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The Minister as a Healing Reminder

     The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Living Reminder,” published in 1977.


1.Introduction (17-18)

     Let me start with a story about Elie Wiesel. In 1944, all the Jews of the Hungarian town of Sighet were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. Elie Wiesel, the now famous novelist, was one of them. He survived the holocaust and twenty years later returned to see his hometown again. What pained him most was that the people of Sighet had erased the Jews from their memory. He writes:

     I was not angry with the people of Sighet. . .for having driven out their neighbor of yesterday, nor for having forgotten them. So quickly, so completely. . .Jews have been driven not only out of town but out of time as well.


     This story suggests that to forget our sins may be an even greater sin than to commit them. Why? Because what is forgotten cannot be healed and that which cannot be healed easily becomes the cause of greater evil. In his many books about the holocaust, Elie Wiesel does not remind us of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Treblinka to torture our consciences with heightened guilt feelings, but to allow our memories to be healed and so to prevent an even worse disaster. An Auschwitz that is forgotten causes a Hiroshima, and a forgotten Hiroshima can cause the destruction of our world. By cutting off our past we paralyze our future: forgetting the evil behind us we evoke the evil in front of us. As George Santayanna has said: “He who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it.”

     With this in mind I would like to discuss how the minister as a reminder is first of all a healer who, by healing our wounded past, can open up a new future. I will touch on three areas: the wounds, the healing, and the healer.


2. The Wounds (18-22)

     The French writer-politician Andre’ Malraux writes in his Anti-Memoirs, “One day it will be realized that men are distinguishable from one another as much by the forms their memories take as by their characters.” This is a very important observation. The older we grow the more we have to remember, and at some point we realize that most, if not all, of what we have is memory. Our memory plays a central role in our sense of being. Our pains and joy, our feelings of grief and satisfaction, are not simply dependent on the events of our lives, but also, and even more so, on the ways we remember these events. The events of our lives are probably less important than the form they take in the totality of our story. Different people remember a similar illness, accident, success, or surprise in very different ways, and much of their sense of self derives less from what happened than from how they remember what happened, how they have placed the past events into their own personal history.

     It is not surprising, therefore, that most of our human emotions are closely related to our memory. Remorse is a biting memory, guilt is an accusing memory, gratitude is a joyful memory, and all such emotions are deeply influenced by the way we have integrated past events into our way of being in the world. In fact, we perceive our world with our memories. Our memories help us to see and understand new impressions and give them a place in our richly varied life experiences.

     I have always been fascinated by the way immigrants, especially Dutchmen respond to the USA when they come here for the first time. The first way they make themselves feel at home in their new country is to look at things which remind them of the old country. Then they start to see all the things which are larger, bigger, wider, and heavier than at home. Finally, often after several years, they begin to compare things within the country: the East with the West, the city with the countryside. When that happens then they are at home. Then they have built up a large-enough store of memories in the USA to compare its different parts and aspects.


     These observations show how crucial our memory is for the way we experience life. This is why, in all helping professions---such as medicine, psychiatry, psychology, social work---the first questions are always directed to the memory of the patient or client. “Please tell me your story. What brought you here? What are the events which led you to this place here and now?” And it is clear that what doctors and therapists hear about are not just events but memories of events.

     It is no exaggeration to say that the suffering we most frequently encounter in the ministry is a suffering of memories. They are the wounding memories that ask for healing. Feelings of alienation, loneliness, separation; feelings of anxiety, fear, suspicion; and related symptoms such as nervousness, sleeplessness, nail-biting---these all are part of the forms which certain memories have taken. These memories wound because they are often deeply hidden in the center of our being and very hard to reach. While the good memories may be present to us in outer signs such as trophies, decorations, diplomas, precious stones, vases, rings, and portraits, painful memories tend to remain hidden from us in the corner of our forgetfulness. It is from this hidden place that they escape healing and cause so much harm.

