Elizabeth Pio holds an imaginary mobile phone to her ear and speaks: ‘Yes, deffo. Catch you for a cappuccino at Costa. Laters.’
She giggles. She giggles a lot. ‘I’d love to have a smartphone and be able to have a conversation like that in the street. I don’t get many opportunities to say ‘‘deffo’’.’
Elizabeth peppers our conversation with words and phrases like ‘newbie’ and ‘sus out’.
This strikes me as odd, for a nun.
But then Sister Elizabeth Pio is, to continue with the current patois, cool. She’s hip because she is the tweeting nun.
The 41-year-old hit the headlines earlier this week with her prowess on Twitter – she regularly posts to her followers urging them to pray, share a spiritual insight, or give a potted history of a saint.
She’s excited when we meet at the Sisters of Bethany convent in Nelson Road, Southsea. For in the two days since the story appeared in The News and online at portsmouth.co.uk, her followers have soared from 100 to 650.
It’s wrong to stereotype, however, we all do it. But Elizabeth does not fit the image of your archetypal member of the sisterhood.
She has no religious background, knew nothing about the Church or its rituals and came to the calling relatively late in life.
The fact that she tweets from a PC in the convent and hankers after that smartphone gives a clue to her technological background – as an engineer.
She grew up in Suffolk, left school after O-levels and joined a nearby engineering firm.
‘Even though I was a bit of a tomboy I had no interest in engineering. But when I left school I needed a job and needed money so I could go out with friends and do all the usual social things.’
Elizabeth joined the firm as part of the sales team and worked her way through the departments.
She adds: ‘Eventually it gripped me. I became totally immersed in the world of engineering. Primarily it was pneumatic engineering, working with hydraulics and designing automated systems for factories.
‘If you see bottling machines and equipment which puts caps on them – those robot types of things – I helped design them.’
She moved to the Midlands and an international engineering group where she became international marketing manager. ‘I had a company car, nice flat, lots of money and was flying to Japan, the United States and all over Europe.’
But beneath the jet-setting lifestyle nagging doubts were beginning to creep in.
‘Yes, it was stressful and I knew deep down that something was not quite right. But you go on because you think that’s what’s expected of you.
‘Then for some inexplicable reason I realised I was curious about the Church. I started wondering why people went to church and what the Bible was all about.
‘I was in my late 20s, early 30s, and I suppose I’d started asking the big questions in life like people do.’
Out of curiosity she bought a children’s illustrated Bible ‘for a fiver’.
‘I like pictures. I didn’t want a proper Bible. I didn’t want all those strange words – the thees, thous and Almighty Gods.
‘Then something strange happened. Within the first few pages I heard a voice say to me ‘‘in this you will find everything you’ve been searching for’’.’
Elizabeth devoured the book within a week. ‘I couldn’t take my head out of it. I’d never known anything like it. It was that dramatic and I changed from that moment on.’
She lost interest in her career and eight months later resigned ‘before I was pushed’.
‘My mojo had gone, but it came back in a different guise.’
She moved back in with her parents and took a part-time job cleaning a church hall in the early hours of the morning.
She used the rest of the day to find out about the Church. Meanwhile she studied theology on a distance learning course from St John’s College, Nottingham.
‘I’m as sceptical as anybody. I try to explain everything away even now, that’s the practical engineer in me. But I’ve come to accept that there are some things you can’t explain.’
Not knowing what to do next, Elizabeth turned on the television one day and up popped a group of nuns. ‘That was it. I Googled ‘nuns’ and ‘Church of England’ and up came the Sisters of Bethany.’
Elizabeth spent a weekend at the convent in 2004, then another longer spell, before, on her third visit, she did not go home.
‘The weird thing is that initially nothing about it appealed at all apart from the fact that they were in the middle of the city not shut away in a dark forest keeping themselves to themselves like many orders.
‘I felt immediately that the other sisters were special and I felt very quickly that this was were I belonged.
‘Of course it was daunting. They were all older than me and not only was I the newbie coming in but I was also a new Christian. They’d all been Christians since they were knee-high.’
Elizabeth became an aspirant in 2005 and full member of the order in 2010.
‘It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve never looked back, never thought I made the wrong decision.
‘Hey, I’m still alive aren’t I?’
LIFE OF PRAYERS
Like the rest of the Sisters of Bethany, Elizabeth Pio has devoted her life to prayer, hospitality and helping others. And one way of doing that is to tweet about God.
So between services in the chapel and private prayer in her room, she logs on to Twitter to urge their followers to pray.
She says: ‘We recognised that social media was how people often communicated these days, so it made us have a look at it.
‘We believe it’s a way of fulfilling the commandment to love God and love each other – we can express love for God on Twitter and we try to help others to discover his love.’
She adds: ‘I have a bit of a missionary streak and I think it’s great that we can communicate with an online community, most of whom we’ll never meet. It shows that nuns are human beings, not pious people who are always thinking about spiritual things.’