nowhere but here

Kelvin is asking good questions again about the theology and praxis of The Church and Virtual Reality.  He sets out questions enough for several doctoral thesis, but it was this that caught my eye.  He says:

‘Prayer generally takes place in virtual space.’

And I thought, ‘does it?’ and then, ‘he may be right…’   I am caught somewhere between agreement and rebellion at the thought, so I thought I’d play out the question here.

Let’s start with the easy positives — the ways in which I could imagine talking about prayer as a virtual space.

  1. prayer — like cyberspace — creates, strengthens and sustains relationship even when we are physically absent from each other.  So, yes: a virtual space.
  2. prayer — like cybersapce — connects us across time.  Whenever we pray, we join in something that is already happening, in Christ, and in ‘the whole company of heaven.’  We join in when we can, as we can, and become part of something bigger.
  3. prayer — like cyberspace — creates its own environment, and that environment changes us.  As we pray we are drawn deeper into prayer.  The time we spend in prayer changes how we perceive and relate to the world at ‘other’ times when deliberate prayer slips into the background.  There is always the danger that we will use ‘prayer’ to avoid other forms of engagement, but this is not true to what prayer is, and if we pray well, it will lead us to more engaged action.  All of this does indeed seem very similar to what happens in online communities, and strengthens the idea that prayer is a ‘virtual space’.
  4. my sense of what happens in prayer is bound up with the idea that prayer starts and ends with God.  We are taken into prayer, into Christ, and although I believe that is a ‘real’ ‘space’ I will have to concede that it is also, technically, a virtual one. The body of Christ is not limited to (nor excluded from) physical presence.

But still, there are things that pull against the idea too.

  1. While prayer might connect us across time and space, we can only pray in a particular time and space.  Prayer is not served  by severing ourselves from our physical reality.  Honest prayer demands that we face distractions, emotions, sensations with openness to God’s presence there.  Sometimes, our physical reality will distract us.  Sometimes it will pull us more deeply into God’s presence.  But never is it irrelevant to who and how we are with God in any given moment.
  2. We are made in the image of Christ — in the image of God, who becomes human and takes our bodily existence into the divine life.  Bodies matter.  We pray as much through our physical actions, movement, stillness as we do through our attention, our thoughts and our words.  (all in agreement: please cross yourself now.)
  3. I believe that the gift of God in the moment will always trump the idea of God and the communion of saints across time and space.  I know that morning prayer is richer and deeper right now because each day, it has been accompanied by the first warmth of a blazing sun.  It is hard not to see this as grace, and I will experience it as such even though my rational brain says that the coincidence of prayer and sunlight can be explained (quite easily) otherwise.

So, does prayer generally take place in virtual space?  Sort of.  I will concede that that it does not depend on physical presence, and that it draws us into something that transcends the limitations of time, space and physical reality.  It has real effect on us without physical change.  But that is not the whole story.

Prayer is always embodied – in word or song, in stillness or breath. Prayer invites us to to meet God in the fullness of our reality — so that we pray from the whole truth of our lives, and all the lies too.   Even if, in my prayer, I am praying for and with those who are physically absent, I can only pray well if I am present to myself.  And that cannot be a virtual reality, or one which denies the physical self.

My hunch is that the question Kelvin asks is crucial, and that the very tensions of it will help us pray and relate better.  It is not either/or, but both:  virtual and real. Embodied, and transcendent of the limitations of time and space.

And — pace, dear Information & Communications chair — that goes for ‘virtual reality’ too.  The communities we create there are real as well as virtual, embodied as well as distant: a gift of God, pulling us into relation.