The Wounded Healer

by Henri M. Nouwen

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



Anyone who has read Nouwen knows that his words are meaningful, penetrating and as smooth as Godiva chocolate. This book is no exception. It feels as if the words were written precisely for today. The first chapter represents the condition of a suffering world (the pandemic certainly lays credence to that!); the second chapter relates the condition of a suffering generation; the third chapter relates the condition of a suffering man and the fourth chapter the condition of a suffering minister. The unity of this book lies more in a tenacious attempt to respond to the ministers who are questioning their own relevance and effectiveness, than in a consistent theme of a fully developed theological argument. The minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his time in his own heart and make that recognition the starting point of his service. The book has a deep understanding of the ways in which the minister can make his own wounds available as a source of healing. Thus the name of the book.

In Chapter one, Nouwen states that there are two ways that we can deal with suffering: the mystical way or the revolutionary way. Both for the mystic and the revolutionary, life means breaking through the veil covering our human existence and following the vision that has become manifest to us. For a Christian, Jesus is the man in whom is has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversion cannot be separated in man’s search for experiential transcendence. Changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross. In chapter two Nouwen relates 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 the 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 si a leader precisely because through his articulation of God’s work within himself he can lead others out of confusion to clarification; 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 convert their convulsive destructiveness into creative work for the new world to come.

In the third chapter it becomes clear that Christian leadership is accomplished only through service. This 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 which can indeed lead men 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. Every Christian is constantly invited to overcome his neighbor’s fear by entering into it with him, and to find in the fellowship of suffering the way to freedom. In the fourth chapter Nouwen states that we are called to be wounded healers, in a very difficult to acknowledge place of healing. We are living in days when our wounds have become all too visible. Our loneliness and isolation has become so much a part of our daily experience that we cry out for Liberator who will take us away from our misery and bring us justice and peace. If 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. This ministry can indeed be a witness to the living truth that the world, which causes us to suffer now, will be revealed to us later as the place where God intimated his new creation. This is a great book to read during our healing as the pandemic wanes.

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