Monasteries enter the Internet Age

Despite traditionally simple and austere life, monks are adopting Web to communicate, sell their wares and recruit new brothers.

A monk's life is still a simple one of prayer and austerity, yet many monasteries have moved online for business, communication and even headhunting purposes.

"All the Trappist houses in America are wired, and we communicate like never before, in terms of documents and business of the order," said Brother Luke Armour of the Abbey of Gethsemani in central Kentucky.

"Our contact with order headquarters in Rome is so much simpler and smoother," said the monk, who has lived in the Abbey for 34 years.

Indeed, many monasteries have jumped on the Internet bandwagon to sell a broad range of wares, such as books, music, incense, edibles and wearables. A simple Google search using the words, "monastery" and "online store" yields 1,060,000 results.

"There are certain orders and more contemplative houses that won't even talk with a woman, but they'll answer an e-mail."
--Natalie Smith, founder, VocationsPlacement

Examples include the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Va., which sells brandy-laced fruitcakes, honey and truffles at

Web surfers connecting to the online bookstore of Florence, Ariz.-based St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery can choose from books, recorded Byzantine music, prayer ropes, incense and other items.

Woolen goods from the flock of sheep of the Pine City, N.Y., Mount Saviour Monastery are available at its Web site.

The Abbey of Gethsemani's Web site has a welcome center and gift shop, as well as a link for anyone wishing to make a retreat in the context of a monastery and its communal prayer life.

As vocation director at Gethsemani, Armour regularly receives e-mail applications from VocationsPlacement, a Florida-based service that matches religious communities with individuals who are contemplating a life as priests, monks or nuns.

"It's unusual for me to get any inquiries through the regular mail anymore," said Armour, who has welcomed about seven monks to the Abbey via VocationsPlacement.

Natalie Smith, founder of VocationsPlacement, said her work would be impossible without the Internet, as heavy Web advertising and e-mail access have enabled her to connect with previously hard-to-reach religious communities.

Monks are particularly fond of e-mail, and many find it extremely useful and less intrusive than a telephone call, Smith says. "There are certain orders and more contemplative houses that won't even talk with a woman, but they'll answer an e-mail."

Smith and a staff of six work with a $100,000 budget funded by donations from dioceses and religious communities.

The Web site offers a free online test for those with an interest in religious life--as a monk, brother, friar, sister or nun. There is a separate test for those who may be considering joining the priesthood.

"Because it is a rare calling, you do have to reach out to the masses. There's nothing more cost-effective. Without the Internet, this wouldn't be possible, given the heavy follow-up and our database," Smith said, noting that she has 14,000 candidates in her database.

Other monasteries have found similarly positive results by using the Internet as a recruiting tool to reverse a huge decline in the numbers of religious brothers and sisters over the past 30 years.

"It is a different place with computers," said Armour, who said monks at his Abbey are permitted to surf the Web in the afternoon hours between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

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