I am not a great Skype enthusiast. I don’t disagree with it in principle. It’s just that I find that it doesn’t quite deliver what it promises. It doesn’t really work for me as a means of communication. For one thing, it seems that you need to look at the camera if the person you’re speaking to is going to have eye contact with you. Without eye contact there’s no real communication. But if you look at the camera, you can’t also look at the person you’re speaking to on the screen, so nuanced response involving body language and eye contact simply don’t happen. You are with the person, but not in any real sense. My problem with Skype is that it feels more like screen voyeurism than genuine conversation.
I have had a similar problem with all things virtual, especially in regard to the Eucharist, at least initially. There is something voyeuristic about it which obviates any idea of collective participation, genuine connectivity and the Real Presence itself, especially if you understand the Eucharist in Calvinistic terms, that it is by virtue (sic) of the gathered presence of the people that the Presence is made real. Corporiality, or embodiment are at the heart of this.
In the virtual world, because of the inevitable focus on the person celebrating, the priest seems to acquire by default some kind of personal ‘channelling’, not to say magical, power. This in turn raises questions pertaining to what goes on at the Eucharist itself, virtual or otherwise. With such an inevitably strong focus on the words of the epiclesis being said by the lone celebrant visible on camera, we’re returned to the problem of sole agency. Perhaps this is in part solved by everyone saying the Eucharistic Prayer together over the internet, as they do in some churches on an ordinary Sunday.
These questions pertain, of course, as much to normal Eucharistic practice, as they do to the virtual, but I think that the virtual can be made to ‘work’, for want of a better word, through what I would call a shared attitude of response to God’s invitation to be at table with him, by which I mean being held together in Christ. Responding to God’s Eucharistic invitation is the response of desire. In fact it is the desire of each person to be deeply united to Christ, and to be united in a corporate sense with those around them, that the Eucharist becomes what it is. Each person embodies the whole and the whole is the body of Christ. To live the Eucharist is to experience a profound belonging and to know what it means to be grateful for those we have loved, both in the past and in the present.
The Eucharist, virtual or otherwise, is an act of Thanksgiving made real in the remembering of the Christ event, God’s drawing of humanity into himself, and in the bringing of that event into the present moment. It is the desire of the heart that is needed for this to happen, whether ‘virtually’ or in real time. But can the heart’s desire be fulfilled virtually? Or does desire for God both exceed and embrace all methods and means for laying hold of Him, of effecting an interchange involving grace and our own ordinary humanity, as it does in the Eucharist?
The question that really troubles us, then, is not whether the virtual Eucharist is the real thing, but whether in celebrating it in this way, we are able to replenish our reserves of grace, as many of us hope to do on any Sunday, and so be agents of transformation in a world and society that will have experienced profound changes as a result of the Corona virus. How we live our lives, how we value our friends and neighbours and how we value the earth’s resources, not to mention how we deal with global conflict, are all questions that will come under scrutiny when this time of trouble has passed by.
We are beginning in this time of ‘lockdown’ to learn what it means to live for others in a virtual world. We are also being given the time to reflect on what this means for our collective long-term future. We are having to relearn lessons of self-sacrifice, but we are learning them in a new way. With changes in work environments brought on by economic necessity, with health services having to prioritise for some time to come, we are going to have to learn to live, and possibly die, sacrificially. Many people will be learning to embrace solitude and loneliness for the first time.
It follows that our responsiveness to the Eucharist may play a vital part in how we help to re-shape society according to Kingdom values. Love and desire for God, especially when it is made real in the Eucharist, shapes what we do and say whatever our calling in life. The virtual Eucharist may accustom us to ‘returning’ to this place of love and desire in a way that is unfamiliar to many of us, if that is the way God chooses to allow it. I think that it is safe to assume that if a person desires God, and for God’s will and purpose to be effected through them, that is what will happen.
In other words, if we have known the Presence in the virtual, we can expect to learn it again repeatedly in the increasingly virtual world that we will be inhabiting, so that the virtual Eucharist may yet supply a means and a method for embracing that world, and for drawing it more deeply into God.
Lorraine Cavanagh, 31st March, 2020