The Wounded Healer

Title: The Wounded Healer, Ministry in contemporary society

Author: Henri J.M. Nouwen

 Publisher: Penguin Random House: New York,  1979

Pages: 128

ISBN: 0-385-14803-8

The Wounded Healer Henri J Nouwen says that we live in a world of hatred and oppression where men and women are seeking and calling out for a Messiah who would liberate them from their tyranny of the oppressors and let peace and justice prevail in their midst. But how do they find and recognize this “Messiah” or “liberator”?

The writer presents an illustration in which he relates a short dialog that takes place between a Rabbi and Prophet Elijah about the long awaited Messiah. The prophet tells the Rabbi that he will find the Messiah among the poor covered with wounds and while others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up, the Messiah, unbinds his wounds, one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself that he must be ready to help others any moment he is called out to. That is to say, he must be ready at all times to reach out to help others, wasting no time in binding up all his wounds. Thus, the Messiah amongst the poor is the minister who first must acknowledge his own wounds, unbind and bind them very carefully but let not his wounds become a pretext or excuse for not reaching out to the other wounded who may need him any time. Thus, he is to be the wounded minister and the wounded healer.

This story from the Talmud reminds us of Jesus who before his crucifixion had the last Passover meal with his disciples and broke the bread and gave it to the disciples saying this is my body that is broken for you and my blood that is shed for you and for many so that they may have salvation. This also reminds us of the Bible verse, “by his wound we are healed”

The writer goes on to delineate the meaning of the wounds of a minister. The minister of the modern times, he says, is indeed a wounded minister, in that s/he is a lonely and isolated man/woman who in the modern materialistic world sees his/her role changed dramatically and limited drastically.  The role of the minister has changed and so has the meaning of his ministry. A minister today is hardly the minister of the yonder days as s/he is obliged to make too many compromises and adjustment to the demands of the time. And with this painful reality, s/he goes out to perform his/ her duties in the routine-mode. The minister is very much conscious of this dilemma.

Personal Loneliness

The culture of a growing cut-throat competition and a world seeped in loneliness fails to recognize and acknowledge its dilemma but tries to defy it by countering it with false pleasures and treating it with fake remedies as psychotherapies, “huggers” social entertainments and media limelight. The more they seek such “escapes” the more they sink deeper into the depth of loneliness and despair, as the emptiness and the hollowness of their inner being is never satiated.

The minister of today is kept at the peripheral edge of the lives of the society. He is no more welcomed as “man of God” or “an honored guest”. His role has been limited to an “extra” or only when he is needed for a specific purpose, thus, “he is not taken seriously” when things are just fine. In other words, he is not man of the “fine weather” but that of a storm and crisis.

The writer further delineates this view by emphatically proclaiming that the Christian way of life does not necessarily take away our loneliness and emptiness (wounds)  but helps us utilizes it to transcend beyond it in order to understand others’ loneliness and emptiness. But this can only happen if we first recognize (be aware of) and acknowledge our own loneliness and emptiness (wounds). Thus, instead of allowing our inner loneliness and emptiness (wounds) to become destructive, we, as Christians, ought to utilize them to heal others’ loneliness and emptiness (wounds) it is the cross that for Jesus was source of excruciating pain and suffering but became a symbol of salvation for all who embraced its message. (Through his wounds we were healed) We, therefore, have a choice to either let our loneliness and emptiness (wounds) become a cause of self-destruction or a source of healing for others when we are able to see them in the same condition. (empathy

Helen Keller (blind, the deaf and mute) once while addressing a school group of blind children at a school for the blind and mute, said in her very limited articulation, “I know every step of the way you walk, as I have been there”. Jesus forewarned his disciples and followers that the world will persecute and hate them, just as they did to him, but he overcame the world, not by retaliating but by using the same pain, persecution and suffering to reach out to them and connect with them.

In Search of “the ideal”

The writer further goes on to say that the problem with the modern world is that it tries to fill its loneliness by seeking for “the ideal”. Men and women assume there is someone out there (Mr. / Miss perfect) who will fully understand them and love them and in a way that will completely take away their loneliness and emptiness. Since such utopian whims and wishes soon are shattered into pieces, when they discover that “the ideal” was after all not as ideal as they had envisaged or expected. If there were really such “ideals” out there, there would hardly be any divorces or separations. Sadly, the ideals are only found in works of fiction or in dreams. Marriages and relations fall apart because neither of the partners is able to enter into the dark, “hidden” and the unexplored territories (The Johari Window) of their spouse’s heart or soul which is not that “attractive” and “pleasing”.

