“The Wounded Healer” Book Review

by David Tillman – July 2011

The Wounded Healer by Henri J.M. Nouwen*

One of my Chaplain Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) goals I set up in my learning contract was to read “The Wounded Healer” which I found insightful. Here are some quotations from Nouwen’s “The Wounded Healer” that spoke to me.

“What does it mean to be a minister in our contemporary society?” (p. xv)

Image = “wounded healer” (p. xvi)

Chapter 1 – Suffering World – The Search for the Nuclear Man

1 – Predicament of Nuclear Man

A – “Nuclear man is a man who has lost naïve faith in the possibilities of technology and is painfully aware that the same powers that enable man to create new lifestyles carry the potential for self-destruction.” (p. 5)

B – Pre-Nuclear man – “Real paradox of a world in which life and death touch each other in a morbid way and in which man finds himself on the thin rope which can break so early, but he has adapted this knowledge to his previous optimistic outlook on life.” (p. 7)           

C – For nuclear man, however, this knowledge cannot be adapted to old insights, nor be channeled by traditional institutions, rather it radically and definitively disrupts all existing frames of human reference. For him, the problem is not that the future holds a new danger, such as a nuclear war, but there might be no future at all.” (7)

D – Robert Jay Lifton’s – Nature of Nuclear Man (p.7)

1 – Historical Dislocation – “Nuclear man is a lack of a sense of continuity, which is so vital for a creative life. He finds himself part of a non-history in which on the sharp moment of the here and now is valuable.” (p. 8)

2 – Fragmented Ideology – “Nuclear man does not live with an ideology. He has shifted from the fixed and total forms of all ideology to more fixed ideological fragments.” “One of the most visible phenomena of our time is the tremendous exposure of man to divergent and often contracting ideas, traditions, religious convictions, and lifestyles. (p. 10) “Nuclear man no longer believes in anything that is always and everywhere true and valued. He lives by the hour and creates his life on the spot.” (p. 11)

3 – “A search for a new immortality – “No form of immortality through children nor the immortality through works, neither the immortality through nature nor the immortality in heaven is able to help nuclear man project himself beyond the limitation of human existence.” (p. 14)

E – “Christianity is not just challenged to adapt itself to a modern age, but is also challenged to ask itself whether its unarticulated suppositions can still form the basis for its redemptive pretensions.” (p 15)      

F – Nuclear Man’s Way to Liberation – “However, we also see exhilarating experiments of living by which he tries to free himself of the chains of his own predicament, transcend his mortal condition, reach beyond himself, and experience the source of a new creativity.” (p. 15)

1 – The mystical way– “the mystical way is the inner way. Man tries to find in his inner life a connection with the “reality of the unseen,” “the source of being,” “the point of silence.” There he discovers that what is most important is most universal.” (p. 16)

2 – “The revolutionary way – “Here man becomes aware that the choice is no longer between his world or a better world, but between no world or a new world. It is the way of a man who says: Revolution is better than suicide. This man is deeply convinced that our world is heading for the edge of the cliff” (p. 17 – 18) “He lives by the vision of a new world and refuses to be sidetracked by trivial ambitions of the moment. Thus he transcends his present condition and moves from a passive fatalism to radical activism.” (p. 19)

3 – The Christian way – “It is my growing conviction that in Jesus the mystical and the revolutionary ways are not opposites, but two sides of the same human mode of experiential transcendence. I am increasingly convinced that conversion is the individual equivalent of revolution.” (p. 19)

D – Conclusion – “You will find him in your own town, in your own family, he is in every man who draws his strength from the vision that draws on the skyline of his life and leads him to a new world.” (p. 21-22)

Chapter 2 – Condition of Suffering Generation – Ministry for a Rootless Generation

1 –The Men and Woman of Tomorrow

A – The inward generation – “the generation which gives absolute priority to the personal and which tends in a remarkable way to withdraw into the self.” (p. 27) “The inwardness of the coming generation can lead either to a higher level of hypocrisy or to the discovery of the reality of the unseen which can make for a new world. The path it takes will depend to a great extent on the kind of ministry given to this inward generation.” (p. 29 – 30)

B – Generation without fathers –“We are facing a generation which has parents but no fathers, a generation in which everyone who claims authority-because he is older, more mature, more intelligent or more powerful – is suspect from the very beginning.” (p. 30) “But the tyranny of fathers is not the same as the tyranny of one’s peers. Not following fathers is quite different from not living up to the expectations of one’s peers. The first means disobedience; the second, non-conformity. The first creates guilt feelings; the second feelings of shame. In this respect, there is an obvious shift from a guilt culture to a shame culture. This shift has very deep consequences, for if youth no longer aspires to become adults and take the place of the fathers, and if the main motivation is conformity to the peer group, we might witness the death of future-orientated culture or-to use a theological term-the end of an eschatology.” (p. 33)

