Embraced by the Virtual Body of Christ

Deanna A. Thompson

I have to admit that in life before cancer, I had a dim view of the internet’s ability to bring people together. Living and working with others who are constantly connected to digital tools left me skeptical that any new relational depth was being plumbed through our wired lives.

Then I got sick. Really sick. In a matter of months, I went from being a healthy forty-one-year-old religion professor, wife, and mother of two to a near-invalid with a broken back, a stage IV cancer diagnosis, and a grim prognosis for the future.

To keep family and friends updated during the early days following the diagnosis, my brother created a Caring Bridge site for me, a website dedicated to connecting people who have serious illnesses with those who care about them. News of my diagnosis spread quickly. Just as quickly, loved ones signed up to receive my Caring Bridge postings. From my narration of what stage IV cancer had done to my body to the grief of having to resign from my very full and wonderful life, each of my posts was met with dozens of postings to the Caring Bridge site, as well as additional emails, cards, packages, visits, and calls from people from all corners of my life. I started to realize that through our connectedness via Caring Bridge, I was being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses greater than any I could have imagined before.

Thus it is through this cancer journey that I’ve been awakened to a new – indeed, almost mystical – understanding of the church universal, mediated through what I’ve come to call the virtual body of Christ: that is, the body of Christ incarnated in, with, and through the power of sites like Caring Bridge.

Now let me be clear: I’m not trying to sound sentimental or issue some feel-good platitude about how cancer has made me more appreciative of the value of community.

What I’m talking about is a new understanding of the church universal, a breathtakingly broad embodiment of Christ’s hands and feet ministering to me and my family during our walk through the valley of the shadow of cancer.

This experience of the virtual body of Christ has also gifted me with a fresh appreciation of the ecu- menical character of church catholicity. Prompted by my entries on the Caring Bridge site, many of my friends from the Roman Catholic tradition – the church that holds most tightly to this notion of universality – have embodied Christ to me in stun- ning ways. I’ve had Mass dedicated to me across the globe. I’ve been given a medallion blessed and sent on to me by a priest friend. These traditions of dedicating, blessing, and honoring – traditions that make rare appearances in our Protestant expressions of church – have made their mark on my soul.

But there’s still more to say about the universal nature of the church. I’ve become convinced that the church universal extends even further, beyond the bounds of Christian communities to include those of other faiths and even those of no particular faith.

Take the grace bestowed upon me by one of my agnostic Jewish colleagues. Shortly after she returned from a trip to Israel, she sent me an email about how my postings on Caring Bridge had become a source of inspiration to her. Spurred on by my story, she had even gone out on a limb and attempted to pray herself.

She then told me she had visited several churches in Israel, and in each one, she sat down and prayed, asking Jesus for a favor: that he might consider healing her friend with cancer.

While such embodiments of grace flowing from the virtual body of Christ continue to take my breath away, I also must confess that Caring Bridge has not been a wholly unproblematic tool. For instance, friends and acquaintances have told me how much they love my Caring Bridge site – but of course I wish to God I didn’t need one. When I could not find the words to express and post my despair over my new life, I heard from some well-meaning folks who said I needed to post because they needed to hear how I was doing. There are moments when Caring Bridge becomes for readers like any other social networking site. But for me, a vehicle for updating others on life with stage IV cancer will never be just about social networking. 

Even with its potential pitfalls, my life – as it is lifted by the ongoing love, prayers, and support of so many – is living testimony that God’s saving grace continues to work through our humble human creations. Thanks be to God for the internet. 

Deanna Thompson is professor of religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. She is the author of Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism and the Cross (Fortress 2004) and of a theological commentary on Deuteronomy (Westminster John Knox, forthcoming 2012). She is a Lutheran theologian who writes and speaks widely on the intersections of Lutheran and feminist thought. See also www.caringbridge.org/visit/deannathompson