The Wounded Healer (Nouwen)

Wounded Healer

Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society

New York: Doubleday, 2010 [1972]

Henri Nouwen is among the hallowed names spoken with reverence and awe among ministers. An ancient Christian monk once said,

I beg you, do not instruct the simpler sort in the complexities of deceitful thoughts, but rather, if possible, make complex men simple—a marvelous thing indeed! (John Climacus, To the Shepherd, 92)

Nouwen is a complex man made simple, and he’s one of the best at condensing deep and complex issues into simple, accessible matters without, at the same time, oversimplifying or butchering them. As a person with a blog whose sole purpose is to do just that: it’s harder than it seems.

This is a book about ministry, but not just for those ‘ordained’ types. Rather it is for all of us as we seek to find and pass on the kind of healing that is in tune with Christ. The Wounded Healer gives off the pervading sense that Nouwen is speaking from his own woundedness and vulnerability as a minister, as well as his experience among ‘the least of these’ in the L’Arche Community where he spent the last years of his life.

The Gist

In general this book is about what it means to minister in today’s world. Nouwen offers as good a breakdown of the book as any I could conjure up.

The first [chapter] represents the condition of a suffering world; the second [chapter], the condition of a suffering generation; the third [chapter], the condition of a suffering human; and the fourth [chapter] the condition of a suffering minister.

The common theme here is suffering, and that has a lot to do with Nouwen’s diagnosis of the human condition in today’s world. He invites us to recognize the fragmented nature of our realities, which inevitably aggravates the already fragile nature of human life.

One natural response to this problem is to gravitate towards fundamentalisms that offer a relief from the difficulties, a relief that is unfortunately cheap and unreal. We might even use grace itself to help shield us from the necessity of facing the hard realities of our wounded lives. What is required in any kind of ministry, Nouwen suggests, is not (just) for us to enter into the woundedness of others—but for us to offer our own woundedness to others. By showing how God is at work in our own fragmented, broken, wounded lives—and by doing so without flinching and covering up the messier parts with pious assurances—others are enabled to see God at work in their own lives.

This book calls us to see reality for what it is, to avoid easy and cheap responses that help us ignore the cries and anguish deep within our hearts. And it calls us to be ministers that help people do just that.

What Stuck

The principle of ministry found throughout this book is that a minister is useless if they do not first have a legitimate spiritual life themselves, and second if they cannot make that spiritual life accessible to those around them. Ministry just is using one’s own spiritual life not only to help one sympathize with another’s pain, but also to invite others into a model for how their own woundedness might begin to heal.

This, of course, requires that we not lie. On the one hand we do not need to advertise our faults, or use our vulnerability as some attention-grab. On the other hand, we cannot hope to help one another if we’re trying to maintain the impression that we have it all figured out. What is required is that ministers—people who want to help others understand the work of God in their lives—offer their own spiritual struggle, with all its accompanying joys and sorrows, convictions and uncertainties, failures and graces, as an encouragement and guide to others. This requires that we do not lie. Ministry does not operate by the “fake it ‘til you make it” rule as much as we might wish.

It is in this light that Nouwen suggests that ministers—ordained or not—become “contemplative critics” (a title he gives to a book on Thomas Merton) in the world. We must all in our own way arouse the deep resources of attention to the inner life, and bring the wisdom we gain there to bear on the problems in the world around us. The idea of the minister as ‘contemplative critic’ is one that resonates strongly with me.

Memorable Quotes

Whether we try to enter into a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying person, our service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which we speak. (4)

A preaching and teaching still based on the assumption that we are on our way to a new land filled with promises, and that the creative activities in this world are the first signs of what we will see in the hereafter, cannot find a sounding board in someone whose mind is brooding ion the suicidal potentials of our own world. (19)

There we come to the shocking, but at the same time self-evident, insight that prayer is not a pious decoration of life but the breath of human existence. (21)

Instead of the father, the peer becomes the standard. Many young people who are completely unimpressed by the demands, expectations, and complaints of the big bosses of the adult world, show a scrupulous sensitivity to what their peers feel, think, and say about them. . . . Many young people may even become enslaved by the tyranny of their peers. While appearing indifferent, casual, and even dirty to their elders, their indifference is often carefully calculated, their casualness studied in the mirror, and their dirty appearance based on a detailed imitation of their friends. But the tyranny of father sis not the same as the tyranny of one’s peers. Rejecting the first means disobedience; rejecting the second, non-conformity. Rejecting the first creates feelings of guilt; rejecting the second, feelings of shame. In this respect there is an obvious shift from a guilt-based culture to a shame-based culture. (36-37)

