Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Using the internet to find religious community

~from Newhouse News Service
The cloistered lifestyle may seem incompatible with the Internet. Unlike "active" communities of nuns and friars, who devote themselves to community service and are often seen in public, cloistered nuns and monks rarely leave the monastery. Typically, they also limit their usage of mass media so that the outside world does not distract them from a life of silence and perpetual prayer.

But now, more cloistered communities are launching Web sites as a way to increase their visibility and assist young men and women who are exploring religious life. And while there are no statistics to suggest that the Internet is bolstering interest in the life, many cloistered monasteries that have embraced the technology say they are starting to receive more inquiries about their lifestyle through the Internet and, in some cases, experiencing newfound growth.

The Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary got its introduction to the online world about eight years ago, when the sisters invited two aspiring priests to give a talk about the pros and cons of the Internet. Despite some initial concerns, the women took a vote and decided it could be used in a positive way to educate interested women about their life, recalled Sister Judith Miryam and Sister Mary Catharine, two of the more Internet-savvy nuns.

In 2004, the two women decided to launch a blog to engage people and take them inside the monastery walls. The blog is written from the cloistered community's perspective and it talks about everything from the handmade soap they sell to the problem with rabbits eating their garden.

"This is how these young women communicate, and this is how they want to be communicated to," said Sister Judith Miryam, who maintains the Web site and believes the blog has helped spur the interest of six new women there, all of whom found the monastery on the Internet.

Many people who find their monastery of choice on the Internet say they are happy to leave the technology behind. While some cloistered monasteries like the one in Summit allow minimal Internet usage to e-mail family or buy groceries, others prohibit it.

That is the case for the Carmelite Monks of Wyoming, a new monastery founded in Clark, Wyo., in 2003 whose Web site has caught the interest of some aspiring monks.

Soft chants begin to play as its site pops up, and visitors are greeted by a photo of three monks bathed in the glow of candlelight. The monastery has eight members and another six candidates on the way.

The site was created shortly after the monastery's founding and improved several months ago. But if interested men want to contact the monastery, they have to pick up the phone or write a letter. The community does not have Internet access; the site is maintained by people outside the monastery.

"Why have the walls around the monastery when the Internet is literally the world at your fingertips?" asked Brother Simon Mary, 24, who found the monastery online but does not miss the technology. "For us, those things kind of break down the integrity of the enclosure. We believe it's important to use these modern resources ... but at the same time in a way that will not be detrimental to the world we're striving after."

It's hard to say if the Internet is helping to bolster growth in cloistered communities. But the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Georgetown University, is planning to launch a survey that will look at recent membership patterns in active and cloistered communities. The survey also will include questions about the Internet's role in vocations, said Sister Mary Bendyna, the center's executive director.

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