I have to admit that in life before cancer, I had a dim view of the internet's ability to bring people together. I didn't have a cell phone and was quick to judge others' addictions to their digital devices. I doubted any new relational depth was being plumbed through incessant wireless connectivity with the wider world.
Then I got sick. Really sick. In a matter of months, I went being a healthy forty-one-year-old religion professor, wife, and mother of two to a virtual invalid with a broken back, a stage IV breast cancer diagnosis, and a grim prognosis for the future.
To keep family and friends updated during the early days following the diagnosis, my brother created a Caring Bridge site for me, a website dedicated to connecting people with serious illnesses with those who care about them. News of my diagnosis spread quickly; just as quickly loved ones signed up to receive my Caring Bridge postings. From my narration of what stage IV cancer had done to my body to the grief of having to resign from my full and wonderful life, each of my posts was met with supportive postings to the Caring Bridge site, as well as additional emails, cards, packages, visits and calls from people from all corners of my life. I started to realize that through our connectedness via Caring Bridge, I was being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses greater than any I could have imagined before.
It is through this cancer journey that I've been awakened to a new--indeed, almost mystical--understanding of the church universal, mediated through what I've come to call the virtual body of Christ; that is, the body of Christ incarnated in, with, and through the power of sites like Caring Bridge.
What I'm talking about is a new understanding of the church universal, a breathtakingly broad embodiment of Christ's hands and feet ministering to me and my family during our walk through the valley of the shadow of cancer.
This experience of the virtual body of Christ has also gifted me with a fresh appreciation of the church catholic. Prompted by my entries on the Caring Bridge site, many of my friends from the Roman Catholic tradition--the church that holds most tightly to this notion of universality--have embodied Christ to me in stunning ways. I've had Mass dedicated to me across the globe; I've been given a medallion blessed and sent on to me by a priest friend. These traditions of dedicating, blessing, and honoring--traditions that make rare appearances in our Protestant expressions of church--have made their mark on my soul.
I've also become convinced that the church universal extends even further, beyond the bounds of Christian communities to include those of other faiths and even those of no particular faith.
Take the grace bestowed upon me by one of my agnostic Jewish colleagues. Shortly after she returned from a trip to Israel, this Jewish colleague sent me an email about how my postings on Caring Bridge had become a source of inspiration to her. Spurred on by my story, she had even gone out on a limb and attempted to pray herself.
My colleague went on to describe her visits to several churches in Israel, and how in each one she had knelt and prayed, asking Jesus for a favor, that he might heal her friend with cancer.
That an agnostic Jew would get on her knees in churches throughout Israel to pray for her Christian colleague living with cancer suggests to me that the Internet is capable of embodying religious communities in ways not possible just a few decades ago. Since I've been sick, I've had Hindus offering prayers at temple on my behalf, Buddhists dedicating meditation sessions to me, a Native American colleague bestowing on me a sage blessing.
I realize it's tricky and complicated. Are these persons really part of the church universal? Do they even want to be? More theologizing needs to be done. For this particular Christian, however, they have all borne saving love, saving presence, and saving hope to me and my family in the midst of the valley of the shadow. Their actions have to be bound up somehow, some way, with God's universal community of saints. They're too much like Christ for it to be any other way.
While many of us lament the dis-embodied nature of much of our daily virtual interaction, we who care about religious communities must also pay close attention to ways in which online religious ideas and practices--even the virtual presence of the one Christians call Christ--manage to make real bodily difference in the actual world.