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Weekly Alibi Pilgrimage to the Desert Jerusalem

Monks Seek Solace From the Media After World Wide Web Brings Fame

By Jessica English

July 14, 1997:  For two weeks, I have tried e-mailing the monks at the Christ in the Desert Monastery. No response. I begin to worry about making my deadline. Then I remember: There once was a time when this remote monastery had no electronic means of communication, no electricity whatsoever. I jump in my car and begin my pilgrimage to this new Jerusalem in the desert.

A sort of Gutenberg bible of the '90s, Christ in the Desert's Web site (www.christdesert.org/pax.html) led to their design of the Vatican Web site (www.vatican.va) and a swarm of media attention. Since a front-page article first appeared in the New York Times in 1996, the monks at this Benedictine monastery just outside of Abiqui have been inundated with requests for stories. Then Time magazine and ABC picked up on the story; now the monks have no peace.

Though not the only religious site online, this is the first time Web sites have been designed from a monastery. Their virtual monastery is adorned with the beautiful retablos and ornate hand lettering crafted by the monks and is complete with a virtual tour guide--Brother URL. Like monks throughout the ages, the brothers of Christ in the Desert create illuminated texts. The only difference is that they post them on the Web, using solar power as their source of energy.

What's most extraordinary, though, is accessing everything from photographic essays of a day in the life of the monks to liturgy and history of scriptoria. Watching images of the handcrafted artistry load on a full-color computer screen, within seconds, with all the beauty and mystery of the original work is as breathtaking as the monastery itself. Requests for outside site design have followed, which the monks accept to help support the monastery.

Everything about the drive to Christ in the Desert is religious, a 15-mile stretch of state road embracing the curves of the Chama River just past the Abiqui Dam. The cactus are in bloom, beautiful bright pink blossoms adorning the long, thin gnarled limbs of the cholla. The solace of miles of sage stretch out to the mesas that strangely mimic the colors of the sunset: orange, pink, green. The sun is relentless, hypnotizing. The only thing to hear is the sound of the desert: a cacophony of cicadas drowning out the outside world. I have found God, I think.

Finally, I arrive at Christ in the Desert. I march quickly to the chapel where the monks are readying for prayer. I ring the old world-style doorbell--a large iron liberty-type bell. The sound of it feels so urgent, echoing off the mesas. No answer. I continue to ring the bell until a monk emerges from the chapel and welcomes me kindly, allowing me inside. The monks are not speaking with reporters right now, he informs me, hoping I'll understand that they simply cannot field all of the requests for interviews. Of course, I do. And I graciously accept the number to their publicist, Tony O'Brien. What am I going to do, badger a priest?

I step into the chapel. I admire the simplicity of it, with nature as the backdrop to the pulpit; window panes reveal the towering mesa's rocky side. I leave quickly after witnessing the furrowed brows of two monks deep in their study, ignoring even the distracting click of my shutter as I photograph. I feel as if I've committed some transgression.

I leave as the desert begins subtly to cool. The snakes are beginning to slither out to the paved highway. Several cars stop me on the way out to ask if I know where the monastery is. And I stop and dip my toes in the Chama.

When I call the publicist, he tells me there is a moratorium on media interviews. Nothing personal, O'Brien assures me. He turned down an interview with the BBC just before my call; all the major networks have been turned down. Since the television spot on the monks, there has been a "media feeding frenzy," he says. I asked then why the kind brother did not just tell me this when we met. He informed me: It is hard for the monks to say no to anyone, it is not in line with the "monastic way of life," he said.

Where once these men lived a peaceful life, they must now deal with international fame. They are understandably overwhelmed by the attention. The technology that has allowed them to spread their beliefs and religion across the globe with ease ensures that, however antiquated it seems, their ideology will survive. But it is also technology that endangers their own simple existence in service to those same beliefs.

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