The more I became acquainted with the disposition of my beloved

The more, I became lonelier and lonelier and lonelier

Minister: The Marginalized One

The role of the minister in people’s lives is becoming very limited as he is hardly invited to come over and listen to what’s going on in people’s lives. He is only “let in” when it is almost the end of the road for many.  Or, he is there to perform THE LAST rites because, he only is THE LAST ONE to be permitted in the whole affair.

The media reports the suicide of a man or a woman and they show the interviews of the neighbors and friends who, facing the cameras say, “He was always friendly and cheerful, etc. etc., “we could never imagine he / she could do such a thing, this comes as a huge shock to us.”

So, there we have it.

“Faces are but deceptive and things are not as them seem to be” Shakespeare

So, what went wrong? The neighbors and the community had only seen the smiling face, greeting everyone in the street, at a local store or at a community event. But, neither the “fallen one” nor the community had ever had a chance to look deeper and see the wounds that were always bandaged with a smile.

“how come you are always smiling, is there a pain that you are trying to conceal? ”

The writer paints the sorry portrait of the minister by saying that, the s/he “always, seems to arrive at the wrong place at the wrong time and with the wrong people, outside the walls of the city when the feast is over, with a few a crying women”

The writer narrates an event when the pilot of a ship, in a desperate situation bumps into a priest and, says, “God damn it, Father, get out of my way” But soon realizing his own incompetency and guilt comes back to seek the preiest’s “presence” in the rather rough and perilous situation. “This might be the only time I really need you”, says the frustrated and confused pilot to the priest he had shunned moments before.

The minister is, thus, not “a fair weather” friend but is indeed only “a friend in need”.

Nouwen says that people tend to overlook their hurt or ignore it or even pretend as if it were not there but when life pushes them to the edge, they realize that the wound was always very much there. And, how aptly, a philosopher puts it, “it always hurts more where the scar is”.

Loneliness is the wound of a minister in these days. This is the wound he has to bind very gently and carefully. Forming a community of faith in these days is a hard calling and the minister in his loneliness and neglect has to make use of this wound, first by accepting it as a bitter reality of the day and then by putting it into the service of healing others.

The Healing Minister

The writer now embarks on deciphering and interpreting the enigmatic concept of the “Wounded Healer” and elucidating the all too paradoxical philosophy of “making our wound the source of healing” for others.

Nouwen asserts that while “a doctor can still be a good doctor while his own private life is badly disturbed, no minister can offer service without a constant and vital knowledge of his own experiences.” But the writer here points out the fine and subtle difference between the two. No minister, he says, can stand behind the pulpit and rant about his own miserable condition or tell what he is going through. This, he says, by no means is going to be of any help either to him or to the congregation.  Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, says Nouwen, does not call for sharing of superficial personal pains but for a constant reminder and recognition of one’s own pain before seeing it in others. It is not in seeking a morbid and melancholic pleasure in pain or romanticizing suffering but feeling its depth and extensiveness only to understand it better.

The Buddhist Philosophy of “Dukha

This brings to my mind the Buddhist concept of “dukha” or suffering, which the Buddhist philosophy teaches to embrace as an ultimate reality of life and from which there is no escape until the cycle of   reincarnation goes on. The salvation or mukti / moksha will only be achieved when the recognition of dukha will be established and then measure will be taken to counter it. Escape there is none, for as much as we will try to escape from it, the more will it pursue and haunt us. The liberation (mukti/Moksha) asserts Nouwen, is in “constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of human condition”. This resonates very much with some of the Biblical texts:

  1. Psalms 90:2 KJV “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

Ecclesiastes 2:23 KJV “For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night…”

  1. Job 5:8 KJV “For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole.”

Healing and Hospitality

The writer goes on to explain how this healing can take place. He suggests that instead of focusing on the conventional Christian moral values such as compassion, care and forgiveness etc. there is a much needed virtue of hospitality that should be put in practice to embrace the wounded and lonely souls.

