Goldie’ by the nuns) based on the idea of conveying news feeds to the nuns in a form that was culturally and aesthetically acceptable to them. The final design took the form of a Tao cross; a T shaped cross particularly associated with St Francis who helped found Poor Clares. This was produced using a 3D printer and finished in a deep burgundy intended to be sympathetic to the palette of the sacred artefacts already in the environment. Embedded into the cross section of the T is an LED text display showing scrolling news feeds taken from the internet. It also takes some ‘I feel’ feeds. These are taken from an algorithm that trawls the internet for any sentences from social networking sites with the words ‘I feel’ in it from ‘I feel lonely’ or ‘I feel I can’t go on’ to ‘I feel old’. The nuns can then chose to pray for the people concerned. To begin with the nuns thought there were too many ‘I feel’ statements and were irritated by them. Sister Michael read ‘I feel thirty four’ and responded sarcastically ‘Do you now?’ However, with some adjustments, the community are generally happy with it, describ as part of the furniture and wish to keep it.