How a gifted, high-achieving spiritual guide learned to share his wounds with others.

Over 30 years ago, a Catholic priest and sought-after spiritual guide wrote the following in a letter to an inquirer: “I have been increasingly aware that true healing mostly takes place through the sharing of weakness.” Pressing beyond generalities, he made his reply personal: “[I]n the sharing of my weakness with others, the real depths of my human brokenness and weakness and sinfulness started to reveal itself to me, not as a source of despair but as a source of hope.”

For us today, in the era of self-help gurus, the priest’s words may sound like a truism whose luster has grown dull with over-familiarity. Or—worse—they might be misconstrued as an encouragement to wallow in our wounds, to valorize our frailty as somehow redemptive in and of itself. Is there any reason, then, to treat this letter as an instance of spiritual insight?

Inner Wounds

The priest who wrote it was named Henri Nouwen, and almost a decade before, in 1972, as a newly minted instructor at Yale Divinity School, he had published a book titled The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. It was to become, according to most of his ecumenical readership, Nouwen’s signature title. Before Brené Brown appeared on the TED stage, before spiritual counseling and small group ministry in evangelical parachurch ministries had encouraged believers to disclose more of their doubts and insecurities, before movements like the charismatic Cursillo and the contemplative Taizé and Renovaré had gone mainstream, Nouwen was already advocating a spirituality that took its cue from Christ’s nail-scarred risen body. Any spirituality and ministry we might hope to cultivate should be one that’s …

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