Henri Nouwen. Photo by Frank Hamilton

Our wounds show us that we need God

  • April 13, 2013

TORONTO - Can a wound be beautiful? According to the late priest and Catholic writer Henri Nouwen, it can.

“The Grand Canyon might be a lot like loneliness,” wrote Nouwen in 1972, comparing our wounds to the ruptured Grand Canyon. “A deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.”

At a recent retreat at St. Philip Neri parish in Toronto, theologian and pastoral care chaplain Christopher De Bono introduced parishioners to the concept of “the wounded healer,” which is brought to life through the writings of Nouwen — writings highlighting the reality of our deep need and longing for God.

Born in Holland, Nouwen wrote 39 books on spirituality, which have sold seven million copies in 30 languages worldwide. Interested in the relationship between religion and psychology, he studied at the Menninger Clinic — one of the world’s leading psychiatric hospitals — and taught at Harvard, Yale and Notre Dame. He spent the last 10 years of his life at Jean Vanier’s L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ont., working with people with intellectual disabilities.

“Maybe my wound tells me that there’s something bigger than me,” said De Bono, paraphrasing Nouwen. “And in our Christian and Catholic tradition, we call that God… Nouwen says that loneliness is part of the universal condition that can help us realize we need to look beyond.”

Nouwen spoke of an emptiness which many people try to fill by finding the “perfect” mate, drugs, materialism, sex and alcohol. But this type of wound can only be filled by God. So it is through being wounded that we recognize our inherent need for Him in our lives. The significance of the wound, then, should not be underestimated.

By the same token, no matter how on track we deem our lives to be, there will always be something missing without God.

An example of a “wounded healer” himself, there were times Nouwen would speak to thousands, then go back to his hotel room and cry because he felt lonely, said De Bono. His book, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, discussed the notion — among many other powerful ideas — that “the minister is one who must look after his wounds, but at the same time, be prepared to heal the wounds of others.” And maybe in my own woundedness, I will understand something about what healing is, said De Bono.

That is to say, when the healer has experienced similar wounds or trying circumstances, they become more relatable, more authentic.

For all Catholics, there is much to be learned from the writings of Nouwen. Contrary to societal notions that to be vulnerable is to be weak, wounds do not make you less of a person. They can lead you to God. It is through our wounds that we find common ground with our fellow human being. And if we take the time to discern what these wounds mean for us, we can help both ourselves — and those around us — grow deeper in relationship with God.

(Santilli is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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