A millennial recently bragged to my friend that he no longer has much reason to leave the comfort of his basement office. There, he enjoys a tri-screen computer setup and can simultaneously manage his business, view porn, and compete in online gaming tournaments from a single cushioned reclining chair. Money to the left of me, sex to the right, and the victor’s glory ahead, he might wax lyrically. Real-world financial, romantic, and combative endeavours cannot seduce him from his cocoon. Our technologically contented contemporaries find it rather difficult to muster a sentiment of existential dependence upon anything greater than the devices that surround them.
Long before the phenomenon of techno-seclusion, Blaise Pascal claimed that the “sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Pascal envisioned the home as an oasis from distraction, where a man could converse with the wisdom of the ancients and listen to the voice of God in his conscience. Today’s digital possibilities make the home attractive for reasons very different from Pascal’s. Breadwinning through online ventures and entrepreneurial self-employment eliminate the inconveniences of early rising, commuter traffic, and office personality clashes. There are no nine-to-five constraints on money-making potential. There are no coworkers to distract from the goal at hand.
The extension of the virtual empire has even more regretable consequences for relations between the sexes. Though quickly rendered a slave to his deformed sexual passions, the porn user enjoys a sense of dominion over the object of his darkened gaze. He needn’t tarry with dialogue or deeds of chivalry to prove his worth to a would-be spouse. Instead, he looks where he wants, when he wants, without troubling himself with a relationship of mutual self-giving. He flees the risks of courting an intelligent, free person capable of declining or accepting his advances.
Finally, as Samuel D. James perceptively notes, video games have a hypnotic capacity to stunt boys on their journey to maturation. Online gaming stimulates a competitive adrenaline rush without the training rigors athletics or military service would require. Glory and heroism can now be had without breaking a sweat. Will these devoted gamers someday recount to their grandchildren how they saved a galaxy with Mountain Dew in hand? They have not grown through adversity. They simply have no interest in disturbing their buffered existence.
The tri-screen basement shrine to self-gratification recalls the medieval triptych of ecclesial art. The threefold image would unfold above the altar to give priest and people a dazzling scene to contemplate during the celebration of the Mass. At its best, this genre provided far more than a sensational setting for worship. The triptych was indeed meant to capture the onlooker’s attention, but only in order to direct the gaze beyond its notable structure to the supernatural glories veiled to men’s eyes. According to Catholicism’s sacramental worldview, the Paschal Mystery dramatically portrayed in the triptych is made truly present during the Eucharistic celebration. The art thus gives viewers a slight glimpse into the sublime realities present in even the humblest of country parishes. Splendid architecture was not an escapist flight from the real world. Instead, the tryptic points its viewers to the most fundamental of realities. While the virtual realities of the modern screen offer an ersatz experience of sex, wealth, and power, the sacramental reality of which the traditional triptych teaches us makes its beneficiary as present to the sacred mysteries as the first disciples.
A virtual triptych of earthly delights permits its user to create his own history and identity in isolated luxury. In the virtual realm, the user controls meticulously what he reveals about himself and can enter and exit interactions with others as he pleases. Sacramental reality, in contrast, demands that a man visit a concrete site, with a concrete minister, within a concrete community. The place may be bland, the minister a bore, and the congregation fastidious, but the pilgrim who undertakes such a journey will be rewarded with a divine encounter as real as those chronicled in scripture.
The splendor of the traditional triptychs also inspires honest onlookers to confront their unworthiness to approach Eucharistic union without humbly imploring forgiveness for those sins that had distanced them from the All Holy. As an antidote to self-deception, sacramental confession involves an intimacy, self-disclosure, and liberation no online service can provide. The penitent freely peels back the false masks that conceal his woundedness. He embraces the risk of an unrehearsed conversation in which the other may challenge his self-perception. The penitent no longer shelters his faults and failings behind a digital persona. Yet precisely in unequivocally admitting his weaknesses, he finds in the priest's counsel and in the healing power of sacramental grace previously unknown strength of character.
The Church should continually explore the most effective ways of employing the modern means of communication in evangelization. However, this technical aggiornamento should never blind her members to the singular reality entrusted to her in the sacraments. Receipts, sports statistics, user-friendly accounting, ebook libraries, and free concerts are but a handful of the usual perks we gain from visiting the virtual realm. There remain, however, vital experiences that are impossible to attain without journeying forth from the techno-shrines of virtual reality toward the divinely transcendent and humanly concrete reality of the sacraments.
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at First Things.