Sarah James, a biracial Indian American woman of color, is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and founder of Clerestory Magazine.

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The Quiet Wisdom of the Wounded Healer

by Sarah James 03-27-2024
A new paradigm for leadership from Henri Nouwen’s 1972 book.
The image shows the cover of the book "The Wounded Healer" by Henry Nouwen

From The Wounded Healer 

IN THE WOUNDED HEALER: Ministry in Contemporary Society, Catholic theologian and priest Henri J.M. Nouwen analyzes how the church fails to address the heart of our collective pain and longing. Nouwen presents a paradigm for renewed Christian leadership and care founded on the archetype of the “wounded healer.” More than 50 years after the publication of The Wounded Healer in 1972, we continue to struggle — both individually and societally — with the “wounds” Nouwen names: alienation, separation, isolation, and loneliness. Whether we’re ministers or not, we need the gentle wisdom of the wounded healer to build a more loving, just world.

While the concept goes back at least as far as Plato, the term “wounded healer” was coined by psychoanalyst and doctor Carl Jung. To demonstrate the link between personal suffering and the capacity to care for others, Jung draws on the Greek myth of Chiron. Chiron is a centaur who, due to severe physical pain, becomes an important healer and teacher. Nouwen extends this principle to ministry, calling for church leaders to cultivate “a deeper understanding of the ways in which [they] can make [their] own wounds available as a source of healing.” For both Jung and Nouwen, this work develops depth and compassion. Nouwen writes, “For a compassionate [person] nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.”

Reflections After a Spiritual Crisis

by Sarah James 01-10-2024
Healing can be found even in that which seems like oblivion.
The illustration shows a shadowy figure who's upper body is dissolving into pixelated pieces on a dark greenish/blue background

gremlin / iStock

IN MY FIRST SEMESTER of divinity school, I experienced a spiritual crisis. For months, I woke every night at 3 a.m., plagued by unanswerable questions on life’s meaning, God’s silence, suffering, and human nature. At the time, I felt alone, but now, years on the other side of it, I see the healing that emerged from my “dark night of the soul.”

While the phrase “dark night of the soul” has seeped into secular parlance, it is specifically drawn from the Christian contemplative tradition. St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Carmelite monk and reformer, wrote a theological commentary and a poem, both titled “The Dark Night of the Soul,” about good darkness, contemplation, and the journey of faith. These works emerged after John’s unjust imprisonment in a monastery, where he endured physical violence and extreme deprivation. There, John discovered the richness of the “dark night” for illumination and purification. Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Learning to Walk in the Dark,writes, “For [John], the dark night is a love story, full of the painful joy of seeking the most elusive lover of all.” While the dark night may feel like “oblivion,” John contends that “The more darkness it brings ... the more light it sheds.”

Reclaiming Weeping as a Sacred Practice

by Sarah James 10-31-2023
Amanda Held Opelt's new book explores the lost rituals of grief.
The illustrations shows the head of a woman whose eyes are closed, with a single tear falling down her face. The background covered in gray drips.

luboffke / Shutterstock 

IN THE 15TH CENTURY, Margery Kempe received the divine gift of weeping. When considering the multitude of spiritual powers God has bestowed — prophecy, healing, and discernment, for instance — weeping is a peculiar one. After several transformative visions, Kempe, an English laywoman and mystic, wept regularly in hourslong sessions out of contrition for human fallenness and compassion for Christ’s suffering. St. Jerome visited her to convey that God had given her a permanent “well of tears” to help others. Consequently, she developed a form of sanctifying prayer, weeping “on others’ behalf” to help liberate them from sin, purgatory, anguish, or death. Kempe’s fervor continues to demonstrate the place of tears in daily life. Even for us non-ascetics, tears express truth, helping us attune to the wisdom within and beyond us.

Some of Kempe’s contemporaries thought her weeping (which evolved into a decade of “roaring”) to be disruptive, odd, or performative. And as Oxford professor of English Santha Bhattacharji explains in her article “Tears and Screaming: The Spirituality of Margery Kempe,” those critiques continue today. Some scholars have labeled Kempe as “extreme” or “hysterical,” characterizations that ring of misogyny. Nevertheless, her practices were church-approved and part of the well-worn tradition of Christian tears. The Desert Mothers and Fathers considered crying an “official form of worship.” The Rule of St. Benedict stipulates that tears are the mark of “pure prayer.” Tears — whether quiet or loud — are expressions of the heart that connect us to divine wisdom. As Eastern Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware writes in his article “‘An Obscure Matter’: The Mystery of Tears in Orthodox Spirituality,” “We weep [to give] expression to the intimate feelings that are ‘too deep for words.’”

