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Fellow Travelers – Part II: The Wounded Healer

May 28, 2011

'Walk In the Woods' by iandavid via

Read Part I: The Spiritual Journey here.

Let us return for a moment to the dream.  Who is this woman who held out her hand to the huddled figure on the edge of the road?  Who is the huddled figure?  What does it mean that they now travel together?  Will they always travel together?  The answers are many, for that is the nature of dreams.  As mentioned before, both figures in this dream were myself.  One had continued walking, while the other had stopped in despair.  One noticed the world, while the other hid from it.  One held out her hand, while the other needed a hand to grasp, but that does not mean that one was powerless.  Far from it.  It was always up to her whether to grasp that hand or not.  Only she could set her own feet once again on the path, but it helped to have someone show her there was a path to set out on and an offer to walk it with her.  I’m sure others will interpret the dream differently, each according to his or her own nature.  All interpretations are correct.

I want to make clear here at the outset that the chaplain is not in the business of rescuing helpless waifs.  Thus, the metaphor of fellow traveler, rather than guide, mapmaker, or pathfinder.  The chaplain may be any of these from time to time, but they are not the chaplain’s primary duty.  The chaplain’s duty is to be with the suffering person wherever they are, to walk beside them in those moments of their lives that are most troublesome.  The reason for this paradigm has to do with the nature of the chaplain’s work.

Chaplains are not parish priests or local ministers with an assigned congregation for whom they will care over a period of years or decades.  Nor are they therapists seeking to work long-term with clients through the entire range of their issues, past, present, and future.  Chaplains generally find themselves working on the most dangerous sections of road, in places where they will encounter people in crisis.  We may walk together a while, but eventually our paths will diverge.  What a chaplain has to offer is immediate and vital, but also limited.  At the same time, though limited, the value of the chaplain should not be underestimated.  People will often walk through dark woods together where they would scarcely tread alone.  Those dark wood often need to be walked, otherwise we are left trapped on the verge in fear.  As chaplains, we cannot turn away from such people.  We must be brave for them.

With that understanding, this section shall discuss three main ideas: the wounded healer, the bodhisattva intention (with a short segue into Theravada theology), and the specific example of Jizo Bodhisattva.  For the purposes of the blog, these three sections make up different posts.  The first idea is one of the many metaphors for pastoral care alluded to at the beginning.  It was put forth by Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, in 1972, and offered again in the book Images of Pastoral Care due to its impact on the field of pastoral care and theology.  The second idea, the bodhisattva, is much older.  The primary source being considered is the Bodhicharyavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva) as presented by Pema Chödrön of the Tibetan tradition, as well as a variety of Mahayana scriptural sources and commentary summarized by Raoul Birnbaum, a scholar of Chinese texts.  In addition, a source of Theravada theology is offered in the work of the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi.  The last idea, that of using a bodhisattva as an ideal and Jizo Bodhisattva in particular draws on the work of Taigen Daniel Leighton and Jan Chozen Bays, both of the Zen tradition.

The Wounded Healer

Henri Nouwen, the 'wounded healer,' on a skateboard.

Nouwen calls on the figure of the messiah, or Jesus Christ, as an example of one who, though himself injured, makes ready to be of aid to others.  The chapter presented in Dykstra’s book explains in detail the nature of the ministers’ wounds.  Primary among these is loneliness, “the most painful of human wounds.”  This loneliness is part of our limitations as a human being.  Here, Nouwen presents what sounds very much like the first two of the Noble Truths.

We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge – that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. … When the minister lives with these false expectations and illusions, he prevents himself from claiming his own loneliness as a source of human understanding and is unable to offer any real service to the many who do not understand their own suffering. (Nouwen, p. 77-78)

First we must recognize suffering.  Then we must recognize the source of suffering: desire and clinging.  We must see that all those things, those people, we cling to cannot bring about a lasting happiness.  Once we recognize this suffering within ourselves, we can recognize it in others.  This is the beginning of compassion, when our loneliness becomes “an inexhaustible source of beauty and self understanding.” (Nouwen, p. 78)  To be effective ministers, or chaplains, we must be able to recognize that we too suffer, we too are flawed, we too are in search of happiness, we too struggle.

