The Wounded Healer

Nouwen, Henri JM
Darton, Longman & Todd (1994)
Buy this book from

Henri Nouwen does not think that our professional clerics are up to the job; they are, he says, too trapped in their old ways, ministering to the comfortable, far removed from the mass of troubled people who most need the Good News of Jesus.

Quoting Robert Lifton, he says that our society is dislocated, torn free from the past but with no faith in the future; it has replaced anxiety and joy with apathy and boredom; it has replaced ideology with a massive injection of direct and vicarious experience. In this context the eternal god makes no sense, not least if it is presented as an ideology. Likewise the idea of immortality is no longer viable. The two ways out which Lifton identifies are mysticism and revolution; the first allows people to find commonality though reaching into their own essential core; the second presents a choice not between this world and a better but between a changed world and no world at all. Nouwen says that the mystic and revolutionary unite in Jesus.

At an individual level we are increasingly members of a lonely crowd. Quoting Jeffrey Hadden he says that we have fallen into privatised amorality; we are fatherless and convulsive, denying authority and then lurching into desperate action. The response of the Christian leader to this should be as the articulator of inner events, the minister of compassion and the contemplative critic. Nouwen says the failure in these three areas is obvious and that the increasing professionalism which is required to fulfil these roles can itself be a trap as ministers can easily imprison themselves in their professionalism: "The task of the Christian leader (is not) to go round nervously trying to redeem people, ... for we are redeemed once and for all. The Christian leader is called to help others affirm this great news".

The pastoral response to this rootlessness should be personal, demonstrating that life is worth living; and the pastor should provide earthly hospitality - space in which people can be themselves - pre-figuring eternal hospitality.

The book is full of vivid illustrations and telling phrases but it is primarily a book for those who are already in sympathy with Nouwen's kind of spirituality; it isn't a text book nor a polemic that will get you from a traditional viewpoint to one attuned to the problems of the 21st Century. What it might tell people like us, in a relatively tranquil rural; parish, is how cut off we are from the bewildering reality of urban rootlessness and that we face precisely the same challenge as the clergy.