by Liz Niehoff
Henri Nouwen coined a phrase that is frequently used in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) circles: as pastoral caregivers, we ought to aim toward the goal of being wounded healers, not the walking wounded.
When I hear this, all I can think of is the TV show “The Walking Dead,” but I doubt this is what Nouwen was getting at. He thought long and hard about this deeply theological, scriptural concept.
Over the course of my five units of CPE, this phrase appeared and reappeared. It was not until my final few units of CPE, and then again in my role as a hospice chaplain, that I really caught a glimmer of what Nouwen was getting at. To be the walking wounded hints at the idea of pastors’ wounds becoming a hindrance to their personhood, and their “pastorhood” as well. And in the end, their ability to feel the working of the Divine is hindered. The still small voice of God muted.
Wounded healers are strong in their weakness to borrow the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians. Their scars and wounds are not a hindrance to the furthering of the Gospel and the mission of the church, but rather a source of connection with those in need. As a mentor of mine put it, wounded healers are able to use their woundedness as a source of great and deep empathy, both emotional and spiritual. Wounded healers acknowledge their own need for healing, for self-care in the healing process, and that healing happens over the course of a lifetime, and isn’t just one chapter in life’s book with God.
Why the seminar on Henri Nouwen now? Advent approaches—a period of expectation, of great hope and joy. The holidays are already in the air. It is a period for many where wounds and pains are all the more prominent, and where companionship is more needed. This is the time for the wounded healer’s presence of strength in weakness, empathy in the midst of healing, and woundedness as the starting point for service.
As pastors, people, and children of God, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the suffering of others and have the willingness to sit in the midst of this experience. As Nouwen says, “compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence not only that God is God and man is man, but also that our neighbor is really our fellow man.” In this acknowledgment, we come face to face not only with our own humanity, but also see the loving and compassionate face of Christ in another.
As the holiday being to press in, acknowledge the strength, beauty, and power of your role as a wounded healer, as the sharing of an experience, or the sharing of empathy to another. Acknowledge the life-giving nature that the scars you bear, whether visible or invisible, may give not only to you but also to another.
Thanks be to God, as God uses each and every one of us, just as we are, in precious community!
Liz Niehoff has just begun serving as a full time hospice and home care staff chaplain in Danbury, Connecticut.