     Our first and most spontaneous response to our undesirable memories is to forget them. When something painful has happened we quickly say to ourselves and to each other: “Let’s forget it, act as if it did not happen, let’s not talk about it, let’s think about happier things.” We want to forget the pains of the past---our personal, communal, and national traumas---and live as if they did not really happen. But by not remembering them we allow the forgotten memories to become independent forces that can exert a crippling effect on our functioning as human beings. When this happens, we become strangers to ourselves because we cut down our own history to a pleasant, comfortable size and try to make it conform to our own daydreams. Forgetting the past is like turning our most intimate teacher against us. By refusing to face our painful memories we miss the opportunity to change our hearts and grow mature in repentance. When Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17), He affirms that only those who face their wounded condition can be available for healing and so enter into a new way of living.


3. The Healing (22-27)

     How are we healed of our wounding memories? We are healed first of all by letting them be available, by leading them out of the corner of forgetfulness and by remembering them as part of our life stories. What is forgotten is unavailable, and what is unavailable cannot be healed. Max Scheler shows how memory liberates us from the determining power of forgotten painful events. “Remembering,” he says, “is the beginning of freedom from the covert power of the remembered thing or occurrence,”

     If ministers are reminders, their first task is to offer the space in which the wounding memories of the past can be reached and brought back into the light without fear. When the soil is not plowed the rain cannot reach the seeds; when the leaves are not raked away the sun cannot nurture the hidden plants. So also, when our memories remain covered with fear, anxiety, or suspicion the word of God cannot bear fruit.

     To be a reminder requires a dynamic understanding of the lives and behavior of those who need to be reminded; an understanding which offers insight into the many psychic forces by which painful memories are rejected. Anton Boisen, the father of the Movement for Clinical Pastoral Education, pleaded for this dynamic understanding when he proposed a “theology through living human documents.” Many pastoral theologians and psychologists have deepened this understanding with the help and inspiration of the contemporary behavioral sciences.

     During the past few decades theological educators have become increasingly convinced of the importance of this dynamic approach to ministry, and the many centers for Clinical Pastoral Education have made great contributions in this direction. But today, in the seventies, new questions are being heard. Has the great emphasis on the complex psychodynamics of human behavior not created a situation in which ministers have become more interested in the receiver of the message than in the message itself? Have we not become more immersed in the language of the behavioral sciences than in the language of the Bible? Are we not talking more about people than about God, in whose name we come to people? Do we not feel closer to the psychologist and psychiatrist than to the priest? Sometimes these questions have an accusatory and self-righteous tone, but often they are raised with an honest desire to move forward with a full appreciation of what has been learned. Such questions challenge us to look beyond the task of accepting. Accepting is only one aspect of the process of healing. The other aspect is connecting.

     The great vocation of the minister is to continuously make connections between the human story and the divine story. We have inherited a story which needs to be told in such a way that the many painful wounds about which we hear day after day can be liberated from their isolation and be revealed as part of God’s relationship with us. Healing means revealing that our human wounds are most intimately connected with the suffering of God Himself. To be a living memory of Jesus Christ, therefore, means to reveal the connections between our small sufferings and the great story of God’s suffering in Jesus Christ, between our little life and the great life of God in us. By lifting our painful forgotten memories out of the egocentric, individualistic, private sphere, Jesus Christ heals our pain. He connects them with the pain of all humanity, a pain He took upon Himself and transformed. To heal, then, does not primary mean to take pains away but to reveal that our pains are part of a greater pain, that our sorrows are part of a greater sorrows, that our experience is part of the great experience of Him who said, “But was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into the glory of God?” (Luke 24:26)

     By connecting the human story with the story of the suffering servant, we rescue our history form its fatalistic chain and allow our time to be converted from chromos into kairos, from a series of randomly organized incidents and accidents into a constant opportunity to explore God’s work in our lives. We find a beautiful example revealing this connection in Martin Luther’s letter of counsel to Elector Frederick of Saxony. He writes:

     When, therefore, I learned, most illustrious prince, that Your Lordship has been afflicted with a grave illness and that Christ has at the same time become ill in you, I counted it my duty to visit Your Lordship with a little writing of mine. I cannot pretend that I do not hear the voice of Christ crying out to me from Your Lordship’s body and flesh and saying: “Behold I am sick.” This is so because such evils as illness and the like, are not borne by us who are Christians, but by Christ Himself, our Lord and Savior, in whom we live. . .”


