Prayer on the Web


The "Sacred Space" prayer and meditation website set up by the Irish Jesuits is, on the face of it, an unlikely Internet "hit". We associate the World Wide Web more readily with worldly concerns such as e-shopping, e-commerce and research, ephemera such as gossip and "chat rooms", or unsavoury commodities such as pornography and sleeze. Yet there is nothing new about the use of computer-based media for spiritual purposes. In 1995, for example, the American priest and writer Andrew Greeley published a prayer journal, aptly named Windows, which he had composed on his computer; and the number of online religious discussion groups on the Internet is estimated at more than 20,000. Despite the decline of organised religions, people continue to seek meaning and spiritual values in life, and it is only natural that this search should find an outlet in the medium that best expresses and defines the world we live in.

So we should not be surprised by the report, carried in these pages recently, that almost 300,000 people have visited since the site opened on Shrove Tuesday last year, and that the Jesuits are expecting 2,000 visitors a day during Lent. According to the director of the Jesuit Communication Centre, Father Alan McGuckian, the Internet "allows for the kind of silence, focus and presence that are required for prayer."

Websites such as this can be seen as a welcome affirmation in a frantic, fragmented electronic environment of a space beyond cyberspace, a silence beyond the chatter of e-mail, a reality well beyond the virtual, a permanence that stands in contrast to the transience of everyday concerns. They are also a reminder, in a world where the misuses and ill effects of technology are all too apparent - in weapons of mass destruction, in nuclear accidents, in environmental pollution - that technology can also be used to disseminate higher values - for instance, by allowing millions of people to experience education, art and music via television, videos, or CDs. The fact that, like the Internet, such media are often exploited for worthless or base purposes is a statement about human failings, not about the media themselves or the technology which made them possible.

In addition, those who see humanity as the finest creation of a perfect creator should perhaps remember that - quite apart from the uses to which they are put - the wonders of modern technology, as some of the finest works of humankind, must contain something of the divine. This notion was expressed unequivocally by the writer Robert M. Pirsig in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Although the terms he uses are not from the Christian tradition, his message would surely find approval among the authors of "The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha - which is to demean oneself."