Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wounded People

The church is full of wounded people--emotionally, psychologically and spiritually broken, bruised, bleeding.

I'm one of them. My wounds are minor when compared with others' wounds. But they're real to me. They still hurt. They made me the person I am. They might even be making me into the person I'm becoming.

Like so many others, most of my wounds come from childhood: my father's alcoholism; his assaults on my mother; their divorce and then growing up in a household with only one parent, my mother who worked full-time at minimum wage jobs to support my sister and me; living in or near poverty; bullying by peers; and physical (although never sexual), emotional and spiritual abuse in elementary and secondary Roman Catholic schools.

In high school, I watched my principal turn into a street fighter, battering a classmate of mine in front of the whole class, his punches falling upon the defenseless boy who was held from behind in a bear hug by another priest.

That day, I resolved I would withdraw further from others. I would become invisible. Keep quiet, I told myself. Hide. Run, if you're discovered. Survive.

My theme song then was one by Simon and Garfunkel, the words of which I still remember:  "I am a rock. I am an island. And an island never cries."

After high-school, I went to work-- not to college--a priest my senior year having told me that that I was fit only for a job or for Vietnam.  I painted houses for awhile. And then I got a job, working as a messenger in a bank.

Someone there said to me, "You never smile." Another person said, "You're an old soul." I know what that means now.

I was a wounded soul. On my island, it was dark. I was lonely and anxious.

Going to university, when it finally happened, was my way of saying goodbye to the island, although at the time, I didn't know I was doing so.

I went to the University of Louisville part-time at first, the bank paying for my course work. I'd major in finance, I thought. With a bachelor's degree, I'd be only the second in my family with one. I'd get a good job and never be poor again. I'd show everyone--those priests and nuns who'd told me I was stupid and would have no future. They'd see that I could do something with my life. Become someone of significance.

After trying finance and loathing it, I left the bank and enrolled at U of L full-time. I switched my major from finance to history, philosophy and literature. I wanted to understand people. To understand myself.

I loved my courses and worked hard to learn as much as I could and to get As in everything. It helped that I was studying what I enjoyed. I'd become a teacher and try to influence my students for the good. At least, I'd do them no harm.

My wounds were still there, though. Still bleeding, as it were. Still aching. I felt lonely, depressed and anxious, although at the time I didn't have the words to name my inner torment and turmoil.

One day--thanks to God's grace--I decided I needed help. I was tired of the darkness. I was ready for the light.

I went to the university's counseling center and started working regularly with a therapist. He coaxed me out of my isolation and into involvement in life beyond the classroom and library and campus job. He was one of several healers God placed on my journey toward wholeness.

He was able to listen deeply and to probe gently with his questions.  In him I found someone I could trust. I started lifting the bandages on my wounds, exposing them to light and air, cleansing them, applying medicine to them.

Because of my counselor,  I visited the university's Ecumenical Center and eventually became an active member of that diverse community of faith. I met Penny, a fellow undergraduate, and we fell in love. I experienced God's love for me. Penny is also one of those healers God has sent into my life.

I also made friends there with two wonderful, Godly priests: Father Bob Burchell, an Episcopal priest who is now with the saints in heaven; and Father Bob Ray, a Roman Catholic priest and one of the presenters at my ordination many years later. The "Bobs," as we students called them and the two other ministers who had the same first names, were agents of the Holy Spirit.They were essential in the healing of many of my emotional and spiritual wounds.

The "Bobs's" example led me ultimately out of the secular work of banking and later university and agency public relations and into the healing profession of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.

I am a priest today because of them, and because of two earlier examples of loving priests from my high-school days: my high-school golf coach, Father Bob Korst; and my history teacher my senior year, Father Peter Donnelly. They saved my life as a student at DeSales High School, showing me that I could excel academically and achieve something in life.

And it was Father Rocco, a sometimes volatile personality in the classroom (but not an abuser), who introduced me to the power of stories, initiated me into the life of writing and inspired me to pursue writing as a profession.

Over the past nearly 40 years, I have continued to seek the healing of my wounds. I have regularly received spiritual direction from monks, priests, nuns--both in the Roman Catholic and in the Episcopal faith traditions.

(I long ago made peace with my birth church, as it were, appreciating the ways the church formed me spiritually and made me the God-seeker I am. No institution is perfect. All fall short of the glory of God, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul.)

Over four decades, I've spent innumerable hours in individual and group psychotherapy and have fervently studied that discipline inside and outside the classroom. The healing of the psyche (the soul) is a passion of mine.

I continue to see a therapist, who is helping me to deal with my wounds and to become a healthier and happier person. I need this outside help for a lot of reasons, including professionally: as a priest, I'm regularly ministering with and to wounded people.

I'm a Wounded Healer, to quote the title of the late priest/spiritual guide Henri Nouwen.

God has called me to work with the wounded, because I know what that experience is like; I know that healing is possible; and I want to be God's healing hands placed upon those wounds.

Still, I never knew the work would be so painful at times, especially because the wounded can and do sometimes wound others, including the healers themselves. I'm learning ways to protect myself from further wounding.

If you're a wounded person, even a wounding one, I invite you to move from the darkness and into the light. God will heal your wounds, if you ask him and let him. You can be a whole person, which is God's will for all of us.

Jesus is our exemplar as THE wounded healer--always healing and never wounding. He heals through the hands of his body on earth, the church, and through worship, prayer, holy study, spiritual direction, and, yes, psychotherapy.

He heals those wounds of ours that are invisible to the eye, but that are ruinous to our spirits, robbing us of the fullness of life.

The journey toward healing and wholeness is worth taking. I know. Isn't it time for you to start?


  1. Thank you, my brother. These are very valued words. I resonate deeply with much of your story. Blessings!
    Fred Mann

  2. Powerful words. I encourage you to explore and share the compassion Fatigue Project. CF is the effect of vicatious or compounded trauma so common in those in service to humans especially the wounded. God's blessings on you and your work. Sharon Sarvey

  3. Dear Sharon and Fred,
    Thanks for reading and responding. God bless your work with the wounded.

  4. Beautiful words. I really appreciate the fact that you share your experience with the hard work of therapy and counseling; so many people of the cloth would advocate the nebulous idea of "laying it at the cross" and fixing oneself through prayer. But God's grace provided people -- professionals and laypeople -- to help you overcome your pain. You're a credit to your calling.

  5. Thanks, Ken. I really enjoyed our conversation a few weeks back.


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