The cybermonks who illuminate God's word on the Internet

Barry Wigmore on the reclusive Benedictines who helped the Vatican launch its new website

When the Vatican launches its own website on the Internet today, it will be the culmination of a holy labour for Brother Aquinas and his fellow Benedictine monks at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico.

Here, in the peace of the ochre-coloured canyons 13 miles from the nearest tarred road, computers have enabled the monks to recreate traditional tasks; but instead of illuminating manuscripts they are recording, writing and illustrating their message electronically. The monastery has no electricity or telephone lines, but solar panels and cellphone technology knit the community into the World Wide Web.

Today, while Pope John Paul delivers his Easter message, laboriously written out in longhand, Christians and the curious all round the world will be able to tap in to http:/www.vatican.va and scan through 1,200 Church documents and the speeches of many other popes. Coming soon are most of the documents of past papacies, interactive images of Vatican treasures, long-secret archives and soundbites from Vatican Radio.

The Vatican site will be less flamboyant than that of the desert brothers, whose own funky new site - www.christdesert.org - with its Gregorian chants and a cheerful winged angel leading visitors around, has been logging 4,000 callers a week.

"Some here felt their ideas were a little too pop for the Holy See," said a spokesman in Rome; but commercial customers are happy to pay the brothers pounds 80 an hour to design their web pages. So successful has been the monastery's venture into cyberspace that a pounds 2.5m extension is close to completion, with fibre-optic cables in each monk's cell for his individual computer.

Only just over a year ago, however, the Benedictines were facing a crisis. So many recruits had been attracted to the contemplative life in the high desert that some were having to sleep in goat barns. The monastery, eking a living from growing vegetables and selling lavender water to visitors, was making one appeal after another to raise money for its extension.

But then a mobile-phone mast was erected 15 miles away, opening up a new way of life for the community. The idea of designing web pages came from Brother Aquinas, a former computer programmer from Denver, and six months ago he was sent from the south-western United States to Rome to help the headquarters of his Church launch its own site. In a week when the Net has been linked to the mass suicide of cultists in California, Abbot Philip Lawrence, 52, wants to emphasise its potential for good.

"The power of the Internet is that it carries such a wide variety of information," he said. "For every bad message there is a good one - and that is where we come in. In religion as everywhere else, people are looking to see what is possible on the Internet. Nobody truly knows where it will go, and we need our people to say, 'Yes, that's possible. It isn't killing anybody. This is good.'"

Abbot Lawrence, a short, chubby man with a black skull cap, greying beard and quick sense of humour, has been a monk for 33 years, and at this monastery for 23. Along with everyone else, he wears a short cowl, jeans and boots, an outfit the brothers find more practical than robes.

The three founders of the mountain monastery, 27 miles from the nearest village, a little outpost called Abiquiu (pop 300), and 135 miles from the nearest airport at Albuquerque, chose the place in 1964 for its remoteness so they could seek God through prayer and manual labour. As the monks fire e-mails around the world, are they remaining true to that goal?

"You have to remember, the only way to get away from the world is to get inside yourself," Abbot Lawrence says. "Becoming a monk is not a case of getting away from the world. It is about fleeing that in the world which is less than human, it is not fleeing that which is good.

"If you live in the wilderness and people come knocking on your door and you don't answer, then there is something wrong with your Christianity. If too many people come knocking for your own peace, then you move further into the wilderness.

"The Internet gives us the opportunity to talk to all who want to come knocking on our door - many thousands more, in fact, than could ever physically come here - and hopefully we don't have to move farther into the wilderness to preserve our sanity."

In some ways he regrets having lost the old way of life, "but there is no money in raising beautiful vegetables, so I don't regret this progress into the computer age". Now they are on the Web, he says, even more young men want to join the order. "Who uses the Internet the most? Young people. That is the audience the Church is trying to attract - and we are attracting them."

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