By Penny.

Get online on August 9!

So ran the slogan for the 2016 Australian census, which – for the first time ever  – could be submitted online. We’d been assured it was unhackable, which inevitably turned out to be more or less the same as unsinkable. I got online on August 9 and found the website down, bombarded by so many millions of fake logins that the Australian Bureau of Statistics had hit the panic button and closed it down.

In filling out all the census questions a couple of days after the original deadline, I was reminded suddenly of the last time someone attempted to include me in a survey of this kind, which also didn’t work out as planned. Three-and-a-bit years ago, a letter from my former university arrived in the convent mailbox containing a Graduate Careers questionnaire for all alumnae. I dutifully filled it out:

What is your current occupation?

Postulant.

What are the primary responsibilities of this role?

Prayer, penance, and the witness of a holy life.

How many hours per week do you spend performing this role?

Ideally, every waking minute.

What is your current annual income?

Nil.

What is your anticipated annual income in five years’ time?

See above.

What is your level of seniority within the organization?

Non-existent.

What is your next anticipated career development?

Novice, about eight months from now.

What is the level of seniority of this position within the organization?

Non-existent.

At what age do you expect to retire from the workforce?

Death.

Sadly, although it gave the sisters a laugh at recreation, I didn’t end up mailing back the answers above; partly because I genuinely didn’t want to skew the results of their survey, and partly out of a sense that a religious vocation is not something that can be broken down into a tidy set of numbers as they would have to attempt to do. (Imagine an accountant trying to classify “a hundredfold in the life to come” as your superannuation, and you’ll see what I mean.) Had I still been in the convent this year, I assume my superior would have entered me on the census as an employee in a religious non-profit/charitable organization or some other odd contortion of language like that, because the census isn’t equipped to handle “spouse of Christ” any more than the census that brought Saint Joseph to Bethlehem two thousand and six Decembers ago had a category for “carpenter/foster-father of the Messiah” (#censusfailcaesaraugustus).
A census is a practical, quantitative tool, not a qualitative one: if I check “Catholic” in the religion category, a computer somewhere far away will go click and add one Catholic to its demographic information, and that’s the whole bewildering tapestry of my religious experience to date statistically done and dusted. It’s rather like the limitations of the Google Analytics data that I, with my Blog Mistress hat on, use to measure traffic through the Leonie’s Longing website. I might be delighted to see a spike on the graph showing that over a hundred people viewed a particular article, but that spike doesn’t tell me the most important thing of all: what that article meant to the real people who read it. My own cheerful postulant answers to the university survey were contrariwise all true, but contained not a single piece of information that they could use because everything that mattered was inside my soul and therefore unquantifiable. And although I’ve finally submitted my census, and hope that the government will be able to use the information I provided to help get an idea of the demographics of Australia in 2016, the act of filling my life out on a form is a reminder that although a human can be represented in numbers, the numbers will always fall short of the image and likeness of God.