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Web Monks


[ Feature 1 Photo]
When the real thing isn't possible, Internet surfers can take a virtual retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Trappist, Kentucky.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


Tap into monastic life and spirituality by surfing the Internet. Numerous monastic communities have Web sites that are inspiring, educational and entertaining.

By Paul Moses


Extending Monastic Hospitality

Inspirational Chanting and Illustrations

Thomas Merton and Fruitcakes

Contemplative Prayer

Visit a Llama Ranch

E-mail Prayer Intentions

ONCE OR TWICE A YEAR, I travel 275 miles to spend a few days with the monks at Mount Saviour Monastery, a Benedictine community near Elmira, New York. The routine of chanting the psalms seven times a day, listening to the bleating sheep on the farm and hiking hills that rim the horizon always soothes the soul. As I head back to New York City, I take along notes reminding me of new resolves gleaned in listening to the homilies at Mass or from the quiet time spent in prayer, reading and walking the woods. Once back in the
bustle, however, I don't have much success incorporating these insights and practices into my everyday life.

But I was shocked one day to find a new aid in the effort to tap into monastic spirituality, with its powerful sense of God's presence in everyday life. The monks at Mount Saviour, so resolutely low-tech as they live out the rule St. Benedict wrote in the sixth century, have started a Web page on the Internet (www.servtech.com/~msaviour).

I could look again at the steepled church, the terraced pastures dotted with sheep or the candle-lit, 14th-century statue of Our Lady Queen of Peace before which the monks sing each evening. I could read reflections from Brother Pierre, a monk who tends to the flock and is pictured on the site playing his harp. I could read the monastery's monthly newsletter, which always includes some spiritually calming remarks from Father Martin, the abbot.

Brother Pierre is Mount Savior's Webmaster, a title which sounds like one St. Benedict himself would have used for a monastery's Internet gatekeeper. Brother Pierre also includes a set of links to other monastic Web sites. (A link allows the user to go to another site on the World Wide Web by clicking the computer's mouse, avoiding the need to type in a cumbersome address code called a "URL.") Like some medieval traveler who sought hospitality at monasteries along the road, I was soon on a cyberspace journey from one monastic community to the next.

This Internet journey led to peaceful wellsprings in the middle of hectic workdays and to restful breaks in the evening. There were bits of wisdom to be found in the words of abbots and ancient writers, new perspectives to be experienced, even if only vicariously, by following a monk through a day of prayer and praise. There were paintings and poems by monks and nuns, pictures of monasteries in mountain valleys, deserts and forests.

Monastic communities are opening the doors to their treasures in a new way. In the past, they spoke to the world largely through books written by the few authors who'd truly gotten to know them. Now they are speaking for themselves—not just a few well-known monasteries, but communities large and small throughout the world.

Extending Monastic Hospitality

For the monks and nuns, the Internet has opened a new window to the world, allowing monastic hospitality to be extended around the clock without excessive intrusion on their lives of prayer and contemplation.

This effort to bring a taste of monastic life to the world in an unprecedented way is helping to bring the world to the often-isolated doorways of monasteries. "Already we have women who have come to us seeking to join us in community, who found us via the Internet," Sister Diana Sebago of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas, wrote in an e-mail interview. "We have had volunteers come and live with us for two months from as far away as Slovakia. They found us on the Internet" (www.benedictine.edu/mount.html).

For those interested in understanding monastic spirituality, I recommend starting with a visit to the Abbey of the Genesee (web.lemoyne.edu/~bucko/genesee.htm) because of its excellent description of the Liturgy of the Hours, the heart of a monk's daily activity. By singing the psalms seven times a day, the monks hope to sanctify the passage of time with continuous prayer. "It consecrates to God the cycle of night and day, the liturgical seasons and the whole gamut of human activity," the monks explain. "It is also the chief means for achieving incessant prayer, mindfulness of God and transformation in Christ."

The explanation of compline, the last common prayer before sleep, is well worth a visit to this site: "Compline may be understood as a daily exercise in the art of dying. For what is sleep if not a little rehearsal for death?"

A companion Web site also shows another good point of some monastic offerings on the Internet: strong homilies. Time spent contemplating the Word and reading the Church's great doctors and mystics gives the monastic homilists a special perspective.

An example of this can be found at www.frontiernet.net/~johnbamb, which features homilies from Abbot John Eudes Bamberger, O.C.S.O. "It is a way of sharing and I see it as part of monastic hospitality, extended to those who cannot get to the monastery but can profit from the information put on the Web," the abbot wrote in an e-mail interview when asked how his monastery's Web site fits with monastic tradition.

The Abbey of the Genesee, a Trappist monastery in upstate New York, updates monastic tradition with an online guest book. Much as they would at a monastery, visitors can scan the remarks left by other visitors and see how far they've traveled. "I never saw such a meaningful explanation of the Liturgy of the Hours," one visitor said. "As a grandma new to the Web, I'll encourage my grandchildren to look you up. And I shall return to this site!"

Inspirational Chanting and Illustrations

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine community in New Mexico, offers brief sound clips of the monks' chants, including the first 12 seconds of the "Salve Regina." This Web site (www.christdesert.org) offers some of the most beautiful pages on the Internet. The monks at Christ in the Desert design Web pages in much the same way their ancient predecessors illustrated scrolls. Visitors are welcomed with a colorful yellow and red drawing of the monastery's Spanish-style bell tower.

