Does loneliness still cause the greatest pain to ‘The Wounded Healer’?

Detail of a painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey)  "Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me." Ps. 22:16,17

Detail of a painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey) “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.” Ps. 22:16,17

I’ve just finished reading Henri Nouwen‘s ‘The Wounded Healer’ (in an updated form of the 1972 original) as part of background reading for my ‘Pastoral Care’ module.

Throughout this little classic, Nouwen identifies closely with the suffering and particularly loneliness of people, including ministers. He encourages the reader to acknowledge and understand their own pain, and especially loneliness, as a means of removing barriers to creating space for the hospitality of healing.

I love the image of hospitality being part of the gift of healing. Well before I understood my calling to the priesthood, I openly acknowledged and practised the gift of hospitality. In fact a broadening understanding of hospitality, and a frustration that study greatly restricts it’s practice, is becoming a constant thread to my ordination training.

I agree with Nouwen that we need to make space for hospitality in our lives. If I understand him correctly, we are to set within the hospitable space we create within our own strivings, something like a bowl of water with which we can refresh our senses with an awareness of our own suffering, to enable us to attune ourselves better to the suffering of others.

However, 40 years on from when Nouwen originally wrote, and whilst acknowledging that loneliness can be a very acute problem in the lives of some people, I am not convinced that loneliness is the dominant, life threatening, injury that we are most likely to meet in a pastoral encounter. From my limited experience, I see today’s culture of busyness as being the festering wound that causes the greatest pain in both the world and specifically in Christian ministry.

I grant that busyness can itself create loneliness and isolation because it creates a barrier to the spaces in our lives that enable us to priorities love, and exist in the expectation of encountering Christ in others. The non-existence of busyness in the lives of the unemployed and dis-empowered, probably increases a sense of loneliness through the inappropriate assignment of guilt and a lack of opportunity to contribute to changing their own circumstances.

Perhaps, as an only child who has always enjoyed my own company, who is comfortable with a certain degree of introspection and the company of a window, good books and great music, I have yet to encounter true loneliness. But as I replay conversations with people I’ve met, and connections with those in ministry (often via their blogs), the greatest burden today repeatedly comes over as being busyness.

As we move towards Passiontide and focus on Christ’s suffering – the archetype of the wounded healer – I am trying to understand where lay the greatest pain of all his wounds on the cross.

We are used to the imagery of Christ’s lonely suffering on the cross; pain is after all a deeply personal experience (whether physical or emotional) that can not be shared or fully understood by any other living person. We are fond of saying aren’t we, that only Christ can truly understand our pain.

Painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey) "I have offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; I have not turned my face away from insult and spitting. Lord Yahweh comes to my help, this is why insult has not touched me, this is why I have set my face like flint and know that I shall not be put to shame." Is 50:6,7

Painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey) “I have offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; I have not turned my face away from insult and spitting. Lord Yahweh comes to my help, this is why insult has not touched me, this is why I have set my face like flint and know that I shall not be put to shame.” Is 50:6,7

However, if we read the Passion narratives, much of the busyness of accusation, beatings and denials, happens before first light – the time today when the stress of busyness torments the sleepless, before cock-crow.

Similarly, the male disciples may be largely noticeable by their absence at the foot of the cross, but in common with any busy, out-0f-town, tourist attraction in the middle of a ‘Holiday Friday’, the taunting tumult of conversations, and offers of inappropriate beverages, form an overwhelming noise around the cross.

Is it not therefore, the constant barrage of questions, appointments with secular and religious officials, off-stage whisperings of fraudulent friends, and the intrusive clamour of the lynch-mob, that produce the wound of busyness around the central sacrifice, and which that actually causes the greatest pain to the wounded healer on the cross?

Writing this reflection on my recent reading I realised that there are links here with the ‘I’m not busy’ Lent campaign, and Stephen Cherry‘s ‘Beyond Busyness’ book, which I haven’t had time to read 😦 

Any thoughts on what causes the greatest pain in our society, or recommendations on reading round the theme of ‘Wounded Healer’ as a model for pastoral care, would be greatly appreciated.

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About ramtopsrac

Church of England Priest, child of God, daughter of the New Forest, wife and mother.
This entry was posted in life, ministry, ordination training, study material, theology - how God fits in and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Does loneliness still cause the greatest pain to ‘The Wounded Healer’?

  1. Simon Martin says:

    Rachel
    I always wondered about the (over)emphasis Nouwen laid on loneliness. However, having experienced acute loneliness after the breakdown of my marriage, I came to see that it is more important than I had originally reflected. For what it’s worth, I suspect that a great deal of busyness is not only the source of loneliness but the attempr to deal with an unrecognised loneliness combined with a desire for meaning & purpose.
    But thanks so much for the overall post; really helpful
    Simon

    • ramtopsrac says:

      Thank you for your honesty Simon. Your comments are very helpful and I suspect there’s a cause/effect, chicken/egg issue here between loneliness and busyness.

      Through the process of training, I am becoming increasingly aware that I have had a relatively smooth emotional ride through life, despite the death of my Mother among other close friends and family, though I have watched the anguish and loneliness of others, including my Father. This leaves me feeling ill-equipped to sit alongside the suffering of others, but I can only come as I am, equipped with some little delvings into material and subjects like this.

  2. Andy says:

    Simon beat me to it. IME, existential loneliness underlies a great deal of modern busy-ness as a form of displacement. Thus Sebastian Moore: no one can ever be as close to me as I am close to myself. I am a social being impelled to form relationships, but there remains a loneliness that no other person can relieve. But God in Christ can and will and does.

  3. Amanda Quick says:

    Thought-provoking post, thank you. I know all about busyness! It can be lonely to become utterly absorbed in a project – dissertations being a case in point! I expect you’ve already read Sheila Cassidy and Jean Vanier, if not then I’d certainly commend them as companion reading to Nouwen. We read L. Gregory Jones’ Embodying Forgiveness at college recently, not the easiest read but worth a look.

  4. Pingback: “Grace is in the fighting” Rachel Mann’s ‘Dazzling Darkness’ (book review) | Because God Calls

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