Tuesday, August 4, 2015

You're Going To Want To Sit Down For This!

You're Going To Want To Sit Down For This! 

I was trying really hard to get a prop for my Homily this past weekend. It is a virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift. If you haven't seen one before, it's basically a device that you put on your head -like giant goggles.

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So I put a feeler out on Facebook, which usually comes through and it did -just a little too late for Mass. Turns out a friend of mine has one. So I asked him, "Well, can I still borrow it?" And he said, "Well Father, the headset's charged up to this supercomputer-like thing, you can't just move it into a church." So I asked him to at least tell me what the experience is like so that I can explain it. He said, "It is pretty amazing! For example, if you put it on and you set it to go on a roller coaster ride, when you go over the hill, you actually feel your stomach drop. It is a real experience!" I asked him if it was like 3D and he said, "Yes. Except it is much more than that - almost like 4D. Everywhere you look, you are there. Everything you see and experience, you are there."

I was trying to read up about this, and I found an interesting article. The article begins like this, "Children, you might want to sit down for this one."

I recline in an office chair. A moment later, after whizzing through a space-time tunnel that looks like a tornado made of pure light, I find myself sitting on a beach in Hawaii. -They had me at that part!

The colors are vivid and rich, sunlight dappled. The sound of waves echoed in my ears, the palms swayed in the wind, and the wide ocean sparkled to the horizon. I am alone.

I feel an immediate sense of calm. It is uncanny, but I would swear my skin is growing warm in the sunlight, and a faint breeze is carrying a mist off the water. My heartbeat begins to slow. As I crane my neck to look at the coconuts in the trees, the landscape becomes pixelated. It is kind of like being on spring break in the World of Warcraft.

I am immersed in a virtual-reality experience, aptly called 'The Teleporter'. The Hawaiian expedition, along with the virtual journey to the top of the London skyscraper, was designed by Marriott Hotels as a way for its guests to experience the future of travel. The founder says, as he helps me lift off the head set, the Oculus VR Rift. It is then that I realize that the ocean spray was actually just beads of sweat that collected around my forehead and around the edges of the mask.

It is as close as you can get to a real-life experience.

It will be cheap. It will be safe and hassle-free travel. Think of all the trauma involved in travel: the fossil fuels that are spent, the germs that you get on a plane, the money that it costs, the amount of time it takes to travel somewhere. The founding director of Stanford University, says “Virtual Reality allows you to travel when you want to, and not when you have to. Forget the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) pat downs, jet lag, long lines, luggage, bewildering menus, lumpy mattresses, predatory locals all of which actually make travel such a drag. The Oculus Rift never runs out of space in its overhead bins. 

This is how the tech people tend to talk. They talk with total confidence that every new tool is going to change the face of the world and we are going to experience things that we never have before. Yet research will suggest that this 'virtual reality' does offer some benefits. The University of Melbourne in Australia conducted a study which consisted of 40-second-long virtual reality micro breaks for people at work. The result: a reported increase in the workers’ ability to focus on the task at hand. So the new theory is that if they put suites in offices, people will never need to go on vacation.

Well I don't know about you, but I don't think that is going to be true for me!

Marriott Hotels are considering incorporating these 'Virtual Reality Suites' into their hotel rooms to better advertise their properties, but also allow people in-room entertainment (I hope this does not get into adult entertainment as well). The idea is that guests won't even have to leave their hotel room. The prospect of virtual travel and my whirlwind of tour-pixelated destinations leaves me pining for the glorious inconvenience of a delayed flight or a malfunctioning hotel thermostat. No matter how seamless the 3D scanning, a virtual vacation will never manage to replicate the greatest thing about going somewhere: Serendipity.

The truth is, virtual reality will never take us as far as reality can.

Jesus said in the Gospel today, "I am the true bread that came down from Heaven. I am the real presence." He says, "Amen. Amen I say to you. You came looking for Me. Not because you saw a sign, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. You ate the loaves and were filled."

What brings YOU to this reality every Sunday? Why do you come here on Sunday? What brings you to Mass Sunday after Sunday? Do you experience Jesus truly as the true bread that came down from Heaven? The truth is, are you willing to experience reality on God's terms?

Yes, Virtual Reality is an escape, but the truth is, just like any journey, the journey to Heaven oftentimes is accompanied by difficulties, inconveniences, frustrations, the trip not going as we expected it to: life's disappointments. All that comes with the journey in travel, just as it comes with our travel to Heaven. But like all journeys, there are wonderful graces. There are wonderful experiences that we could never have anticipated. Those serendipitous moments where we discover something that no one else has discovered before.

In the latest Encyclical by Pope Francis, Laudato Si' ('Praise Be To You'), the Holy Father talks about the wonder of creation. The wonder of being able to experience creation as God intended. He talks about the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist today. The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life.

Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different plain, on a different reality. Water, oil, fire, and colors taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated into this act of praise. The hand that blesses us is God's instrument; it is God's love and the reflection of our closeness with Jesus Christ and the journey that we are on together.

For all of us, as we think about experiencing reality and life as it truly is, with its pitfalls, but also with its graces, I want to end with a poem. It is by a Jesuit theologian poet. His name is Pierre de Chardin. The poem is called, "Patient Trust." I want you to think about this. Whatever is going on in your life's journey right now, this is what happens when we trust in the reality God presents in the Eucharist.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
To reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
Unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
That it is made by passing through
Some stages of instability—
And that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
Your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
Let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
As though you could be today what time
(That is to say, grace and circumstances
Acting on your own good will)
Will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
Gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
That His hand is leading you,
And accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
In suspense and incomplete.
On a virtual vacation, everything is bitmapped, everything is programmed. The programmer is your tour guide, and you can never stray from the group. You can't say you discovered this tiny little restaurant, or met these amazing people on the street, or saw this impromptu concert. The truth is, for all its bells and whistles, virtual reality is more like a postcard than a journey. It flattens what should be a multi-sensory voyage in a shallow facsimile. 

Albert Rizzo, a psychologist who launched a Virtual Reality Lab at the University of Southern California in 1996, said this: "People are always going to go and want to go in the flesh." You don't have the feel of the sand, the sun shining on you, and all those tactile senses." And it is true with us, too. We want and need to experience God in the flesh. We need to be fed by the true bread that comes down from Heaven. So if you are one of those early adopters that can't wait to lie on a virtual beach, go right ahead. It just means there is going to be more space on the sand for those of us who prefer the real thing.

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