At Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery tucked between stark mesas, 24 monks follow the routine of prayer and labor which has sustained their order for 1,500 years.
They clean, chop wood, weave, carve icons, bake bread - and design sites on the Internet’s World Wide Web.
“I can’t think of better work for us to be doing,” said Brother Mary-Aquinas, 30, a bespectacled monk in a brown hooded habit and hiking boots who once was a systems analyst in Denver.
“This work goes back to the ancient tradition of the scribes, taking information and making it beautiful, into art,” he said. “In a certain sense, the Web and what will happen in the next decade are a return to that tradition.”
Making art out of words is nothing unusual for the order: As long ago as the sixth century, Benedictine monks worked in the scriptoria, or writing rooms, of Italian monasteries, creating illuminated manuscripts from the Bible and classical texts.
But for a community that has dwelt in isolation amid the angular and haunting vistas that inspired artist Georgia O’Keeffe, going on-line was not simple.
Before they could embark on their mission to bring the tradition of illuminated manuscripts to the Internet, the monks, who range in age from their 20s to their 70s, had to bring a few worldly necessities to their remote home in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, 75 miles north of Santa Fe, N.M.
They added to their array of solar panels to generate extra power for 12 personal computers, some of them donated; they also found an Internet service provider and bought a telephone.
These upgrades were matters of economic necessity.
“Twelve new brothers joined our monastery in 1994 and 1995, and we needed to find a new source of income,” said Brother Aquinas, who is director of the scriptorium at Christ in the Desert.
In fact, the monastery, founded in 1964, now has 24 monks, enough to reach abbey status, a step the monks hope to take this year.
“For years, it was small - three to four monks - and we could get by on revenues from our guest house and our gift shop,” Brother Aquinas said.
“Then we got on the Internet - it seemed a good opportunity to supplement our library so the monks could do scholarly work - and we found out about the Web. It seemed like a good way to supplement our income since it is difficult to find creative work that adapts to the monastic schedule.”
Their home page (http://www.technet.nm.org/pax.html) beckons with bright colors and a style that borrows as much from modern religious art as it does from the medieval tradition of illumination.
“Welcome to Christ in the Desert,” it reads, providing a link to a “virtual monk,” Brother URL, who serves as the on-line guide to the monastery. (The virtual monk’s name is derived from the initials for “universal resource locator,” the form addresses take on the World Wide Web.)
Thus far, however, the Web site does not include the smell of the monks’ homemade bread.
On-line, Brother URL gives directions to various places: information about the monastery, the gift shop, the reservation area for the guest house and an information center.
He also indulges in a discreet advertisement, letting readers know how to hire the monks.
Since the monks’ site went up last May, a windfall of requests for their beautiful hand-lettered Web sites and home pages - at $65 an hour for programming and $110 an hour for artwork - has been pouring in.
The hand-lettering is done on canvas, and the illuminations are scanned into the computers before being incorporated on Web pages.
Before the monastery’s Web site began, the monks’ income was about $48,000 a year. But revenues from their new occupation probably will increase their income to $200,000 this year, Brother Aquinas said.
“The ancient scribes proved this power of illumination on parchment. As modern scribes, we simply are trying to restore that art of illumination by using clean interface design and the multimedia tools of the Web,” he said.