Brother John Raymond, a Benedictine monk in a belted gray cassock and black boots, rises before dawn each day to join his brothers for vigils, reading and meditation. Then he logs onto his computer.
What began as a mundane chore at his rural monastery more than a decade ago--keeping tabs on the mailing list--has blossomed into a second vocation. For hours at a time, Raymond answers e-mail information and prayer requests, researches religious texts and updates an Internet site (www.monksofadoration.org) that broadcasts a live picture of the monastery's chapel 24 hours a day.
To thousands of outsiders, he is known as the "Cyber Monk."
"I'm just amazed at the outreach. It's phenomenal," said Raymond, 38, sitting in a cramped office surrounded by metal file cabinets and publications ranging from "Eucharistic Miracles" to a technical troubleshooting guide. "People feel they are part of the monastery even if they are far away."
The presence of religion on the Internet is nothing new. Even the Vatican has a Web site. But only recently, men and women ascetics who shun worldly preoccupations have begun to venture into cyberspace from isolated cloisters worldwide, including a Serbian Orthodox monk who sent e-mail dispatches from Kosovo.
The collision of technology and spirituality is revolutionizing the way many monasteries operate, allowing them to spread the Gospel while making a living. And it is generating discussion among scholars and theologians about the apparent contradiction in the use by those who eschew the modern world of one of its most powerful media.
Among scores of monasteries in the United States that use the Internet, Dominican sisters in Michigan invite prayer requests for their "WebNun." Tibetan monks in New York offer online Buddhist studies and a blessing for cyberspace, and low chimes sound on the site of Coptic Orthodox monks in the California desert who are printers. Trappist monks in Kentucky pitch their abbey's 150th anniversary book after being inundated with orders for fruitcakes, cheese and bourbon fudge. A Benedictine monastery in California solicits donations for its "Adopt-a-Monk" program, while another in New Mexico is producing an interactive online liturgy in collaboration with IBM.
In addition, 15 monasteries in six states work for Electronic Scriptorium Ltd., an electronic cataloguing firm in Leesburg, Va., near Holy Cross Abbey. The company pays up to $12 an hour and helps small, often secluded groups support themselves with flexible work that can be performed in virtual silence around scheduled prayer times.
"We have an advantage over our competition," joked the company president, Edward M. Leonard. "They are praying for us."
Many monastery members insist that pious Christian lives
--dedicated to poverty, chastity and obedience--are not incompatible with the Internet. Electronic commerce and desktop publishing, for instance, build upon such ancient enterprises of monastic life as scriptoria, whereby early monks copied texts in illuminated manuscripts.
Today, they are digital scribes, trading quill and ink for monitor and mouse. The computer is a tool that speeds their work and leaves more time for prayer, they said. Recreational online surfing is avoided.
"There is no conflict between technology and spirituality, or between technology and simplicity," Sister Anne Mary, a 60-year-old Dominican nun, wrote in an e-mail from Our Lady of Mount Thabor Monastery in Ortonville, Mich. "All things are a reflection of God."
Father Luke Dysinger, the librarian at St. Andrew's Abbey in California, agreed, expressing amazement at the amount of Christian and monastic sources available on the Web for free. Surrounded by little more than a post office and a handful of ranches at the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains north of Los Angeles, the monastery already has 14 computers and its Web site receives 10,000 hits per year, he said.
"In our lives, text really is a way to God, especially the biblical text and the writings of the early church fathers," said Dysinger, who is 45. "Having it readily available to share with other people is what we've been about since the beginning."
Monastic Web sites, like any other, range from the spartan to the splendid, and from the holy to the hilarious. Most offer a daily schedule and information about guest retreats, membership and products for sale. Others are more inventive. Internet surfers can click on "Just for fun" at the WebNun page or jump to Right to Life of Michigan. Visitors can read Holy Land news posted by the Franciscan Monastery on Quincy Street in Northeast Washington or "Meet the Friars" and view photos of Brother John "working up a 'sweat' in the refectory" and Father Brian reading the sports page.
More sophisticated--and saturated--than most, Raymond's site for the Monks of Adoration here in central Massachusetts is a fanciful multimedia collage unlike the austere monastery itself, which has only three members and one satellite dish to access Catholic television. The pages feature a witness bulletin board, pictorial tour, daily audio prayers and even cyber serial fiction: "The Adventures of Sister Hildegarde."
Guests can also download video clips of Brother Craig Driscoll, 40, the "Mirth Monk" and author of "Love Yourself, so . . . Hate the Weight," who mocks his technological illiteracy: "The computer is down. . . . What do we do? Give the computer Prozac?"
Manual labor such as farming was out of the question as a means of support for such a tiny group, which largely relies on donations. But computerized commerce clearly was not. On a recent weekday, a well-worn Bible at his desk, Raymond revised the latest edition of his 1997 book, "Catholics on the Internet." He also needed to sift through dozens of e-mail prayer requests to be printed out and placed in the chapel.
Prayer via computer is generally welcomed, but not necessarily encouraged, by some monastic orders.
A mother of three in Canada told Raymond she prays each morning in front of the computer screen image transmitted by his Chapel Webcam.
"Obviously, God knows their intentions," he said. "But it's the equivalent of going to visit someone versus talking to them on the phone. There's something lacking. The physical experience is important."
The value of having cloistered monasteries on the Internet depends on their approach, and whether they make clear that online spirituality is not the same as experiencing faith off-line, said Anne Foerst, a theologian and Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist examining the relationship between religion and science.
On the one hand, monasteries are a positive force that "use spirituality and meditation to make the world a better place," she said. But spirituality "often contains this element of splitting yourself off from your body. The only connection between you and cyberspace is the keyboard, and that is not a full being."
Some have no choice. Monastery members cite the needs of would-be parishioners who are ill or disabled and cannot travel to church, or of those in desperate straits who feel most comfortable praying in anonymity. Equally hard to disregard, they said, are messages giving thanks for safe journeys, happy reconciliations, good weather and speedy recoveries.
"Bob Updike, who fell from a tractor and broke his neck, has been healed!!!" read one e-mail. "Praise God !! Thank you for your prayers!!"
CAPTION: Brother John Raymond, the "Cyber Monk," runs the Internet site for the Monks of Adoration in Petersham, Mass. "I'm just amazed at the outreach," he said. "It's phenomenal."