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Downloading the mysteries


I had no idea what I was doing -- and had no business doing it. Late one night I set out in search of a radio station over the Internet. I had in mind some obscure broadcast emanating from the foggy highlands of Peru or the smoggy depths of Mexico City. Isn’t this what cyberspace is all about? Once we sat around bonfires; now we warm ourselves by a flickering computer screen, spreading gossip, catching up on the news.

There was only one problem. I had only recently bought a computer. I took a class and for the first time learned the difference between the hard drive and software, downloading and defragmenting. It was like a beginning driver class, and cruising the World Wide Web was not on the syllabus.

Undaunted by my ignorance, I signed on and began clicking my way into wonderland. My mouse scampered toward a sign that said “Spanish Family.” Not exactly “The Heights of Machu Picchu,” I thought, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Maybe I’d hit on a Juarez radio station where I could listen to the news and upgrade my Spanish.

Nothing is simple anymore. Nada. Next thing I knew Jesus, Mary and Joseph appeared before me, incarnated in simple line drawings. Arrows indicated choices, and too many. I could click on the creed, the Our Father, the Gloria, a Hail Mary and more.

I clicked. A voice came forth. It spoke Spanish. It proceeded to instruct me in the finer points of the mysteries of the holy rosary.

The recitation began. The voice recited the first half of the Hail Mary. A group chimed in on the final, Santa Maria madre de dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte, amen.

I yanked my hands back from the keys. Should I close my eyes? Should I pray along? Should I call AOL and tell them off? I examined my motives. As usual, they were mixed.

I could pray the rosary, offering it up for my friends and their various ailments, an activity I believe should be central to Catholic spiritual practice.

Or I could bypass God altogether and recite the rosary the way one downs a shot of tequila: for the sheer pleasure of it, for the linguistic rush of reciting what I long ago memorized but that tastes better each time it touches the tongue.

Nothing in the catechism prepared me for this, I thought, appreciating how each generation must rewrite the rules when technology encroaches anew on spirituality. Back in Grandma’s time, the St. Joseph’s Daily Missal let it be known that she could say the rosary while driving; even if you don’t have beads in hand, you can still deduct days from purgatory, so long as the beads are “on your person,” said the instruction.

I considered grabbing my mother’s first Communion rosary, which I keep by my bed. For all I knew, people around the Spanish-speaking world were seeking enlightenment together at this very moment. I looked at the clock in the corner of my computer. The hour was late.

Suddenly my motives became pure as light. I wanted out of the sorrowful mysteries. Now. My bed was calling. If there was holiness to be had, I’d tune in tomorrow.

I pointed, clicked and closed screens repeatedly. Somehow my e-mail screen reappeared. Time to sign off.

But the voice, which I’d found weirdly monotone, did not respond to my mouse. It went on like something out of a horror movie. The rosary was reciting itself.

For 10 minutes I pressed buttons, fearful that the computer was on the verge of a breakdown. I was getting anxious if not sick. I remembered to breathe. “Either we are witnessing a miracle,” I announced, “or else I mucked things up badly.”

“I’m not quite sure what you did,” my friend said. “But that was no radio station. It’s a program that you downloaded. You can toss it in your computer’s trashcan.”

Nothing in the catechism prepared me for that one either. It may be just a program, but it was the rosary, after all. Oh technology! I remembered the uproar with the advent of televised Masses. Did it cheapen the meaning of Mass? Did it fulfill Sunday obligation?

The line of questioning still holds. Can mystery light up our lives if it has to pass first through a screen -- TV or computer?

I’ll leave these ponderings to the theologians. For now, I’ll play it safe and savor the greatest mystery of them all: that I can stick a message in a bottle and toss it into the great cybersea, and somewhere, near or far, a friend receives it and responds.

Thank heaven for e-mail.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001