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The Order of Saint Benedict

"Monks on the Net"

by Julio Ojeda-Zapata


Reprinted with permission from St. Paul Pioneer Press (1 October 1995), Section G.

There's a place not far from the Twin Cities where Catholic monks in black robes still worship God as their medieval counterparts did through selfless toil and a reverence for printed words and images.

Long before many of us have awakened, the Benedictine priests [and brothers] have finished their morning prayers and filed off to monastic halls where, like their predecessors, they go about the methodical business of reproducing old works and creating new ones.

Only now, as they labor in cubicles arranged in neat rows, they no longer put pen to parchment. Instead, in the centuries-old Benedictine tradition of using cutting-edge tools to accomplish daily tasks, the monks let their fingers fly over computer keyboards and their spirits soar in cyberspace.

Welcome to Saint John's Abbey, the cyber-monastery.

At a time when the Catholic Church is only beginning to grasp the potential of the information age, the monks of St. John's in Collegeville, Minn., are proving that old-time religion doesn't have to be old-fashioned. Working on their rural Stearns County campus-- an oasis of lakes and forests that has been dubbed "the pine curtain" because of its splendid isolation-- the Benedictines have quietly pushed Christianity in new, modern directions.

In one subterranean chamber, staffers of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library convert the text and drawn "illuminations" on ancient parchments to digital formats. Their ambitious goal: to make the wonders of long-hidden Western manuscripts widely available on computer CD-ROM discs and the Internet's World Wide Web.

Elsewhere in the monastic complex, a "webmaster" fashions intricate electronic "pages" much like the medieval monks who excelled at calligraphy and biblical illustrations. But, unlike those manuscripts of old, the monk's online projects can be seen by computer users around the world.

Nearby, another monk operates a global e-mail network that fosters unity among Benedictines on several continents.

And a third monk-- in what is perhaps the community's most sublime use of advanced technology-- has digitized his acclaimed paintings and put them on display in an online "gallery."

These electronic endeavors might surprise those who imagine Catholic monks as mumbling mystics who spend their days fingering rosary beads and gazing heavenward. And, in fact, there is much at St. John's that is low-tech and traditional.

Visitors expecting to hear the abbey church echo with Gregorian-style chanting won't be disappointed. They will also find monks engaged in occupations ranging from teaching and administrative duties at nearby St. John's University to such hands-on tasks as woodworking, plumbing, gardening and the periodic gathering of maple syrup in the monastery's vast nature preserves.

"The monk's service is one of worship and work," a member of the community once wrote. "[He] weaves the daily routine of communal and individual prayer into tapestry of tasks that together aim at the common Benedictine goal, that 'in all things, God may be glorified.'"

When asked to justify the abbey's presence in cyberspace, the Rev. Peregrine Berres of the Hill library offers a similar explanation. Alluding to the seemingly mundane construction of monastic Web sites, he tells an apocryphal tale:

A man was watching workers erect a cathedral and decided to chat with each of them. He asked one worker, "What are you doing?" and the worker replied, "I'm pounding nails, what does it look like I'm doing?"

He asked the same question of another worker, who answered, "I'm using bricks to build a wall, of course."

Then the man posed the same question to a third worker. That person smiled and said, "I'm building a house of God."

Another monk, Brother Richard Oliver OSB, likes to describe the abbey's various Internet sites as rest stops for "cyberspace pilgrims." He notes that Benedictines in the Old and New Worlds traditionally soothed weary travelers with food and beds. Even today, motorists can veer off Interstate 94 and find a warm "Johnnie" welcome that is free of any attempts to indoctrinate or proselytize.

Now, with its Web pages and other tantalizing resources, the abbey continues to heed St. Benedict's gentle mandate that "great care and concern are to be shown in receiving ... pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received," Oliver said.

The St. John's monks are not the only Benedictines to establish a foothold on the 'Net. The monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu, NM, has made a splash with its ornate Web site and a service that assembles similar Web pages for nonreligious clients. Those monks advertise their business as follows:

"Through the centuries, monastic scriptoria have been synonymous with creativity, ornate calligraphy, imaginative illumination, as well as vital productivity and preservation of literature.... Today, [we] continue that heritage of creativity.... We write on electrons, creating cyberbooks."

However, unlike their desert-dwelling brethren, the St. John's priests have achieved a global presence on the Internet that rivals that of some corporations and small countries. That does not surprise those who have monitored the abbey's activities in recent decades. For instance, St. John's monks have established Benedictine outposts in the Bahamas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, China and Japan. Now, in cyberspace, several are making themselves felt around the world without setting foot off campus.

Take Brother Oliver, for instance.

As a "webmaster," the lay member of the monastic community has the thankless task of using computerized composing codes to fashion Web pages replete with graphics and hyperlink connections to other pages. Like his medieval counterparts, he sits, at a desk for hour upon hour to create the high-tech equivalents of illuminated manuscripts. It's not the sort of life that will arouse the interest of Geraldo and Montel.

Yet, in Catholic circles, Oliver is a star.

Consider: His Order of St. Benedict Web page, one of several he has assembled for the St. John's abbey and university, is known to church followers on five continents. It has become a virtual chapel where priests, nuns and lay "oblates" around the world gather to read an online edition of the essential Rule of St. Benedict and news dispatches, including one announcing the recent death of the Benedictine order's abbot primate, Jerome Theisen.

Ironically, when Oliver was planning his page, one of his Benedictine overlords in Rome seemed unable to fathom the project's scope or comprehend the monk's fascination with cyberspace.

