Henri Nouwen wrote the first edition to this book 45 years ago in 1972. Nouwen was born in 1932 - so by the time he wrote this book he'd been a ministering Catholic priest for well over a decade.
The book presents four "doors" through which we can minister to one another - regardless of vocation or calling - and he clearly suggests that we are all called to do just that - especially regardless of our specific vocations.
What's perhaps most interesting about this book is that though it was written 45 years ago and though the edition I own was updated in 2010 with posthumous revisions to make the book's message a "universal call for compassion within relationships, on our journey to becoming more fully human." - the book as a whole reads entirely modern. The only solid clue that it's as old as it is is the absence of any reference to social media.
The four doors that Nouwen refers to are presented one in each of the book's chapters. Door one is the condition of the suffering world, the second the condition of the suffering generation. Door three and chapter three address the condition of the suffering human. The final door and chapter peer into the suffering minister. Nouwen ends his introduction to this book - one of his more famous works - with this words:
"For all ministers are called to recognize the sufferings of their time in their own hearts, and make to that recognition the starting point of their service. 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.
Thus nothing can be written about ministry without a deeper understanding of the ways in which ministers can make their own wounds available as a source of healing. Therefore this book is called The Wounded Healer."
Nouwen launches into the discussion about "door one" - the condition of the suffering world by relaying a conversation he had with a young seminary drop out he called Peter. Peter liked seminary, retained his seminary friends, thought fondly on his time there - but had dropped out - moved to a secular university, moved in with his girl-friend, started partying and drinking as much as any other student. His former seminary teachers were perplexed - as were his parents, many of his old friends - even Peter himself was confused about his predicament. About Peter Nouwen says "He himself did not know what he was looking for, but he had a general all-pervading feeling of confusion. "Nothing was urgent. Nothing was important ... He didn't suffer from despair - but neither did he have anything to hope for."
Nouwen says that he noted students like Peter finding two ways out of their quiet malaise - the one he calls the "mystical way" meaning the pursuit of inner meaning - contemplation. Those who pursue this path "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." The other path is "the revolutionary way" - and for these the choice is no longer our present world or a better world - but a new world or no world. Nouwen says "Their goal is not a better human being, but a new human being, one who relates to the self and the world in ways which are still unexplored but which belong to our hidden potentials."
To both of these Nouwen offers a third way - the Christian way. He says that the inner way and the revolutionary way are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change." He identifies that the "mystics" cannot avoid becoming social critics - and revolutionaries cannot avoid facing their human condition - and both will find that they are also fighting their own reactionary fears and false ambitions. Nouwen clarifies: "For a Christian, Jesus is the one in whom it has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversion cannot be separated in the human search for experiential transcendence. His appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing the human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross."
Nouwen opens the chapter on door number two - with a wisdom story - about a young fugitive running for his life - and finding refuge in a village where the people were kind and happy to offer assistance - until that is the soldiers arrived armed to the teeth and threatening the village with death if they didn't turn over the fugitive. The minister - torn between the death of the one man or his whole village - searches and searches through Scripture and eventually decides that it's better that one man die so many can live. He does so and the fugitive is taken away - and the village erupts into celebration. Only now an angel reveals to the minister that the young man was none other than the Messiah Himself. Then angel says "What have you done?" The minister says "How could I have known?" The angel replies - if you had visited the man just once - you would've known." The point being that we struggle to immerse ourselves in another's struggle - and are poorer for it. This door needs - as Nouwen sees it - 1. Ministers who can articulate inner events, 2. Compassion - and 3. Ministers who can function as a contemplative critic in the sense that people need leaders who have dared to go where they now are afraid to go themselves. At the end of this chapter Nouwen sums up his thinking this way:
"Having said all this, I realize that I have done nothing more than rephrase the fact that Christian leaders must be in the future what they have always had to be in the past: people of prayer - people who have to pray, and who have to pray always.
In the third chapter - on the third door - Nouwen presents a conversation between a farm laborer in his late 40's with a life-threatening situation and needs surgery to save his life - although surgery of course also represents a certain risk to his life. A young seminary student is assigned to be his chaplain - and it's hard for the student to see how to connect with and minister to the older man - a man who's lived his life full of physical labor. Such a life seems so foreign to the student - who's life is comprised almost entirely of books, thoughts and abstract concepts. To the student the farmer seems both afraid of surgery and afraid to live after surgery - depending on how successful it is. To the farmer - the student seems afraid to work - and afraid to speak. Neither can see that what they have in common is precisely what unsettles them both - their fears. Nouwen lays out three principles of Christian Leadership - 1. personal concern for others with the courage to express affection, listen generously, offer a forgiving embrace ... 2. Faith in the value and meaning of life - and the realization that every experience holds new promise ... 3. Hope - which makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of wishes and offers a vision beyond human suffering - even beyond death.
The final chapter looks at the fourth door; at the wounded minister. This chapter looks at the wounded condition of ministers - the loneliness that is often a condition of the profession - as well as how that very loneliness can become the bridge that grounds ministers in their calling and gives them the necessary insight to speak words of hope to those they minister to. Nouwen cautions that "When ministers live with these false expectations and illusions they prevent themselves from claiming their own loneliness as a source of human understanding, and are thus unable to offer any real service to the many who don't understand their own suffering." But - a "deep understanding of our own pain makes it possible for us to convert our weakness into strength and to offer out own experience as a source of healing to those who are often lost in the darkness of their own misunderstood sufferings. He follows this line of thought up by saying "Making ones own wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call 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." and "Christian community is therefore a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for new vision."
Henri Nouwen wrote dozens of other books such as Life of the Beloved and Return of the Prodigal among others. He led a fascinating life and ministered with compassionate purpose. This book, The Wounded Healer was written as something of a small, simple yet imminently useful handbook of ministry. He was also integral to the founding of L'Arche communities - which deserve a post all their own. If you aren't familiar - L'Arche offers homes for intellectually disenfranchised persons - that seek to allow them to live meaningful lives of contribution and joy integrated into society through communal living.