The Wounded Healer in a Time of Pandemic

What does it mean to be a minister in contemporary society? Henri Nouwen posed this question in 1972, nearly 50 years ago, as the opening sentence to The Wounded Healer. The world was not under lockdown, but his analysis of the modern person is called into stark relief in a world grieving and fighting a coronavirus. His insights allow us to better serve people in this time, especially those who are isolated by social distancing, our medical workers, and the sick they serve, in whom we see the image of Christ. He reminds us, “The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift” (90). This pandemic will pronounce the loneliness of the sick, the doctor, and the person isolating for safety.

Nouwen writes that the modern, suffering person is “inward,” “fatherless,” and “convulsive,” which are essentially three elements of loneliness. An inward person is “convinced there is nothing ‘out there’ or ‘up there’”, and as a result, the search for meaning turns inward (32). In the isolation of quarantine, as the person sits alone with nothing but the internet and (perhaps) their immediate family to entertain them, the person will be forced to think. A non-believer will probably not engage in prayer in the traditional sense, but they will be forced to slow down, because all of the distractions they normally fill their lives with won’t be there. The busy father who uses the fact that he coaches his son’s Little League team as a way to avoid the fact that he never listens to that son won’t have that as an excuse. The busy small business owner who works 70 hours a week to put food on the table won’t have the distraction of work as a way to avoid the deep introspection that allows him to realize that he hates his job. The twenty-something who lives alone won’t have her constant socializing in various groups as a way to distract from the fact that she has no close friends to whom she can open her life. All of these people will be forced inward, to seek. They can “no longer be busy to avoid a painful self-concentration” 996).

Of course, they will not find meaning inside themselves, because only God can fill their need. Because all the distractions that keep people from seeking are gone, this is the perfect opportunity to preach the love of God to these people. We can “deepen this pain to a level where it can be shared” (99). However, if the Church relies on old modes of authority, it will not be able to speak to the modern person, because of the modern person’s fatherlessness.

The fatherless person is one who rejects traditional authority. In the modern world, many people have been hurt by authority figures. In Nouwen’s world, people were fearful of atomic warfare and disheartened by the government’s failure to eliminate the poverty outside their door (35). While the 20-somethings of 50 years later are not existentially fearing atomic warfare, they do have similar feelings about groups that claim authority. They have witnessed or maybe even served in the longest war in American history; they are losing their jobs as the economy experiences a second major crash in the past dozen years; they see horrible sex abuse coverups by the Church they believed in; they see divorces by their parents who won’t speak to one another anymore. Who doesn’t let them down? Their friends—because if a friend leaves, that’s normal. The 20-something is dominated by “the tyranny of the peer group” (7), which has a different kind of authority. To reject the peer group, which is seen as more reliable than the “fatherly” group, is an act of non-conformity, not one of disobedience (35). It will cause shame, not guilt, and as a result is to be avoided at all costs, because not to do so will cause loneliness.

They also want to change the world; they are so dissatisfied with the world that they’ve grown convulsive. They know “the world shouldn’t be as it is, but see no workable alternative,” so they, without the good example of an authority they respect, turn to dangerous answers (38). Suicide, alcohol abuse, drugs, protests without clear legislative goals—these are all symptoms of what Nouwen calls convulsion. They can’t see an answer, but because authority is untrustworthy, the answers of the government and the Church must necessarily be wrong. In the quarantined world of today, symptoms of convulsion are the desire to go out and party. If there’s no hope for the future and the world is lost anyway, why should they not enjoy themselves with the little time they’ve got left?

Hence, the form of authority the Church needs to rely on is accompaniment, as Pope Francis would say, or hospitality, as Nouwen would say. A dictatorial form of authority will not work for a group of people who have learned to reject dictatorial authority, because the groups who claim such authority have hurt them. The Church, which is seen in some ways as enabling child abuse, cannot say on its own authority: “Pray. It will calm you.” It must earn a different kind of authority.[1] And this is the perfect opportunity, because most people will become seekers. By becoming the peer of the seeker, the Church can lead the seeker to hope and growth. Because people have fewer distractions, they are turning inward.

How can the Church gain the authority it needs to offer healing and hope in this time of suffering? Obviously, the goal of ministry is to lead people to growth. But the promise (and threat) of “Heaven, Hell, Purgatory” (18) are not motivating for the modern seeker because the Church has lost its authority for many. In this moment of crisis, there are Christians, even some Catholics, arguing that our spirits are more important than our bodies, so we should go to church, despite the scientific consensus that this will kill people. Of course, this will make the Church lose even more of its authority, when its reputation has already been tarnished by decades of mismanaging the sexual abuse crisis.

