Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
The ubiquitous nature of the selfie has reached a point of becoming comedic. This summer during a baseball game, a number of young women took five or so minutes of selfies, not once looking up to see what was going on during the game. When traveling on planes, it has become normal to see a seatmate pull up her sweatshirt hood, purse her lips, and snap away. Thousands of tourists throughout Rome purchase the selfie stick so that they can take pictures of themselves in front of famous churches, sharing with the world that they were there (yet perhaps never really looking at the church in the first place, only at their own image).
The comedy of the selfie, of course, became less comedic several weeks ago when a young women, Essena O’Neill, revealed the kind of idolatry that the practice had produced in her. O’Neill declared to her followers:
I’m quitting Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr. Deleted over 2000 photos here today that served no real purpose other than self promotion. Without realising, I’ve spent majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance…Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self absorbed judgement. I was consumed by it.
The selfie, for Ms. O’Neill, was a form of self-worship, an adoration of an image that she could present to her online peers for their consumption. Rather than elicit happiness in her, Ms. O’Neill discovered again and again the surprising emptiness of a like, a favorite, a star. The heart longed for further likes, further adoration to take place. And the constant work of “creating the selfie” never ceased.
In fact, there is a sense in which much use of social media (whether employing imagery or not) is the creation of selfies for other’s adoration. Even photo-phobic academics tweet out their ideas, longing not simply to participate in conversations but to increase their followers, develop their brand, to be favorited and liked and re-tweeted for all the world to see (sometimes at the expense of the truth and charity alike). The person who tweets their wisdom to the world delights at being noticed by those with prominence, in some way becoming a more important self in the process. I matter because my thoughts have been recognized, acknowledged, taken up by others. I matter. This approach to social media gradually takes over one’s life such that every moment of one’s day is no longer an occasion for contemplation, for existence in the world, but a chance to tweet something out that will increase one’s self-image. The world becomes a house of idols.
This kind of selfie worship (whether of an image or thought) is ruining our capacity for liturgical prayer. In liturgy, we do not create a self before God, seeking to be recognized as beautiful, smart, talented, etc.; rather, we give up on the project of self-creation to begin with. We are to become selfless, which does not mean that we are to hate ourselves. Rather, we are to see the self as fully flourishing insofar as we adore the living God.
In this way, we must see liturgical worship as a form of “play,” which is radically distinct from selfie-worship. To create the selfie may look like play; but often enough the use of the selfie is really a conscious way of constructing a self-image for others to enjoy. Whereas in our celebration of the liturgy:
The practice of the liturgy means that by the help of grace, under the guidance of the Church, we grow into living works of art before God, with no other aim or purpose than that of living and existing in his sight; it means fulfilling God’s Word and ‘becoming as little children’; it means foregoing maturity with all its purposefulness, and confining oneself to play, as David did when he danced before the Ark…The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeless activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking ‘why’? and ‘wherefore’? It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God (Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 71-72).
The goal of liturgy is not self-creation, self-formation, self-adoration but self-emptying love. It is to learn to be who we are before God–a redeemed sinner, still learning to utter truthful words of praise to the triune God, who is total gift.
Perhaps, here, the novelist David Foster Wallace in his work Infinite Jest is prescient. We seem to have entered a time in which the goal is not the presentation of a real image of ourselves, of who we are, but a product and a brand that others can admire. It is only those in the house of recovery in Infinite Jest, who can see themselves truthfully. They are the ones capable of love, of giving up on the project of self-projection to begin with. In the midst of the recovering addict, who has given up the project of creating a unique self apart from all others, do you find the possibility of salvation.
The liturgical rites of the Church also offer this possibility. The goal of our prayer is a halfway house for the selfie-loving soul, moving us away from the kind of self-adoration that infects the present human condition. We stand before the living God and acknowledge not simply that we are a sinner but that our flourishing is only possible through the grace we receive at the holy altar. The liturgy forms us not to hate ourselves, to despise our bodies. But instead to stand before God as we are, to give up on the project of creating the perfect self. We play before the living God, offering words of lament and praise, words that we did not create, discovering in the process an identity that we did not know was ours to begin with. We see our restlessness for what it is. Not something to be stopped, ceased at all costs. But the very driver of desire, which enable us to recognize who we really are: creatures made to praise and adore the living God.
Follow Tim on Twitter (ironic in light of topic of article): @NDLiturgyCenter