Clicking on the link "Seeking God" is worthwhile, even for the "S" in the title: The hand of God extends from the upper loop and a monk curls up with a book in the lower loop.

This site also offers an informative section on monastic spirituality as a response to Matthew 6:33, which says, "But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides." And in a playful touch, the aging "Brother URL" leads visitors on a tour, noting that in St. Benedict's day a monk too old to do physical work would handle the task of greeting newcomers.

Thomas Merton and Fruitcakes

Many of the monastic Web sites offer a good overview of a monk's or nun's day, focusing on the Liturgy of the Hours. One of the best can be found at www.mepkinabbey.org, Web site for Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. Click on "walk a day with us," starting with a description of vigils at 3:20 a.m.

Mepkin Abbey also offers a link to other Trappist and Benedictine Web sites (www.mepkinabbey.org/surfing.htm). One link leads to Mepkin Abbey's parent community, the Abbey of Gethsemani (www.monks.org), which dedicates a page to the monk whose writings made this Trappist community so famous: Thomas Merton.

And yes, you can order Gethsemani's fruitcakes through their Web site. Most of the monasteries with Web sites have online stores that offer books as well as products made in the community. Most also offer details on how to visit for retreats.

Contemplative Prayer

Another good entry point to the cyberworld of monastic wisdom can be found at http://www.valyermo.com/, Web site of St. Andrew's Abbey, a Benedictine community in Valyermo, California. The monastery's lovely view of snow-capped mountains in the southern California desert greets the visitor, and the information that follows is set against a grainy, beige background, suggesting it is printed on a scroll.

Clicking on an article about lectio divina offers another good gateway to exploring the monastic life. The visitor can read an excellent article by Father Luke Dysinger about this practice, which he calls "a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures which enables the Bible, the Word of God, to become a means of union with God." The article offers a step-by-step explanation about reflecting on a short passage or word in Scripture, followed by prayer and contemplation. It offers a welcome caution against striving for any particular goal, saying that lectio "has no other goal than spending time with God through the medium of His word."

Father Dysinger, prior of St. Andrew's Abbey, wrote via e-mail that the monastery's Web site has proven to be helpful: "We have had guests to the retreat house...who first found out about the monastery through the Web site, and one of our observers [postulants] first discovered us in that way."

Other articles about monastic spirituality are offered by St. Benedict's Monastery (http://www.snowmass.org/), a Trappist community in Snowmass, Colorado. It offers The Loving Search for God: Contemplative Prayer and the Cloud of Unknowing, by William A. Meninger, and a link to Thomas Keating's The Method of Centering Prayer.

Visit a Llama Ranch

One of a monastery's roles has been to serve as a repository for Christian culture and learning. This tradition is being carried on in fine style by the nuns at Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton, North Dakota. Sister Jill Maria Murdy, O.S.B., has pulled together a virtual library under the theme of "Prayer and the Internet." She says, "The media are very fond of playing up the evils of the Internet....We may place a block on the Internet to protect our children. But we definitely should not ignore the Internet and hope it goes away. It will be with us for a long time."

This Web site (www.rc.net/bismarck/shm) offers a history of prayer and communication going back to Babylonian cuneiform, and then suggests links on such subjects as centering prayer, mystics, the rosary, social justice and Church documents.

Sacred Heart Monastery's Web site also has an endearing link to pictures of the monastery's llama ranch. "You might be wondering, what do a group of Benedictine sisters and a group of llamas have in common?" the narrative asks. "Lots! We have put benches by our pasture just to sit and watch the llamas." That image of the nuns setting out their chairs in the evening to watch their llamas at play in the fields of the Lord is one that lingers.

There are other sites that reflect the gentle humor found in monastic communities. The New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Dubuque, Iowa, for example, greets visitors to its Web site (www2.csbsju.edu/osb/cist/melleray) with this message: "It is a fine clear day in summer; the puffy white clouds tumble slowly across the sky, the wind is sighing gently in the pines, and there is a small sign: 'This way to the Guesthouse.'"

Clicking on that "sign" leads to New Melleray's "Guesthouse on the World Wide Web," which offers a photo tour of the grounds, answers to some of the questions visitors have asked by
e-mail, and pictures and biographies of many of the monks.

E-mail Prayer Intentions

The Carmelite Order, with its focus on such powerful spiritual writers as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, also features some interesting Web sites. The Carmelite nuns of Eldridge, Iowa, offer a way station to the Web pages of other Carmelite communities. And their Web site (www.netins.net/showcase/solitude) offers links to "Prayers of the Carmelite Mystics." For those who'd like a more in-depth look at Carmelite spirituality, this site provides a link to articles that have appeared in Carmelite publications.

The Austrian province of the Teresian Carmelites (www.ocd.or.at/eng/ocd.htm) also offers links to online literature and connections to other sites dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

The Carmelite Institute (www.carmeliteinstitute.org) also publishes a monthly "e-zine" about Web sites it considers interesting on Carmelite topics. This site also provides links to Carmelite writers.

Like many of the monastic communities with Web sites, the Carmelites of Eldridge offer to pray for the intentions of their Internet visitors. Just click on "Send e-mail," and the power of the Internet becomes a tool to reach toward the Highest Power.

 


Paul Moses is an editor at Newsday, a New York City newspaper, and is active in his parish, St. Columba in Brooklyn.

 

 

 

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