Being There

The sacraments, the internet and the wisdom of Andy Warhol

Supposedly, Andy Warhol once said that sex and parties were the only two events where you actually had to be there.

For a long time I’ve been wondering—are sacraments the third?

Virtual Jesus
In May of 2004 BH operations director Mike Hayes and I were leading a discussion on faith and the media at the University of Notre Dame. Everything got a little wacky when we introduced the topic of Eucharistic adoration online.

If you’re already confused, here’s the deal: Eucharistic adoration is the Catholic custom of placing before the people a large host that has been consecrated at Mass in a special sun-shaped viewing chamber (called a monstrance) on the altar for a special period of prayer and meditation. What web sites such as have done is brought that practice to us—via the web 24/7. The Eucharist is webcast twelve times a minute from some unnamed chapel.

Remember, Catholics take their Eucharist pretty seriously—this is the real presence of Christ as far as we’re concerned. So the reaction in our discussion group to ranged from kitschy amusement to downright offense. One person had no trouble imagining untold numbers of devoted Catholics “minimizing the Blessed Sacrament” to sanctify their desktop all day long. We generally didn’t know if that was prayer or sacrilege.

But then somebody pushed our thinking forward a notch—a scarier notch. Maybe this was only the beginning.

Anonymous Christians
I had to stop and think about it from another angle. Maybe it’s because I’m an urbanite, but I know how unhappy I get when I have to enter the quickie mart to buy gas instead of just swiping my credit card at the pump.

And even supermarkets are going self-serve at the checkout these days. Banking at ATM’s, pressing telephone buttons to get movie tickets, obtaining airplane boarding passes without talking to a ticket agent—there is virtually no need to interact with a human being in the course of regular business transactions any more. And the internet increases the options for commercial anonymity seventy-fold.

But I wonder if this is a good thing? Will I find myself in a kind of virtual bubble of my own construction, interacting with no one that I don’t directly live or work with. Will my contact with other people become so circumscribed and superficial that I’ll feel like half a person?

Okay, I overdramatize. But what happens when this isolationist, individualistic lifestyle goes spiritual? Does anybody want that kind of spirituality in their life?

Bless me, Father, for it’s been 2 Windows upgrades since my last confession…
At Notre Dame, one of the participants took the thing to its logical conclusion… what about Confession online—should it be available? I rendered the answer consonant with Church teaching (and Andy Warhol too). You have to be there.

Archbishop John Foley of the Pontifical Council
for Social Communications says Confession (or Reconciliation as it’s now often called) “must always take place within

the sacramental context of a personal encounter.” Monsignor Francis Mescalpo of the U.S. Bishops committee on communications notes that all the sacraments are “very concrete activities, and we don’t want them to be treated just as information.”

Well, it’s not exactly poetry, but
I think these church bureacracy guys have a good point. God’s grace doesn’t work like magic, aspirin, watts of electricity (purchased from Enron), or even bits of information to be downloaded. It’s not found in an “it.” It’s found in a “him” or a “her,” in the context of an encounter between human beings.

What we know in our bones
We know this intuitively—any one of us who’s ever had an experience we’ve thought of as spiritual probably had it either in creation or in relationship with others. We see God when just for a moment we let go and see the wonder of love—the gift that our friends, family, lovers really are. When we note the generosity of others, when we recognize their faults with mercy, their talents with gratefulness, their hopes and dreams with respect and awe. When we find in the little moments we share with other people grace, then we know God is present.

Andy Warhol was right. He raised up sex and parties—why? It is not just a coincidence that, both, at their best, are experiences of connection and joy where people encounter one another—time drops away, people let go, talk, laugh, dance, make love, experience joy.

What you can’t get on the internet
The sacraments are designed to be an intimate encounter with our God—but mediated through one another, not so different from our relationships with our friends and families, from the best parties we remember (the sacraments usually involve gatherings of community), or from sex (after all, for Catholics, the love of marriage is itself one of the most important sacraments).

Confession, or Reconciliation, is meant to be an intimate encounter with mercy, the love of God that can overcome even our greatest and most awful failings. Maybe we don’t see it that way because we were taught the ridiculous “laundry list” theory of confession, where we accumulate a mountain of insignificant things that couldn’t possibly matter much to God in a world of adults. But to walk in and bare our souls to the priest, in the way we do to our best friends, wanting to let go of what really drags on our hearts. That would be a different thing. A human encounter.

And yet a place to meet the love of the mystery at the heart of all things.