This week, America has been introduced to the term “Catfishing”: that is, when someone makes a fake online profile in order to seduce another person. It’s apparently become a very widespread problem. We all suddenly took notice of it when the news broke on Wednesday that Manti Te’o, a star football player for Notre Dame, is apparently the victim of a very elaborate “catfishing” scheme. It seems that Manti fell in love with a girl who never existed. For reasons that are still unclear, someone created a “woman” named “Lennay Kekua”, made “her” a Facebook and a Twitter, and “borrowed” the face of an attractive acquaintance to seduce Manti into an online relationship. It seems that Manti considered “Lennay” his girlfriend, only learning that she never existed a few weeks ago.
And it probably would have stayed a private heartbreak for Manti… except that he told the entire nation about his phantom sweetheart. He passed on to many a journalist what he himself seems to have believed about her: that she died of cancer in September. Her “tragic death” seems to have provided him the motivation he needed to lead his team to this year’s national championship game. Now it seems that the phrase “fake dead girlfriend” is destined to be a part of American parlance, and Manti’s friends and teammates are left to wonder whether their wildly successful season was pushed along by a lie.
How does this sort of thing happen? How do you “fall in love” with a woman you’ve never even met?
At first glance, “catfishing” seems like a particularly post-modern phenomenon… the internet age has definitely exaggerated the Gnostic tendencies that American culture inherited from the Puritans. Everything that happens in cyberspace has been exalted above what happens in the physical world: ask any teenager, and he’ll tell you that a girl isn’t really your girlfriend, no matter how many dates you’ve been on, until it’s “facebook official”–i.e., you’ve both updated your relationship statuses on the relevant social media sites. And it would be a mistake to think that this is limited to the romantic arena: you can have thousands of “friends” social media sites, you can start a successful online business, you can take care of all your family’s grocery shopping on a website, you can even attend an “e-church,” all from the comfort of your living room. We haven’t completely eliminated your need to inhabit physical space and time, but goshdarnit, we’re close, and as good Manichean-Americans that absolutely thrills us.
Through that lens, Manti’s heartbreak couldn’t have happened in any previous era. But I wonder if “catfishing” isn’t just the latest manifestation of a deeply human problem. Maybe we all know we need true love, but we can’t seem to look at it face-to-face…
In his very last novel, Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis said after the novel’s publication that the myth had always haunted him, and that he had been trying to write the novel for over 35 years…
The story goes that Psyche is the most beautiful woman in the world. Her great beauty arouses the jealousy of both her sisters and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Aphrodite orders that Psyche be presented as a human sacrifice to her son, Cupid. Instead of killing Psyche, Cupid takes her as his wife. But they have an unusual marriage: Psyche is forbidden from seeing Cupid’s face. He comes to her only at night, his image hidden by the darkness. Psyche’s sister tells her that Cupid is probably not even a god, that he must be some sort of monster, otherwise he would not hide his face. When Psyche has the audacity to try and see her husband’s face, she is banished forver from the castle in which she has lived with him.
I think that when we’re honest with ourselves, we admit that we’re sometimes terribly afraid that God might be all too much like Cupid. We’re scared that He won’t let us see Him because He’s hiding some awful truth from us… that maybe His face isn’t so beautiful when beheld in the light. That maybe love is only a hoax, and the people in our lives only shadows.
And so, like Eve our mother and Psyche our sister, we feel as though we’ve been cast out forever. And we can all identify with Manti Te’o a little more than we care to admit, even as the media casts him out into the darkness of infamy. We may not seek solace in online dating, we may not all be so easily duped, but we all have a terrible longing to go home, to be in the presence of someone who truly loves us…
The book of Genesis tells us that after Adam and Eve sinned, they hid themselves from God. They were ashamed to be seen naked. The darkness of sin had robbed them of “real life”–they could no longer be face-to-face with their Lord. Mankind was cast out of the Garden of fellowship with God, and forced to speak with Him from afar.
Throughout most of the rest of human history, we had a long-distance relationship with God. As He told Moses, no man could see His face and live. The Prophets told us over and over again that the Almighty loved us… but it’s hard to feel loved when you are living in the darkness of your own sin, unable to catch even a glimpse of your soul’s true love.
But then, in these last days, the Divinity came down to us–and we beheld the “image of the invisible God.” His name was called Immanuel, “God with us.” God’s love could not be hidden by darkness forever, and so Love Himself came in the flesh, born of a beautiful Woman.
And it’s of this truth that we must remind ourselves in the internet age. As Catholics do not worship Cupid: we are servants of the Eucharistic Lord, the True Light. As the world hides online in fear, we come out of the shadows and into the reality of His love. The gnostic lies of the world wide web are repudiated once and for all by the Word made flesh.
In the age of social networking, we need the truth the Incarnation. In the days of “catfishing”, we must cling to the Real Presence. When all the rest of the world is chasing after a “Lennay Kekua”, we can sit at the feet of our true Mother, whose courage undid Eve’s fear, making it so that, once again, we can see and touch the face of God.