Cybermonks take the word online

Monastic pioneers make the Net a revolutionary tool for the practice of religion

From behind the cloistered walls of monasteries, monks are heading out on the roads of cyberspace in ever-growing numbers.

Robed pilgrims in an often-unfamiliar land, monks are reaching out to connect with the world through Web sites, virtual tours, chatrooms, e-mail prayers and online shopping. Along the way, many are discovering that the Internet is changing notions of spirituality and has become vital to the future of the church.

Beneath the canopy canopy of an evergreen forest, the All-Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, Wash., is a haven of stillness and quiet. A 30-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle, the Russian Orthodox community is known for its Monastery Blend coffees and teas, which the monks advertise on their Web site.

Like their Northwest brethren, the Eastern Orthodox monks at New Skete Monasteries in New York, use their Web site to advertise products -- in their case dog obedience books, gourmet cheesecakes and smoked meats -- and also provide general information about life in their community.

Famous for their German Shepherds and dog-training techniques, the monks of New Skete regularly receive hundreds of questions from pet-owners and maintain a lengthy waiting list for their puppies. The monastery's Web site helps cut down on phone traffic, raises money and offers the public an easy way to learn about the community.

Widely regarded as the monastic pioneers of the Internet, the Roman Catholic monks at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, first went online in 1995 with the intention of using their graphic design skills to provide financial support for the monastery. After its debut, their Web site became an overnight sensation -- the site's founder, Brother Aquinas, was written up in major publications and millions of people subsequently thronged to the site.

The Monastery of the Holy Cross , a Roman Catholic monastic community in Chicago, believes strongly in the idea that the Internet can only enhance its relationship with the outside world. Its Web site offers visitors an e-mail prayer service and requests received from Internet users around the world are printed out and posted in the cloister for monks to take to prayer with them.

According to Brother Thomas, one of the site's developers, e-mail prayers are not a replacement for people's own prayer, but serve to involve the public in the everyday life of the monastery. "Communication is really important to spreading the Christian message. The Internet is just another form of communication. It may be new to us today, but who knows what will happen 20 to 50 years from now," he said.

Just like the printing press dramatically altered the church by making it possible for everyone to have an individual copy of the Bible, the Internet is also changing the way spirituality is expressed and experienced. The incorporation of different mediums, such as video, audio, photography, graphic design and multi-dimensional computer modeling makes the Internet a potentially revolutionary tool for the practice of religion.

"I look at the Web as going back to a time before the printing press, where expressions of ideas and of faith and religion were much more sensory," said Brother Aquinas. "When you think of cathedrals and music and art, that's how the faith was expressed then. The Web lets us go back to a time when the way we thought and the way we communicated was much more sensory."

"Woe to the [monastic] community that doesn't take advantage of this technology," said New Skete's Brother Christopher. "I think it will get left behind a little bit."