“In our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.”
— Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932 – 1996)
From the first moment I read Henri Nouwen I knew his mind would influence mine. Of the pastor-writers who have shaped me most, Nouwen has loomed largest, besides Eugene Peterson and A.W. Tozer. The Wounded Healer is Nouwen’s seminal work, par excellence. Originally written in 1972, like the best books, its message is timeless.
Here is a brief sweep through the masterpiece:
Through four open doors we can view The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. These open doors are appreciative and lead us to concepts of ministry that are expansive by design. Walking through open doorways in ministry always leads us to more questions than answers, such is the nature of the helping life, or life for that matter.
DOORWAY ONE – the Condition of a Suffering World
When Nouwen introduces us to Peter in this first foray, we find ourselves meeting someone who, in being a normal man, struggles to differentiate fantasy from reality. He is not ill so much as dislocated historically and fragmented ideologically; a thinking, feeling person somewhat significantly estranged from his world, taunted by an identification with immortality proving he’s made in the image of an eternal God.
Thankfully Nouwen shows us that Christ amalgamates, and then transcends, the mystical tensions that seem to make no sense. In a radicalised passion we’re able to see with the eyes of God and hear His voice, such that dislocation and fragmentation are accepted as part of living in the world that we’re happy to live in, yet apart from.
From this doorway, then, we see what God wants us to see — the fields are right for harvest; opportunities for ministry abound!
DOORWAY TWO – the Condition of a Suffering Generation
Who are the people of today, and the people of tomorrow?
The mode of loneliness is observed in the younger generation coming through. I often think of those coming through — not least my daughters entering and living in their twenties. It’s a tragic irony that children pine to be adult one day, then the moment adulthood arrives, so does the revelation, ‘this is a hard life’. Any thinking, feeling person must empathise with the loneliness that accompanies a young person’s wake-up call, and the depression that accompanies their facing of raw reality.
Nouwen cites three characteristics of the ‘lonely crowd’ endemic of the seventies generation, which is somewhat emblematic of any younger generation. The seventies young person, according to Nouwen, was hemmed in by inwardness, they were fatherless, and they were impinged by a convulsiveness.
The minister of a ‘rootless generation’ will be an articulator of inner events, skilled in reflection, having mastered their own inwardness. Articulation is the key unlocking inwardness, making it expressible. Compassion is the resolution that the fatherless need. It affords an empowered position of enablement to others because it avoids both pity and sympathy, for empathy. Compassion is… finding “our neighbour really is our fellow human being,” with which we feel safe, as an equal. (p. 45)
This is a quote I’ve always liked: “For a compassionate person nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.” (p. 45) All experience fits within the realm of acceptance. Such comfort to be!
Being afforded articulation and compassion, the effective minister may be able to be a contemplative critic: in seeing things differently, and being informed, spiritually, they’re able to inform, through the embodiment of the Incarnation. There is the ability to stay at an effective distance, whilst being able to come close with intimacy. Such a minister is not ‘trying’ to do anything in the ministry space. They’re not won to every political agenda, but are won alone to the mystery of Christ in their own experience, and to the extension of that experience in others’ lives they’re invited to help within.
“Contemplatives are not needy or greedy for human contact, but are guided by a vision of what they have seen beyond the trivial concerns of a progressive world.” (p.49)
This is a doorway into an empathy of connection with those in the emerging generation.
DOORWAY THREE – the Condition of a Suffering Humanity
Enter Mr. Harrison, and John Allen, who is completing his clinical-pastoral education. These two interacted the day before Mr. Harrison suddenly died, in the operating theatre. John was initially pretty upset that Mr. Harrison was an unhelpful patient, who didn’t appreciate the ministry that was being given to him. But, with a little distance, new insight emerged — crucial insight if we’re to transcend the need to be enjoyed so we might help.
Entering a suffering humanity necessitates that we go past the impersonal, revealed in our selfishness, and go into the personal realms of another person’s experience. Mr. Harrison feared death, and yet John was not able to initially (or effectively) connect with such a palpable fear. Then there is the paradox for many in the fear for life. An awkward ground emerges: neither life nor death offers a suitable solution for some, for many. Some people, indeed many, are sick of life and afraid to die, or they’re afraid to live. How do we minister into such spaces?
What seems a conundrum is an invitation into a personal, very human ministry.
“The emptiness of the past and the future can never be filled with words, but only by the presence of a human being.” (p. 69)
In this sense, our best ministry into especially broken spaces is a ministry that doesn’t try at all. It is just a ministry of presence, of being personal, of giving peace through connection. No or few words.
Sometimes the best we can give is to just be prepared to wait with people as they live, and to wait with people as they die.
This is a doorway into the presence of connection with a suffering human being.
DOORWAY FOUR – the Condition of a Suffering Minister
To this doorway, we ministers walk in, some with relief, and some apprehensively, but all to be blessed.
“… the paradox of Christian leadership is that the way out is also the way in, that only by entering into communion with human suffering can relief be found.” (p. 83)
At this point we enter the nexus of the wounded healer’s method: they bind their own wounds one at a time, continually, so they’re perfectly adept at dropping their own binding in order to help someone else bind their wounds; to bind by example.
We’re encouraged to enter into our loneliness, our suffering, our laments — encouraged, as it’s necessary. A personal and a professional loneliness; to understand that in loneliness is our identification with our Saviour. “The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift.” (p. 90)
By professional loneliness is meant that ministers enter into the loneliest of vocations. We often feel superfluous to the real needs of others, especially when we may desperately feel ‘I could help!’ Then we’re praised excessively, but not nearly enough for our egos, but far too much to be helpful for us, making our loneliness worse. Somehow our ‘call’ must say to us that we are relevant and effective, in God’s eyes.
When Nouwen speaks of pastoral method, the minister as a champion of his or her own loneliness, he speaks paradoxically of hospitality. With a person we’re helping we must withdraw enough that they would feel open to talk. Yet we must also validate their experience by speaking at times of our own broken experiences, and in this we will promote a community of equality and oneness of humanity.
This is a doorway into the presence of hospitality, through a shared loneliness, within the self and within community.
Nouwen, sensing the fractured time with which he lived, has a passion for the minister; to encourage the minister with an ethos for ministry that is both relevant and effective.
The wounded healer archetype is one with which I personally resonate. Many contemporary leader pastors may not understand it — its power and effect — and some do not trust it. If we would be a wounded healer in order to use our brokenness to encourage and challenge others in theirs, we must be ready to field the occasional barrage. Sometimes it’ll only be those who experience our ministry — a Holy Spirit, incarnational ministry — who get its power. Wounded healers is not the best kind of pastoral ministry; it’s just a kind of ministry, where God needs many different types of ministers. Many people don’t require the ministry of the wounded healer, which necessitates the wounded healer to broaden their method to cater for all types.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.