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Arts and Sciences Lecture Explores the Devotional Potential of the Digital


“In the era that we’re now in, the re-invention of spirituality will have to do with the spirit that fits into the palm of the hand.”

That was the message relayed by Paul Elie in a talk titled “Digital Devotion: Some Thoughts on a Spirituality of Technology,” given March 11 at Flom Auditorium on the Rose Hill campus.

Elie illustrated his point by holding up his Sony Digital Reader in one hand and a “travel” Bible in the other, and then noting their similarities—the leather covers, the zippers, the gold edges.

Elie, a senior editor for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, drew a further connection between the two—saying that each represented a “blend of the devotional and the portable.”

This seemingly incongruous combination of the technological and the devotional was Elie’s main subject, as he traced the historical precedents for “portable spirituality” throughout the last millennium.

Elie is well positioned to consider spirituality in the age of technology, as he is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003), a biography tracing the lives of four modern-day pilgrims: Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Walker Percy.

Overall, the question Elie offered for consideration was how today’s hand-held technology might support modern-day religious quests. He offered his own answer to that question by first looking to the past.

“Digital devotion refers to the digits of the hand,” Elie stated. “Portable spirituality is the spirituality of hand-held devices, the digital pilgrimage.”

Elie offered striking examples of early information technology—distant ancestors of our Blackberries, Kindles and iPads—which provided portable religious connectivity and devotional inspiration.

The medieval reliquaries housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were one such example. “The first thing I noticed the last time I was there was that these works, which once seemed so small to me, now seemed ordinary-sized,” Elie recalled. “They seemed pocket-sized, iPod-sized,” he continued.

Elie also told the story of the most famous of Pascal’s uncompleted Pensees, the “Memorial,” which recounted his transformative midnight encounter with God. Pascal had the fragment sewn into the lining of his coat so that he would always have it with him, and hence, never be cut off from God.

According to Elie, the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola were themselves a form of portable spirituality, as they enabled the Jesuits to practice their devotion wherever they went, not just in the monasteries, because they were carried through images in the mind. The exercises allowed for inter-connectivity as well.

“The exercises in the breviary at once joined the individual Jesuit to other Jesuits—the network of Jesuits, you might say—just as the breviary connected them to the whole church, with Rome at its center. Imaginative space, plus connectivity, plus portability—sounds like a pitch for Apple, not for the Society,” said Elie.

Throughout his talk, the questions Elie returned to were: “Why portable spirituality? Why do we want to take it with us?”

Elie looked to 20th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin to answer those questions, as Benjamin also sought to understand the impact of technology, most notably in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

As Elie summarized, Benjamin felt that mechanical reproduction caused the work of art to lose what he called its “aura.” In Elie’s view, however, perhaps the opposite has occurred.

“It can be argued that mechanical reproduction has upped the aura of works of art. . . . The very fact that a painting like Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy has been reproduced so often makes it all the more extraordinary to be standing in front of it—the one, the only one.”

Elie further suggested the possibility of seeing the aura as transferred “to the tools of mechanical reproduction—the camera and the silver screen, the microphone and the radio, the television, and now, in our time, the personal computer and the handheld device.”

Elie cited websites that guide prayer, audio books of scripture, and e-readers that can download devotional texts as ways that technology can be a portable conduit for the quotidian pilgrimage that is lived out on the road trip, the subway ride, or in front of the laptop.

While for many people “the aura of technology will stand in for the aura of the sacred, or will blot it out altogether,” Elie said, his hope is that the handheld device will be seen as “not an object of devotion in itself, but a means of devotion to what is out of our hands, and will remain so.”

“Digital Devotion: Some Thoughts on a Spirituality of Technology” was the second lecture in the Arts and Sciences Lecture Series, sponsored by John P. Harrington, dean of Arts and Sciences faculty.


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