We hardly need to emphasize how dangerous the experimentation with the interior life can be. . . . On the other hand it also is becoming obvious that those who avoid the painful encounter with the unseen are doomed to live a supercilious, boring, and superficial life. Therefore the first and most basic task required of contemporary ministers is to clarify the immense confusion that can arise when people enter this internal world. . . . Most [Christian leaders] are used to thinking in terms of large-scale organization, getting people together in churches, schools, and hospitals, and running the show as circus directors. They have become unfamiliar with, and even somewhat afraid of, the deep and significant movements of the spirit. It is possible that he Church could be accused of having failed in its most basic task: to offer people creative ways to communicate with the source of human life. (41-42)

In practically all priestly functions, such as pastoral conversation, preaching, teaching, and liturgy, the minister tries to help people to recognize the work of God in themselves. The Christian leader, minister or priest, is not one who reveals God to other people—who gives something to those who have nothing—but one who helps those who are searching to discover reality as the source of their existence. (43)

People who do not know where they are going or what kind of world they are heading toward, who wonder if bringing forth children into this chaotic world is not an act of cruelty rather than love, will often be tempted to become sarcastic or even cynical. They laugh at their busy friends, but have nothing to offer in place of their activity. They protest against many things, but do not know what to witness for. But Christian ministers who have discovered in themselves the voice of the Spirit and have rediscovered their fellow human beings with compassion might be able to look at the people they meet, the contacts they make, and the events they become a part of, in a different way.  They might uncover the first glimpse of the new world behind the veil of everyday life. (48)

For people of prayer are, in the final analysis, people who are able to recognize in others the face of the Messiah. They are people who make visible what was hidden, who make touchable what was unreachable. (52)

It is very difficult, if not impossible, for most people to realize what it means when nobody cares whether you live or die. Isolation is among the worst of human sufferings, and for someone like John the experience of isolation was endless miles away. . . . Death may be hell, but that life, no less. (65)

To be sure, forty-eight years of living are not ruffled by a few intelligent remarks by a well-meaning seminarian. . . . Yes…unless in the middle of the anonymity created by his surroundings Mr. Harrison had met someone genuine who called him by his name and became his brother…unless John had become a person Mr. Harrison could truly see, touch, smell, and hear, and whose real presence would in no way be denied. If john had appeared from out of the cloudiness of Mr. Harrison’s existence and looked at him, spoken to him, and pressed his hands in a gesture of real concern, that would have mattered. (69)

None of us can offer leadership to anyone unless we make our presence known—that is, unless we step forward out of the anonymity and apathy of our surroundings and make the possibility of fellowship visible. (70)

Such ministers are unwilling or unable to express their feelings of affection, anger, hostility, or sympathy. T is a paradox indeed that those who want to be for “everyone” often find themselves unable to be close to anyone. (77)

We have forgotten that no God can save us except a suffering god, and that no one can lead us except the one who is crushed by their sins. (78)

Leadership therefore is not called Christian because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life, but because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event, which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness. (82)

For a deep understanding of our own pain makes it possible for us to convert our weakness into strength and to offer our own experiences as a source of healing to those who are often lost in the darkness of their own misunderstood sufferings. (93)

On the one hand, ministers cannot keep their experience of life hidden from those they want to help. . . . On the other hand, it would be very easy to misuse the concept of the wounded healer by defending a form of spiritual exhibitionism. . . . Making one’s own wounds as a source of healing, therefore, does not all for a sharing of superficial personal pains, but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition that we all share. (94-95)

Why is this a healing ministry? It is healing because it takes away the false illusion that wholeness can be given by one to another. It is healing because it does not take away the loneliness and the pain of others, but invites them to recognize their loneliness on a level where it can be shared. (98)

Perhaps the main task of the minister is to prevent people from suffering for the wrong reasons. . . . Therefore ministry is a very confrontational 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. (99)


This is a book that deals with difficult topics in sober, authentic ways. It is a book on suffering by a sufferer. This is a topic that is easy to romanticize (as in ‘emo’ culture), and even easier to dismiss (as in the not-so-subtle triumphalistic overtones of salvation in our churches). Nouwen weeps with those who weep, and finds in this compassion the means of true redemptive, life-giving ministry. In The Wounded Healer we do not find a strategy for increasing our churches’ attendance or erasing moral problems. In a sense all we get is a rationale for and encouragement to opening our lives up to one another and showing them what wounds look like when they are held by Christ—and in that we help others see God at work in their own lives: a humble appreciation of the God made perfect in weakness. Nouwen wants us to learn that this is all there really is to ministry.

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