[T]he more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon—a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.

Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 84.
The Wounded Healer, chapter 1

My friend Joey and I—two ministers who have each walked through a fair share of parental suffering in recent months and years—are reading Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer together. We’re asking what it means to minister, to love, to care, to heal from a place of brokenness and emptiness.

In Nouwen’s opening chapter (written in 1972, predating late-20th century postmodern literature and philosophy), he surveys what he calls “the nuclear man.” The nuclear person is the postmodern Westerner who is historically dislocated, ideologically fragmented, and in search of a new immortality. Nouwen presents two alternative ways in which the “nuclear man” responds to this emerging situation: the mystical way and the revolutionary way. One is the inner way, the other the visible way; one is about transcendence, the other about change; one is centering, the other upending.

Nouwen then talks about a third way: the Christian way. He says Jesus was the revolutionary mystic, the one in whom these alternative ways came together. And this way is now an option for us. In fact, for Nouwen, this is the most appropriate response to the “nuclear” situation.

[E]very real revolutionary is challenged to be a mystic at heart, and he who walks the mystical way is called to unmask the illusory quality of human society. Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change. No mystic can prevent himself from becoming a social critic, since in self-reflection he will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, no revolutionary can avoid facing his own human condition, since in the midst of his struggle for a new world he will find that he is also fighting his own reactionary fears and false ambitions.

I have been finding that, at least since my time in seminary, there have been two primary impulses in my spiritual life and vocational identity: contemplative practices and missional engagement. The two, for me, have become opposite sides of the same coin. Without personal engagement in the contemplative life, working for change and ministering to the world tends to lose focus. Without looking for Christ in the world, prayer, silence, and solitude tend to lose their content.

Of course, the one who has shown us this Way is Jesus himself. Again, Nouwen says

Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel.

In another post, I’ll talk about mono-polar, bi-polar, and tri-polar spirituality and how this conception of Christian spirituality has shaped my personal life and ministry.

For now, I’ll say that in chapter 1 Nouwen offers a helpful bringing together of the mystical and revolutionary aspects of the life of Christ as a response to the current situation we find in the world. The first task of the minister—Nouwen’s “wounded healer”—is to understand the experience of the “nuclear man” and to walk in the way of Jesus in the midst of this new time.

The Minister and Suffering

From Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday, 1972), xvi (with apologies for Nouwen’s early gender-exclusivity)

[T]he minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his time in his own heart and make that recognition the starting point of his service. Whether he tries to enter into a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying man, his service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks.