In his recent letter “Vocation and Formation: Gift and Task,” Fr Pascual Chavez makes an interesting observation: “One’s own life journey runs the risk of turning back on itself in a narcissistic manner and not opening itself to self-giving. In a world that is changing and that is without a centre, it is fragmentation that rules”. And then he goes on to say: “so formation needs to serve to give unity to an individual and focus him firmly on the essential which is the following of Christ.”
In his letter he repeats several times: we have to overcome our own natural human tendencies as well as the narcissism of our culture, the encouragement we all receive to be self-centred, and follow Christ. “Fidelity cannot remain merely on the theoretical level; it has to be a living fidelity, a meeting with Christ, which absorbs the whole person and leads the consecrated person from fragmented “experiences” to the fundamental “experience.””
So Fr Chavez notes the risk of narcissism and fragmentation, and presents the solution: a life centred on and unified by Christ. I want to add a note in between the first and the second, and for this I want to take help from the well-known book of Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer. (From the internet I learned that the phrase is not original to Nouwen; it seems to have been coined by Jung.) Nouwen narrates a Jewish story about a Rabbi who came across the prophet Elijah and said to him:
“Tell me—when will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?” said the Rabbi.
“He’s sitting at the gates of the city,” said Elijah.
“But how will I know which one is he?”
The Prophet said, “He is sitting among the poor, covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and bind them up again, but he unbinds only one at a time and binds them up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”
This is a wonderful story and a wonderful image. It has profound Christological connotations and implications: we see Jesus profoundly attentive to others even in the midst of his passion: Peter, Veronica, the women of Jerusalem, the Good Thief, John, his mother. But I would like to see what the story says to us. It says two things: (1) we all of us need to take care of our own woundedness. There is nothing gained in denying this. (2) We cannot allow our concern with our own woundedness to be so overwhelming as to make us unable to be of help to anyone else.
Sometimes we are in so much pain, that we cannot hear the pain of others. Sometimes there is so much noise inside, that we cannot hear anything that is being said outside. Sometimes there are so many feelings clashing within us, that we have no energy to be attentive to the feelings and needs of others. This is a self-centred kind of life, and ultimately not an adult life. Even to be a biological father means having to direct attention to the other, to the child.
There are no ideal fathers, of course. There are only wounded fathers. There are only wounded healers. So the best thing we can do is to acknowledge our woundedness, and take care to unbind only one wound at a time, so that we always have time and energy to respond to the woundedness of others, whether they be in our community, or among the people to whom we are sent, most especially our young people.
And one more point: wounded healers who are also compassionate, and compassionate precisely because wounded. And once again, Jesus: we have in him a high priest who knows what we are going through, and is compassionate because he has participated in our human condition, in all things but sin.