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:/ 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 - - 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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'