Finding the Holy in the Virtual: How VR Helps Me Pray

When you think of the virtual reality experience, you may imagine teenage kids absorbed in violent games or fail videos of people losing their balance and knocking over living room lamps. Or maybe you’ve tried VR for yourself, going on thrilling roller coasters or touring the Parthenon without leaving your couch. For me, though, VR has offered a very different experience. My virtual reality headset has served, surprisingly, as a gateway to prayer. 

For over two years now, I’ve regularly been tuning in to a meditation app on my Oculus Go headset called Guided Meditation VR. As a writer, I often have the opportunity to try out new products, and the Oculus was one of them. Perusing the device’s many apps, I naturally gravitated toward the meditation app. (I know how much my always-active “monkey mind” needs to slow down.) In this immersive world, I can visit tropical waterfalls, forests full of autumn leaves, or windswept Alpine peaks, complete with calming music. With pre-set time lengths, I have the option to linger in these virtual environments anywhere from 10 minutes to “infinite” (which, for me, is more like half an hour).

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Initially, my intent in using this app had nothing to do with communicating with God. I’ll just zone out and relax for a while, I thought. But the more I’ve used VR to quiet my mind, the more I’ve realized what an amazing tool it can be to guide me to the soul’s inner sanctum.

As I strap on my headset and enter a virtual world, for the first few minutes, my thoughts usually still swirl from the events of my day. My grocery list flits across my mind, or I think of that unpleasant phone call I need to make. Still, the longer I sit quietly, pondering an image of the sun setting over the ocean or the dancing play of faux Northern Lights, intruding thoughts begin to slow. With my daily distractions shut out by the large device resting on my face, it feels as if a voice whispers, “Be here now”—which is, I suppose, the essence of meditation. 

With my mind thus quieted, a spiritual door seems to open. In my virtual getaways, I’m able to simply become still before God—something I normally struggle with to an extreme. I find I’m freed up to invite (and actually experience) the Holy Spirit’s presence. I do so by aligning my breath with a prayer of “Holy Spirit, come.” Then, I spend several minutes basking in God’s outpouring of love, peace, and the sense that everything’s gonna be okay.

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Eventually, my thoughts typically turn to listening to God, often calling to mind the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta. When asked what she said to God during prayer, St. Teresa replied, “I listen.” “And what does God say?” came the question. Her reply: “He listens.” I am (usually) so uncomfortable with silence in our busy, loud world, that I can forget that listening is a form of prayer. Even if God doesn’t say anything to me in audible words or a strong emotion, the simple act of opening my spiritual ears to what he might say seems to deepen my trust in him. Instead of babble on at God as I often do in prayer, my VR experience provides a space to just listen. 

Finally, having spent time stilling my mind and listening, I make my way to more traditional forms of prayer like making requests, asking forgiveness, and giving thanks. After a bit of time detaching from my usual mile-a-minute pace, these prayers feel less like spewing thought-vomit at the Lord and a little more like intentional communication. 

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I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, that meditation (even in a virtual format) would enhance my prayer life. As a Catholic, I believe in the healing, rejuvenating power of Christian meditation—whether Lectio Divina scripture meditation, Ignatian imaginative contemplation, or simply enjoying the presence of the Holy Spirit. Besides, for millennia, people have been connecting to God by pondering nature. And even though, through my goofy-looking goggles, I’m viewing computer-generated images of nature, they’re a reminder of the real beauty God has created in the earth. If I can’t sit by an actual mountain stream or serene beach in my bedroom on a Wednesday afternoon, at least I can have the sense of doing so. It’s not a substitute for God’s creation, but it can feel holy, too.

I never could have predicted I’d enjoy incorporating a device into my spiritual practice. I prefer the physical heft of my Bible to reading Scripture on an app, and I’m certainly not known for being tech-savvy. But I genuinely look forward to visiting with the Lord through virtual reality. Although it may be unusual to connect with the divine online, I’m convinced that anything that brings us closer to God’s peace is a blessing for our real (not virtual) lives.