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  • He Answered Them

The Wounded Healer

Updated: Jan 1, 2023

In this short essay Henri J.M Nouwen’s use of the metaphor of The Wounded Healer is under analysis. We shall seek to establish how successful it is in illuminating specific parts of pastoral care. There is a certain level of paucity within any metaphor, but as Lane noted, it is the ‘great economy of metaphorical speech’ which often reveals the strength of the conjured image.[1] As the key themes of the character of The Wounded Healer are explored, we will discover the rationale for Nouwen’s choice: by linking those themes to the praxis of pastoral care we will be able to determine the value of the imagery, and therefore its usefulness to aid our understanding of the vocation. As the field of pastoral care is so large and given that metaphor has an inherent problem: the demand for constant and reciprocal interpretation according to Lane,[2] it seems only fair to establish a context in which to discuss the metaphor. Sticking with Nouwen’s medically themed imagery, the context of analysis will centre around medical and palliative care or trauma and associated distress found in the fields of Hospital and Military chaplaincy; absent in this analysis will be how applicable the metaphor is to Prison chaplaincy.

Unpacking the Metaphor

Sprinkled throughout Nouwen’s eloquent writing are the themes of his metaphor. The image takes some consideration, and it becomes clear there is an element of conflict within the description; therefore, it is apt that Dykstra places the essay into the ‘paradoxical images of care’ section of his book. Underpinning the image is the theme of loneliness, both personal and professional, and yet the presence of this being a catalyst for fellowship and community. Thoughts on lack of authority and power are coupled with themes of self-realisation and self-fulfilment- these are qualities most likely to be associated with self-confidence and command. Perhaps the strongest dimension of the metaphor is the ultimate acceptance of pain and suffering in human lives, which truly harkens to the universality of the human condition.

Nouwen’s rationale explored

Deeply rooted in Nouwen’s metaphor is the need for the reader to accept the loneliness of which he writes. Loneliness is subjective, Weiss defined it in sociological terms as a perceived lack of social ties; Swader goes into greater detail in his article.[3]Although we cannot discount a person’s lived experience, it is ultimately anecdotal; loneliness becomes difficult to demonstrate empirically: is human existence truly beset by loneliness? Swader’s article references various news sources that point to a loneliness epidemic but explores the more scientific study undertaken by psychologists linking subjective loneliness to objective social isolation.[4] It becomes demonstrably true, therefore, that the scientific data marches in-step with the perceived cultural phenomena of loneliness; indeed, the leading scientific medical journal The Lancet has an award-winning article on the subject.[5] So, Nouwen, correctly identifies an aspect to humanity that is developing alongside his metaphor. Beyond the personal, Nouwen speaks of the loneliness from a professional viewpoint; this aspect proves to be the more successful in the illumination of pastoral care. As a Christian vocation, in an increasingly secular world, Nouwen talks of the diminishing impact that the role has on others. Global trends in reduced Church attendance and people identifying as Christian are well documented.[6] It is, therefore, statistically more likely that a Chaplain would find themselves amongst non-Christians in the course of their daily duties tending to the patients, thus leading to feelings of isolation. This isolation can be expanded further into the themes of powerlessness: being unique amongst the crowd can lead to feelings of inadequacy. If an individual feels lesser than others, they too may harbour doubts about their own competency; here we find an uncomfortable parallel with the metaphor: if a healer cannot treat their own wounds, exactly how efficient a healer can they be? Is this person the best option to assist me? However, as Nouwen points out, pastoral care is not intended to provide a physical healing, that is left to medical staff; the purpose of a hospital Chaplain would be to provide an emotional and spiritual healing. ‘A Minister cannot remove pain, only deepen it to a place it can be shared’,[7] this insight from Nouwen draws us further into the metaphor and invites us to ask more probing questions about the function of pastoral care.

What is a Pastor’s role?

As Nouwen makes clear a Pastor is not there to administer a physical healing. What then, in the context of Hospital or Military Chaplaincy, is the purpose of a pastor? What is emotional and spiritual healing? Both these things can be brought about by counselling and psychoanalysis, but these two practices can be sought out with the remit of a Pastor/Chaplain. What, then, makes Pastoral care unique? Louw makes the case that the importance of the pastor springs from the theological perspective and associated hermeneutical framework, that they bring to an individual in times of trauma or strife.[8] Even to the staunchest atheist, events will occur to an individual that demand an explanation; beyond the physics of an accident or the biology of an illness, an individual on some level seeks the meaning behind the event. Why did this happen, is as equally important a question to ask as how did this happen? By placing events into an eschatological context, both clarity and solace can be found. Psychoanalysis works at length to reconcile the conscious and subconscious of an individual, bringing about meaning through interpretation; when external events befall us, that same need for interpretation becomes all the more necessary. It is here, at the hermeneutical bridge, that we find the value of the praxis.

