If you’re on the academic calendar like me, you’re looking at your daily to-do list and quaking. There is so much to get done before the end of the semester and seemingly no time to do it. I’m being ordained a deacon after Easter, so that adds another series of tasks to get done beforehand. Beyond ‘do laundry’, ‘write essay’, ‘finish reading list’, ‘send invitations’, there is this pesky ‘go to confession’ bullet. Of course, it doesn’t help that we get Facebooked and Tweeted daily Lenten reminders from Pope Francis to “Be courageous, and go to confession!” or even see moving images of him walking toward the first open confessional.
This got me thinking: wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could go to confession online? I wouldn’t have to make an appointment with a priest or leave the comforts of my room. Wouldn’t it be simpler to be able to write an email to specialized priests outlining those areas in my life which are continual stumbling blocks to my relationship with God and others and then wait for the reply? Or, maybe there could be some sort of Vatican Chat App that allowed me to live-chat with a priest who could give me counsel and offer virtual absolution. Isn’t that reading the signs of the times?
But then the better part of me says no. But why ‘no’? What’s wrong with it?
This week I’ve been taking the Vatican’s how-to-hear confession course. During the first hour of the course, we were nailed over and over again on the importance of making sure the sacrament was not robotic but, in keeping with Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, “a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” I suppose the question really is whether the Internet permits a rich enough personal encounter that something as vulnerable and transformative as the Sacrament of Reconciliation demands?
In my years living abroad, I have come to rely heavily on Facebook chat and texting to stay in contact with friends and family back home. It’s quick and—more importantly—free. Some of those texts or chats have been rich and helpful in maintaining contact and getting support in darker times. However, there have also been mistranslations of nuance and sarcasm which have lead to confusion and misunderstanding. All of these would have been preventable if I had communicated face-to-face or over the phone. This raises another question: What does it mean to be present to a person?
While I chat with someone on Facebook, I am also often writing an essay for class, trying to finish up some email, looking for something to listen to on YouTube, and talking to others via text or other chat windows. I know that I am not giving my full attention. I know this is a low form of relating. But I do it because it’s easy.
Sheryl Turkle, an anthropologist at MIT, has been writing about human/computer interaction for several years now. In her latest book, Alone Together, she looks at this very issue. In a chapter called Confession, Turkle gives the account of an online argument between two students, Audrey and Logan. To reconcile, Audrey apologizes to Logan in real life; however, this leads Logan to continue the argument on Facebook, which erupts into a larger altercation with their mutual friends. Eventually, Logan apologizes to Audrey but does so on Facebook, where the “apology failed.” Audrey degrades an online apology, calling it “cheap.”
She continues by saying, “It’s easy. All you have to do is type ‘I’m sorry.’ …. It takes a lot for someone to go up to a person and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and that’s when you can really take it to heart.” Turkle comments, “An online apology is only one of the easy ‘shortcuts’ that the Net provides. It is a world of many such temptations.”
Turkle gives us an interesting word, shortcut. What makes an online apology a shortcut? Audrey’s answer gives us the answer—because it does not take it to heart. The lack of focused attention in online relating prohibits us from taking the presence of the other to heart and does not allow our hearts to be opened enough so that they are vulnerable to the reconciling dynamism of the other. To allow ourselves to be open, to allow ourselves to be touched, we need to be utterly conscious of the other person.
The Internet, sadly, affords too much allurement to allow this focus on the other. In the milieu of the Internet, I can write the word ‘I’m’, switch chat boxes and talk about what I had that morning for breakfast with another friend, go over to YouTube and search for that latest viral video everyone is talking about, jump to my inbox and learn what books Amazon is trying to get me to buy today, go back to the Facebook screen and like a few photos before then switching my attention again to complete the sentence by typing ‘sorry.’
The little moving dots in the chat box make it look like I’m a slow typer and not occupied by other things. The sorrow is present there. I do not doubt that Logan was truly sorry as well, but the level and intensity of the sorrow is diluted because it has not opened up enough to the other. The other is not truly honored, nor is their hurt. And if that is the case, if I am not opened up enough to show remorse, I cannot be opened up enough to receive forgiveness either.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is similarly not so much about me. The chief protagonist in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is God. The main action of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not confessing my sins; it’s God showing his love toward me. How can I fully experience that with all the tantalizing distractions the Internet gives me? I know I’m not that disciplined.
More and more, I am learning I need silence to focus and give my full attention to whatever I’m doing so that my entire person is open to possibility, open to grace. That’s why I must go to the confessional and be with a priest. If I am serious about my relationship with God, I must give my entire attention to God found in the sacrament, not because the sacrament requires it, but because I require it.