The Wounded Healer (1972)

Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer looks at four groups: a suffering world, a suffering generation, a suffering man, and a suffering minister (xv).

Chapter 1, then, begins by looking at the suffering world, and the suffering person in particular. This person is called “the nuclear man.” The nuclear man experiences a disruption in the purpose for life because the future becomes optional—through such things as war-caused destruction. Because of this optional future, the nuclear man experiences historical dislocation, along with a fragmented ideology and a search for immortality. Nouwen, however, identifies a two-fold way to liberation for the nuclear man: mystic (contemplation) and revolutionary (action). The mystic realizes that the personal is also most universal, so the mystic sees himself in others and others in himself. The revolutionary looks for a new humanity, believing that giving one’s life for others is more effective than taking one’s life. Moreover, the revolutionary takes a long view, not becoming discouraged if results take a long time.

Nouwen then places these two paths to liberation in a Christian view, saying that they are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. And he points to Jesus, who was both mystic and revolutionary. Nouwen writes, “Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel. In this sense he also remains for nuclear man the way to liberation and freedom” (20–21).

Chapter 2 focuses on the suffering generation. Future generations, Nouwen says, will focus inwards, experience life as fatherless, and act convulsive. The remedy to these characteristics is a leader who will be an articulater of faith and inner experience so as to guide the one disposed to look inwardly; a compassionate voice who brings out the best in others; and a contemplative person of prayer. This, says Nouwen, is “nothing more than [to] rephrase the fact that the Christian leader must be in the future what he has always had to be in the past: a man of prayer, a man who has to pray, and who has to pray always. …For a man of prayer is, in 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” (47).

Chapter 3 begins with a story about a young man in clinical pastoral education, John, and a man who was preparing for surgery, Mr. Harrison. Mr. Harrison revealed that he was hopeless and afraid, but John did not pick up on those indicators. In the impersonal milieu of the hospitial, Mr. Harrison despaired of life and death. John, as his minister, says Nouwen, was tasked with leading Mr. Harrison to tomorrow, a time of recovery and renewed life. Nouwen suggested three strategies for leading someone to tomorrow: (1) giving a personal response, (2) waiting with the struggling person in life, and (3) waiting for the struggling person even if death comes. Specific for the Christian leader are the notions of personal concern, communicating the value of life, and proclaiming hope. All this is accomplished through presence.

The final chapter is about the struggling minister. The minister is in a unique position because in addition to the wounds created by life, the minister experiences wounds through professional work also. But the minister must be a healing minister, creating a hospitality borne out of loneliness. In order to do this there must be concentration and community. Nouwen observes, “Concentration, which leads to meditation and contemplation, is therefore the necessary precondition for true hospitality. When our souls are restless…how can we possibly create the room and space where someone else can enter freely without feeling himself an unlawful intruder?” (90). Concentration therefore also requires humility. This sort of self-emptying hospitality makes space not only for others to enter but also for those others to become beloved community.

If indeed we listen to the voice and believe that ministry is a sign of hope, because it makes visible the first rays of light of the coming Messiah, we can make ourselves and others understand that we already carry in us the source of our own search. 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 (96).


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