RonRolheiser,OMI

Our Wounds, Our Gifts, and Our Power to Heal Others

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Nearly fifty years ago Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled, The Wounded Healer. Its reception established his reputation as unique spiritual mentor and he went on to become one of the most influential spiritual writers of the past half-century. What made his writings so powerful? His brilliance? His gift for expression? He was gifted, yes, but so are many others. What set him apart was that he was a deeply wounded man and from that disquieted place inside him issued forth words that were a healing balm to millions.

How does this work? How do our wounds help heal others? They don’t. It’s not our wounds that help heal others. Rather our wounds can color our gifts and talents in such a way so that they no longer educe resistance and envy in others but instead become what God meant them to be, gifts to grace others.

Sadly, the opposite is often true. Our gifts and talents often become the reason we’re disliked and perhaps even hated. There’s a curious dynamic here. We don’t automatically, nor easily, let the gifts of others grace us. More often, we’re reluctant to admit their beauty and power and we resist and envy those who possess them and sometimes even hate them for their gifts. That’s one of the reasons we find it hard to simply admire someone.

But this reluctance in us doesn’t just say something about us. Often it says something too about the persons who possess those gifts. Talent is an ambiguous thing, it can be used to assert ourselves, to separate ourselves from others, to stand out and to stand above, rather than as a gift to help others. Our talents can be used simply to point to how bright, talented, good-looking, and successful we are. Then they simply become a strength meant to dwarf others and set ourselves apart.

How can we make our talents a gift for others?  How can we be loved for our talents rather than hated for them?  Here’s the difference: we will be loved and admired for our gifts when our gifts are colored by our wounds so that others do not see them as a threat or as something that sets us apart but rather as something that gifts them in their own shortcomings. When shared in a certain way, our gifts can become gifts for everyone else.

Here’s how that algebra works: Our gifts are given us not for ourselves but for others. But, to be that, they need to be colored by compassion. We come to compassion by letting our wounds befriend our gifts. Here are two examples.

When Princess Diana died in 1997 there was a massive outpouring of love for her. Both by temperament and as a Catholic priest, I’m normally not given to grieving over celebrities, yet I felt a deep sorrow and love for this woman. Why? Because she was beautiful and famous? Not that. Many women who are beautiful and famous and are hated for it. Princess Diana was loved by so many because she was a wounded person, someone whose wounds colored her beauty and fame in a way that induced love, not envy.

Henri Nouwen, who popularized the phrase, “the wounded healer” shared a similar trait. He was a brilliant man, the author of more than forty books, one of the most popular religious speakers of his generation, tenured at both Harvard and Yale, a person with friends all over the world; but also a deeply wounded man who, by his own repeated admission, suffered restlessness, anxiety, jealousies, and obsessions that occasionally landed him in a clinic.  As well, by his own repeated admission, amidst this success and popularity, for most of his adult life he struggled to simply accept love. His wounds forever got in the way. And this, his wounded self, colors basically every page of every book he wrote. His brilliance was forever colored by his wounds and that’s why it was never self-assertive but always compassionate. No one envied Nouwen’s brilliance; he was too wounded to be envied. Instead, his brilliance always touched us in a healing way. He was a wounded healer.

Those words, wounded and healer, ordain each other. I’m convinced that God calls each of us to a vocation and to a special work here on earth more on the basis of our wounds than on the basis of our gifts. Our gifts are real and important; but they only grace others when they are shaped into a special kind of compassion by the uniqueness of our own wounds. Our unique, special wounds can help make each of us a unique, special healer.

Our world is full of brilliant, talented, highly-successful, and beautiful people. Those gifts are real, come from God, and should never be denigrated in God’s name. However, our gifts don’t automatically help others; but they can if they are colored by our wounds so that they flow out as compassion and not as pride.

An Invitation to Maturity – Weeping Over Jerusalem

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Maturity has various levels. Basic maturity is defined as having essentially outgrown the instinctual selfishness with which we were born so that our motivation and actions are now shaped by the needs of others and not just by our own needs. That’s the basic minimum, the low bar for maturity. After that there are degrees and levels, contingent upon how much our motivation and actions are altruistic rather than selfish. 

In the Gospels, Jesus invites us to ever deeper degrees of maturity, though sometimes we can miss the invitation because it presents itself subtly and not as explicitly worded moral invitation. One such subtle, but very deep, invitation to a higher degree of maturity is given in the incident where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. What’s inside this image?

Here’s the image and its setting. Jesus has just been rejected, both in his person and in his message and he sees clearly the pain the people will bring upon themselves by that rejection. What’s his reaction? Does he react in the way most of us would: Well the hell with you! I hope you suffer the full consequences of your own stupidity! No. He weeps, like a loving parent dealing with a wayward child; he wishes with every fiber in his being that he could save them from the consequences of their own bad choices. He feels their wound rather than gleefully contemplating their suffering.

There’s a double challenge here. First, there’s a personal one: are we gleeful when people who reject our advice suffer for their wrong-headedness or do we weep inside us for the pain they have brought onto themselves? When we see the consequences in people’s lives of their own bad choices, be it with irresponsibility, with laziness, with drugs, with sex, with abortion, with ideology, with anti-religious attitudes, or with bad will, are we gleeful when those choices begin to snake-bite them (Well, you got what you deserved!) or do we weep for them, for their misfortune?

Admittedly, it’s hard not be gleeful when someone who rejects what we stand for is then snake-bitten by his own stubborn choice. It’s the natural way the heart works and so empathy can demand a very high degree of maturity. For example, during this Covid-19 pandemic, medical experts (almost without exception) have been telling us to wear masks to protect others and ourselves. What’s our spontaneous reaction when someone defies that warning, thinks he is smarter than the doctors, doesn’t wear a mask, and then contracts the virus? Do we secretly bask in the cathartic satisfaction that he got what he deserved or do we, metaphorically, “weep over Jerusalem”?

