Over 30 years ago, a Catholic priest and sought-after spiritual guide wrote the following in a letter to an inquirer: “I have been increasingly aware that true healing mostly takes place through the sharing of weakness.” Pressing beyond generalities, he made his reply personal: “[I]n the sharing of my weakness with others, the real depths of my human brokenness and weakness and sinfulness started to reveal itself to me, not as a source of despair but as a source of hope.”
For us today, in the era of self-help gurus, the priest’s words may sound like a truism whose luster has grown dull with over-familiarity. Or—worse—they might be misconstrued as an encouragement to wallow in our wounds, to valorize our frailty as somehow redemptive in and of itself. Is there any reason, then, to treat this letter as an instance of spiritual insight?
The priest who wrote it was named Henri Nouwen, and almost a decade before, in 1972, as a newly minted instructor at Yale Divinity School, he had published a book titled The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. It was to become, according to most of his ecumenical readership, Nouwen’s signature title. Before Brené Brown appeared on the TED stage, before spiritual counseling and small group ministry in evangelical parachurch ministries had encouraged believers to disclose more of their doubts and insecurities, before movements like the charismatic Cursillo and the contemplative Taizé and Renovaré had gone mainstream, Nouwen was already advocating a spirituality that took its cue from Christ’s nail-scarred risen body. Any spirituality and ministry we might hope to cultivate should be one that’s pursued, as Nouwen put it in another letter, “in the name of the One who healed through his wounds and who revealed his healing presence as the crucified one, who took the marks of his crucifixion into his new life with God.”
What had prompted Nouwen to embrace a spirituality and a ministry model like this one? Born in the Netherlands in 1932, Nouwen had grown up a pious, conscientious—and ambitious—eldest child. By the time he was five years old, Nouwen had acquired specially made child-size priestly vestments so that he could say Mass at a play altar. “I did all the proper things,” he would later write, comparing himself to the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, “mostly complying with the agendas set by the many parental figures in my life—teachers, spiritual directors, bishops, and popes.” Two decades later, having already graduated from two seminaries, Nouwen was ordained to the Catholic priesthood at Utrecht, ready to fulfill a calling—an inevitability, it seemed to those who knew him best—he’d sensed from boyhood. In short, a walking specimen of oozing spiritual wounds, Nouwen most certainly was not. Gregarious, theatrical, often childishly playful, his priestly work led him from strength to strength.