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Aug 19, 2010



This business of "virtual sacramentality" crops up in the writings of that great previsioner of the internet-as-noosphere, the paleontologist-priest Teilhard de Chardin SJ.

On what I gather was an extended visit to the Gobi desert, Chardin found himself without the physical necessities for saying Mass, and later wrote out the essence of the prayer he then offered in his essay, "Mass on the World", published in the volume, Hymn of the Universe:

Since once again, Lord... I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world...
And again:
This bread, our toil, is of itself, I know, but an immense fragmentation; this wine, our pain, is no more, I know, than a draught that dissolves.

-- Chardin, Hymn of the Universe, pp. 19, 20.

While the sentiment may be viewed as a poetic one, as Cardinal Dulless suggested, it is nevertheless one which falls within the limits of orthodoxy, as Pope Benedict XVI makes clear in his Homily at Vespers in Aosta, July 31, 2009, declaring:
The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host.


It appears that the full text of Chardin's "Mass on the World" is available online, here for those who may be interested.

And my apologies for the typo in my previous post, whereby I misspelled the name of the late Avery Cardinal Dulles SJ.


It's a question of believe, I'd say... ;). Concerning the Apostolic Blessing (given by the Pope) primarily at Christmas and Easter, i.e. the indulgence and remission of venial sins, it was originally granted to the people in St. Peter's Square only, but later to all Catholics tuned in by radio (accepted to be "valid" since 1967), via TV (since 1985) and the internet (since 1995(!)).


Are virtual environments capable of serving as the to-be-consecrated world? Fascinating. In this context a line of Milton seems apt: "Him there they found, squat like a toad, close to the ear of Eve, assaying by his devilish art to reach the organs of her fancy, and use them to forge illusions, phantasm."

(I doubt I've gotten the quote right. I'm recalling it from samples in "Prime Evil," a track by The Orb.)


Ted: What is association? What is communion? Does a virtual meeting accomplish one and not the other? Does the dimensionality of the space matter? Why does the body matter, especially when it comes to religion?

A couple of thought experiments: it's well known that movies are more emotionally charged when viewed with others. Consider whether viewing a comedy in a room full of others is the same as viewing one simultaneously with others who are in different rooms. Viewing a comedy or romance alone -- even when someone else is also watching in another location -- is simply not the same, not as satisfying or as meaningful as doing so with someone else beside you (this is why laugh tracks both "work" and grate on the nerves - they provide the illusion of others' presence, but the illusion is quickly broken).

Or, suppose you somehow found yourself in the position of having to live in Antarctica, or on the far side of the moon, for the next ten years. You could have full video access -- via Skype or similar -- and even full virtual world access to your friends and family, but no one could visit.

Do you think you'd be lonely?

Under such circumstances, do you think that your relationship with your wife and your kids would be qualitatively the same as if you had been physically there with them during those years? Is watching them grow up over a video feed the same as literally being there?

It seems inescapable to me that physical proximity matters in any context which we as humans find meaningful - relationships, worship, even commerce. Virtual world proximity is valuable but is ultimately a poor substitute, a dim shadow at best, especially as the relationships become deeper and more meaningful (as they do, or can, when religions is involved).

In terms of religion, the physical experience of a friendly handshake, a welcoming smile, sitting shoulder to shoulder, praying together, singing together, being silent together, and simply being together not only spiritually but physically is the essence of association and the heart of communion.

It's no accident that "communion" and "community" come from the same roots, and both have to do with fellowship, mutuality, and sharing. Certainly we can get a lot of this via online experiences -- and we can extend fellowship in ways impossible without virtual environments. But there remains an unbridgeable gulf between the virtual and the physical, and what we as physical creatures can experience without actual physical presence.


>Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

So God isn't omnipotent then? He can turn real bread into the body of Christ, but he can't turn virtual bread into it?

"Real presence", yeah, right...



For the sake of argument let's start with the premise that one cannot feel the same sense of community over the Internet.

Ok, so recently I was staying in a hostel for a while and just about everyone there used Skype to communicate with family back home (myself included). Why? Because, we all agreed, that it feels more personal to be able to see the person and have a "real" conversation with them (as opposed to email or letter writing).

So, if technology continues to progress in making people feel like they can have more personal communication - letters < email < skype - might it be possible that it is not lack of presence that is a problem, but rather that we still lack an acceptable technology to give us the emotional level we are seeking?

Just a thought.



I'd like to go back to your initial post, in which you ask:

Why does the body matter, especially when it comes to religion?
In terms of this particular question, surely, the body matters because the question concerns the body of Christ being received into the body of the believer, and pulling back a little to see the wider context, because the central event of Christianity concerns the incarnation [embodiment] of God (and the Word was made flesh...) – a descent of the indivisible Love, that is, into this world of multiplicity and variety so that it can meet us on our own terms (...and dwelt among us [John 1.14]), indeed, taking on illegitimate birth, homeless living and the death of a criminal precisely so that not one of us should feel so lowly or alone that the indivisible Love cannot be present with us.

