Yesterday, a student asked to speak with me privately after class. The student seemed to be hiding the fact that s/he was upset. I figured that s/he had a family emergency of some sort, maybe someone had died or worse (and there have been worse). Instead, with a slight tremor, the student said, "God wants you to know that he really loves you."
"Oh crap," I thought, "conversion alert! That, or s/he's going to object to something I said in class."
Not at all. "God wants me to tell you that he really loves you, but there is a dark presence following you." S/he shook his/her head, trying to find the right words.
"A dark presence?" I asked.
"Yes," s/he said, "like something bad is going to happen."
This student was sincerely worried. So much so that I couldn't even think of anything glib or even reassuring to say. I couldn't admit to being a non-believer because s/he seemed so disturbed by this vision.
Instead, I wanted to know how s/he was experiencing this event. "Do you see something? Maybe a cloud?"
The student struggled for words. "It's like...it's a presence, a bad presence...I don't know. I don't have the words for it." S/he looked straight at me, "God just wants you to know that he really loves you and that you should pray. You should say the rosary." The student reached into his/her pocket and pulled out his/her own. S/he held it out to me, "here, take mine if you need it."
I blinked and looked at the rosary. "That's OK," I said. "I have my own." (I didn't say that it was plastic and pink and purchased at a gift shop at the Amtrak station. That seemed profoundly disrespectful.)
I told the student that s/he was very sweet to be so concerned. I thanked the student sincerely and promised to pray. I honestly meant it, too. Then we went our separate ways.
Now, I know in reading this, many people will think "whoa! Yipes!" Atheist that I am, I still cannot bring myself to think something derogatory or sarcastic or at all negative about this encounter. The student seemed very affected by this vision that s/he had. I respect that. Down to my very guts I respect that; but I have no idea what to do with this information. I have no ideological box in which to put it.
The scientific side of my mind wonders if this is a mental illness. The anthropological side of my mind wonders how the student is experiencing this, what the student sees, how the student fits this into his/her own cosmology, what his/her own cosmology involves. The part of me that is in Jungian analysis tries to discern the the archetypes in this, and relate it to the cloud of past abuse and melancholia that actually is following me, then make a story from it. That same part wonders about this student's archetypes and how they affect the way s/he functions in the world. The teacher in me wondered what my responsibilities toward this student might be. How should I react as a teacher?*
I confess that I did tell my chair what happened, mostly because I didn't quite know how to react. That's the reason that I'm writing about it here, despite my uneasiness in talking about it at all. I do know that the very wrong reaction is sarcasm and cynicism; and I'm actually surprised at myself by the absence of both of those in my response since sarcasm and cynicism are my default.
As an individual, the encounter felt like I had walked into a different world. I live in a world in which I search for facts and understanding. There is no spiritual mystery. This student lives in a world in which there are mysteries. At no point did this student seem to assume that I don't believe in a god. In fact, the student seemed to presume that I was Catholic. The student didn't seem to want to bludgeon me with religion, which is the way that I've experienced most religious people -- they want to assert a moral authority that I don't recognize. Instead, this student just seemed very concerned about my welfare.
This student lives in a different cosmology from my own, in one in which people have visions, and in which malevolent spirits can exert force upon the material world. For a moment, I felt as if I had entered his world, alien to mine. It was jarring.
I still have no idea what to do with this encounter.
*I actually feel a little uneasy blogging about it, as if I'm violating privacy. I will delete if the consensus is that it is a violation.