Embracing Locality: the Poverty of Place

I want to say a word here about the theology of locality, a term I coined, a theology which is not yet fully developed and probably needs more of a theologian than myself, who am untrained, to do it. This theology reflects on the fact that there is a sacramentality in physical presence, a sacramentality that cannot be experienced through a medium. The sacraments require physical presence. In a similar way, there is more “grace” in attending to someone who is physically present than attending to someone encountered through a medium. Simple common sense tells us that physical presence is more effective, which is why it is still used by salespeople, politicians, and children for maximum impact. A request made in person is always more persuasive than a request made by letter, phone call, email, or text. Again, against the predominance of the telecommunications media, which has swallowed nearly all human interaction public and private, the Church insists upon the necessity of proximity for sacramental grace and fulfilling Church law. We cannot attend Mass via avatar. We must be physically present to be baptized, to be confirmed, to be married, to be ordained, to be shriven, to be anointed, to receive the Holy Eucharist.
In this age of the electronic, we are called to meditate upon this reality more deeply. The Church teaches we must be present and local to receive grace and encounter God. What does this mean for the other areas of living, if the sacramental is to be central in our lives? Should we not prioritize those aspects which are local, which are proximate? Should we not attend first to what is set in front of us, whether that be food, a problem, a stranger, or a child?

Locality is another aspect of poverty, for it means embracing limitations voluntarily. Locality is similar to the limitation Christ took on when He took on flesh and could no longer “broadcast” Himself invisibly to the entire world as He could do when He was only God and not yet Man. This limitation staggers the mind. For 33 years, the Second Person of the Triune God was limited and bounded to the body of a Jewish male, acting perfectly and powerfully and with full attention and intention only in the limitations of that body. Because of that incredible assent to limitation, He did not see or feel everything: He did not know who had touched Him in a crowd, or that the Apostles were terrified in the storm while He slept in the boat with them. He did not bilocate to China or Saudi Arabia or America: when He wanted to go someplace, He walked there, and occasionally rode a donkey or took a boat. Only once that we know of, He took a divine shortcut by eluding pursuers intent on hurling Him off the cliff or walking across the Sea of Galilee, but usually He remained limited. Contemplating this extraordinary stooping of God is marvelous.
In perhaps the most incredible act of locality, He first became microscopic and delicate in the Virgin’s womb, abandoning His power to be nourished by Our Lady, to be her child, that most astounding of limitations.
Because of this condescension, as the theologians term it, on the part of God, we too should consider the taking on of voluntary limitations as something to be grasped at. This directly impacts our use of technology.
At this point, it might be expected that I should repeat the cant, “Technology is not bad, but neutral,” but I feel this is misleading. Technology is neutral in that using it is not intrinsically evil or intrinsically holy, but using technology is not a simple “neutral” equivalent to face-to-face contact. Something is lost in the translation from face-to-face to electronic, something so crucial that the Church considers that it disables the transmission of sacramental grace.  What is lost in the translation?  What are we losing?  Think of this in the abstract and general, not the specific in order to see what I’m getting at.
As Neil Postman puts it, you can’t do philosophy using smoke signals. The medium should be chosen because it does affect the message.  Technology is not a simple neutral substitution.
Much could be said here, but I want to point out merely that embracing poverty means embracing limitations, and that means prioritizing the limitations of local and face-to-face interaction whenever possible, as grace is potential there. And we should want as much grace as possible.
Poverty may mean staying in the place where you were born, living close to family, renouncing the freedom of mobility for sacrificial stability, putting down roots, and rooting your family culture in a particular place.
One struggle in modern life that is clearly our generations’ battle is the advent of social media, in so many ways a joy: in other ways, a distraction that leaves television and video games in the dust as a time suck, at least for this woman writer. With fierce conviction I kept television and screens to a minimum in our house, but my own iPhone appears super-glued to my palm, and I find, to my horror, that like Bilbo Baggins and the Ring of Power, I can’t seem to leave it behind: I keep putting it in my pocket.
Insidiously, my problem began as most do, with the corruption of an innocent love. One of the treasures of my life has been dozens of far-flung friends, connections from school and previous homes that are precious pearls. To find them all on social media was thrilling: the chance to share lives with them again, to feel less lonely, to encourage them, to interact again was a delight. But the newness has worn down to a troubling addiction to news feeds and notifications and I find myself a poor model for my own children. Here is where I begin my struggle. Now that the global world is demanding my time, attention, and prayers, how do I prioritize? I believe the poverty of locality is where we begin.


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