A new way of communicating faith
Web pioneer Brother Aquinas on the Internet and spirituality
The monks at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, N.M., first went online in 1995. Brother Aquinas, the Web site's founder, went on to help build the Vatican's site and then founded nextSCRIBE, a Web design company aimed at creating a full-service online portal. Read excerpts from an edited transcript of an interview with him below.
Why did the monks at Christ in the Desert launch a Web site?
It seemed to be a very good way for a little monastery to make a living. That is, doing Web design so we could make use of some of our monks who are artists or programmers.
That was really the original intention, but things took off in a very different direction than we planned. When we first put up our Web site in early 1995, we immediately got some publicity because a monastery being on the Web was something very unique at the time. Suddenly we found there was this entire new apostolate of people going to our site, looking at it everyday, and sending prayer requests. It really became a bit of a phenomenon that there was this peaceful, spiritual place on the Internet. So, that took us in a different direction. We became involved with the Vatican as they were first putting up their Web site. I went over to Rome and spent about 6 months as a consultant to them helping them plan their Web site.
That began a process of looking at the Internet not just as a project of the monastery, but as something that really had an international impact and would affect individual people very deeply. Looking at it from that perspective, we started to look at what should the church do and what should be done on the Web to make use of the technology for the good of people. We very quickly found out that the Vatican is not a media company. It doesn't do creative media and never has. So we began a process of trying to find someplace in the church that could make use of the digital media in the way that we thought it needed to be done.
It's been a process over several years. We talked with different religious orders, different lay organizations and different dioceses ... but we didn't really find any institution that had the charism that could do highly creative digital media.
So it came back to the monastery and the question became, well, how can we do this? How can we take what we thought was a responsibility to use the media well, but do it without disrupting the monastery because Christ in the Desert needs to remain a little contemplative monastery. So what we came up with was a spin-off project, which is the nextSCRIBE project.
What exactly is nextSCRIBE?
What nextSCRIBE is is a lay project. In some ways what we've done is we've taken the spirituality of Benedictine monasticism, which is very rooted in work and prayer. But in some senses, it's [the Benedictine tradition] a very medieval construction in the way it's organized and the way it looks at work. So what we've tried to do is take the principles of integrating work and prayer and put them into a modern form -- really a sanctification of the corporate form of work -- so that the work itself becomes the core of the spirituality. Then we focus that on doing digital media.
The intention of the project is to develop an online service. It will be a full-service online provider, something like America Online or Yahoo or Excite, that provides all the basic services used on the Internet -- things like e-mail, a search-engine, chatrooms and news. Except that instead of it becoming completely commercial, where you're just being bombarded by ads all the time, the focus will be on the whole human person.
People do want to buy and sell things on the Internet and so we'll do that, but that's not all there is to people. We'll also focus on the spiritual end of people's lives, the intellectual part, and incorporate a real focus just on beauty, just in the design and original artwork. The intention is to really provide an online environment that will engage people in the whole person and lead them to a higher level experience on the Web.
Is it important for the church to keep up with Internet technology?
It's critical. What I tell people is that what the church is, what any church is in its nature on this earth, is communication between people. Faith is born in the silence of a person's heart, but what the church is built on is people expressing that faith between themselves. Religion is always focused on communication. Before the printing press it was a very oral form of communication -- the homily and preaching was central. When the printing press came along, books became central to how faith is expressed between people. And it's going to be the same way with the digital media. The digital media are going to be central to the way the church operates. So if the church can't figure out how to use the medium well, it's going to suffer tremendously.
Do you aim your Web content at a primarily religious audience or at a more general audience?
Usually in religious media, people look at just creating content for people who believe the same things that they do. ... We're really trying to take a radically different approach. We presume that the people we're trying to talk to are not Catholic.
We take exactly the same philosophical and theological positions, we're very in line with the church on that, but the people that we're trying to express them to we assume are not Catholic. So the focus becomes what's essential in the faith. The focus is not just on the technical religious terminology, it's on the beauty and the truth and the goodness and the focus on leading a life that's dedicated to love. Our thought is that by focusing on the essentials in that way and making it universally appealing that we'll do more good.
Are you concerned that because the Internet allows anyone to spread their own version of church doctrine, that it could cause divisiveness?
I don't think in reality it's going to make that much difference. What the Internet does is make a lot of those different ideas become evident, where before you just didn't see them. Now it's easier to see them. My sense is that in terms of the church and other religions, the attitude needs to change. It shouldn't be a matter of censoring and keeping out what's bad. There should be more of an objective of trying to express what's good and make it appealing to people. It's a very different sort of an approach to the media. The openness of the Internet sort of forces that and I think it's a good thing.
Did going online disrupt the traditional lifestyle in the monastery?
It really didn't at all. A lot of people thought that it would, but from the very beginning we really looked at it as being a way of returning to an older tradition.
I suppose some of the concerns have to do with technology and thinking that maybe monks shouldn't be involved in technology. But actually, it's only in very recent history that we've developed this idea that monks should be antique. Throughout history, monks were always on the cutting edge of technology.
A lot of people complain about the potential for problems. Even in the church, there have been a lot of people who've talked about how the Internet should be avoided and how working with images all the time is not good. But to me that completely misses the point. There is an advantage to this and it's a very positive gift to the world.
Could virtual spirituality ever replace the real thing?
That's a fascinating question. I've had lots of discussions with people about that.
It's a concern. What if people are having a more interesting spiritual experience online than in their local community?
On the one hand, I think you can say there is a danger, as there is with any new technology. There can be a split. Some people will use the virtual environment as a reason to get away from real life. But I think if the medium is used in the right way, if it's linked to real communities and people are using it to improve personal communication, that will only help relationships in the real world. Part of what we're trying to do with the nextSCRIBE project is to link online virtual communities with real live communities and make them work together.
Will the Internet change the way we express ideas about spirituality? I think it absolutely will. I think it's going to have very profound changes. It's not going to change the nature of being and the nature of God and all that. But it will change the way we express the ideas and the way we think about them.
I think in some senses it will be a much more visual way of expressing these ideas. We look at the Web as taking us back to a time before the printing press where expressions of ideas, faith and religion were much more sensory. When you think of cathedrals and music and art, that's how the faith was expressed then. The printing press really removed that. But the Web lets us go back to a time when the way we thought and the way we communicated was much more sensory.