     All of ministry rests on the conviction that nothing absolutely nothing, in our lives is outside the realm of God’s judgment and mercy. By hiding parts of our story, not only from our own consciousness but also from God’s eye, we claim a divine role for ourselves; we become judges of our own past and limit mercy to our own fears. Thus we disconnect ourselves not only from our own suffering but also from God’s suffering for us. The challenge of ministry is to help people in very concrete situations---people with illnesses or in grief, people with physical or mental handicaps, people suffering from poverty and oppression, people caught in the complex networks of secular or religious institutions---to see and experience their story as part of God’s ongoing redemptive work in the world. These insights and experiences heal precisely because they restore the broken connection between the world and God and create a new unity in which memories that formerly seemed destructive are now reclaimed as part of a redemptive event.


4. The Healer (27-33)

     The minister, as a living memory of God’s great deeds in history, is called to heal by reminding people of their wounded past and by connecting their wounds with the wounds of all humanity, redeemed by the suffering of God in Christ. But what are the implications of such a viewpoint for the personal life of the minister? The temptation is strong to ask the “how” question: “How do I become a living memory of God; how do I accept and connect; how do I lift up the individual story into the divine history?” These questions are temptations insofar as they avoid the more basic question: “Who am I as a living memory of God?” The main question indeed is not a question of doing, but a question of being. When we speak about the minister as a living reminder of God, we are not speaking about a technical specialty which can be mastered through the acquisition of specific tools, techniques, and skills, but about a way of being which embraces the totality of life: working and resting, eating and drinking, praying and playing, acting and waiting. Before any professional skill, we need a spirituality, a way of living in the spirit by which all we are and all we do becomes a form of reminding.

     One way to express this is to say that in order to be a living reminder of the Lord, we must walk in the presence as Abraham did. To walk in the presence of the Lord means to move forward in life in such a way that all our desires, thoughts, and actions are constantly guided by Him. When we walk in the Lord’s presence, everything we see, hear, touch, or taste reminds us of Him. This is what is meant by a prayerful life. It is not a life in which we say many prayers, but a life in which nothing, absolutely nothing, is done, said, or understood independently of Him who is the origin and purpose of our existence. This is powerfully expressed by the nineteen-century Russian Orthodox starets, Theophan the Recluse:

     Into every duty a God-fearing heart must be put, a heart constantly permeated by thought of God; and this will be the door through which the soul will enter into active life. . . The essence is to be established in the remembrance of God, and to walk in His presence.


     Thus Theophan the Recluse stresses that our mind and heart should be exclusively directed to the Lord and that we should see and understand the world in and through Him. This is the challenge of the Christian and especially that of the minister. It is the challenge to break through our most basic alienation and live a life of total connectedness.

     The strategy of the principalities and powers is to disconnect us, to cut us off from the memory of God. It is not hard to see how many of our busy actions and restless concerns seem to be disconnected, reminding us of nothing more than the disorder of our own orientation and commitment. When we no longer walk in the presence of the Lord, we cannot be living reminders of this divine presence in our lives. We then quickly become strangers in an alien land who have forgotten where we come from and where we are going. Then we are no longer the way to the experience of God, but in the way of the experience of God. Then, instead of walking in God’s presence we start walking in a vicious circle, and pulling others into it.

     At first sight this may seem rather pious and unrealistic, but not for long. The emphasis on ministry as a profession that has dominated our thinking during the past several decades may have led us to put too much confidence in our abilities, skills, techniques, projects, and programs. In so doing, we have lost touch with that reality with which we are called to connect, not so much by what we do, but by who we are.

     In the recent years I have become more and more aware of my own tendency to think that the value of my presence depends on what I say or do. And yet it is becoming clearer to me every day that this preoccupation with performing in fact prevents me from letting God speak through me in any way He wants, and so keeps me from making connection prior to any special word or deed.


