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Dublin Jesuits create Internet prayer space.

At first, the story line reads like the plot of an Evelyn Waugh novel or an Alec Guinness movie. Two Dublin Jesuits, seemingly unsophisticated in the ways of e-commerce and Internet marketing, launch a no-frills Web site designed to help people pray. Their site goes online at the beginning of Lent 1999. Soon, people as far away as the Arctic Circle and Australia are logging onto the site, learning to pray online and enthusiastically e-mailing information about the site to their friends.

By Lent 2000, the project had become so successful that the Irish Jesuits are advertising their Web address, on the sides of 160 buses driving the streets of Dublin and Belfast.

Came Easter Sunday of the first year of the new millennium, most of the world media had picked up the story and people of all ages, all faiths and all over the world -- in offices, homes, schools and colleges -- were turning on their computers and logging in at a rate of 3,000 to 4,000 a day -- approximately one hit every 30 seconds. The popularity of the Irish Web site has begun to snowball and, as its hit counter reaches the half-million mark, shows every sign of becoming a spiritual avalanche.

The "Sacred Space" Web page is the brainchild of Jesuit Fr. Alan McGuckian, director of the Jesuit Communication Centre in Dublin. He is assisted in the upkeep of the site by another Jesuit, Fr. Peter Scally, and by lay theologian Roisin Pye. "It has helped people to realize that prayer doesn't mean rattling off a lot of words," explains McGuckian. "It's about getting in touch with the presence of God in your life. That's what Sacred Space is about."

Web designer Scally suggests an additional reason for the popularity of the Irish Jesuits' site: "When you are sitting at your computer you are probably as comfortable, attentive and focused as you ever are. Add to that the privacy and intimacy of the medium and you see why the attraction of praying in this way goes much deeper than mere convenience."

Judging by anecdotal feedback from the Web site's users, Sacred Space addresses the three major difficulties many contemporary men and women seem to have with prayer: They don't have the time, don't know where to begin, and the kinds of formula prayers they were most familiar with as children now seem inappropriate for them as adults.

In addition, the Sacred Space site also meets a deep need for meaning and transcendence, especially in the atmosphere of the contemporary workplace. As one viewer from Milan e-mailed Dublin about his discovery of Sacred Space: "Read about your Web page on my Reuters screen. Praying in the middle of the Microsoft stock crisis? I went to have a look. What a wonderful thing! I'm going to find time for it every day. Thank you so much." Another cyberspace surfer from Germany put it this way, "I was sitting here in my bureau in Frankfurt, reading Der Spiegel online. They wrote about your site and so I took a look. The prayer was very intensive and very helpful. If you just deal with money all the time of the day, you are glad to feel that there is something different and more helpful -- God."

The genius of the Sacred Space Web site--and the apparent source of its great attraction to Internet users -- is its ability to adapt classic techniques of Ignatian prayer to contemporary needs. The site is opens without advertising banners, clutter or cookies, and then leads the reader through a prayer session of approximately 10 minutes. Following the Ignatian formula, one is guided fast to an awareness of the presence of God. Then one is gently asked to trust in God's love and reflect on the feelings of the moment. Viewers then move to reflection on a few lines of scripture, different for each day. Visitors are encouraged to proceed at their own pace.

"Some days, it might not be the scripture at all, but a sudden awareness of God's presence around me that moves me deeply," the site's instructions advise. "If this happens, I don't have to click `Move On' immediately and start reading the scripture. I can allow myself to dwell for a while on whatever it was that caused that feeling in me. Such feelings are one of the ways God can speak to us and bring us into conversation with the Lord."

Only a click away, for viewers whose minds might wander at particular parts of the prayer experience, are pages of a "Prayer Guide" by contemporary Jesuit spiritual writers with suggestions for body and breathing exercises. The whole experience, the Jesuits explain, is aimed at helping one enter the presence of God in one's life using one's own words, if those are needed, rather than repeating other people's words of prayer. Equally available, on the last page of the Web site, is the "feedback" button offering hundreds of e-mail messages from users all over the world whose spiritual lives have been enriched by their prayer at the Sacred Space site.

Cistercian Fr. Basil Pennington observed once that the reason for the popularity of so many teachers of meditation -- the gurus and maharishis who attracted devotees in the United States in the 1960s -- was that they offered spiritual seekers a prayer technique they could take home and immediately put to use. The Jesuits of Dublin through their ingenious utilization of the Web and their creation of have offered the men and women of their age a way of prayer that is not only as convenient and accessible as turning on the computer each day, but one that is simple, precise and spiritually satisfying.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Apr 28, 2000
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