“For all ministers are called to recognize the sufferings of their time in their own hearts, and make to that recognition the starting point of their service.”
— Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932–1996)
Through four open doors does Nouwen invite the minister, in exploring their own intrinsic contribution, as a putty to be moulded, through the hands of God’s Spirit, for the healing of others, not in spite of, but because of their own wounds.
The wounded healer has experienced God’s healing their own wounds, and through that experience they help. Theirs is the embodiment of presence, as in the Presence of God. The experience of healing transforms, not simply for the moment, but forever.
Although Nouwen wrote The Wounded Healer in 1972, as postmodernism was starting, it has stark relevance in this age, perhaps more so.
1. Ministry in a Dislocated World
Perhaps it is the case that since the industrial revolution began there has been dislocation on a common scale. People feel estranged from safety because family structures and familiarity have been devastated. It’s like we’re in a second fall. As a society, we’ve chosen to taste that apple; to depart from a simple reliance on the land.
Such a quest for knowledge means we run exhausted into the inexhaustible futility of our existence, because somehow, we’ve lost touch with the God of hope and meaning.
It’s strange that what is typical of living in a dislocated world is not despair, but a lack of hope. Something is missing that we feel should be there. Our quest for enlightenment means we’re “caught in the prison of our own mortality.” (p. 19)
Ministry in this dislocated world context comes out of the knowledge that knowledge is not enough, and indeed takes us in the wrong direction. There is unity and spiritual progress is wonder and exploration, in breaking past a legalistic faith and regimented thinking.
2. Ministry for the Rootless Generations
It’s not just today’s youth that may appear rootless; that consternation has been experienced by youth for some generations now. It’s a fact that should, in the wounded healer, unify us. It’s an opportunity for the older wounded healer to connect with those looking for direction. It’s a prospect for the younger wounded healer to relate with their frail and elderly.
As we gaze into the eyes of those we meet, what do we find? Resignation, hope, despair, vision? Chances are it’s a different thing we’ll see.
Chances are the people we’ll encounter in ministry have an inwardness that is difficult to connect with, a fatherlessness that stems from the breakdown of the family unit, and a destructive convulsiveness that emanates from a lack of inherent vision. It is only as we connect with these lacks within ourselves, and promise to minister through what God changes in us as we accept these facts, that we can help ameliorate these conundrums in others.
The wounded healer is not at war with the modern constraints placed on them in their ministry. They absorb the constraints and become them. They use the very constraints that seem there only to frustrate and they create space for articulation. They teach others how to name their inner events.
The pastoral conversation, then, is about risking; articulating the truth so that people can experience clarity, which in turn delivers hope.
Where pastors have authority, compassion must become “the core, and the nature,” of that authority. “For a compassionate person nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.” (p. 45) Compassionate persons offer and allow space for human experience, and the free expression of those experiences, with validation and encouragement, for surely it’s inspiring when human experience can be vocalised and reflected upon, where meaning can be made. It’s the compassionate person who has reconciled their own bitterness, and who may therefore open the doors of others’ narrow-mindedness. Never through telling, but by incarnational example.
Prayer underpins the person in whom God dwells constantly. And such a person is able to, as a contemplative analyst, render to persons who are willing, the spiritual therapies of God — those that are known by the help made manifest in that person by their own assessment.
3. Ministry to Hopeless Persons
… not that they are hopeless at all, but their perception is of hopelessness.
Leadership, according to Nouwen, is “the encounter between two people.” (p. 55) In the interaction of John Allen, the theology student, with Mr. Harrison, the dying patient, Nouwen shows us that it’s only when we enter the paradox that we are effective at all in this mysterious of all practices: ministry.
The way out of pain into the gorgeousness of healing, for the leader, is also the way back in… “only by entering into communion with human suffering can relief be found.” (p. 83) In this is found the point of hopelessness; that suffering and struggle provide the very impetus to healing.
If there were no grating, excruciating rock bottom there’d be no highway into the vistas of the beautiful unknowns ahead.
4. Ministry by a Lonely Minister
Instead of denying or neglecting our loneliness, Nouwen commends us to accept it, for whatever pain is embraced is also redeemable in the untold blessings of God.
A minister is no help to others in spiritual exhibitionism (“Oh, I have the same problem; let me tell you about it”) because they lead the person to perhaps the same narrow-minded acceptance of what cannot be transformed into something creative. But a minister who has ventured intrepidly and painfully into their loneliness has sought God in that place, and in that deeper milieu they’ve heard God whisper inaudibly into the soul of their spirit. Such a minister can help, because they open a door for another to step into; that doorway leads to a new path of awakening by the Spirit of God, and God’s actual Presence is learned there in a way no other way works. To such an experience the lonely minister is conversant. They use no other way, for why would we entertain revelry when the true way beckons? The use of loneliness is as essential for healing as oxygen is for breathing.
The Liberator does not promise to lift us out of the doldrums. Instead He sits there with us, with the poor, the feeble, the maimed, and helps us wrap our own wounds. In that, and in not being lifted out of the conundrums of our lives, is healing.
Healing comes not from running from our loneliness, but in making a home for it.
Quotations from The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society.