Monday, April 14, 2014

The Way of the Wounded Healer

Continuing with The Wild Reed's 2014 Holy Week series, here is a second excerpt from John Neafsey's book A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Justice. (For Part One of this series, click here.)

As with the first excerpt, this second one focuses on suffering, a key theme in the Gospel narratives of Jesus' final days and a reality which, to some degree or another, we all experience in our lives.

Sometimes callings originate in painful life experiences that serve as a kind of initiation into the way of the wounded healer – the person whose sufferings become a source of healing to others.

The vocational theme or pattern of the wounded healer can be discerned in many religious traditions through the ages. It is perhaps most dramatically illustrated in the spirituality and healing practices associated with shamanism, an ancient, primordial form of religion that is still practiced in many indigenous cultures today. Parallels to shamanism are found in many of the world's major religious traditions. The theme of the wounded healer can be detected in the life pattern of the historical Jesus as well as in the lives of many people in the contemporary world. Henri Nouwen's well-known book, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, is centered around the idea that the minister's own wounds, if tended properly, can become a source of healing for others.

Although a great diversity of spiritual beliefs and healing practices exists among shamanistic cultures throughout the world, certain patterns are encountered whenever shamanism is practiced. One of the most striking is the phenomenon of the "initiatory illness" in the calling of the shaman. In many cultures, it is common for the shaman-to-be to experience a painful physical illness or psychological crisis at some point during childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood. During the initiatory illness the young person typically has vivid visions and dreams (often while in a state of unconsciousness or delirium) that contain striking religious imagery centering around images of death and rebirth, spirit journeys, or encounters with various kinds of good and evil spirits associated with illness and healing. Black Elk, for example, received his calling through a complicated and remarkable vision during his own illness experience, which occurred when he was only nine years old and lasted over a period of twelve days while he was deathly ill in a coma-like state of unconsciousness.

Eventually, the shaman recovers from the initiatory illness and begins a period of formal training and apprenticeship in preparation for healing work with others. Significantly, the illness experience is interpreted by the community as a sign that the young person has a special calling to the work of healing. After Black Elk recovered from his own severe illness at the age of nine, an older shaman by the name of Whirlwind Chaser said to his parents: "your boy is sitting there in a sacred manner. I do not know what it is, but there is something special for him to do."

. . . There are many parallels to shamanic themes in the life of Jesus. Although there is no evidence in the gospels that he experienced an initiatory illness, Jesus' forty-day ordeal in the wilderness prior to beginning his public life as an itinerant healer and teacher can be likened to a kind of shamanic initiation during which he personally "worked with the spirits." From the perspective of shamanism, Jesus' assertive dealing with the temptations of the Satanic spirit in the wilderness would likely be seen as the source of his later power and "authority" over unclean spirits – which are often noted in the gospel accounts of his healings of tormented people. Jesus' visionary experiences in the wilderness (e.g., journeying with Satan to the top of a high mountain or to the pinnacle of the temple) are also reminiscent of the "soul journeys" or "spirit flights" of the shaman.

The gospels also suggest that, from the beginning of his public life, Jesus strongly identified with the mysterious "Suffering Servant of Yahweh" figure (the one who brings good news to the poor, heals the brokenhearted, brings liberty to captives) from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. In Christianity, there is a long tradition of belief that Jesus was the fulfilment of this countercultural redemptive figure foretold by the prophet: the "man of sorrows" whose wounds would become a source of healing and redemption for others.

– John Neafsey
A Sacred Voice is Calling
pp. 115-118

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