A Fire that Purifies
Disruptive spirituality inside the Machine
To be trapped inside a machine is frightening, especially when it catches fire.
Once, as a boy, I was on a Yugoslav airline when one of the engines began shooting flames as the aircraft prepared for takeoff. I had a window seat and could see the fiery turbine under the wing a few feet away, as if a giant blow torch had been ignited within its whirling interior.
I should have been horrified that an explosion was imminent, but being a boy I instinctively felt immortal, like all children, and only experienced puzzlement and wonder. We were forced to spend the night in Ireland while the aircraft was repaired, which brought the bonus of staying in a hotel and riding a double-decker bus for the first time.
The next day we were airborne again, and I was back at the same window, no more troubled than the day before. When the long transatlantic flight finally neared its end, and the plane began its descent, I heard a murmuring voice behind me, and then another and another, all of them murmuring in unison in the dim cavernous light of the cabin:
Full of Grace,
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus.
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of our death.
Soon it seemed half the cabin was reciting these words as our socialist aircraft dipped and swayed on the air currents. It did not occur to my young immortal mind that many of the passengers had been anxious ever since takeoff, fearful that our aluminum flying machine might, after all, explode over the North Atlantic.
The praying passengers were likely from the northern Catholic regions of Yugoslavia, whereas my family of origin hailed from the old Byzantine lands in the south, which were (and still are) Orthodox. I had never heard the Hail Mary prayer, at least not in English, since our services were never in English.
Still, those chanted words struck me as powerful; not powerful in the sense of comforting—I did not need comforting just then—but powerful in the sense of strange and other-worldly.
Prayer is often associated with comfort and peace or connecting with the divine. But prayer is also a disruptive practice. It breaks through the ordinary pattern of daily behavior and shifts the focus of attention from the particular to the eternal.
Prayer is divine technology: an alignment of the signals of a human creature with the signals of the Creator. This technology works outwardly, altering our external behavior, but also inwardly, redirecting the flow of thoughts and feelings.
We have a habit, say, toward fear or anger or pornography, or whatever haunts our conscience or unsettles our spirit. Prayer disrupts these tendencies and turns us away from them, so that when the anger or fear creeps up again, or we feel temptation coming on, we are more ready, more able, to deal with it, more ready and able to re-align the flow of our spirit.
Prayer is disruptive, but so is the Machine. There is the outward disruption, in the form of devices and ChatGPTs and simulations, and—like prayer—an inward disruption.
The tools of the Machine invite us into their own rhythms and patterns: the incessant checking of messages, the compulsive need to know what is happening “out there” in the world or “over there” on that platform. But the real happening is “right here”, in and around our bodies.
We cradle the tools of the Machine. We brush their glassy faces and keep them closer than our own children. We allow the tools to direct our thoughts and emotions, to shepherd the flow of our neurochemistry and our spirit. We feel helpless when we try and break away, suddenly discovering we are addicts, or else possessed by some diabolical digital spirit.
I have served as a godparent in an Orthodox baptism, and one of the most unusual moments was when the priest asked me this question as I held the baby: “Do you renounce Satan, and all his angels, and all his works, and all his service, and all his pride?”
He asked this question three times, and three times I had to answer yes. Even stranger, after answering I was required to turn away toward the door of the church (away from the sanctuary) and to spit.
Yes, to spit. It was not a vigorous spitting, though. It was more like blowing (actually it was a bit of both). I was in my twenties at the time, cool and irreligious and still inclined to think myself immortal. I went along with it, superstitious as it seemed, because this is the way it had always been done in the old Byzantine hills of my parents’ village, and I was trying to be respectful to my family and to “tradition”.
Now that I am older and more vulnerable, I see things a bit differently. Behind that weird ancient tradition is a recognition that some things are just so destructive that it is not enough to acknowledge them with a verbal statement. Some things must be rejected viscerally, with our whole being.
Imagine responding to the internet this way? Do you renounce internet, and all its tools, and all its works, and all its services, and all its pride?
Yes, yes, and yes!
If it were only so easy.