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Book Review: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen

The Wounded Healer — Ministry in Contemporary Society by Henri J.M. Nouwen (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1972. 104 pgs.)

“A door opens to me. I go in and am faced with a hundred closed doors…” Those thoughts from Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia lay some of the foundations of a theological study written in 1972 by Henri Nouwen that encourages Catholic priests and other ministers to reach out to the vulnerable they serve by recognizing their own personal vulnerability. As the late theologian and Catholic priest writes in The Wounded Healer — Ministry in Contemporary Society, a minister ought to “recognize the suffering of his times in his own heart and make that suffering the starting point of his service.” Speaking of the Catholic priest, Nouwen then adds that he should “make his own wounds available as a source of healing.” That image of a vulnerable and wounded pastor serving people through the prism of his own infirmities can be seen as revolutionary given the predominant view that as the conduit of God’s salvific power and in his capacity as “another Christ” to his parishioners, the Catholic priest ought to rightly stand on a pedestal.

In a figurative sense, Nouwen yanks out that pedestal from underneath the priesthood, speaking instead of a reciprocal relationship between the minister and the ministered: each is wounded and each has the capacity to learn from, and be formed by the other. That said, the Catholic priest does live a unique form of loneliness and in actuality stands on the peripheries of life’s important decisions. Nouwen explains this eloquently. “The minister is called to speak to the ultimate concerns of life: birth and death, union and separation, love and hate. He has an urgent desire to give meaning to people’s lives. But he finds himself standing on the edges of events and only reluctantly admitted to the spot where the decisions are being made…The painful irony is that the minister, who wants to touch the center of men’s lives, finds himself on the periphery, often pleading in vain for admission…He always seems to arrive at the wrong places at the wrong times with the wrong people, outside the walls of the city when the feast is over…”

Nouwen uses an anecdote to illustrate his point about the loneliness and perhaps surprising powerlessness of the priesthood. When he served as a chaplain on the Holland-America cruise line, he was in the captain’s way on the deck during a period of dangerously thick fog. The captain was stressed and frightened. One minute he yelled at Fr. Nouwen: “God damn it, Father, get out of my way.” Nouwen was about to leave obediently, but then the captain called after him: “Why don’t you just stay around. This might be the only time I really need you.” Nouwen then ties in this anecdote expertly into the changing realities of the Church, the priesthood and its place in society during the seventies. He writes: “There was a time, not too long ago, when we felt like captains running our own ships with a great sense of power and self-confidence. Now we are standing in the way. That is our lonely position: We are powerless, on the side, liked maybe by a few crew members who swab the decks…”

What does one do then with loneliness? Does one toil to eliminate it? Does one paper-over it or aim to dull the pain through hastily formed friendships, some perhaps superficial? Is distraction from the lingering problem of loneliness the better solution, possibly through the acquisition of material goods? Nouwen suggests that embracing, rather than attempting to escape loneliness can serve as a transcendent tool of self-understanding. He writes: “The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness, it protects and cherishes it as a special gift…perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. Our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.”

This appreciation of loneliness, however, does not mean that one is to shun human contact or be inhospitable. In fact, perhaps the quote that resonated with me the most in Nouwen’s book is that of welcoming a guest into one’s home and the impact that this act of hospitality has not only on the guest, but also (and perhaps more so) on the host. Again, there is an underlying reciprocity in human relations, extending to the minister and the ministered. Nouwen writes: “Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler.”

I think that most will recognize Jesus in the image of welcoming the tired traveler into one’s home and the Catholic teaching on the mediated nature of salvation; with the caveat that the foundation of the Gospel is the story of how salvation was delivered not with great, luxurious fanfare or through the designated leaders and respectable society of the day, but through an outcast.

The idea of the nuclear man is a central concept in Nouwen’s book. This terminology will seem dated from the perspective of a twenty-first century reader, as the term is clearly a recognition of the Cold War realities of the early seventies and fears of apocalyptic nuclear conflict. Yet if one looks beyond the term nuclear man to what Nouwen is referring to, it becomes clear that the overall concept remains relevant to us today. Nouwen speaks of people living in a time of both historical dislocation and a lack of hope or trust in the existence of a future, combined with a society that is no longer grounded by any type of unifying ideology. What we have then is alienation, displacement and fragmentation. Nouwen maps out two ways in which people respond to this predicament. The first is what he refers to as the mystical. In the late twentieth century context this means personal, inward-looking self-discovery, sometimes through meditation and various forms of eastern spirituality. The second approach is through revolution. This is an outward-looking drive to radically transform the world. The goal here is not to build on existing foundations or to embrace an incremental approach but to tear the old out by the roots and plant something brand new. Nouwen suggests that authentic Christianity can offer a third approach, combining both the mystical and the revolutionary. Nouwen writes: “Every real revolutionary is challenged to be a mystic at heart, and he who walks the mystical way is called to unmask the illusory quality of human society.”

Nouwen’s work is both highly readable and also challenging in some of what the author asks us to ponder. At its core, Nouwen moves us to consider what I will refer to as fleeting moments of redemption. This is not salvation on a grand celestial scale, but rather the concept that sometimes during the most difficult moments in one’s life, someone–possibly a stranger–will appear unexpectedly and deliver a moment of mercy. The messenger will, in all likelihood, be imperfect and may carry some of the same wounds as the recipient of this unexpected act of mercy.

Published inBook Reviews

2 Comments

  1. […] and who was himself the stranger. Theologian and priest Henri Nouwen put this well, in his book The Wounded Healer: “Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and […]

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