When we read the literature of spirituality, we vicariously experience the inner journeys of others. We absorb Henri Nouwen’s spiritual discoveries in The Genesee Diary, for example, without entering a Trappist monastery for seven months, as did Nouwen.

Vicarious spirituality, I submit, is neither good nor bad in and of itself. Its moral status depends on its function in our spiritual lives. It can be detrimental when it precludes our own spiritual pursuits; it can be beneficial when it spurs us forward and guides us by the reins of maturity.

The danger of vicarious spirituality occurred to me through two recent experiences. By gracious providence I shared a train to New York with Henri Nouwen. In an unusual display of boldness I moved to the seat next to Nouwen and enjoyed a delightful conversation. But my surprise in seeing him was exceeded by my surprise at friends’ reactions to the episode. I found great envy, even mock resentment of my fortune. I had brushed with spiritual greatness, and didn’t even get an autograph! One friend confided that she had read every word published by Nouwen but had rarely experienced anything new in her spiritual life. How close we are, I thought, to having heroes who live our spiritual lives for us.

Later, in directing an internship program for college students, I had the students read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. When we gathered to discuss the book, I was shocked to hear that my interns wanted to fast for a week—and to have me join them. I expected our reading about fasting—vicarious spirituality—to take the place of real fasting. How surprised I was by my interns’ desire to transcend secondhand knowledge. How disturbed I was ...

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