by Sarah Lynch
Photo by Toni Greaves © 2008
The day Lauren Franko was inspired to become a nun, she did what many people her age would do: She logged onto the Internet in search of answers.
But first, the 21-year-old New Jersey resident had to break the news to her boyfriend, whom she had met in an online chat room a few years earlier and planned to marry.
"I didn’t have the grace for marriage," Franko said. "I just couldn’t do it. I needed to give myself entirely to God. That was the only way I would be happy."
She began her online search in the fall of 2006 and it eventually led her to a website and blog for the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, a cloistered community of nuns in Summit, N.J. Intrigued, she fired off an e-mail inquiry. A little over a year later, she entered the monastery.
In doing so, she is also joining an unfamiliar world — one without cellphones and, ironically, the Internet.
The cloistered lifestyle may seem incompatible with the Internet. Unlike "active" communities of nuns and friars, which devote themselves to community service and are often seen in public, cloistered nuns and monks rarely leave the monastery. Typically, they also limit their usage of mass media so that the outside world does not distract them from a life of silence and perpetual prayer.
But now, more cloistered communities are launching Web sites as a way to increase their visibility and assist young men and women who are exploring religious life. And while there are no statistics to suggest that the Internet is bolstering interest in cloistered life, many cloistered monasteries that have embraced the technology say they are starting to receive more inquiries about their lifestyle through the Internet, and in some cases, experiencing newfound growth.
The Dominican Monastery of our Lady of the Rosary got its introduction to the online world about eight years ago when the sisters invited two aspiring priests to give a talk about the pros and cons of the Internet. Despite some initial concerns, the women took a vote and decided it could be used in a positive way to educate interested women about their life, recalled Sister Judith Miryam and Sister Mary Catharine, two of the more Internet-savvy nuns.
In 2004, the two women decided to launch a blog to engage people and take them inside the monastery walls. The blog is written from the cloistered community’s perspective and it talks about everything from the handmade soap they sell to the problem with rabbits eating their garden.
"This is how these young women communicate, and this is how they want to be communicated to," said Sister Judith Miryam, who maintains the website and believes the blog has helped spur the interest of six new women there, all of whom found the monastery on the Internet.
Many people who find their monastery of choice on the Internet say they are happy to leave the technology behind them. While some cloistered monasteries like the one in Summit allow minimal Internet usage to e-mail family or buy groceries, others prohibit it.