Nouwen Ministers Out of Pain

Henri Nouwen, Wounded HealerHenri J.M. Nouwen. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig  1972). New York:  Image Doubleday.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Many call stories recited by pastors started at the foot of a hospital bed. Mine did. Others have suffered chronic illness of a sibling or child.  Been there.  Awareness of our own pain helps us appreciate the pain of others (4).  Lived it. I first read Henri Nouwen’s book, Wounded Healer, in the years before attending seminary.  Reading and understanding did not, however, immediately go hand-in-hand.

Lost Transcendence

Thinking in terms of the scientific method, the hardest step in problem-solving is often defining the problem—defining the problem in such a way that further inquiry is both doable and productive [1]. For Nouwen, the core problem of postmodernity is a lost sense of God’s transcendence (20-21).  Citing Robert Jay Lifton, modern people are characterized by historical dislocation, fragmented ideology, and a search for new immorality (12). Nouwen sees these characteristics as more lost connection with the past or the future (12-13), lost belief in objective reality (15), and lost meaning in the traditional symbols of the church (18-19).  This lost sense of transcendence leaves the postmodern person only able to perceive an “existential transcendence”—a kind of breaking out of their private lives to get lost in mysticism or revolutionary causes (20-23).  He sees Christianity itself through a dual lens of mysticism and revolution; conversion is itself a personal revolution (23).


Churches are clearly experimenting with this idea.  Pub ministry offers a kind of bottled mysticism [2]; mission trips present a “revolutionary” breaking of the routine; all sorts of “causes célèbre”, however kinky, give people a sense of being “edgy” or “revolutionary” giving a dull life some sparkle.  The problem with this sort of transcendence is that it is not transcendence at all.  Nouwen’s existential transcendence is more a kind of participatory immanence than transcendence—transcendence is a divine attribute, not a human one.  Only someone lost to themselves or lost in themselves requires surrender to an external “cause” or mountain top experience.  Existential transcendence is an ersatz sense of the divine, not divinity in the usual sense [3].

Still, Nouwen is onto something significant here–the church’s task is to point to God both in our daily experiences of life and in our mind’s eye.  God is not dull and boring; we are negligent disciples if we make him appear that way.  The Psalmist writes: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” (Ps 33:3 ESV) Tension, however, exists in existential transcendence between reflecting the divine image (Gen 1:27) and reaching for one of those shiny apples (Gen 3:6).

Case Studies

Nouwen makes use of two important case studies.

The first case study is more of a description.  He describes a troubled young man named Peter.  Peter is 26, drifting through life, having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality—likely a psychiatric patient (7-9).  Nouwen writes:

“Peter was not torn apart by conflict, was not depressed, suicidal, or anxiety-ridden.  He did not suffer from despair, but neither did he have anything to hope for…Perhaps we can find in Peter’s life history events or experiences that throw some light on his apathy, but it seems just as valid to view Peter’s paralysis as the paralysis of all humans in the modern age who have lost the sources of their creativity, which is their sense of immorality [transcendence].” (17)

Peter is a kind of archetype—perhaps a younger Henri Nouwen.

The second case study is what chaplains refer to as a verbatim—a case study of a pastoral visit that went poorly which is discussed in a chaplain group as a learning tool.  The case is of a middle-aged blue collar worker, plagued with loneliness and despair, in the hospital for surgery who is visited by a young seminarian and later dies in surgery (56-58).  How might this pastoral visit gone better?  Had the chaplain dealt more effectively with the man’s loneliness and despair, would the man have survived? (72)

Principles of Leadership

Out of this impressive case study, Nouwen derives 3 principles of Christian leadership:

  1. Personal concern;
  2. A deeply-rooted faith in the value and meaning of life; and
  3. Hope that always looks for tomorrow, even beyond death. (76)

It is a bit odd at this point that a Catholic priest, like Nouwen, would not draw his principles of leadership more directly from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For example, What leads us to be concerned? Why does he reference faith in life rather than faith in Christ?  What leads us to look beyond death?[3]  Maybe his principles have a biblical origin, but we will never know from his meditation.


Nouwen does give us some origins.  His title, wounded healer, is drawn from a story recorded in the Jewish Talmud about the coming Messiah.  Nouwen writes:

“The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, binding his wounds only one at a time [unlike others who bind them all at once], always prepared for the moment when he might be needed” (88).

Nouwen sees one of the greatest wounds being loneliness which is compounded for the minister by professional loneliness—more a sense of being irrelevant (89-93).  Nouwen sees our own woundedness as helping the minister to connect with the suffering and offer them both hospitality [a safe space to share] and community (93-99).  In this way, the minister empowers the suffering to confront their own issues and find peace with God (Psalm 95:7; 102).


Henri Nouwen’s book, Wounded Healer, deeply influenced me early in my seminary career, in part, because of my own experience of loss and pain. His lost sense of transcendence troubles me now that I understand better what he was saying and what he was not saying. Where is God in his pain? How can a priest be so radically alone? These are troubling questions for a book so influential among pastors and seminarians.  Nouwen redeems his own pain through ministry, but one gets the sense that he is still ministering out of his own anti-strength, strength not Christ’s.  Still, his writing is ever-fresh and his case studies are helpful and will be of interest to seminary students for years to come.


[1] The steps in the scientific methods are:  felt need, problem definition, observation, analysis, decision, execution, and responsibility bearing.  See:  Stephen W. Hiemstra, “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management, Society of Actuaries, June 2009 (


[3] The idea of approaching God through human experience runs counter to scripture.  God stands outside of time and is holy in the sense of set apart—he must approach us, we cannot approach Him.  In the Tower of Babel story (Gen 11), for example, God comes down and laughs at the people trying to build a tower to heaven.  The uniqueness of Christ arises is that in Christ God comes to us.  With spiritual disciplines, we strip away impediments to God approaching us, we do not ourselves approach God.  This is one aspect of God’s sovereignty.

[4] In my own experience, Catholic priests more typically focus on administering the sacraments in a hospital setting and leave pastoral visits to the laity.  However, Nouwen was writing in 1972 when things may have been different.

Nouwen Ministers Out of Pain

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