C – The convulsive generation –What young people feel “Society forces me to live an unfree life, to accept values which are not values to me. I reject society as it now exists as a whole, but since I feel compassion for people living together. I try to look for alternatives. I have given myself the obligation to become aware of what it means to be a man and to search for the source of life. Church people call it “God.” You see that I am traveling a difficult road to come to self-fulfillment, but I am proud that I seldom did what others expected me to do in line with a so-called “normal development.” I really hope not to end up on the level of the square, changed to customs, traditions and the talk of next-door neighbors……” (p. 35)

2 – Tomorrows Leaders

A – the leader as the articular of inner events –“So the first and most basic task of the Christian leader in the future will be to lead his people out of the land of confusion into the land of hope. Therefore, he must have the courage to be an explorer of the new territory in himself and to articulate his discoveries as a service to the inward generation.” (P. 40)

B – Compassion –“When a Christian leader is a man of God for the future generation, he can be so only insofar as he is able to make the compassion of God with man which is visible in Jesus Christ-credible in his own world.” (p. 40 -41) For a compassionate man nothing human is alien; no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.” (p. 41) The compassionate man who points to the possibility of forgiveness helps others to free themselves from the chains of their restrictive shame, allows them to experience their own guilt, and restores their hope for a future in which the lamb and the lion can sleep together.” (p. 42)

C – The minister as a contemplative man –“The Christian leader who is able not only to articulate the movements of the spirit but also to contemplate his world with a critical but compassionate eye, may expect that the convulsive generation will not choose death as the ultimate desperate form for protest, but instead, the new life of which he has made visible the first hopeful signs.” (P. 46)

D – Conclusion – “For a man of prayer is, in the final analysis, the man who is able to recognize in others the face of the Messiah and make visible what was hidden, make touchable what was unreachable. The man of prayer is a leader precisely because through his compassion he can guide them out of the closed circuits of their in-groups to the wide world of humanity, and through his critical contemplation he can concert their convulsive destructiveness into creative work for the new world to come.” (p. 47)

Chapter 3 – Condition of Suffering Man – Ministry To A Hopeless Man

1 – Waiting for Tomorrow

A – The condition of Mr. Harrison – pastoral visit with Mr. Harrison and chaplain in hospital and analysis. Mr. Harrison is going in for an operation on his legs, is afraid of dying, and does die on the operation table. He is a hard-working farmer and has no family.         

B – How to lead Mr. Harrison to Tomorrow – a personal response – if “Mr. Harrison were to meet a man with a clear face who called him by his name and became his brother….unless John were to become a person Mr. Harrison could see, touch, smell, and hear, and whose real presence would in no way be denied. If a man were to appear from out of the cloudiness of Mr. Harrison’s existence who looked at him, spoke to him, and pressed his hands in a gesture of real concern, that would have mattered. The emptiness of the past and the future can ever be filled with words but only by the presence of a man. Because only then can the hope be born, that there might be at least one exception to the “nobody and nothing” of his complaint-a hope that will make him whisper, “Maybe, after all, someone is waiting for me.” (64 – 65)

Waiting in life – “Nobody can offer leadership to anyone unless he makes his presence known-that is unless he steps forward out of the anonymity and apathy of his milieu and makes the possibility of fellowship visible.” (p. 65) “John (chaplain) might indeed have saved Mr. Harrison’s life by becoming his tomorrow.” (p. 67)

Waiting in death –“One can lead another to tomorrow even when tomorrow is the day of the other’s death because he can wait for him on both sides. But would it have been so meaningful to have led Mr. Harrison back to the tobacco crop if this was just another delay for a man on death row?” (p. 70)

C – Principles of Christian Leadership –

1 – Personal concern – “which asks one man to give his life for his fellow man” (p.71)

“If there is any posture that disturbs a suffering man or woman, it is aloofness. The tragedy of Christian ministry is that many who are in real need, many who seek an attentive ear, a word of support, a forgiving embrace, a firm hand, a tender smile, or even a stuttering confession of inability to do more, often find their minister’s distant men who do not want to burn their fingers.” (p. 71)

“The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there. Our lives are filled with examples that tell us that leadership asks for understanding and that understanding requires sharing so long as we define leadership in terms of preventing or establishing precedents, or in terms of being responsible for some kind of abstract “general good,” we have forgotten that no God can save us except a suffering God and that no man can lead his people except the man who is crushed by its sins.” (p. 72 – 73)

2 – Faith in the value and meaning of life – “even when the days look dark (P. 71)

