Wounded Healers

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, March 11, 2018.

Do you know the name Henri Nouwen? He was one of the spiritual giants of the 20th century. But his was not the typical path; as a young priest, he asked his bishop for permission to study psychology instead of theology. He taught at Yale and Harvard divinity schools, he published 39 books and hundreds of articles, he inspired a generation of seekers across denominations, but he struggled with loneliness and depression all his life. 

What gave this simple man his power was not the usual combination of bravado and shameless self-promotion. Henri Nouwen didn’t have a brand; but if he did, his brand would be brokenness, it would be humility, it would be a simple and heartfelt and long-suffering faith.

Forty years ago he wrote this little book, The Wounded Healer. It’s premise is that we are all broken, we all suffer, that being wounded is part of the human condition. So what are we going to do about it? 

Our culture tends to tell us to hide our imperfections, push away our dark emotions, put on a happy face, fake it ’til you make it. The way of the wounded healer is an entirely different approach. It says, go toward that which is painful, get to know your own brokenness, because the only way out is through.

Henri Nouwen writes, “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

Fifteen years ago, at the start of a summer of hospital chaplaincy training, I confessed to my peers and supervisors in that program that I was worried about what I would encounter there in the hospital, and how that suffering might unearth my own buried grief. I said, “I have this fear that I could start crying and never stop.” One of the supervisors, a wise woman, took this seriously. She said, “Yes, you will experience plenty of pain and sorrow on this path. But I promise, you will also find companions on the way.”

Last Sunday I talked about the importance of acknowledging that which is broken, as a first step toward healing and transformation. And once we see what’s broken, then comes the work of dealing with it. And this can take a long time. It’s easy to put it off, because we fear what we might unearth. But this procrastination just makes it harder. Franz Kafka said, “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.” 

Holding back is its own kind of suffering. The invitation is to move forward, toward what is broken, rather than trying to avoid it. I’m not advocating seeking after pain or glorifying suffering. I’m just saying we need to practice facing that which we’ve often been taught to avoid. The goal is to move through it, and make good use of it.

You heard this in our reading this morning, Durkheim’s call to be people on the way:

“The person who is really on the Way, when she finds herself in hard times, will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers her only refuge and comfort, and encourages her old self to survive.

“Rather, she will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help her to risk herself, so that she may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it, thus making of it a ‘raft that leads to the far shore.’

“Only to the extent that people expose themselves over and over again to risk and discomfort, can that which is indestructible arise within us. In this lies the dignity of daring.”

What do you do when you are suffering? Most of us are taught that the proper response is to try to take away the pain. There’s a huge industry in our country for pain relief. Now I am happy to take a couple of ibuprofen when I have a headache. But when my heart is aching, what do I do?

Too often I wonder, “What is wrong with me?” And I can feel bad that I’m feeling bad. Others have it far worse! When I should be asking, “What is this about? What is my soul trying to tell me? What would happen if I sit with my sadness and try to listen for what it wants to say?

When she came back to church, the writer Brené Brown said “I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort.’ But what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’” She says, “Church wasn’t an epidural, it was a midwife. It just stood next to me and said ‘Push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit.’” 

One of the things that I love about you here in this church is that you’re real. You’re down to earth; you don’t have a lot of pretense, you aren’t afraid to tell the truth about your struggles. But have you thought about putting your brokenness to work? Have you considered that your struggles, your hard-won wisdom, might be something you can use to help others, and help heal our world?

When we work with our pain and our suffering, and make of it a raft that leads to the far shore, we’re not doing this just for ourselves. How many of us have vowed that we will not pass the dysfunction we experienced on to our children and grandchildren? When we deal with our own brokenness, then we break that painful cycle, and we open the way to new and more life-giving possibilities.

We are all wounded people, in one way or another. The question is, what are you going to do about this? Are you going to be one of the walking wounded, or are you going to work with your wounds and metabolize your pain, to make of your suffering a raft that leads to the far shore, so you can use what you have experienced in service to others, so you can be a wounded healer?

I believe that we all have this power to be healers. Not in spite of our wounds, but because we have worked with them and have learned from them; have developed a deeper capacity, a bigger heart, a wiser soul, more loving arms.

When we see our brokenness not as something to hide or be ashamed of, but as an opening, a portal through which we can walk into a deeper, more authentic, more openhearted way of living, then we are on our way. When we take what we have been taught to hide or push away, and see it as the way through, then we are becoming wounded healers. 

And there is a surprising power in this. It’s the quiet power Henri Nouwen had in his life, and how he touched so many people. But he would tell you this way is not without risk. He said, “Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: Who can take away suffering without entering it? The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”

The good news is that as we walk through this wilderness, we will not be alone. We will sense that we have what Martin Luther King called “cosmic companionship,” we will know that we are part of a Love that will not let us go. And as that wise woman said to me, “You will find companions on the way.” 

More good news is that there’s joy in this; it’s not grim, this journey of embracing our brokenness. There’s liberation that comes from facing what you fear rather than avoiding it. In living more authentically the life that is yours.

Ram Dass said, “We are all just walking each other home.” This is who we are, and how we’re meant to live, taking up this vocation of the wounded healer, walking each other home.

So take heart, my friends. The pain you have experienced in life can be, with work and grace, transformed into the power to help heal and bless our world. This is our calling, to work with what we have been given, to be on the way together, singing as we go, walking each other home.