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Ecumenical News International
ENI News Service
30 October 1998

Internet brings millions of 'visitors' to desert monastery


By Stephen Brown

Wittenberg, Germany, 30 October (ENI)--A Roman Catholic monastery in the middle of the New Mexico desert, in the United States,has picked up the tools of the Internet to create a global community on the World Wide Web which is at the cutting edge of new technology.

Only five years ago, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, at Abiquiu,two hours by road from Santa Fe, had no electricity and no telephone lines. But then the monks put up solar panels to provide electricity, and a local telephone company erected a transmitter for cellular portable phones, and in April 1995 the monastery became the first in the world to go on-line on the World Wide Web.

Today the monks' web site (www.christdesert.org), which receives tens of thousands of "hits" every day from all around the world, offers chants, homilies, prayers, information about the monastery, links to other resources and even information about sustainable building and renewable energy.

Two of the monks answer requests for prayers, while another, originally trained to illuminate manuscripts, provides images for the site, drawing on the artistic traditions of New Mexico and other states in the south-west of the US. Only a small minority of the many Web-users who visit the site are Catholic, and many have no religion at all.

The web site was born after an influx of new vocations at the beginning of the 1990s, when the monastery had to look for new ideas for business ventures to raise funds to cover the costs of the new recruits.

One of the new monks, Aquinas Woodworth, a computer-programmer before his conversion to Catholicism, was fascinated by the potential of the World Wide Web to use images and words to "engage the whole person in a conversation".

He suggested that the monastery should set up its own web site and then raise funds by designing web sites for other people.

Interviewed this week in Wittenberg, Germany, where he has been sharing his experience at a panel discussion, organised by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), on the place of theology and the church in global communication, Brother Aquinas said he saw no contradiction between the monastic life and the latest tools of high-tech communication.

"Part of the problem is that people believe that monasteries should be antiques, but monks have been at the cutting edge of medicine, engineering, and science. It's only in recent history that monasteries have stopped doing that sort of thing," he told ENI.

Designing web sites "is a very traditional kind of work for monks", he added, pointing out that there was a parallel to the efforts of monks in the past to illuminate manuscripts, finding ways for images and text to complement each other to convey spiritual truth.

Designing web sites has other advantages, too, for a monastery in the middle of a desert. The work can be done at hours to fit in with the monastic prayer life, and the Internet means that distance is no object.

After the monastery's web site was featured by the US television news network, CNN, and in a front page article in the New York Times, "things really got crazy" - the site received up to one million hits a day, although it has now settled down to about 20,000 hits a day.

The monastery was then approached by the Vatican for help on designing its own site.

But despite the world-wide interest in the site, "it hasn't become the big enterprise we hoped for", Brother Aquinas admitted. "There's only so much that a little contemplative monastery can do."

So the monks have launched a new project - an Internet consultancy service, called "next scribe" (www.nextscribe.org), which will draw on the skills of lay people, as well as monks, offering services to design and set up web sites.

They also have an ambitious project to reshape their own site to become a "portal", an area on the web site which can provide a "one-stop service", offering news, e-mail facilities and links to information. This allows people to find what they want without having to "surf the net".

The centre-piece of the "portal" will be an on-line prayer calendar. The monks are working with IBM to replace their prayer books with computer panels, so that people around the world can log in and pray with the monks in "real time".

Brother Aquinas makes no apologies for using the latest technologies and working with companies such as IBM to communicate the faith in cyberspace. "If the faith is to be expressed well, it should be very appealing. We're competing for the time and attention of people against major media companies."

He is well aware of the irony of a Catholic explaining the virtues of new communication technology to Lutherans in Wittenberg. Many people have compared the Internet revolution to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. And it was the printing press which made possible the rapid spread of Martin Luther's revolutionary ideas about the reformation of the church after he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche, 481 years ago.

Asked if the Internet, like the printing press, would lead to major changes in the church, Brother Aquinas said: "It's going to change the way that institutions operate in the world. Whether it's the church, government, or education, it will change." While the influence of the media might break down the strong hierarchy of the church, it might be that a strong hierarchy may be better placed in a constantly changing environment "and the media will adapt to the hierarchy and that kind of institution can remain. But God alone knows." [952 words]

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