This Week’s Discussion Question: Is the Holy Spirit Present in Liturgies in Cyberspace?

Questions about liturgical presence and participation online may seem marginal for many of us who are digital immigrants (i.e., born in a world that existed offline alone). But for most of the digital natives – those born into a world with both offline and online realms – these questions are at their spiritual fingertips. From the broadcast of liturgical celebrations over the internet (which is not so different from the earlier TV broadcasts of worship services) to online sites of daily prayer, prayer chapels, memorial sites, pilgrimages, and eucharistic adoration, cyberspace now also has communities of faith that exist online alone (for example, in Second Life, a web-based interactive virtual reality environment). Liturgical life in cyberspace is vibrant, aggravating, and constantly expanding.

I submit that it is high time to think through these liturgical practices at a deeper level than by simply claiming that online liturgies are not really “liturgy” because people are not bodily present to each other. Forms of liturgical presence and participation have always differed, in offline liturgies too: an unborn is present at a worship service the mother attends in a very different way from a young nun making her final profession. Both are differently present than someone suffering from senile dementia or severe mental retardation. Moreover, many online liturgical sites make conscious use of the interactivity of the internet, and thus allow users to be actively present to each other (sometimes more so than the “real” worship services). I for one have found that the Spirit can – and does – move my heart deeper into prayer not only offline but sometimes online too.

10 comments

  1. What a provocative and wonderful question you have posed for us here today. This is something that I have been thinking about, in one form or another, for the five years that I have been actively been blogging faith, followed by the use of other social media.

    Without much reflection, my every instinct says yes – the Holy Spirit is very present out here, in many ways.

    With a little reflection, I my mind goes back to two events that I participated in, in 2009. One was an online funeral liturgy for a Facebook friend that had died. In all honesty, I did not know him very well, but he was the good (online) friend of other good (online) friends of mine. The service was arranged by some of these folks, the majority of whom are Episcopalian, and it followed that order of service.

    It was a most beautiful and moving liturgy, with music, readings and remembrances of the life of the deceased. People were invited to have their own eucharist of bread and wine; I elected to not do that myself, but many did.

    The next online liturgy that I was part of, in a sense, was when I recorded a reading to be used at an Easter Vigil, a short while after this funeral. This was also Episcopalian. Due to my physical presence at my own Easter Vigil at my Catholic parish, I was not present. From what I understand, it was as moving as the funeral.

    Despite my lack of physical or digital presence, the Spirit seemed very present to me. It was at this time that I realized that something really significant is happening online.

    I have so many more examples of non-liturgical moments of grace, but I won’t go into them here. As a serial extrovert, I have no shortage of real-life interaction in the world, but I remain drawn to the remarkable amount of faith related interaction here on the internet.

  2. In the desert traditions of early monasticism there was strong evidence of a deep spiritual connection between the desert solitaries and Christian communities despite the physical separation, including separation from the sacramental life of the Christian communities.

    This evidence is strong in the life of Anthony and also in the life of Mother Mary of Egypt, two extremely solitary saints that have exerted a lasting influence upon Christian communities in the West and the East.

    The ability of these two saints to know what is happening at a distance has usually been seen, at least in the West, as due to the “supernatural” intervention of God, i.e. an extraordinary gift of grace.

    A couple of years ago, the local Orthodox pastor alluded to a different explanation of the Church Fathers, namely that this was a restoration of humanity’s original interconnectedness that existed before the Fall. Unfortunately he gave no references in his homily.

    This last explanation is particularly intriguing in terms of our modern internet connectivity. Are we in fact seeing the original interconnection of humanity being restored before our very eyes and ears?

    I am inclined to give ‘live’ TV and internet connections the benefit of the doubt, and say they are real presence across space.

    “Recorded” TV and internet connections may be different since they are presence across both space and time? Are they any different than books?

    1. Your example of the “interconnectivity” experienced by early hermits reminded me of the experience of St. Clare who was able to be present (although physically absent) at a Christmas mass of St. Francis — which is why she was made the official saint of television in the mid-twentieth century.

  3. Another interesting way of looking at this comes from the finding in the American Grace study that all the positive effects of church attendance (happiness, better health, more likely to give time and money) occur only for those people who are also connected to religious networks of family, close friends, and small groups.

    Simply sitting in church for a service without those religious networks shows little or no positive effects on happiness, health, and altruism. In other words they might as well be watching Mass on TV.