     In no way am I trying to minimize or even to criticize the importance of training for the ministry. I am simply suggesting that this training will bear more fruit when it occurs in the context of a spirituality, a way of life in which we are primary concerned, not to be with people but to be with God, not to walk in the presence of anyone who asks for our attention but to walk in the presence of God---a spirituality, in short, which helps us to distinguish service from our need to be liked, praised, or respected.

     Over the years we have developed the idea that being present to people in all their needs is our greatest and primary vocation. The Bible does not seem to support this. Jesus’ primary concern was to be obedient to His Father, to live constantly in His presence. Only then did it become clear to Him what His task was in His relationships with people. This also is the way He proposes for His apostles: “It is to the glory of My Father that you should bear much fruit and then you will be My disciples.” (John 15:8) Perhaps we must continually remind ourselves that the first commandment requiring us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind is indeed the first. I wonder if we really believe this. It seems that in fact we live as if we should give as much of our heart, soul, and mind as possible to our fellow human beings, while trying hard not to forget God. At least we feel that our attention should be divided evenly between God and our neighbor. But Jesus’ claim is much more radical. He asks for a single-minded commitment to God and God alone. God wants all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our soul. It is this unconditional and unreserved love for God that leads to the care for our neighbor, not as an activity which distracts us from God or competes with our attention to God, but as an expression of our love for God who reveals Himself to us as the God of all people. It is in God that we find our neighbors and discover our responsibility to them. We might even say that only in God does our neighbor become a neighbor rather than an infringement upon our autonomy, and that only in and through God service become possible.

     At first this may appear to contradict the widely shared perspective which maintains that we come to know God only through relationships with our neighbors, and that service to the neighbor is also service to God (Matthew 25:34-40). This viewpoint is firmly rooted in our personal experience and so has an immediacy which is convincing. And it is indeed true that God may meet us in the neighbor. But it is crucial for our ministry that we not confuse our relationship with God with our relationships with our neighbors. It is because God first loved us that we can love our neighbors rather than demand things of them. The first commandment receives concreteness and specificity through the second; the second commandment becomes possible through the first. The first and second commandments should never be separated or made mutually exclusive, neither should they be confused or substituted one for the other. That is why the second commandment is equal to the first, and that is why all ministry is based on our personal and communal relationship with God. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his books, The Communion of Saints and The Cost of Discipleship. It is also the core idea of Thomas Merton’s writings, and it was the intuition of all the great Christian leaders, who considered a growing intimacy with Christ the source of all their actions.

     And so, to be living reminders of God we must be concerned first of all with our own intimacy with God. Once we have heard, seen, watched, and touched the Word who is life, we cannot do other than be living reminders. Once our lives are connected with His, we will speak about Him, sing His praise, and proclaim His great deeds, not out of obligation but as a free, spontaneous response. In order for this response to be lasting and oriented to the felt needs of those to whom we minister, we need discipline, formation, and training. But these can do little more than offer channels for the lived experience of God.


5. Conclusion (33-34)

     In this discussion of the minister as a healing reminder, I have stressed three points. First of all, ministers heal by reminding. Second, they remind by accepting the wounds of our individual pasts and by connecting them with the wounds of all humanity suffered by God Himself. Finally, this reminding happens not so much because of what ministers say or do but how their own lives are intimately connected with God in Jesus Christ. This means that to be a healing reminder requires a spirituality, a spiritual connectedness, a way of living united with God. What does this imply for the daily life of the minister?

     It implies that prayer, not in the sense of prayers, but in the sense of a prayerful life, a life lived in connection with Christ, should be our first and overriding concern.

     It implies that in a life of connectedness with Christ the needs of our neighbors and the nature of our service are disclosed.

     It implies that all training and formation are intended to facilitate this disclosure, and that the insights of the behavioral sciences should be seen as aids in this process.

     It implies that prayer cannot be considered external to the process of ministry. If we heal by reminding each other of God in Christ, then we must have the mind of Christ Himself to do so. For that, prayer is indispensable.

     Finally, it implies that what counts is not our lives but the life of Christ in us. Ultimately, it is Christ in us from whom healing comes. Only Christ can break through our human alienation and restore the broken connections with each other and with God.

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