Hospitality and Concentration:

Nouwen says that hospitality is the ability to pay attention to the guest. The world is too busy and so are many ministers, too busy to concentrate on “self”. This goes for almost everyone today as we tend to look at people not as who they are and what they are saying but what can we get from them. Instead of trying to peep into their self we try to impose our self on them. Nouwen says that if we are not at home with our own self how could we make space or allow others to enter our home (self).  The writer further explains this by saying that it is the withdrawing of our self that is of vital importance to allow the other person to make way into our home (self) But if we are too full of our own self we cannot make space for others. Even in God’s act of the creation, according to the Jewish mystical doctrine, God had to withdraw to create. Thus, withdrawal of self-aids the other to come into being. In a more practical and wordly sense, when a guest or guest comes, the host in most cases, has to make some adjustments to squeeze and give up some of his own comfort and space in order to accommodate and make the guest feel comfortable and “at home”. This happens in mostly in eastern cultures where there is hardly a concept of a separate guest room for the visitors.  To me as someone from this culture, makes a clear and perfect sense.

Moreover, to me, this is one of the key or the most vital aspect of chaplaincy , as a chaplain must allow the patient to enter his “home” (self) as a guest and to feel at home speaking up his thoughts , sharing his innermost feelings or grievances in the comfort of the hospitality of the chaplain / minister.  (allowing the minister / chaplain do the midwifery) Withdrawing his own self (sorrow) and letting the guest (patient) pour it all out.

Nouwen says that when someone comes to a minister in his loneliness and suffering, he does not expect the minster to be a physician who will treat his condition but he comes with a hope that his pain and suffering will be understood and felt  (feel at home)  just as he is experiencing it. The writer also gives another scenario where he says that a woman who has suffered the loss of a healthy and beautiful child does not need to hear that she must have consolation in the fact that she still has two children with her but the minister here must face the challenge of helping her realize that in her child’s death she has to see the frailty of human life (stated above: Ecclesiastes 2;23, Job 5:18 and Psalms 91) and her own mortal condition. (also, the Buddhist philosophy of Dukha / suffering) The writer says that the minister must only try to prevent people from suffering when they suffer for the wrong reasons or with the false suppositions and illusions of immortality and wholeness. Ministry, the writer says, is a very confronting service which has to make people realize and recognize the mortal condition of human beings and this very recognition is the starting point of liberation. Once we are able to accept this bitter reality, acknowledge and share our brokenness and sorrow, only then are we are able to transform our suffering into hope and experience the spirit of Christian hospitality which creates a healing community. Thus, the shared sorrows produce a shared hope and shared weaknesses become a shared strength and this shared communion in turn creates recognition of God’s saving grace.


In conclusion, the writer goes back to the story that he started in the beginning of the chapter, where he talks about a Rabbi who asks Joshua when the Messiah would come. Elijah says that he could see the Messiah sitting among the poor at the city gate, binding his wounds one by one. The Rabbi goes to see the Messiah and asks when he would come. “Today” Said, The Messiah. The Rabbi goes back to Elijah and tells him that the Messiah has lied to him as he had said that he would come today but he has not.

Elijah says, “This is what he told you: ‘Today if you would listen to his voice’.”  (Psalm 95:7)

To me this is the same answer the Messiah (Jesus) gives in the New Testament:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:

“Behold, the kingdom of God is within you”. Luke 17: 20-21 KJV

The writer closes the discourse by saying that our loneliness and isolation makes us desperately look for a Messiah and a liberator who would take away our despair and miseries and usher a new era of peace and justice but we forget that our wounds are indeed the place where God will start his work of a new creation in us and that is where peace, justice and our healing will be initiated.

My Closing Annotations:

Elijah’s reply to the Rabbi that what the Messiah had said was indeed “Today if you would listen to his voice”, resonates enormously with my eastern philosophy that rises from mysticism proclaiming that if we are to find God, we have to seek Him within. That is what the prophet tells the Rabbi, the Messiah has already come; we just have to look within us and listen to His voice. God does not dwell in temples built with stones and rocks but in the human heart, the heart that is hurt. Because it is only there that he can make his healing presence felt.


Reviewed by: Dr Prudent Injeeli