‘The Dinner Party’ Reminds Us of What Patriarchy Erased

by Sarah James 08-02-2023
In the famed feminist art installation, Sophia stands as a cross-cultural symbol of a female God.
A picture of Judy Chicago's art exhibit called "The Dinner Party." There are unique plates, glasses, silverware, and tapestries depicted for esteemed women across time (mythological and historical) around a triangular banquet table.

The Dinner Party / Judy Chicago / Eric Wilcox / Flickr

IN RATTLING THOSE DRY BONES: Women Changing the Church, activist and author Susan Cole writes an essay in response to the question, Why do I remain in the church? In her answer, she shares how she healed her relationship with God through the figure of Sophia, who she defines as “the Wisdom of God, the divine imaged as female.” Cole writes, “Through [Sophia] I have discovered in a whole new way, divine presence within myself, within my sisters, within all that is.” Cole’s portrait of a female God, filled with kindness and joy, stands in stark contrast to the millennia of androcentrism that shapes Christian teaching and practice. The treasure of the Christian female godhead remains buried, but it can be uncovered.

Sophia sits (metaphorically) at artist Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” the famed feminist installation anchored by an enormous triangular banquet table, 48 feet long on each side. From 1974 to 1979, Chicago scrupulously created unique, historically precise place settings for 39 “guests of honor,” female figures both mythical and historical, ranging from Mother Earth to Georgia O’Keeffe. An additional 999 names appear written on tiles surrounding the table. According to Brooklyn Museum curators, at Chicago’s table Sophia stands as a powerful “creative force in the universe” and a cross-cultural symbol of a female God. And the elements of Sophia’s place setting — a flower plate with watery petals and a runner made from remnants of a wedding veil — symbolize Christianity’s role in “the downfall of female power, particularly religious power.” On a grand scale, “The Dinner Party” reminds us of what patriarchy has erased.

Embracing Embodiment with Julian of Norwich

by Sarah James 06-02-2023
The mystic anchoress who envisioned human wholeness.
A painting called "Mother Julian": Julian of Norwich, pictured in nun's clothing, sitting inside a small room reading a book. There's a view of two windows behind her that show villagers milling about in a medieval town.

“Mother Julian” (1912) / Stephen Reid

JULIAN OF NORWICH, the 14th-century anchoress and mystic in England, prayed for an embodied understanding of suffering. As she wrote in Revelations of Divine Love, she desired “three graces” from God: “to relive Christ’s Passion”; “bodily sickness”; and the wounds of “contrition,” “kind compassion,” and “purposeful longing for God.” At age 30, on what she presumed to be her deathbed, Julian received a series of divine visions — equally euphoric and terrifying — that taught her about the all-encompassing nature and nearness of God’s love. In one vision, Julian saw Christ’s head bleeding profusely from the crown of thorns.

But these images did not bring her a message of despair. Julian wrote, “This is our Lord’s will: that we yearn and believe, rejoice and delight, take comfort and console ourselves as much as we can, with his help and his grace, until the time when we can see it truly for ourselves.” Through pain and contemplation, she developed a deeply embodied faith. Reading her work healed years of spiritual pain for me. In the Catholic context of my upbringing, shame led to disembodiment and antagonism toward my body. Julian, by contrast, envisioned human wholeness — in mind, body, and soul.

Drawing Out the Infinite in the Infinitesimal

by Sarah James 03-20-2023
Vija Celmins' lithographs inspire us to live out a posture poised for awe.
A black-and-white lithograph of rippling ocean waves, meticulously drawn by Vija Celmins so as to appear like a black-and-white photo.

“Ocean” (1975) by ©️ Vija Celmins / courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

THERE'S A REFORM JEWISH Sabbath prayer that reads, “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: ‘How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!’”

If we want to experience awe or wonder, we need to reach for inputs of wisdom that enliven our ways of seeing. As a person who struggles with overthinking and anxiety, I find visual art, like the work of Latvian American artist Vija Celmins, to be instructive. “The thing I like about painting, of course,” Celmins said in an interview with the Tate museum, “is that it takes just a second for the information to go ‘bam,’ all the way in, and then you can explore it later.” Engaging with Celmins’ work teaches me how to pay close attention to the life in front of me, noticing the beauty that pervades everything.