Louw, writing about Pruyser’s work, notes that some issues arose from this. For the hermeneutical work to begin, first there had to be a diagnosis of the individuals emotional or spiritual needs; this initial diagnosis may have been flawed in that it came from the ‘moralistic theology’ of Christian dogma and subsequently was ascribed to an individual perhaps undeservedly.[9] In Nouwen’s metaphor we find a further strength to his analogy: he does not seek to shy away from the very flawed human nature of the pastor; the wounds of the healer could also be wounds of prejudice or bias held. So, the need for a pastor to self-reflect before beginning treatment is not only apparent but of intrinsic value. Nouwen observes ‘no minister can offer service without constant and vital acknowledgement of his own experiences’.[10]

Nouwen’s dichotomy

As previously expressed, there is an element of friction or conflict with Nouwen’s metaphor. His paradoxical thinking, after reflection, strikes to the heart of pastoral care. We are introduced to his analogy within pre-existing parameters, no explanation is forthcoming as to the cause of the Healers wounds, merely that he has them. These wounds distinguish him from the crowd thus setting him apart; yet there is an implication that this burden is recognisable to others. Can this shared experience be a place of healing? The point where the hermeneutical bridge is crossed? He writes ‘no suffering human being is helped by someone who tells him that he has the same problem’.[11] Once again, the over-arching theme of loneliness sets in. We all have our unique individual pains and trauma, but this is not a pessimistic view. It is, to Nouwen, this very idea that brings out the communal aspect; our suffering is unique, yet the very fact we all have suffering is what gives the space for understanding and compassion. It is through humility and not pity that pastoral care becomes effective.[12] Although not unique to Christian Theology, themes of shared suffering are heavily emphasised throughout scripture; moreover, the cessation of suffering, from this springs hope, and hope is all that a pastor can truly offer as remedy for emotional or spiritual ills. Embedded within the metaphor is that hope for renewal: the Healer is only wounded not defeated.


Pastoral care is about finding a place for people, and in-turn, them finding a place for themselves. Community alleviates suffering when individual suffering becomes shared, so no single person feels the burden. The praxis of Pastoral care is passive in nature, a space is to be provided where a patient can unburden themselves; a pastor or chaplain is most effective when they are diminutive or withdrawn to a place where they can listen. It is only through listening fully and with complete engagement that an individual interpretation can be provided. If the problem of suffering is existential to humanity it becomes important that an individual does not suffer for the wrong reason. Encapsulated within Nouwen’s metaphor are all these factors. The Wounded Healer provides for us a portrait of a character who is flawed yet aware, a person who despite the obvious individual failings continues to strive for betterment. The image is indicative of a deeper more profound hope, it takes on the burden of suffering, yet expresses a universality which the human condition seeks to align with: the idea that suffering can be overcome.

[1] Lane, Belden C., 'Language, Metaphor, and Pastoral Theology', Theology Today 4, 1987 p489 [2]Lane, Belden C., 'Language, Metaphor, and Pastoral Theology' p490 [3] Christopher S. Swader, ‘Loneliness in Europe: Personal and societal Individualism-collectivism and their connection to Social Isolation’, Social Forces 97.3, (March 2019), p1307-1336 [4] Swader C., ‘Loneliness in Europe:’ p1308 [5] Dr Ishani Kar-Purkayastha, ‘Loneliness as an Epidemic’, The Lancet volume 376 Issue 9758 (December 18 2010), p2114-2115 [6] <In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace | Pew Research Center ( > or < Faith Survey | Christianity in the UK >for the UK perspective. [accessed October 11th 2021] [7] Henri J.M Nouwen, ‘The Wounded Healer’, in Images of Pastoral Care: Classic Readings ed. Robert C.Dykstra (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2005). P83 [8] D. J. Louw., 'Metaphoric Theology and God Images in a Hermeneutics for Pastoral Care and Counselling,' Verbum et Ecclesia 17, Issue 1, (1996), p114. [9] Louw., ‘Metaphoric Theology’ p116 [10] Nouwen., ‘The Wounded Healer’ p80 [11] Nouwen., ‘The Wounded Healer’ p80 [12] Nouwen., ‘The Wounded Healer’ p82

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