In the year 2016, by the serendipity of God and God’s quirky humour, I finally took the step to attend a series of retreats, First the Conversion Experience Retreat, followed by the Prayer Experience Retreat.. The first day presented itself with the usual ice-breakers, the singing of action songs, and getting to know one another. Yet as the days proceeded, the Holy Spirit started the process of excavation so as to heal. The conversations turned muse-ful and deep as we poured out our life-stories. The wounds ran deep.
A participant shared that as she was resting in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit revealed to her a part of her life that she had not known consciously about. At a party, she had become wasted and was too drunk to remember anything. At that party, she was brutally and sexually assaulted, but because she was so intoxicated, did not realise what was happening to her. As a result, thereafter, she went about with an inexplicable anger that she herself did not understand. Another participant was gifted the gift of re-visiting his past as he rested in the Spirit – it was revealed that when he was a toddler of 3 years old, a half-cousin had subjected him to sexual attrocities, and had also subjected him to detrimental physical and inhalant abuse. He went about with a deep anxiety about the safety and well-being of his parents and loved ones, but never knew why he carried about such anxiety. This turned out to be a result of his childhood abuse and the ramifications of the trauma experienced. He had forgotten about the incident, but his sub-conscious and his body remembered and led to much distress and unhealthy coping mechanisms in his adulthood. Another participant had a dream during the retreat, which showed him as a foetus in his mother’s womb, and surrounding his head was a thick, dark cloud. It turned out that his mother was suffering from pre-natal depression and that depression affected him developmentally, leading to him being moody and depressed as well.
We all carry some sort of woundedness. This woundedness comes in varying degrees – perhaps in the form of a verbal taunt or insult that we brushed away, unaware that it affected us, or if we had been on the receiving end of gossip and a smear campaign; perhaps it was something that the priest said. Maybe we were chased out of the confessional by the priest. Or perhaps, the wounds are wounds of relatives or from our own mothers and fathers. Maybe our parents went through or are undergoing a bitter divorce, and it has affected us, our trust, and the level of our faith. There are multi-factorial wounds that affect each of us at any one time. Some of us have learnt how to respond to the Post-Trauma, some are still searching for answers, some have learnt to hide the signs and the symptoms, some have turned to things to distract us from confronting the wounds. Yet, well on the outside, a person is “fine” and “okay”, what we have done is slap a mere superficial band-aid on the top of the wound, while the festering inside, depending on the severity of the wound, continues. As we try to bury the wound with more distractions and unhealthy coping mechanisms, the root cause is not addressed and healing cannot take place. As Henri Nouwen says, ‘Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers. Jesus is God’s wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others.”‘ (Nouwen)
Nouwen does not call for a kind of spiritual exhibitionism, which calls us to revel in the company of misery as we wallow in self-pity. On the other hand, he draws inspiration from Jesus who himself was humiliated and wounded, so as to bring about the healing of the brokenness in our lives. Isaiah 53:5 ” But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed.” In ministry and community, the willingness to be vulnerable and to see our wounds, pains, and suffering as arising from a shared humanity’s condition of brokenness which all women and men share, becomes a powerful tool to address the hurts of the individual, and to help mend the fragmentation and brokenness. We become wounded healers who can help other wounded healers, and ourselves to heal. The premise of the Wounded Healer is this: When I am aware and sensitively in touch with my own woundedness, I am found in a place which allows me to share and to experience the woundedness of others as well. This opens up the possibility of a common experience of compassionate listening and shared humanity, that goes beyond any superficial distance of sympathy or pity, both which do not need any emotional involvement. In constant connection and awareness of my own woundedness, I am able to hold space for someone who may be wounded as well. A space opens up for mutual transformation. The paradox is this. The Wounded Healer is healed as he or she ministers to other wounded healers. According to Cardinal Tagle in a keynote addressed to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia Sept. 24, “Wounds that go unattended to can make people bitter or become alienated… Throughout his ministry, Jesus healed the wounds of people, whether internal or external, and it’s to Jesus we must turn to heal our wounds. The Gospels give evidence of that connection between proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing. The good news of the reign of God is manifested as healing, caring, assisting people, accompanying them. When God rules, wounds are attended to.” (Duriga)
As Nouwen says, “A Christian community is therefore a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for new vision. Mutual confession then becomes a mutual deepening of hope, and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength” (1979). The hospitality that results from the candid sharing of our life stories, our past experiences, and more important, of our wounds, builds community as these vulnerable open sharing builds unity due to the shared confession of our brokenness and an inextinguishable hope. When we sit together, pray together, hold space for each other, listen together to each other, “Community arises where the sharing of pain takes place, not as a stifling form of self-complaint, but as a recognition of God’s saving promises.” (Balkan Voices; Nouwen 1979) The beautiful part of the messiness is this. We are all not perfect beings, we are sinners, and we are wounded in some way or another. Yet, through the Grace of God, we can be channels of healing for others who are equally if not more wounded than ourselves.
The Talmud is a collection of stories composed by Rabbis of Early Century Judaism. Of these stories, is one that speaks about how a community may find its salvation in its wounds:
One day, Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave.
He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?” Rabbi Yoshua asked.
“Sitting at the gates of the city,” said Elijah.
“How shall I know him?”
Elijah responded, “He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all of their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But the Messiah unbinds one wound at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment’.” (Talmud)
While this is a text that is written in the Jewish tradition and expresses a longing for the Messiah as envisioned by the Jews – meaning to say, the Messiah in this story is not Jesus, this story can easily be applied to the Messiah who is Jesus. The Saviour makes himself available at all times to tend to the ills and wounds of His flock. While He is wounded Himself, out of His Sacred Wounds pour forth the secret of our salvation. The community thus becomes a healing community when we make conscious space to sit among the woundedness, to reach out and tell our own stories, and to listen to the stories of others in our communities. Above all, the community heals when it draws near to Jesus who himself was wounded and humiliated for our sake. Healing takes time, but it becomes easier when it is not done alone. We recognise in ourselves the deep wounds that we carry. We recognise that others are also wounded beings. Yet, for sure, Jesus who is the Head of the Body, knows and feels our wounds even more deeply that we could understand. Let us as a community, let Jesus minister to our wounds, that the healing may truly begin.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Balkan Voices. “On Wounds and healing Communities”. Balkan Voices. 21 February 2017.
Duriga, Joyce. “All have wounds, only Jesus and church can heal, says cardinal”. Catholic Philly. 25 September 2015.
Nouwen, Henri. “The Wounded Healer”. Meditations. Henri Nouwen Society. 8 July
Nouwen, Henri. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. Doubleday: Image, 1979
The Jerusalem Talmud; The Palestinian Talmud; the Babylonian Talmud