Matter, in other words, matters a great deal.



"Real presence", yeah, right...
Real or virtual, fact or myth, there's a great deal of poetry, beauty, compassion and wisdom to idea... as I hope I managed to convey in my post above to EdwardC.

BTW -- Mike:

Very nice to read you again, albeit in this virtual space!


Likewise, Charles!


Charles Cameron>Real or virtual, fact or myth, there's a great deal of poetry, beauty, compassion and wisdom to idea.

The argument seems to be that it only applies to real, not to virtual.



No, I think the argument is that there is an essential difference between the two -- a difference that many of us who create and/or spend lots of time in virtual worlds often elide, perhaps as part of searching for legitimacy for virtual worlds.

Association in a virtual world is much better than no association at all; as Krista-Lee said above, "letters < email < skype." But using that same form, it's also true that "virtual << physical;" there's simply no comparison in terms of depth of association and communion (see my Antarctica thought-experiment above, and apply it to any of the loved ones in your life).


The world is a strange place.

To my way of thinking, games at their best, like poems and plays, are pocket universes, or what Tolkien would call "subcreations" – my mind goes to Plotinus' phrase, "this world stage which men have dotted with stages of their own constructing" – and thus carry within themselves such poles and tensions as those between self and other, light and shadow, sacred and profane...

I do not believe that when the pairs of lovers onstage at the end of Shakespeare's As You Like It are married, the actors who play them are similarly "made one flesh" till death do them part – but I do believe that in the enchantment of the play, the sacramental nature of marriage is somehow delivered into the hearts and minds of the audience – "High wedlock then be honored."

In Catholic terms, that would mean that the "virtual" world of the theater can serve as a conduit for grace, though not a sacrament.

Interestingly enough, while this conversation has been going on, the members of a worldwide Soto Zen lineage have just celebrated the online ordination of three priests – see Zen priest ordination performed simultaneously on three continents.

We've come quite a ways since Stephen O'Leary and Brenda Brasher published the first scholarly article on online religion, "The Unknown God of the Internet: Religious Communication from the Ancient Agora to the Virtual Forum" in 1996 – and no doubt things will change even further as theology and virtuality continue to interact across a wide range of spiritualities...


Let's approach this from another angle.

As readers of Roger Caillois, Hermann Hesse and Johan Huizinga know, "games" and "play" are slippery categories that can reach far beyond the current crop of games genres.

We now have plenty of serious games – the most serious recent game I've seen is a US Army training game in which soldiers in "Red" and "Blue" teams play out the tactical planning, hiding, discovery and dismantling of IEDs – as well as "social" games like PeaceMaker and Evoke that attempt to build a better world – but do we have much in the way of "spiritual" or "contemplative" games? I've never had access to Journey to Wild Divine, which (as I understand it) uses biofeedback, graphics and music to engender a meditative relaxation.

Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game is never far from my thoughts, and I remember that Hesse's wrote:

in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.
How close are we to the creation of truly sacramental games?

I'm reminded, also, of Nietzsche's question, raised in the "God is Dead" chapter of his The Gay Science:

What sacred games shall we have to invent?
It's a question deeply rooted in Nietzsche's knowledge of ancient western culture, and as applicable to our situation today as when he wrote it, more than a century ago...


How close are we to the creation of truly sacramental games?

Not very, I think. I have a few designs on various burners, but they are not much more than single steps in that direction. There are increasingly contemplative games, some with distinct moods and valence. A prime example is Loved, which has been described as "confrontational," though as that commentator notes, it's probably best to experience rather than try to explain the game -- which goes to its introspective if not sacramental nature (others are more blunt, saying the game is about a child and a god and an abusive relationship).

Worth playing, definitely. But while easily showing that Roger Ebert is "not even wrong" as they say in physics, it also shows how even the avant garde in games is barely dipping its toes into the internal, symbolic, much less sacred and sacramental nature of things. Can we go deeper? As far as I know no one has, so no one knows.


Hi Mike:

it also shows how even the avant garde in games is barely dipping its toes into the internal, symbolic, much less sacred and sacramental nature of things. Can we go deeper? As far as I know no one has, so no one knows.
That's exactly why I think we'd do well to use Hesse's (let's not forget, Nobel-winning) novel as a game-design challenge -- remember Eric Zimmerman's challenge at GDC a year or three back, in which he wondered aloud about a game that might win the Nobel for Peace?

Why not Literature?

As you know, I 've attempted to make the Bead Game (or a variant along those lines) playable on a napkin in a cafe, and there have been several other worthy efforts. And as far as spiritual impact goes, I had one player who knew he was dying of cancer tell me one reason he liked playing my games was that he could imagine still playing it absent his body.

Elizabeth Sewell in her amazing book on the confluence of poetry and biology, The Orphic Voice, suggested that the Orpheus myth tells us that poetry has the power -- almost, not quite -- to overcome death.

A game with that same "almost, not quite" power is something for us to work towards, no?

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