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Vicarious Spirituality

It hit me as I was reading the first journals handed in by students in a course I am teaching.  Although I generally don’t think about it this way, I realized in a way I am forcing students to engage spiritual issues.  “Forcing” is a heavy word.  It makes me a little uneasy when I see myself as being “forceful.”  After all, I try to make my classes as full of choice and voluntary as I can. 

I am forcing the students just because they are taking the class.  I suppose if one is going to be forced, this is about the most benign way force can happen.  I certainly am not coercing any of them to take the class.  But if they sign on for the class, then they are going to have to engage in some spiritual exploration and spiritual work.  The hope is that engagement will lead to spiritual growth and development.  I do not map out what the spiritual growth and development has to be.  In fact, different people will develop in very different ways.

It hit me that I ask the students to engage a spiritual process and assume that there will be some spiritual growth and development, but I do not necessarily go that route myself.  Instead, I can vicariously participate in their growth and development.  Maybe I should pause at the word, “vicarious.”  I know I never heard that word when I was growing up.  Maybe I learned it in college.  But perhaps I never really encountered it until graduate school.

Basically, “vicarious” means that one experiences something sympathetically through the experience of another person.  It means that I do not really go through something; I go through something by watching someone else go through it.  For example, I might think about being involved as a princess in a royal wedding by watching the royal wedding at Westminster with one of the English royalty.  I am a princess vicariously.

Perhaps a more common vicarious experience comes in the sports world.  So many parents are involved vicariously in their kids’ sports.  We want the son to be a world-class quarterback on the football team so that father figures can be that quarterback vicariously.  Countless sons and daughters have suffered from crazed sports parents who are living someone else’s dreams.

This is what hit me, as I was reading those journals.  I have little question but that they are experiencing some significant spiritual upheaval, growth, development, and so on.  Their journals ring with authenticity, honesty, and hope.  Many of them come alive.  They face problems and, sometimes, conquer fears.  Occasionally someone even goes through heroic struggles only to emerge as a saint-in-the-making.  Truly sometimes the process is amazing.

My concern is that I am doing spirituality vicariously.  I am having spiritual experiences vicariously through the experiences of others.  It is easy to kid myself that great things are happening in my life.  It may actually be that nothing is happening in my life---certainly not great things.  But great things may be happening in the student’s life and I participate vicariously.  Their experience is real; my experience is a facsimile.

We don’t use the word, facsimile, any more.  Instead, we use the word “fax.  I can send you a “fax” if you give me the phone number.  A “fax” is an exact copy.  In the business world that is efficient and effective.  Send me a “fax” and I have the document and can proceed.

But in the spiritual realm, I need to be wary of the “fax.”  If I am participating vicariously in someone else’s spiritual experience, then I am “faxing.”  I have a copy of their experience, but it is not real---it is not the original!  It is a cheating way to be spiritual.  It is a pretension.  It is a kind of spiritual voyeurism.  It is spiritual plagiarism---spiritual copycatting!

I want to be able to enjoy the power and profundity of the college-age student on his or her own spiritual journey.  But I don’t want to take the easy way out and become spiritual only vicariously.  I want to engage my own journey.  I need to suffer my own pains and setbacks.  I need to experience my own mountaintops and glories.

I want to be free to support the other people’s spiritual odyssey, but not neglect my own.  I revel in the fact that I get to read about their experiences.  But I need to attend to my own.  I want to be able to give what I ask for, namely, to engage, reflect, and live into the fullness of all God wants us to be.

God does not want me vicariously---no vicarious spiritually.  God wants the real me and the real you.

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