This recognition is what allows us to meet people where there are on their path, rather than demanding they meet us where we are on ours.  It is also what allows the people we meet to recognize and accept us as fellow travelers.  We can develop mutual empathy, what Baker Miller and Pierce Stiver call “the great unsung human gift,” in their book The Healing Connection.  Mutual empathy “is something very different from one-way empathy; it is a joining together based on the authentic thoughts and feelings of all the participants in a relationship.”  Engaging in mutual empathy allows all parties involved to both recognize and respond to another’s emotions but also to “enlarge both her own feelings and thoughts and the feelings and thoughts of the other person.” (Baker Miller & Pierce Stiver, p. 29)  Through mutual empathy we are moving forward on the path together, but doing so better than either would have done separately.

Nouwen points out that once we, as ministers and chaplains, understand the source of our pain, “ministry can become a healing service” for ourselves as much as others.  Nouwen warns that while we should not try to hide our wounds, we should not put them on display either.  They can and should be a source of healing and inspiration, but bandaged wounds heal better.  In order to do this, we can call on the idea of hospitality.

Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler. … It requires first of all that the host feel at home in his own house, and secondly that he create a free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor. (Nouwen, p. 81)

Here we see the difference between Nouwen’s metaphor and the fellow traveler.  The chaplain herself may or may not travel, as with military or ship’s chaplains, but her ‘flock’ will often be in constant motion, as with hospital or hospice chaplains, even if she is not.  Rather than cultivating a stable spiritual ‘home,’ one can instead become comfortable with being ‘on the road,’ a veteran traveler as it were.

It strikes me here as a sad thing that the word ‘callus’ is so close to ‘callous.’ A callus is a part of the skin hardened or thickened through repeated friction, while to be callous is to be unfeeling, uncaring, and cold-hearted. (OED)  The latter is certainly not the sentiment we are going for.  However, in defense of calluses, any seasoned traveler will tell you they only come from one thing – intentional, repetitive effort.  If we are determined to walk the path, we must do so purposefully, step by step, until our feet become used to it.  Because, like Nouwen’s healer, we cannot wait until our own wounds have closed to tend the wounds of others.  We must be ready to go at a moment’s notice, bags always packed.  For a Buddhist, the bodhisattva ideal can help us maintain this intention, even in the face of difficult paths.


Baker Miller, Jean and Pierce Stiver, Irene.  The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy and In Life.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

“callus, n.”. OED Online. March 2011. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 30, 2011).

“callous, adj.”. OED Online. March 2011. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 30, 2011).

Dykstra, Robert C., editor.  Images of Pastoral Care: Classic Readings.  St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. “The Wounded Healer.” Images of Pastoral Care: Classic Readings, Robert C. Dykstra, editor.  St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005, p. 76-84

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2011 7:40 pm

    Thank you, DC (Monica).
    The crossroads: a moment in space and time when the individual realizes: I suffer. The Chaplain: a moment in space and time in which the individual can sit and experience his or her awareness of suffering. The Chaplain: a moment for the individual (fellow traveler) to inter-be, to plant the seed (bija) that everyone suffers. The Chaplain: a moment for the individual to begin the process of transforming the suffering. The Chaplain? Neither important nor unimportant. Chaplaincy is moments.
    Isn’t every moment a crossroads? In any/every moment, could not any one of us be a Chaplain, a boddhisattva of compassion? When we all inter-are with one another, we won’t have to ponder the question of what is a Chaplain. When we are all Chaplains, there will be no Chaplains.
    gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
    One Mountain of the Heart


  1. Fellow Travelers – Part IV: Jizo Bodhisattva « Dharma Cowgirl

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