Artist designs virtual chapel and talks about conversion

The first part of your virtual cathedral is called Compassion. What is it?

Michael Samyn • The idea is very simple: I wanted to create a virtual reality experience from a traditional one pieta. The user plays the role of Mary. So you sit there with your son’s corpse on your lap. Christianity aside, it’s already a very catchy scene. It shouldn’t even be God lying there, your son is horrible enough.

Like our games, I don’t make these VR things to get a message out into the world, but to think about something, to discover something.

I also create that scene for myself, to explore what it’s really about.

You need a headset to experience that scene.

Michael Samyn • Yes, because of that thing on your head, you can no longer see normal space. You only see the virtual space. It is a very strange feeling. Very different from, for example, a game on a screen, where you still have to imagine that you are in another world. With virtual reality, you don’t have to imagine anything, you are there. Then you can also start playing with the room.

In Compassion, the room is divided into two parts, and you sit in the middle. You see absolutely nothing in front of you. Black. For me, it was an expression of the mother’s grief.

You see the dead Jesus lying in your lap. You can only lift it a little and as soon as you do, it disappears. Then you sit alone, in the dark and it also starts to rain. haha.

If you look behind you, you will see a beautiful landscape. In it appears a cross held by cherubs. A little kitsch.

Looking behind you all the time is awe-inspiring, of course, but if you turn around, you’re back in the dark.

It was a very difficult process to reach this result, but I was very happy with it. Because I could cry. With that VR helmet on, no one can see it. I felt pretty hopeless at the time, about my relationship, the pandemic, the climate, the economy… All I could do was cry.

The dead Jesus symbolized for me the lost dream. We could have had God, but now he is dead, we could have had the beautiful landscape, but alas, it is not for us.

My atheistic interpretation was an agreement with the song that God is dead, but mainly to say: it’s sad, such a shame!

You made this pieta as an atheist, you say, but you didn’t stay that way. How did it come about?

Michael Samyn • In that gloomy state of mind, I received a message from my ex in Rome that my son in Belgium needed emergency surgery to remove a tumor in his brain. Due to the shutdown I could not go back to Belgium.

On the day of the operation, I walked through the empty streets of Rome and said to myself: I will enter the first church that is open. Visiting churches is not unusual for me. Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini was open. I go in and make the sign of the cross for the first time in my life. There was no one in the church, because yes, pandemic, except for a dove fluttering in the dome.

At that moment I had the feeling that I heard someone talking to me. I had a conversation with a very cheerful person. I knelt and my invisible interlocutor began to laugh.

Very quickly I thought: I am having a conversation with God.

The next day I went to a church again to chat. Eventually I started thinking: chatting is definitely not praying, right? haha.

After a week or two, during one of these conversations, I wondered:

– But do I really think so?

– Yes, you think!

– What?! In everything, in angels and saints and all that stuff.

– Yes! Yes!

haha. I was really surprised! I hadn’t thought about the consequences.

Besides, I’m willing to admit that it was all in my imagination, but to me it makes no difference.

At one point I also wondered: How do I know it’s God I’m talking to? For the same money, it’s the devil, because he tells me all kinds of things that I want to hear. The voice answered me: If you want to know if it’s the devil or God, go to church.

Then I started looking at the Catholic Church, reading the catechism, researching views and things like that.

How did you relate to the church?

Michael Samyn • It wasn’t so obvious. The Church sometimes complains that too few people attend Mass and that she needs more evangelization.

But I was ready: hey, here I am, I believe in God, I will do anything for it… Where could I go? No idea.

The only advice people gave me was to talk to a priest. Not obvious. Finally I found a church where I would like to go to mass regularly, the Basilica dei Santi Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso on the main shopping street in Rome.

A day after mass, the priest said that the catechesis classes would start. I was immediately a candidate. Finally, I wanted to learn something about faith!

After the first lesson, I asked the pastor if we could talk about those things. Then we met regularly. Don Pierluigi is a very intelligent man, with a sense of humor and a sense of poetry. These conversations then led to my “general confession”, so to speak. Now I still see him regularly, for a combination of conversation and confession.

How did those around you react to your conversion?

Michael Samyn • On my birthday, I asked my wife as a present to listen to me. We then sat down for a few hours and I told my whole story, my faith is also known. She gave a lot of support. She even bought me a rosary and later a reproduction of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation.

She had a lot of questions about it, because she also thought it was a little suspicious. From her atheistic-progressive point of view, the distance from the church was very great.

But she has found an entrance through her interest in history. She began to read a lot about religion in the Roman Empire, including listening to the Bible through the Hallow app. And she followed Father Mike Schmitz’s podcast and read the Bible in a year.

Her franc dropped when she read about Jesus on the cross saying, ‘God, why have you forsaken me?’ Not that he says that, was to her mind blowingbut that it is a quotation from a hymn: there is a man who dies, and he tells a story!

In the meantime, she is on her way to being baptized and entering the catechumenate. I’m a little envious of that. There is a formula for meetings and activities. It’s guaranteed that you know what it’s all about. While I’ve been baptized, attended Catholic schools, and received my Holy Communion, that doesn’t mean I understand it all.

Fortunately, we now live in a time where you can easily find a lot of information. I spend a lot of time on YouTube listening to all kinds of people, but whether it’s good advice or bad advice, I don’t know. haha. It amazes me how active Christians are on social media.

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