Long-time readers of Dominicana will already be aware that I love cats—indeed, I love every kind of cat. (I also like monkeys.) I was thus delighted recently when two of my confrères at the Dominican House of Studies introduced me to iPet Companion, a website dedicated to providing people without cats (or lacking glass boxes filled with therapy kittens) with the opportunity to play with cats.
The concept of iPet Companion is simple: a user logs on to the website, and is then given control of a camera and several cat toys in a room with one or several cats. The user can zoom in and angle the camera to get the best view of the cats, and through dexterous control of the cat toys can play with the cats. By pressing different keys on your keyboard, you can control the whirring of fox tails or laser pointers in rooms filled with cats thousands of miles away. Sounds great, right? All the cats you could want, and no danger of the brother down the hall with a cat allergy ruining your fun!
Not all is well in iPet Companion world, however. In the several times I tried to play, the cats appeared to be tired, overstimulated, and uninterested in interacting with some strange Dominican friar on the other side of the country. I could see the cats, but they couldn’t see me. I could take some sort of delight in them, but it was unreciprocated and voyeuristic. I was using the cats, but could tell they felt used.
I suppose that one could utilize this experience to analyze various dysfunctional elements of contemporary society. I’ll leave the paint-by-numbers to your imagination, gentle reader. Instead, I’d like to turn to an application that might seem more surprising at first: the Eucharist.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis, Pope Benedict offered a nuanced assessment of the relationship between electronic media and the holy Eucharist:
Finally, with regard to the value of taking part in Mass via the communications media, those who hear or view these broadcasts should be aware that, under normal circumstances, they do not fulfil the obligation of attending Mass. Visual images can represent reality, but they do not actually reproduce it. While it is most praiseworthy that the elderly and the sick participate in Sunday Mass through radio and television, the same cannot be said of those who think that such broadcasts dispense them from going to church and sharing in the eucharistic assembly in the living Church.
“Visual images can represent reality, but they do not actually reproduce it.” In the case of cat cams, we encounter representations of reality that do not actually reproduce the full reality of cats. I am given a glimpse of their playfulness (or boredom) but am not able to enter into a truly living contact with them. In the case of the Eucharist, while participating in the Mass through electronic media might be a helpful reminder of the Church’s liturgy for one who is physically incapable of personally attending, it provides merely an icon of the reality that is conveyed in the Mass. The Mass is truly the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary, whereas a representation of the re-presentation is a different thing entirely. By going to a real Church in which actual people are gathered together, I am able to come to know the Lord in himself and in his body the Church in an intimate way that is only hinted at through electronic depictions of the liturgy.
For some Catholics, Mass at their local churches might be a frustrating experience. In these circumstances, it can be tempting to take a certain voyeuristic delight in sumptuous photographs or high-definition videos of splendid liturgical celebrations that seem to take place everywhere but here. While looking at the occasional liturgical photoshoot might be as harmless as watching the odd cat video, it is essential to enter more deeply into the reality that is truly present in the living Church: the Mass, whether celebrated in noble simplicity or simple nobility, is truly the place in which the living Church encounters the living Lord.
Image: Stephan Brunet, 2 kittens taking a nap