Nouwen offers great insights on gaining this authority.. He has already identified a problem, and the problem is intensifying. Now, we must learn from his proposed solution.

He offers compassion as the way that a Christian minister gains authority, as it answers the problem of fatherlessness directly (45). He writes, “Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence…that our neighbor really is our fellow human being” (45). Compassion allows us to look into that inward, fatherless, and convulsive person, and see ourselves in them. As Christians, we might want to believe that we’re not inward. But if we look deeply, we understand that we are familiar with the temptation to not rely on God. We like to believe that we’re not fatherless, but everyone knows the feeling of wanting to be accepted by someone their own age—maybe a crush, maybe a popular person, maybe a friend. We like to believe that we’re not convulsive, but right now, in the fear of the coronavirus, many of us have felt the temptation to give up. The authority of compassion can respond to the desire to be led by a peer, while offering the central Christian message, which is hope in the resurrection. Through compassion, I can show you that I have the same fears, the same struggles, as you, but that because I have tended to them, I can enter into yours and help you heal. Hence, we are in some ways “peers”, in that I derive my authority from similarity, but I am not one who desires to lead you in a destructive way. I want to use our similarity to offer you the love of God and the hope of the resurrection, along with positive, creative outlets.

The example for the Christian is always Christ. In what way do we see Christ active today? Nouwen offers us an insight, referencing a legend from the Talmud. Most of the poor, covered with wounds, unbind all their wounds at once, then rebind all of them (88). “But he [the Messiah] unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying ‘Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment” (88).

Who do we see binding one wound at a time, so that they can be of service to those who need it? Medical professionals are one example. Some medical professionals are even living in hotels so as to not expose their families to sickness. They bear the wound of not being with those who would be the most supportive so that they can help those in need. They are sharing the loneliness of the sick person who cannot be visited by the one they love. This is not to mention the immense psychological toll of being unable to save everyone, which can help them enter the pain of the person they are watching die alone. But none of these pains stop them from taking the necessary risks to serve those suffering. They are acting with true compassion—entering into the suffering of the sick, putting themselves at risk, and doing their best to share and alleviate the suffering. Given that we see Christ in the medical worker, what can a Christian minister learn?

The compassion of the medical worker is an example to the Christian minister. Despite changes in our lifestyles, we can still be compassionate. The inward, fatherless, and convulsive people now have all sorts of time to express their desire for something deeper, and Christian ministers have more time to speak with them as our programming drops. Without having to run speaker series, because nobody can come to them, we have more time to have a one-on-one phone conversation with a seeking person. The person at the parish, whom you know well and nobody else does, is probably seeking. Call her. Listen to how she’s doing. Ask questions. Talk about how she’s doing. If she wants, she might say, “Why? Where is God?” You can offer the witness of a God who experienced human suffering and is willing to share her suffering today. You can’t do it in person; but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

Nouwen knows that the minister feels unnecessary. The modern person, who is fatherless and inward, does not want a minister who gives them hope out of a tired old story they’ve heard a thousand times. But Nouwen also recognizes that when all the distractions go away, the person will search for meaning. With no opportunity to get drunk with their friends, that 22-year-old college senior who just lost his graduation experience, will be forced to reflect. This is the time the Christian minister can be useful. People could lose all sense of hope as their friends die, they lose their jobs, and they live alone. But the Christian minister can resist that. There is a hope of healing, whether before or after death (82). This hope is one of connection. The suffering of meaninglessness, of not seeing a way out, can be overtaken with connection, as we live as the Body of Christ. You, the minister, are the first sacrament of that connection.

In short, Nouwen has keenly identified the state of the world. He identifies the current state of the unchurched as one of inwardness, convulsion, and fatherlessness. The pandemic will only exacerbate this as we distance. The Christian minister has the opportunity, if they use compassion as their form of authority, under the example of the medical doctor or nurse, to offer hope that the world is now more ready to receive.

Nick Frega is a pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Parish in Newton MA, working in liturgy, faith formation, and bereavement. He has an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and a BA in Religious Studies and Politics from Fairfield University

[1] Of course, the authority of the peer group is not one we prefer to the authority of the father. It can lead to crushing shame when a person feels they have let their peers down (Nouwen 37). The point is not to argue in favor of that kind of authority, just to recognize it as real and a truth we need to respond to.