The Influence of Henri Nouwen

Posted by Dan Kroger, OFM on 9/27/16 12:12 PM

Henri Nouwen, author and mysticRecently, reading Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit, by Kevin Burns, I recalled how Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) impacted my life and spiritual development with his writings, most particularly by his idea of a what he called a “wounded healer.”

As a young Franciscan friar in the early 1970s, I was finding my way in life and in ministry. That was when I first encountered Nouwen’s work in pastoral psychology. What impressed me were his insights into human frailty and suffering. Nouwen believed that all personal problems, with their suffering and joy, could become a way for finding a greater awareness of how God works in the human spirit and, thus, a path to effective ministry. Let me explain by way of a personal illustration.

Like my contemporaries preparing for ministry, I acquired a kind of superhuman image of what it takes to be a good priest or minister. I had assumed that I would have to be all-around strong, smart, clever, and tough as nails. A friend gave me a poster depicting a caveman with a big club standing in a threatening posture. The poster had screaming letters that read, “Though I walk through the valley of death, I fear no evil, for I am the meanest S.O.B. in the whole valley.” He told me that I fit that poster. Indeed, my friend was right, I could relate to that poster. So I taped the poster to the door of my room. It really was an emblem of my desire to be tough enough for pastoral ministry and teaching or whatever lay ahead.


Fortunately, before ordination, I found my way into a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at a regional mental-health hospital near Dayton, Ohio. There I encountered my own wounds, when the director led me to reflect upon my relationships with peers and patients. He and my peers in the program helped me deconstruct some of my false sense of toughness, and led me to become a bit more tender and sensitive to others. That development may be one of the most crucial elements of my seminary learning. In reading some of Nouwen’s insights into pastoral psychology, I really grasped the shadow side of my own psyche and how important that CPE program was.


Nouwen was influenced by Anton Boisen, one of the pioneers in clinical pastoral training for ministers using the “case study” method. Boisen along with other clinical practitioners, called the program Clinical Pastoral Education.


In his book The Wounded HealerNouwen elaborated on some of Boisen’s insights about how personal spiritual growth can be triggered by reflecting on one’s own personal crises. Nouwen used the case study method of Boisen in some of his early writings on pastoral ministry. To this day CPE. programs continue to study "the living human documents" both the people who receive care as well as a study of the givers of care. Reading about Henri Nouwen helped me reflect on my own training and growth as a pastoral minister. I would love to hear from other pastoral ministers who were influenced by Henri Nouwen.


Henri Nouwen His Life and Spirit by Kevin Burns

Topics: Spirituality, Henri Nouwen