The Gift of Healing: Pastor Graf and Henri Nouwen

My last encounter with Pastor Graf was brief, a few words exchanged on a windy sidewalk. I, a young hospital intern, was on a quick lunch break errand downtown. He, an aging, slightly disheveled country minister, was in town to visit his 94-year old mother.

I have carried the image with me ever since then of the tall, heavy-set man with his unbuttoned overcoat flapping around him. I remember his dark, peaceful eyes and his full, carefully moving lips as he spoke. I can still hear his soft, yet penetrating voice. I had listened to him speak so many times – in his little village church on Sunday mornings and during midnight masses, driving along dirt roads at breakneck speeds in his Peugeot station wagon and over tea with scones in the vicarage.

I was his assistant for a couple of summers, an unpaid job that evolved from my position as junior leader at a co-ed Scout confirmation camp.

Pastor Graf needed an assistant and I didn’t mind a closer look at the life of a country preacher. My own confirmation classes had been anything but inspiring. I attended Saturday classes in my parish church with a bunch of boys, who did their best to sabotage the aloof, prim and occasionally ill-tempered minister. I never heard anyone in the neighborhood say they had been inspired or helped by Pastor Berglund.

Pastor Graf was anything but aloof. He spoke plainly with people from all walks of life. He knew about fishing and farming. He took a deep interest in everyone in his rural parish, and had a hand in most community events. He knew everybody by name. Day or night, he was always available to listen to anyone’s sorrows or worries. He was a healer of troubled souls.

He was a man with many interests, loved music, art and history. Technical things, from cars to stereo equipment, fascinated him. He was also an entrepreneur who brought in royalties for his church from sales of liturgical items he had created.

What I didn’t know when I signed up to work for him, but what made me respect him more and more during the years I knew him, was that in spite of his gifts and standing as a clergyman, he wasn’t on top of the world. He worried constantly about his elderly but healthy mother and he was tormented by religious doubts and feelings of inadequacy in doing God’s work. And although I never saw him drink alcohol any other time, he always poured a very full goblet for communion and savored what was left when the service was over.

Later I would hear of him, not by name, but I knew he was the one people at the hospital talked about; local minister in the Emergency Room with a manic episode, respected pastor dropped off by police to avert OUI charge. My understanding of the man beneath the white collar deepened, and my admiration for him grew even more as I learned about his challenges and heard others speak of him disparagingly.

I understood then, more than when I was with him, that through his own angst and his own doubts he found the common ground to connect with the people in his community. I also understood that his God, the one he asked to strengthen his faith, had chosen him as His vehicle because of all his weaknesses, not in spite of them.

I didn’t have the words for it then, but years later I heard of Henri Nouwen’s book “The Wounded Healer”, which was written during the time I worked with Pastor Graf. It was one of those titles that can instantly change how you see the world before you even open the book. I actually didn’t read it until recently. Nouwen doesn’t say that a minister needs to have deeper wounds than his parishioners or that he needs to expose his own suffering in order to be effective. He does say that it is through his own wounds that he can relate to the suffering of humanity all around him.

People have taken Nouwen’s concepts into the arena of medicine as well, although he didn’t specifically include physicians in his thesis. I believe there is no difference between spiritual and physical healing; all healers must know suffering personally in order to be effective. It doesn’t mean the physician’s suffering needs to be the same as the patient’s, nor does it mean that the physician, any more than the minister, needs to show his wounds publicly.

It does mean that those among us, ministers and physicians, who are unaware of or deny their wounds and weaknesses, cannot fully use the great gift of healing that isn’t their own but only passes through them. For that to happen they need both self-awareness and empathy.

“The Wounded Healer” made me think of Pastor Graf when I first heard the title. Now, many years later, I finally know for sure that the book is about people like him.

3 Responses to “The Gift of Healing: Pastor Graf and Henri Nouwen”

  1. 1 isaac February 20, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    I took a workshop in med school dubbed ‘The Healer’s Art’ but the term wounded healer could’ve just as easily been the title. It very much centered on breaking down that invicible physician persona and using our own humanity and pain in order to better understand and empathize with the patients. Much more useful to me than a lot of the core classes which I soon forgot after the exam.

  2. 2 Lisa February 20, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    That’s why I started reading medical blogs. Diagnosed with an arrhythmia and cancer, I was suddenly having to deal with multiple specialist and getting frustrated because I was too scared of appearing stupid to get the information I needed. I started reading The Cheerful Oncologist and Dr. Charles, and it helped me understand the humanity of my doctors. It really helped me break through my timidity.

  3. 3 Sarah February 28, 2012 at 9:03 am

    A great post, thank you. Really resonated with me. I’m a medical student and have suffered from several episodes of depression as a teenager and whilst at medical school. After reading your post, I thanked God for the first time for what I went through – it may have hurt so very much at the time but now I’m able to see how much better a GP (UK version of family doctor) I’ll be as a result.

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