Putrifaction, Pandemic, and Presence: a Review of Henry Nouwen’s Wounded Healer

Nouwen, Henri J., The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 109 pp.

There are few Christians who seem to appreciate both the reality and necessity of suffering in the Christian life. Among those who do understand this reality and necessity is Henri Nouwen: a Dutch Catholic priest who spent much of his life living amongst the poorest of the poor and spent his final years amongst the physically disabled at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. In his short book, The Wounded Healer, Nouwen pours forth from these experiences a stream of sharply perceptive theological reflection upon the listless culture we inhabit, and upon the form of Christian ministry that such a culture requires in order to find healing for its deepest wounds. Nouwen’s theological conviction regarding Christian ministry is, in short, that only those who allow themselves to be wounded and to notice their own wounds can heal the wounds of others. I believe that Nouwen’s theological reflection on ministry to a fractured culture was penned for such a time as the one in which we live.

Nouwen’s theological and ministerial reflection on culture takes up a large portion of his work. In the first three chapters, he offers a threefold diagnosis of contemporary culture, as well as brief-yet-constructive conclusions that begin to frame a Christian strategy for ministry in contemporary culture. For Nouwen, the modern human person — at least the modern Westerner — is characterized by three postures: dislocation (ch. 1), rootlessness (ch. 2), and hopelessness (ch. 3).

The dislocation of the contemporary human person occurs in three different spheres: historical, ideological, and eschatological. Moderns, first of all, have little sense of and appreciation for where they have come from and in which particular religious or ancestral tradition they stand. Such lack of historical consciousness leads not only to the viewing of oneself as a “passive [victim] of an extremely complex [modern] technological bureaucracy,” but also into an attitude of dismissiveness regarding any coherent account of history, such as “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” (13). One can only imagine that such historical dislocation leads into ideological fragmentation, by which modern people select particular portions of various moral traditions and seek to weave their own personal moral tapestry — which is, of course, always and ever subject to revision and change. Nouwen, finally, believes that the dislocation and fragmentation of modern humanity has, paradoxically, led directly to a loss of creativity, which is itself “[one’s] sense of immortality” (17). Faced with such a paralyzing loss in a world chastened by such grisly realities as atomic warfare (and racism and pandemic), modern humanity engages in the eschatological search for a “new immortality”: a way to escape humanity, even self, gone wrong.

The rootlessness of modern humanity is, for Nouwen, revealed by the way in which contemporary people react to the ever-present situation of crisis. First, modern people are intrinsically inward, which results in an attitude of suspicion toward anything outside the self that claims to offer solutions for the predicament felt so deeply within the self. Such inwardness produces what Nouwen calls “generations that have parents but no fathers, generations in which everyone who claims authority—because they are older, more mature, more intelligent, or more powerful—is suspect from the very beginning” (34). And because there is no sense that one can turn toward outside institutions or authorities for solutions to the ever-present predicament, convulsion and confusion follow. Many moderns have the sense that, if they cooperate with any “existing [model] of living,” they will engage in “a kind of betrayal of the self.” This frustration can result in “undirected, purposeless violence, or in suicidal withdrawal from the world, both of which are signs more of protest than of the results of a new-found ideal” (38).

To illustrate the hopelessness that marks modern humanity, Nouwen offers a fictional-yet-realistic tale whose characters are John Allen, a seminarian, and Mr. Harrison, a rural farmer who is meant to have surgery on the arteries in his legs, and who has little to no friends or family waiting for him when he returns from the hospital. To each of Mr. Harrison’s subtle, yet gut-wrenching, indications of hopelessness and his dwindling readiness both to live and to die, John replies in coldly clinical fashion (55-58). Nouwen understands Mr. Harrison’s subtle laments over his loneliness at the hospital and at home as cries for hope that he cannot see: a hope to live on into tomorrow. What Nouwen wants us to learn from Mr. Harrison is the fact that there are many who, for any number of reasons, cannot find hope either in life or in death: either they have no one for whom to live, or no one with (or for) whom to die, or both.

Given all that is problematic in contemporary culture, Nouwen engages in theological reflection regarding the shape that ministry to this culture must take. In a dislocated culture, Nouwen sees the “Christian way” between the horns of inward, mystical self-withdrawal and revolutionary upheaval as rooted in Jesus Christ, who was himself both a mystic and a revolutionary. Writes Nouwen:

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 [cultural] milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel. In this sense he also remains for modern humanity the way to liberation and freedom (25).

For Nouwen, understanding this twofold inward- and outward-looking posture of Christ provides the minister with a framework by which to notice both the mystics and the revolutionaries one encounters daily. Perhaps in noticing their presence, one might be able to offer to them the One who was both mystic and culture-shifter.