"He seemed perplexed by the democratic nature of (the 'Net) and felt that working on computers was a waste of time," said Oliver, a bearded and bespectacled man who eschews monkish robes [at work] for Compaq T-shirts. "But he gave the project his blessing because he felt it was harmless."

The staffers of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library occasionally have captured the attention of the fickle media. Earlier this year, the discovery of priceless Spanish scrolls that had been locked in a vault but never cataloged triggered a brief journalistic stampede. Then, after a battery of newspaper and TV interviews, the Hill librarians sank back into obscurity.

Yet, it is away from the limelight that the monastic archivists are leaving their most enduring legacy.

They are taking the centuries-old practice of preserving Western writings to new levels. During medieval times, Benedictine monks used quill-pen and parchment to copy manuscripts and thereby improve their chances of surviving through the centuries. Now, the Hill monks have gone digital.

For instance, they have embarked on the grueling, decades long task of electronically listing the millions of known "incipits"--first lines of manuscript text that are the one reliable means for cataloging the ancient documents. Soon, many of the incipits will appear on CD-ROM discs and in an Internet archive.

But the Hill project that has fired the imagination of medieval scholars and Internet users around the world involves the graphics-rich World Wide Web. Many of the fragile parchments in the Hill library's collection-- including Nativity and Crucifixion scenes from 15th-century France-- are being digitized and displayed in all their colorful splendor on a special Web page.

Berres, who first grasped the Web's potential while watching a computer demonstration at a medieval-studies conference last year, gleefully describes the global network "as the answer to a dream.... It is the way to finally share the beauty of medieval art with the whole world."

Not everyone believes that the Internet is the best thing to hit the abbey since sliced bread-- that is, the famous "Johnnie bread," made from an old monastic recipe and sold by the truckload.

One member of the Hill staff recently remarked that "putting manuscripts on the Web is a fad, like dieting."

Some monks who have dabbled with Internet-related projects are now expressing disillusionment.

In one electronic effort that is similar to Oliver's Benedictine Web page, the Rev. Tom Thole I has been attempting to use an older Internet tool known as the "mailing list" to bind Benedictines across the globe. He has encouraged anyone with ties to the order to use the list, OSB-L, as a springboard for topical e-mail discussions called "threads."

But the response has been lukewarm thus far, Thole said. The relatively sparse traffic on the list suggests that the Internet has not fully entered the Catholic mainstream. At monasteries and universities around the world, people with important news churn out the usual newsletters but often overlook cyberspace as an information medium, the priest noted.

Worse, the purpose of OSB-L is often misunderstood.

"People join thinking they will get spiritual advice. They might have attended a religious retreat and expect the list will fulfill a similar role," said Thole, a flamboyant priest who wears Latin-American guayabera shirts and puffs on a pipe.

"Such people have the mistaken notion that monks spend all their time on spiritual contemplations and meditations.... But you don't hear many people in our community saying, 'I had a wonderful meditation today.'"

Another monk, an up-and-coming artist who has exhibited his paintings around the world, said he is disappointed with his attempts to use the Internet as a high-tech means for publicizing his work.

Ironically, the Rev. Jerome Tupa had created his online "gallery" on the World Wide Web because of a growing dissatisfaction with traditional venues. The accolades he had received were sometimes mixed with incredulous remarks from those who could not fathom that a priest produces nonreligious works.

"I think they are surprised [that] my paintings aren't pretty piety pieces or Madonnas," said Tupa, a St. John's University French professor with an aristocratic bearing and impeccable etiquette. "They seem shocked that a priest would produce 'non-traditional' works."

Initially, Tupa had imagined cyberspace as a liberating realm. By putting his paintings on a Web page, he reasoned, he would be judged by the quality of his work and not by his monastic connections. He believed he would gain wider exposure and join a vibrant community of like-minded souls.

Now, reality has set in. Tupa has found that separating his monastic and artistic personas is difficult because his gallery currently is mixed among other offerings on the St. John's University page. He is considering branching out on his own, but he isn't sure that will help-- online lists of artists with Web pages are often out of date, which hurts those who rely on the Internet to build word-of-mouth, he said.

Tupa is quick to acknowledge that his online gallery, like the Hill library's Web page, serves the vital function of preserving replicas of his artwork for posterity.

But, like other monks, he has found that succumbing to the allure of cyberspace can lead to frustration. Some Web projects might see instant success and wide acclaim, he notes, but others will not live up to their creators' high hopes.

"On my page, I had hoped for a meaningful dialogue with others," said Tupa, who publishes his e-mail address on the page. "What role do people see for art in contemporary society? What are the linkages between religion and contemporary art? Why does modern art offend some people of a conservative bent? These are pressing questions, and I saw the Internet as the place to explore them.... I had hoped for heart-to-heart conversations about life and who we are as people. "But I'm more realistic about the Internet now," he said.

MONK SITES

The following Internet sites can be accessed using a World Wide Web browser, such as Netscape Navigator:

The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library: <www.hmml.org/>

Brother Richard Oliver's Order of St. Benedict Web page: <www.osb.org/>

Oliver's personal Web page: <www.richoliver.us/>

Information about Saint John's Abbey: <www.saintjohnsabbey.org/>

St. John's University web site: <www.csbsju.edu/>

Christ in the Desert Abbey: <www.christdesert.org/>

Links to sites of other orders and congregations.

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OSB. Pioneer Press: J. Ojeda article / 951004; links updated, 990131 / © HTML version copyright 1995-99 by OSB, MN 56321-2015 / www.osb.org/ppress.html