Internet is vast, but personal encounter is still very possible

Global Sisters Report has enjoyed a partnership with A Nun’s Life Ministry since our site went live in April 2014. Srs. Maxine Kollasch and Julie Vieira share audio clips every week from their popular podcasts. Today we introduce a new monthly column, which they will take turns writing. Drawing on their experiences of online presence and using a lens of Scripture, they each will explore how social media offers new ways of witnessing Gospel values.

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Every day the Internet is growing bigger and more sophisticated. Twenty years ago, approximately 1 percent of the world’s population was online; today over 40 percent are online. That’s more than 3 billion people! It’s challenging to make sense of the vastness of the Internet, let alone contemplate the possibility of connecting personally with any of those 3 billion people! In the boundless expanse that is the Internet, will we be able to recognize the individual person or community in need?

As we often do in our offline experiences, we can also turn to Scripture for help in navigating online experiences. Though it predates the Internet by two millennia, Scripture is a living word that can speak to us at any time or place, online or offline. St. Paul never had to tangle with hashtags and Search Engine Optimization, though #praywithoutceasing would surely have gone viral well beyond Thessalonica. But these things are part of our language of communication today, just like rhetoric and Greco-Roman epistles were in Paul’s day.

So what can Scripture tell us about personal encounter in the vastness of the Internet? Throughout the Gospels, the word “crowds” or “multitudes” is used regularly. The term refers to an informal gathering of people, a throng in some cases. In Mark 5:25-34, for example, we find Jesus surrounded by a huge, pressing crowd. There are people everywhere — imagine the noise and movement of the crowd, people shouting to their friends and jostling one another for a better view of Jesus. Even with all that is going on, Jesus is able to sense the presence of one woman suffering from hemorrhages who reached out to him and touched the hem of his robe (Mark 30-34):

Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?”’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

Jesus found his way in the midst of the crowd and attended to the woman who was seeking a connection with him, one that she knew would be transformative. How did Jesus know that the tug on his hem was filled with such meaning and need? How did he recognize her?

Jesus was attuned to the human heart. He oriented himself to listening, especially to those with the quietest, least powerful voices in society. He made it his life’s work to be Good News to those in need. Jesus made being present to people an art form — indeed an experience of grace. Because of his mission and his love, Jesus was able to see the crowd not as an amorphous throng but as individuals.

Engaging with the online world, especially social media, can have that overwhelming crowd experience sometimes. But we need to move beyond that so that we too can truly be present.

Yes, we will encounter on the Internet all the different characters in this story:

  • the people like the disciples who say, “It’s such a big crowd, there can’t possibly be a connection;”
  • the people in the crowd who are “lurking” — hanging out, being part of the action and taking in all that is happening;
  • and the people in the crowd who, like the woman, long for a meaningful encounter.

The question is, “Will we be present enough to the crowds to recognize those tugs on our spiritual shirttails?”

Following the example of Jesus, a first very good step is to enter into the crowds! Jesus was no bystander. He did not look in from afar but rather allowed himself to be noisy and to be jostled with the crowd. How could he have felt the tug on his shirttail if he was looking in from afar? Jesus always made it a point to circulate among the people, not expecting them to come to him on his terms alone.

A second step is to listen. With a grounding in prayer and his faith community, Jesus had a discerning heart, one which could pick up on people’s presence and needs despite challenging circumstances. There was nothing supernatural about it, just being aware and present to the moment, a habit that is nurtured by immersing oneself in prayer, study (e.g. catechesis, the lives of the saints) — and lots of practice! 

A third step is to stop. How many times do we get a “feeling” or urge to reach out and we just keep going on our way? Maybe we don’t know what to say, maybe we are embarrassed, and maybe we think that couldn’t possibly be the Spirit calling us to do something. We need to stop and acknowledge the person in our midst, even with a simple, uncomplicated question like Jesus’ question, “Who touched me?”

A fourth step is to extend hospitality, especially recognizing people’s vulnerability. The woman in the story was terrified. “With fear and trembling” she approached Jesus. How many times do we encounter people who are shamed, oppressed, embarrassed, scared or just plain shy? Jesus brings to them a welcome, hospitable presence — one that has the potential to be healing.

As the Internet and social media continue to expand, may we become truly social, open to those whom we encounter online and attuned to those, who like the woman with Jesus, long for a meaningful encounter.

[Julie Vieira is a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan, and co-founder of A Nun’s Life Ministry, which was founded on the Internet in 2006 and is present at aNunsLife.org and in many social media.]

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