A rootless, convulsive culture that spurns authority and traditional answers requires a minister (or Christian leader, since all Christians, in Nouwen’s thinking, are ministers) that demonstrates three characteristics that Nouwen enumerates: “(1)… the articulator of inner events; (2)… a compassionate; and (3)… a contemplative critic” (41). Ministers must, first, be willing and able to speak openly about “the movements of their inner lives,” to name and to recognize the pitfalls of their own human condition, in order to “create space for the Spirit whose heart is greater than their own…” (42). Second, compassion (understood as true and intentional entrance into another’s suffering or sinfulness) alone engenders credibility for Christian ministry. It is not enough as a minister to be a good diagnostician of the cause of one’s suffering or readily to announce forgiveness of another’s sin. Indeed, if one offers ministerial professionalism minus self-giving love, their ministry “will turn forgiveness into a gimmick, and the kingdom to come, into a blindfold” (47, cf. 1 Cor 13). Finally, the minister must take the posture of a contemplative critic: one who compassionately yet carefully “[tests] all they see, hear, and touch for its evangelical authenticity…” (49). In so doing, the minister allows for the stripping away of the frequent-yet-unseen moral ambivalence that accompanies so much of the convulsive and polarizing action taken by those whose visions of a good society can be so often rooted in “the trivial concerns of a possessive world” (Ibid.).

It is in his chapter on hopeless modern humanity that Nouwen most fully lays out his reflections on Christian ministry. It seems to be no accident that he selects a young, academic, clinically prepared minister-in-training as one of the characters in his tale. Nouwen’s clear judgment is that young John Allen fails to offer Mr. Harrison any true hope for living on into tomorrow. But, it seems that Nouwen uses such a character in order to articulate his own hope that Christian ministers might truly live out their calling in a hopeless age as wounded healers, which is the subject of his final chapter.

John’s primary failure as a minister does not necessarily lie in the awkwardly academic words he spoke at Mr. Harrison’s bedside. Rather, John’s more serious failure lies in the fact that, following this initial encounter with Mr. Harrison, John never saw him again. Mr. Harrison died the following day on the operating table. In fact, Nouwen states, Mr. Harrison might well have already died much earlier: he had no one with whom or for whom to live, and he had no one with or for whom to die. He was dying in both life and death.

Nouwen’s clear response to John’s inaction and Mr. Harrison’s condition is his exhortation towards entrance: entrance into the unbearable condition in which one lives; entrance which includes being the someone that one so lonely as Mr. Harrison might expect to see, to befriend, to walk beside both in life and in death. In so being, the Christian minister both embodies the love of Christ who (1) suffered in self-giving love for others; (2) whose own valuing of the life of the other transformed death not into a grim “dead-end street,” a mere “surrender of consciousness,” but a hopeful surrender, and (3) whose resurrection guarantees “a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and [stands] as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness” (76-82).  In the conclusion to his theological reflections on the tale of John and Mr. Harrison, Nouwen offers the central claim of his entire work, and the most concrete statement regarding the call of the Christian to be a wounded healer, as Christ himself was and is.

Indeed, the paradox of Christian leadership [i.e., ministry] is that the way out is also the way in, that only by entering into communion with human suffering can relief be found. As John was invited to enter into Mr. Harrison’s agony and wait for him there, all Christians are constantly invited to overcome their neighbors’ fear by entering into it with them, and to find, in the fellowship of suffering, the way to freedom (83, emphasis mine).

I believe that Nouwen’s theological reflections on Christian ministry are simply invaluable in a cultural moment such as that in which we live. The events of the past few months in the United States have brought to our attention (1) the deep-seated and systemic rancor that continues to wreak havoc on those who have suffered oppression for so long and (2) that, whether it be on account of the disease of racism or a mysteriously contagious and deadly pathogen, the suffering (physical, spiritual, and otherwise) present in our culture is both immense and imminent. One would hope that, during such a time as this, public responses to these pressing issues would not devolve into polarizing rhetoric and dazzling defensiveness. Rather than entrance into the suffering of the sick and the oppressed, many in our country, Christ-followers very much included, have engaged in explanation, perhaps so as to distance themselves from the grim realities that surface in at-capacity intensive care units and the mindless murders of innocent black people by white police officers.

Nouwen’s strategy for contemporary Christian ministry, I believe, offers Christians a truly helpful framework through which to see and engage this convulsing, suffering culture. Nouwen’s understanding of Christian ministry is truly helpful because truly Christian. In other words, Nouwen’s call to Christians is to turn toward the God-man Jesus Christ as a model for ministry in concrete action and posture. Though Jesus Christ did preach and explain, he never distanced himself from the suffering of the other by explaining it (cf. John 9:3). Rather, in the fullest possible sense, Jesus entered into the suffering of those around him, all the while providing a distinct eschatological hope for life on the other side. Indeed, this hope is wrapped up in the entirety of the Christ-event: his life of suffering, his righteous death, his glorious resurrection. Perhaps, for us, it is best to take the first step along the path of the Wounded Healer, which is, more than anything else, a step into.

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