|02/28/99- Updated 12:58 PM
NEAR ABIQUIU, N.M. - It's 4 a.m., and the walls of Chama Canyon glow milky white in the moonlight. A few hours ago there was only the sound of coyotes howling, but now a church bell clangs.
Two dozen monks file silently into their simple adobe chapel, as they do seven times a day, for prayers in the ancient tradition of Gregorian chant:
As it was in the begin-ning
Is now and ever shall be
World without end.
For the Benedictine brothers of the remote Monastery of Christ in the Desert here, the days roll by in a rhythm that is much the same as it has been in the cloistered world for more than a millennium: chanting and chopping wood, preparing meals, listening in the stillness for God.
And now, after hundreds of years, they once again illuminate manuscripts - to publish on the World Wide Web. Their current project: an elaborate Vatican site.
"This is restoring an ancient monastic tradition that was lost with the coming of the printing press," says Brother M. Aquinas Woodworth, 31, who, after a remarkable chain of events that he can only explain as God's will, will be in Rome for a month of meetings on the huge project that will put more than 10,000 church documents on the Web in searchable form.
A former computer programmer from Denver, Brother Aquinas went to the remote monastery five years ago "having no intention of ever doing anything like this," he says. Miles from electricity or phone lines, what he had in mind was a hermit's life.
But other monks had also been arriving, and the monastery's rustic guest house and gift shop couldn't support them all - brothers were scattered all over the 250-acre property, even sleeping in a converted goat barn.
After suggesting that Web page design could supplement their income, Brother Aquinas found himself teaching the others to program - and catching the eye of the Holy See.
He now is the unlikely organizer of what is "easily one of the biggest publishing projects ever undertaken. It's very clear to me divine providence is at work here," he says. "For us to get involved, a lot had to come together that no one could plan or arrange."
Some religious people believe cyberspace is a spiritual wasteland where pornographers roam free and virtual streets are lined with the flashing neon of crass commercialism. But Abbot Philip Lawrence, 52, isn't one of them.
"It can be a source of tremendous blessings," says the monastery's head for 20 years.
A practical priest with a graying beard and a genial bear hug for everyone, Abbot Philip says when he meets with other superiors, "They all look at me as the emissary of the Internet. Many have never seen the Internet, but all of them are interested in it. And they're fascinated by the fact that this monastery, known all over the world for the primitive way we live, is so involved."
The solar-powered outpost had used a couple of computers in the part-time work many monastics have adopted to make ends meet: converting card catalogs to electronic form. But the data entry was boring and didn't pay well; designing Web pages and creating custom art pays $65 to $125 an hour.
When a cellular tower was installed in the nearest town, the abbot says, he "didn't need convincing" to get the monastery a Net connection: "Electronic communication is the way of the future. The challenge is to use it well."
Brother Aquinas e-mailed the Vatican earlier this year offering help with its new Web site, but the last thing he expected was an invitation to Rome to make a pitch.
He went - with his abbot's blessing and a laptop loaned by Microsoft - to talk from his heart about "our obligation to speak these ideas to souls using the new medium." Monasteries can reclaim their heritage by building with bits and bytes "what the architects of St. Peter's Basilica created in stone and glass. It's really the same thing," he says.
"The Web lets us come full circle. . . . We can take text and illuminate it with art - or with sound and video."
Not to mention hospitality and gentle humor. Christ in the Desert's showcase Web pages (http://www.christdesert.org) do just that, starting with a virtual tour for cyberseekers led by the venerable "Brother URL," the acronym for a Web address.
The site gives details on the monks' daily lives and spiritual traditions, the history of Gregorian chant and directions for guest house visitors - the monastery is 27 miles from town and 13 miles down a winding, rutted dirt road that often can be navigated only with four-wheel drive and fervent prayer. "Our road is our cloister wall," Brother Aquinas says.
Much easier to access, the Web site offers information and inspiration, illuminated in a blend of monastic and Southwestern-style art and interactive treats. Click on the beautiful angel, for example, and hear a chanting monk.
It's no wonder the Vatican was impressed. The pope "knows all about the project," marvels Brother Aquinas. The current Vatican site (http:// www.vatican.va/) is out of service while work proceeds.
Roman Catholicism isn't the only religion with missionaries in Cyberia. "A digital crusade is going on, using electrons instead of swords and spears to win converts," says Jeff Zaleski, author of the upcoming book The Soul of Cyberspace (HarperEdge, $22), due this spring.
He says just about every religious sect has found a niche on the Net, from Tibetan Buddhists and pagans to Muslims and Orthodox Jews.
The Net "removes almost every barrier I can think of to religious exploration and searching," says Mark Kellner, author of God on the Internet (IDG, $24.99). "Millions of people have not grown up in a religious tradition or want to change their way of belief, and on line you can search from your desk," Kellner says. "If denominations ignore the Internet, they do it at their own peril."
Neither these authors nor the religious leaders they've interviewed believe the Net can replace face-to-face spiritual rituals, even though some in cyberspace have attempted on-line weddings, virtual confession booths and the like.
"You can enhance a ritual by putting a video on line for family members who can't be there, but 'You may now kiss the bride' sounds a lot better than 'You may now mouse-click on the bride's icon,' " Kellner says.
The real blessing of the Net may be the miracle of communication. "There is a global consciousness that was never here before," Abbot Philip says. "The road to peace is learning to talk to each other."
Adds Zaleski, "The Web itself is a spiritual medium in a way that hasn't been possible before. . . . It's a mirror of the human species, and if you believe the human species is good and has a divine spark within it, you can hope the Web will reflect that."
Brother Aquinas seems calm about the global task spread out before him, though his hazel eyes widen when asked how long he expects the Vatican work to take.
"Forever," he responds with a nervous laugh. "It's a huge project." He says he will almost certainly call upon the talents of brothers all over the world - an army of artists and programmers and even translators for the dozen or more languages in which the site will appear.
Some of the workers may soon visit Christ in the Desert for computer training and guidelines on how to get their abbeys and priories on line.
For most, it should be a much easier prospect than in the Chama Canyon wilderness, where the cellular connection costs $1,000 to $1,500 a month and service is poor.
The monastery has received thousands of dollars worth of software from Microsoft and six Pentium computers from Gateway 2000, but it can access the Net at only about 600 bits per second - much slower than the standard home PC access speed of 14,400 bps.
With the recent growth and the promise of more visitors, the brothers have been building a new cloister - quarters for 22, solar-heated and wired for future computer hookups. Fund-raising is ongoing for the $3 million construction project; the monks are doing most of the work themselves and expect to move in before Christmas.
Now that they've cut back on paying clients to focus their energies on the Vatican pages, Brother Aquinas isn't sure what will happen to the monastery's income. The monks won't be billing the pope, of course. They're seeking foundations to support the site.
They're confident the details will be worked out. The future is in his hands.
And anybody looking for the brothers of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert will find them in their adobe chapel, voices softly rising and falling as the light moves across the canyon walls.
By Leslie Miller, USA TODAY
© Copyright 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.