    On the other hand simply having networks of family, close friends and small groups show much smaller positive effects than religious networks involving church attendance. In other words, both community worship and social networks seem to be necessary for what are actually in social science terms very strong effects.

    Would we get the same very positive effects if people participated in the same internet activities, e.g. Mass, Divine Office, as their families, close friends and members of their small groups?

    Of course, as a social scientist, it would be very interesting to explore this matter empirically and form social networks of families, friends, and small groups that shared internet spiritual practices, e.g. Mass and Divine Office, both live and recorded.

  4. As part of a faith sharing/book discussion group that meets regularly using technology (in our case a Google+ hangout), I would say absolutely. We open and close each meeting with a period of formal prayer and though I realize it’s not measurable (I’m not *that* kind of scientist), my experience would say that the Spirit is present. We are gathered in God’s name, intentionally present at a particular moment in time, and we are promised that where two or more gather in God’s name, there God is present.

    Of course, this is not a formal liturgy, but I can’t see that I would experience it differently if we were celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours.

    1. Gosh, now I feel badly that I did not even mention our group in my comment.

      Of course, you are well aware Michelle, of how the Spirit has moved in our lives online, and in the lives of so many others.

  5. I find this paragraph, written by Ron Rolheiser, to be spot on:

    “In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, Therese of Lisieux tells how she sensed that she could help others, across time and distance, by being part of the silent, hidden, moral heart within the Body of Christ. Hidden away in an obscure convent, she sensed she could help people outside those walls, and help the whole world, by being part of a hidden moral heart. And so she bore down in her private life and focused on making every action, no matter how small, pure and loving, believing that some universal power would flow forth from this private, hidden goodness.”

    Perhaps Therese should be declared the patron saint of the World Wide Web!
    submitted by: Greg Corrigan, associate pastor at the Parish of the Resurrection, Wilmington, Delaware.

    1. Fr Greg –
      I suspect that Therese of Lisieux was not alone in her belief, though your account of her experience is beautiful and encouraging. This would seem to flow naturally from our belief in the communion of saints and the power of prayer, and the active power of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
      The internet, however, already has a patron saint:
      he is Isidore of Seville.
      In relation to the question at hand, it doesn’t seem to me that, regardless of its many benefits, the internet can ever be a substitute for personal, face to face, real life relationships. There is nothing magic about it. It is but another means of telecommunication. To the extent that it becomes a substitute for actual relationships it may be a negative element.

  6. This is a fascinating question with an array of implications. I think that the allusion to the desert fathers and ‘original interconnectedness’ are worthy of thought, though I would really question that there is an ‘equivalency’ here. Too, Fran told about a funeral service in which the participants were asked to partake of their own bread and wine. Clearly, this would not have been a valid sacrament in either Episcopalian or Catholic thought. It seemsto me that some aspects of this internet church-like life can (and, for some, does) provide some genuine spiritual benefit to its participants. I would pose the question, though: how, if at all, can the sacraments be shared in this manner since they presuppose the present action of a priest upon specific matter in which all share? And, if this becomes a substitute for actual person-to-person relationships, is it fully equivalent to knowing and caring for someone in flesh and blood? In my experience there are real limits to internet relationships. This is a medium which often (not always, but often) bumps a telephone conversation, a real-life social engagement, actually writing a letter, and other characteristics of real realtionships. I am posing questions, not expressing unalterable opinions. To the extent that we recognise its real limitations and shortcomings, yes, I think that the Holy Spirit can be present in this additional form of human connectedness.

  7. The early Church spread its message by post, and we hear a letter read out at almost every Mass. I have no doubt that when the Galatians read ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ they experienced that grace and peace even though St Paul wasn’t physically present.

    It is true that, as they say, ‘on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. But ‘real life’ encounters also have their limits. We present ourselves with carefully constructed facades. It can take years to get to know something of the ‘real person’ behind the mask.

    I am happy for others to debate whether online sacraments are ‘valid’ or not, whether you can go to confession by telephone, etc. To me these questions aren’t particularly interesting. A more compelling question is how these online methods can be better used – for example, how we can avoid the frequently occurring problem of cascading e-mails where misunderstanding grows rather than diminishes, or discussion forums that get stuck in a dynamic of move-oppose-move-oppose and never really advance. Perhaps online liturgies are part of the solution.

    The following little poem seems apropos:

    Loving the rituals that keep men close,
    Nature created means for friends apart:

    pen, paper, ink, the alphabet,
    signs for the distant and disconsolate heart.

    That was by Palladas, from the 4th century AD; the translation is by Tony Harrison.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *