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Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Thinking of becoming a monk or nun? Look to the Web"

From North County Times
Sister Judith Miryam, the webmistress at the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, N.J., believes the monastery's blog has helped attract the interest of six aspiring nuns who have joined the community. Photo courtesy of Columbia News Service.

The day Lauren Franko was inspired to become a nun, she did what many people her age would do: She logged on to the Internet in search of answers. But first, the 21-year-old New Jersey resident had to break the news to her boyfriend, whom she had met in an online chat room a few years earlier and planned to marry.

"I didn't have the grace for marriage," Franko said. "I just couldn't do it. I needed to give myself entirely to God. That was the only way I would be happy."

She began her online search in the fall of 2006, and it eventually led her to a Web site and blog for the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, a cloistered community of nuns in Summit, N.J. Intrigued, she fired off an e-mail inquiry. A little more than a year later, she entered the monastery.

In doing so, she is also joining an unfamiliar world ---- one without cell phones and, ironically, the Internet.

The cloistered lifestyle may seem incompatible with the Internet. Unlike "active" communities of nuns and friars, which devote themselves to community service and are often seen in public, cloistered nuns and monks rarely leave the monastery. Typically, they also limit their use 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 to increase their visibility and assist young people who are exploring religious life. And while there are no statistics to suggest that the Internet is bolstering interest in cloistered 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, are 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 Internet's pros and cons. 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 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 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 them. While some cloistered monasteries like the one in Summit allow minimal Internet use 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 and 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 wish to contact the monastery, they have to pick up the phone or write a letter.

That's because the community does not have Internet access, even though the Internet is the way that some men find their way to the monastery. 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 whether 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, a Catholic school, is planning to launch a survey that will look at recent membership patterns in active and cloistered communities. The survey will also include questions about the Internet's role in vocations, said Sister Mary Bendyna, the center's executive director.

Even without statistics, some monasteries that used to be reluctant about having a Web site are starting to change their position as they grow to understand the importance of the Internet in the lives of young people.

Several cloistered Carmelite communities, including the Monastery of Cristo Rey in San Francisco, said a Web site could be in their future.

"I accept the fact that times have changed," said Mother Elizabeth, the prioress at the San Francisco monastery, who added that the monastery is still trying to figure out the logistics of setting up a site. "This is where young people are going."

Despite the rise in Internet use, however, some monasteries are sticking to traditional ways.

In Alexandria, S.D., the Discalced Carmelite Nuns at the Mother Marie Therese of the Child Jesus have worked to preserve their more conservative lifestyle. They do not show their faces to the public and they do not have television.

The community did get permission from its prioress about a year ago to test the waters of the World Wide Web when one of its sisters enrolled in an online course. But ultimately, the nuns decided it was simply too distracting to their life of silence and prayer, and they got rid of it.

"If you've been eating organic food and you have been eating fresh things, and then go out and have something that's processed, after years of that it does something to your system," said Sister Mary, who is not allowed to reveal her full name to preserve the integrity of the enclosure. "That is the same thing we have found with the Internet. It's too invasive."

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