The 11-Foot Puppet Traveling ’Round the World

by Sarah James 12-27-2022
Little Amal has traversed more than 5,500 miles to share a poignant plea: “Don't forget about us.”
An 11-foot puppet designed to look like a Syrian child is surrounded by a crowd with signs advocating for relief for refugees.

The Little Amal puppet joins the 2022 Manchester Day parade. / Mark Waugh / Alamy Stock Photo

LITTLE AMAL, an 11-foot-tall puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee, is the star of “The Walk,” a live public production to honor millions of displaced children in the world. Named after the Arabic word for “hope,” Amal took her first steps at the Turkey-Syria border in July 2021. Since then, she’s traversed more than 5,500 miles in 13 different countries to share a poignant plea: “Don’t forget about us.”

Four puppeteers help Amal walk. One person sits inside her torso, visible through a cage, to operate her face, head, and feet; two move her hands with external rods; and one offers balance support from behind. Amal towers over the crowds who greet her, and the enormous space she occupies sends a powerful message: Forced displacement is an urgent and collective responsibility. The Walk embodies compassion, care, welcome, and belonging — core principles of Christianity. Amal, who has more than 170,000 followers on Instagram, has become a well-recognized humanitarian symbol, reminding us that displaced people are not “aliens” or “strangers.” They are our siblings, parents, children, neighbors, and friends.

Reclaiming Advent as the Season of the Midwife

by Sarah James 10-31-2022
As we anticipate the birth of Jesus Christ, we must remember that God appeared in these tender places — in human flesh, in the womb of a refugee, at the site of vulnerability and oppression.
An ancient illustration of Mary giving birth to Jesus with the help of midwives as they are surrounded by animals.

“The Nativity,” from Ethiopian manuscript Nagara Māryām (1730-1755)

IN THE EIGHTH season of Call the Midwife, set in post-war east London, nuns and nurse midwives of Nonnatus House assist a woman with severe complications from a “backstreet” abortion. Sister Julienne says to a young nurse, “The word ‘midwife’ means ‘with-woman.’ A woman in that situation needs somebody by her side.”

I’m pro-choice, which was an unpopular stance in the Catholic community I grew up in. For my views on reproductive rights, people in youth group called me a “baby killer” and “Pontius Pilate.” During Advent, specifically, I loathed the hollow teachings on Mary and childbirth. We sanitized the Nativity into a cute story — the equivalent of a Disney movie featuring a white family and a manger crowded with men. Only recently did I learn that some scholars believe that midwives attended Jesus’ birth. As reproductive freedom and care are further undermined in the United States, this is an apt time to reclaim a more feminist view of the Nativity and rethink Advent as the season of the midwife.

Seeking God’s Wisdom Through ‘Visio Divina’

by Sarah James 08-02-2022
The contemplative practice that renews our capacity to see.
A canvas painting capturing the scene when Mary learns that she will conceive a son. In this painting, the angel is a woman and she holds a gold-rimmed flower in her hand as she waits by Mary's door.

"Annunciation" / Ivanka Demchuk

AT THE START of the war in Ukraine, images overwhelmed me. Families crowding onto trains. Teachers holding assault weapons. Nigerian students being held at the border. The clash of human tenderness with extraordinary aggression was arresting. In between checking updates from a friend—an art curator sheltering in Kyiv—Instagram suggested I follow Lviv-based contemporary icon artist Ivanka Demchuk. With fears of global annihilation humming in my head, Demchuk’s fresh, calming pieces, such as “Annunciation” and “Sophia the Wisdom of God,” captivated my attention and softened the edges of my growing despair.

In recent years, Lviv has become a hub of Christian sacred art technique and production. Lviv National Academy of Arts, from which Demchuk graduated, teaches icon creation, sacred space decoration, and icon theology. For centuries, icons helped make Christianity accessible to illiterate populations. But today, it strikes me that we need this life-giving artform in new ways. We are inundated with photographs of violence, from destruction in Ukraine to police brutality in our neighborhoods. Jesus Christ, our Wounded Healer, taught his disciples how to see injustice and move toward it. How can we, as Christian people committed to justice, cultivate these twinned capacities—seeing clearly and seeking social healing—within ourselves?