Beyond the challenge to each of us to move towards a higher level of maturity, this image also contains an important pastoral challenge for the church.How do we, as a church, see a secularized world that has rejected many of our beliefs and values?  When we see the consequences the world is paying for this are we gleeful or sympathetic?Do we see the secularized world with all the problems it is bringing onto itself by its rejection of some Gospel values as an adversary (someone from whom we need to protect ourselves) or as our own suffering child? If you’re a parent or grandparent who’s suffering over a wayward child or grandchild you probably understand what it means to “weep over Jerusalem”.

Moreover the struggle to “weep over” our secularized world (or over anyone who rejects what we stand for) is compounded by yet another dynamic which militates against sympathy. There’s a perverse emotional and psychological propensity inside us which works this way. Whenever we are hurting badly we need to blame someone, need to be angry at someone, and need to lash out at someone.  And you know who we always pick for that? Someone we feel safe enough to hurt because we know that he or she is mature enough not to hit back!

There’s a lot of lashing out at the Church today. Granted, there are a lot of legitimate reasons for this. Given the church’s shortcomings, part of that hostility is justified; but some of that hostility often goes beyond what’s justified. Along with the legitimate anger there’s sometimes a lot of free-floating, gratuitous anger. What’s our reaction to that unjustified anger and unfair accusation? Do we react in kind? “You are way out of line here, go take that anger elsewhere! Or, like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, can we meet unfair anger and accusation with tears of empathy and a prayer that a world that’s angry with us will be spared the pain of its own bad choices?

Soren Kierkegaard famously wrote: Jesus wants followers, not admirers! Wise words. In Jesus’ reaction to his own rejection, his weeping over Jerusalem, we see the epitome of human maturity. To this we are called, personally and as an ecclesial community. We also see there that a big heart feels the pain of others, even of those others who reject you.

Can The Ground Cry Out?

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Does the earth feel pain? Can it groan and cry out to God? Can the earth curse us for our crimes?

It would seem so, and not just because ecologists, moralists, and Pope Francis are saying so. Scripture itself seems to say so.

There are some very revealing lines in the exchange between Cain and God, after Cain had murdered his brother Abel.  Asked where his brother was, Cain tells God that he doesn’t know and that he’s not responsible for his brother. But God says to him: Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are cursed from the ground which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you will till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength.

Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground … and from now on the ground will curse you!  Is this a metaphor or a literal truth? Is the ground we walk on, till and plant seeds in, build highways and parking lots over, and call “Mother Earth, nothing other than simple dumb, lifeless, speechless, brute matter which is totally immune to the suffering and pain that humans and other sentient beings feel or indeed to the violence we sometimes inflict on it? Can the earth cry out to God in frustration and pain? Can it curse us?

A recent, wonderfully provocative book by Mark L. Wallace entitled When God was a Bird – Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the Word would say, yes, the world can and does feel pain and it can and does curse us for causing that pain. For Wallace, what God says to Cain about the earth crying out because it is soaked in murderous blood is more than a metaphor, more than just a spiritual teaching. It also expresses an ontological truth in that there is a real causal link between moral degeneration and ecological degeneration. We’re not the only ones who bear the consequences of sin, so too does the earth.

Here’s how Wallace puts it:  “The earth is not dumb matter, an inanimate object with no capacity of feeling and sentiment, but a spirited and vulnerable living being who experiences the terrible and catastrophic loss of Abel’s death. Its heart is broken and its mouth agape, Earth ‘swallows’, in the text’s startling imagery, mouthfuls of Abel’s blood. … Bubbling up from the red earth, Abel’s cries signal not only that Cain had murdered his brother but that he has done lasting, perhaps irreparable, violence to the earth as well. … [Now] wounded and bloodied, Earth strikes back. Earth has its revenge. Earth does not passively acquiesce to Cain’s attacks and stand by and watch his gory rampage proceed with impunity. On the contrary, Earth retaliates and ‘inflicts a curse’ on Cain by ‘withholding its bounty’ from this farmer-killer who now must roam the land unprotected and without security.” The earth now refuses to give its bounty to Cain.

What Wallace affirms here is predicated on two beliefs, both true. First, everyone and everything on this planet, sentient and non-sentient being alike, are all part of one and the same supreme living organism within which every part ultimately affects all the other parts in a real way. Second, whenever we treat the earth (or each other) badly, the earth retaliates and withholds its strength and bounty from us, not just metaphorically but in a very real way.

Perhaps no one puts this more poignantly than John Steinbeck did some eighty years ago in The Grapes of Wrath. Describing how the soil which produces our food is now worked over by massive steel tractors and huge impersonal machines that, in effect, are the very antithesis of a woman or man lovingly coaxing a garden into growth, he writes: And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumpled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips.  No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. And men ate when they had not raised, had no connection with the bread.  The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had not prayers or curses.

When Jesus says that the measure we measure out is the measure that will be measured back to us, he’s not just speaking of a certain law of karma within human relationships where kindness will be met with kindness, generosity with generosity, pettiness with pettiness, and violence with violence. He’s also speaking about our relationship to Mother Earth. The more our houses, cars, and factories continue to breathe out carbon monoxide, the more we will inhale carbon monoxide. And the more we continue to do violence to the earth and to each other, the more the earth will withhold its bounty and strength from us and we will feel the curse of Cain in violent storms, deadly viruses, and cataclysmic upheavals.