“A Christian leader is not a leader because he announces a new idea and tries to convince others of its worth; he is a leader because he faces the world with eyes full of expression, with the expertise to take away the veil that covers its hidden potential. Christian leadership is called ministry precisely to express that in the service of others new life can be brought about. It is this service that gives eyes to see the flower breaking through the cracks in the street, ears to hear a word of forgiveness muted by hatred and hostility, and hands to feel new life under the cover of death and destruction.” (p. 75)

3 – Hope – “which always looks for tomorrow.” (p. 71)

“And all these principles are based on the one and only conviction that, since God has become man, it is a man who has the power to lead his fellow man to freedom.” (p. 71)

“For hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death.” (p. 76)

“The promise not only made Abraham travel to an unknown territory; it not only inspired Moses to lead his people out of slavery; it is also the guiding motive for any Christian who keeps pointing to new life even in the face of corruption and death.” (p. 76) “Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter the unknown and fearful territory.” (p. 77)

4 – Conclusion – “In this analysis, it has become clear that Christian leadership is accomplished only through service. The service requires the willingness to enter into a situation, with all the human vulnerabilities a man has to share with his fellow man. This is a painful and self-denying experience, but an experience that can indeed lead man out of his prison of confusion and fear. Indeed, the paradox of Christian leadership is that the way out is the way in, that only by entering into communion with human suffering can relief be found” (p. 77)

Chapter 4 – Condition of Suffering Minister

1 –The Wounded Minister – “The loneliness of the minister is especially painful; for over and above his experience as a man in modern society, he feels an added loneliness, resulting from the changing meaning of the ministerial profession itself.” (p. 83)

A – personal loneliness – “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds. The growing competition and rivalry which pervade our lives from birth have created in us an acute awareness of our isolation.” (p. 83) “The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by the false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard because 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.” (p. 84)

B – professional loneliness – “the wound of loneliness in the life of a minister hurts all the more, since he not only shares in the human condition of isolation but also finds that his professional impact on others is diminishing. 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 made.”  (p. 85)

2 – The Healing Minister

A – Hospitality and concentration – “Hospitality is the ability to pay attention to the guest. This is very difficult since we are preoccupied with our own needs, worries, and tensions, which prevent us from taking distance from ourselves in order to pay attention to others.” (p. 89) “God as omnipresent and omnipotent was everywhere. He filled the universe with his Being. How then could the creation come about?….. God had to create by withdrawal; He created the not-Him, the other, by self-concentration…..On the human level, withdrawal of myself aids the other to come into being.” (p 91) Withdrawl – “This experience tells us that we can only love because we are born out of love, that we can only give because our life is a gift, and that we can only make others free because we are set free by Him whose heart is greater than ours. When we have found the anchor places for our lives in our own center, we can be free to let others enter into the space created for them and allow them to dance their own dance, sing their own song, and speak their own language without fear. Then our presence is no longer threatening and demanding but inviting and liberating.”(p.91-92)

B – Hospitality and community – “A minister is not a doctor whose primary task is to take away the pain, Rather, he deepens the pain to a level where it can be shared. When someone comes with his loneliness to the minister, he can only expect that his loneliness will be understood and felt, so that he no longer has to run away from it but can accept it as an expression of his basic human condition.” (p. 92 – 93)

“Perhaps the main task of the minister is to prevent people from suffering for the wrong reasons. Many people suffer because of the false supposition that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these suffering can only be dealt with creativity when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. It does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.” (p. 93)“A Christian community is, therefore, a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision. Mutual confession then becomes a mutual deepening of hope, and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength.” (p. 94)

C – Conclusion – “Thus ministry can indeed be a witness to the living truth that the wound, which causes us to suffer now, will be revealed to us later as the place where God intimated his new creation.” (p. 96)

5 – Conclusion

1 – “When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, then there are many ways and forms in which a man can be a Christian. The minister is the one who can make the search for authenticity possible, not by standing on the side as a neutral screen or an impartial observer, but as an articulate witness of Christ, who puts his own search at the disposal of others. This hospitality requires that the minister know where he stands and whom he stands for, but it also requires that he allow others to enter his life, come close to him and ask him how their lives connect with his. Nobody can predict where this will lead us, because every time a host allows himself to be influenced by his guest he takes a risk not knowing how they will affect his life. But it is exactly in common searches and shared risks that new ideas are born, that new visions reveal themselves, and that new roads become visible. We do not know where we will be two, ten, or twenty years from now. What we can know, however, is that man suffers and that a sharing of suffering can make us move forward. The minister is called to make this forward thrust credible to his many guests, so that they do not stay but have a growing desire to move on, in the conviction that the full liberation of man and his world is still to come.” (p. 100)

*Henri J.M Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Image Books Edition, Doubleday & Company, Inc. , Garden City, NY, 1979)        

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