Sister Mary Martin and Sister Ann rise at 5:30 each morning, meditate and eat a simple breakfast in silence. For the cloistered nuns on an isolated hilltop in Ortonville, Mich., every day begins with prayer.
But after morning worship the two sisters move on to a less traditional activity: They check their e-mail.
The two women are Dominican nuns, but online they are known as the WebNuns, and their monastery has its own Web site. Online visitors can view their daily schedule, buy wildflower note cards and homemade bread, and learn about monasticism in the '90s. Life at Our Lady of Mt. Thabor Monastery is simple and isolated, their Web page reads, because "shedding the complexities of our American way of life strips us of burdens one often longs to be relieved of."
But those burdens don't include e-mail.
Religious Web sites are common and have existed nearly as long as the Internet: The Vatican posts 1,400 documents on its site; the ABCs of Buddhism are listed; there is a Conversion to Judaism Web site; and the Koran can be read online in eight languages. But in the past year, even cloistered monasteries--from Erlanger, Ky., to San Angelo, Texas--have made the jump to cyberspace.
"People normally think of contemplatives as recluses, but that's not always true," said Brother John Raymond, also known as the "Cyber Monk" and author of "Catholics on the Internet." "The more contemplative the soul, the more ardently they reach out to the world. The Internet is another way for contemplatives to reach out."
Reaching out means keeping up with e-mail, which consists mostly of prayer requests.
"The weapon of prayer conquers," reads Mt. Thabor's home page, and visitors can put that weapon to work with a click of a mouse. The sisters collect about three prayer requests a day in their electronic mailbox.
Sister Mary Martin is surprised by the scant but steady interest in her remote monastery.
"It's a regular flood," she said. "It's heartbreaking the amount of requests we get. It's really becoming almost an apostolate [mission]."
Raymond's order, the Monks of Adoration, also receives prayer requests--about four a day--at its community in Petersham, Mass. People write for various reasons, asking monks to pray for impending marriages and the deathly ill, even for strength to give up a vice.
On one occasion, a man e-mailed Raymond to pray for the successful delivery of his child. When the baby was born, he e-mailed the brother again to thank him. When a request comes in over the Internet, Raymond prints it out and puts it in a special basket with other prayer requests from local churchgoers.
"This is just a new way of getting them," he said.
Raymond has implemented a bulletin board on his Web site to post prayer requests. This way, he said, "not only is the order praying for them, but anyone else who comes to the site can pray for them as well."
In addition to prayer requests, monasteries receive e-mail from people seeking spiritual advice. Those curious about religion are more likely to approach someone via e-mail than in person, Raymond said.
"They're really open on the Internet," he said. "If you're not Catholic, you may feel intimidated going up to a priest, whereas on the Internet, you're anonymous."
Said Sister Mary Martin: "When you're one on one, they won't ask the questions they will when they're writing."
Sister Mary Thomas, one of 40 cloistered Dominican nuns in Farmington Hills, Mich., appreciates the global outreach of the Internet.
"It's like the community of saints. It goes around the whole wide world," she said. "We put it up there, and it just gives support."
Although the Web site for Farmington Hills' cloister describes its "hidden life" and "withdrawal from the world," the sisters receive several e-mail messages each week from around the globe.
WebNun Sister Mary Martin gets international e-mail, too, from prayer petitioners as well as those more familiar with her order. And Mt. Thabor uses the Web to keep in touch with Dominicans worldwide.
"It's wonderful to know what they're doing in Africa, in South America, and hear from them right away," she said. Last month, she got e-mail from a bishop in Mexico.
Home pages also can act as an online open house to those interested in joining a monastery. On the WebNuns' home page, a stream of words beckons, "Come, climb the mountain." So far, one person has accepted. "If you get one, you may get more," said Sister Mary Martin.
Sister Mary Thomas' monastery also keeps its electronic door open to prospects. But she only checks her e-mail once a week. "I don't want to get addicted," she said.
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On the Internet
Mt. Thabor's Web site is http://lakes.ring.com//mtthabor
For Doinican's in Farmington Hills, go to http://www.op.org/farmhill
For Monks of Adoration, see http://www.rc.net/org/monks