When I first started searching for the Eliot poem, I was using
the wrong word. Rather than "the wounded surgeon," I was
searching for "the wounded healer." That brought me to Henri
Nouwen's book, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in
Contemporary Society, which brought an entirely different sort
of blessing. His teachings had made a profound impression
on me when I was in college, and I'd been away from their
direct influence far too long. This was an opportunity to
Nouwen (pronounced now-in) was already an important figure
back in the 60s. A Dutch Catholic theologian, he had decided
he wanted to become a priest at the age of six.
Because my life and ministry seem to have paralleled his in
many ways, I felt that I understood and appreciated Nouwen's
emphasis on authenticity and practical ministry and on knowing
and sharing the experience of those to whom we minister.
He often said, "I grew up in a very protected and safe
environment and I learned to know that I was Dutch and I was
Catholic. It took me quite a long time to discover that there
were many people, many people, who were neither!" I, too,
grew up in a very protected and safe environment in a small
town in the Texas Panhandle.
He was educated by the Jesuits at Aloysius Gymnasium, or
College, at the Hague, and was ordained a priest for the
diocese of Utrecht in 1957. I attended Abilene Christian
College in Texas.
Despite the fact that most people in Church circles felt that
psychology undermined faith, immediately after his ordination,
Nouwen was allowed to study for six additional years in
psychology at the University of Nijmegen, graduating in 1963.
I graduated from Pepperdine College in Los Angeles a few
years later, and when we moved out here, I was warned of the
dangers to my faith of life in the big city.
A practical theologian, he also worked briefly during this time
as a pastor in the mines, a chaplain in the army, and a chaplain
on the Holland-America Line, accompanying immigrants to the
United States. I appreciated the practical nature of his ministry,
the fact that he worked with people where they were, and I
always sought to do the same.
He spent two years at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas
in their Religion and Psychiatry Program, working in clinical
pastoral education, research and writing. He hoped to
introduce the combination of psychology and theology
pioneered at Menninger to the Netherlands. This combination
of education, research and writing is important to me as the
author of eight books on Christian education, practical
Christian living, and devotion.
Nouwen also grew more politically aware during this period,
participating in Martin Luther King's Civil Rights March from
Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and writing a moving account
of his experience in a Dutch publication in 1965. That was the
year Frank and I moved into an African American neighborhood
in South Central Los Angeles and my Christianity took on a
greater political and racial awareness.
Nouwen taught at Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School, the
Ecumenical Institute at Collegeville, Minnesota, the North
American College in Rome, and Harvard. Meanwhile, he
crisscrossed North America on speaking tours about
conditions in Latin America. I, too, taught and spoke in various
churches, colleges and states across the country.
It was at Yale that he wrote The Wounded Healer, and in it he
said the following:
"When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like
Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his,
then there are many ways and forms in which a man [or a
woman] can be a Christian." Authenticity and honesty in
Christian living has been a continuing theme of mine.
"The man [or woman] who articulates the movements of his [or
her] inner life, who can give names to his varied experiences,
need no longer be a victim of himself, but is able slowly and
consistently to remove the obstacles that prevent the spirit from
entering. He is able to create space for Him whose heart is
greater than his, whose eyes see more than his, and whose
hands can heal more than his." I have always sought by
articulating my inner life and experiences in my writing and
speaking to remove obstacles to the spirit and create space for
Christ's love, awareness and healing.
"The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led
out of the desert by someone who has never been there." I
have always felt that leaders need to walk with those they seek
to serve--to share their experiences, both the negative and the
"The beginning and end of all Christian leadership is to give
your life for others." Jesus is the prime example of leading
through sacrificial service.
Nouwen also told the story of a fugitive who sought to hide in a
village. When the soldiers threatened to burn the village, the
frightened minister read his Bible to discover what to do. "It is
better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost," he
read, and he turned the fugitive in. That night, an angel
appeared to him, accusing him of turning over the Messiah.
'How could I know?" the minister asked. "If, instead of reading
your Bible, you had looked into his eyes, you would have
known," the angel said. Only by really knowing those around us
can we see Christ in them.