Cyberculture and Contemplatives? It's Not a Match Made in Heaven, but Religious Communities Are Learning to Use the Internet

Article excerpt

For decades, Mother Mary Francis, abbess of the Poor Clare community in Roswell, N.M., has urged contemplative nuns to remain enclosed in their cloisters, sleep on straw mats and rise at midnight to facilitate a life of prayer and penance.

Now the abbess is making her case for a religious life removed from worldly distractions - on the Internet's World Wide Web.

The "intense interior activity of contemplation ... calls us not out of our enclosure but deeply into it," Mother Francis wrote in a letter to the Pope featured on her community's home page.

The abbess is not alone. Nuns and monks from New Mexico to New Zealand see nothing incongruous about contemplation and computing. From the confines of cloisters, they are offering spiritual insight, religious history and vocational guidance on home pages featuring "illuminating graphics" and inspirational music. And they're pitching products and services from Trappistine caramels to website design.

"I'm glad the church is showing something positive and valuable in the midst of all the garbage on the Internet," says Father Andrew of the Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. "People are looking for something valuable in their lives."

Contemplatives' websites range from the spartan--a few sentences and an e-mail address--to the homepage of the Cistercian Sister's Heart of Mary Priory in Grenaa, Denmark, which features scenes of community life, a history of the order in three languages and samples of music from the p riory. While Roman Catholic contemplatives prevail on the Web, four Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Seraje Monastery recently fielded browsers' questions.

"I was looking at a picture on the Internet of you monks taking a lunch break the other day at McDonalds," a browser informed the monks via e-mail. Do monks, he asked, eat meat?

"Generally as monks we accept whatever food is offered to us," they replied.

Browsers who end up at home pages with names like "A Carmelite Called Charlie" often have more than a passing interest in religious life, and websites are virtual vocation offices for potential candidates.

Some communities use a low- key approach: "You'll find no sales pitch here," promises Brother Charlie, though he does provide a link to a vocation office. …