Nouwen’s book was recommended to me by a counselor whom I was seeing about inability/unwillingness to break free of bitterness and forgive past and present hurts. I believe that Nouwen’s tale of his spiritual progression, from seeing himself only as the “prodigal son;” to recognizing himself as the “elder brother;” and finally to recognizing God’s desire that he become “the father” describes the “journey home” to which God’s calls all His children: to come to the “place” of being forgiven and reconciled to God; to move on to the “place” of forgiving others based on our security in being loved by God; and finally to provide the “place” in our own hearts into which others may come to experience God’s forgiveness and reconciliation.
I think all Christian denominations believe in forgiveness (such as the prodigal son), but it’s one of the most difficult to take root in conscientiousness.
Life lessons from a Rembrandt painting
From the November 18, 2002 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel
My First reading of Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son (Doubleday, 1992) left me gasping in astonishment. In 192 pages, Nouwen taught me more about parenting than I’d learned from 25 years of raising my own children.
How could I have failed so dismally to appreciate the richness of this story during my first thousand or more readings of the 15th chapter of Luke in the Bible? And, as an avid reader of religious books, how come I’d never encountered the 18 other books written by this former Harvard teacher and pastor of L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada?
What I do know is that he would have forgiven me, in the spirit in which he writes so persuasively about forgiveness in his book on the Prodigal. Of course, he would insist that this has to be God’s forgiveness, which is unconditional.
Too often, says Nouwen, when we say, “I forgive you,” our hearts remain angry or resentful. We still want to hear that we were right after all. We want to hear apologies and excuses. “I still wanted the satisfaction of receiving some praise in return—if only the praise for being so forgiving!” he admits.
Through his reexamination of the Bible parable, prompted by a chance encounter in a friend’s office with a museum poster of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son,he learned how to practice divine forgiveness in his own life.
The picture shows a man in a great red cloak, tenderly touching the shoulders of a disheveled boy who is kneeling in front of him. There is extraordinary intimacy between the two figures, and a mysterious light engulfs them.
“But most of all,” recalls Nouwen, “it was the hands—the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before.”
At the time, Nouwen was feeling exhausted after many years of teaching and traveling. He longed simply to rest safely in a place where he could feel at home.
This reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting, the original of which hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, remained “imprinted” in his heart far more profoundly than any temporary expression of emotional support.
Two years later, he felt led to leave teaching to live and work with mentally handicapped people as a pastor in the L’Arche community in Toronto. But shortly before he took up the assignment, friends invited him to join them on a trip to Russia. He could barely contain his excitement when he realized this would give him the opportunity to see the original Rembrandt painting, which is a huge work in oil on canvas, eight feet high by six feet wide.
Nouwen relates the movements of the parable to the universal themes of homecoming, affirmation, and reconciliation.
During two visits to the Hermitage, Nouwen spent a total of four hours studying the painting and making notes about what he experienced in his innermost being as he became more and more part of the Prodigal story that Jesus had once told. Those hours of quiet reflection in the museum also confirmed for him the rightness of his decision to move from teaching university students, to helping mentally handicapped people.
In that place where Nouwen saw a father in a red cloak embracing his kneeling son, he saw himself stepping toward the place where he so much wanted to be but was so fearful of being. “It is the place beyond earning, deserving, and rewarding. It is the place of surrender and complete trust.”
Nouwen took the job in Toronto, and wrote his book on the Prodigal Son. Chapter by chapter, he explores the movements of the parable from the perspectives of the three main characters, relating his observations to his own life journey and to the universal themes of homecoming, affirmation, and reconciliation.
Of the younger son, he writes: “Once he had come again in touch with the truth of his sonship, he could hear—although faintly—the voice calling him the Beloved and feel—although distantly—the touch of blessing.”
For Nouwen, the “return” of the elder son is possibly even more important than the return of the younger son. He wonders how the elder son will look when he is free from his complaints, anger, resentments, and jealousies. The cold light on his face could “become deep and warm—transforming him totally—and make him who he truly is: ‘The Beloved Son on whom God’s favor rests.’ “
In the closing chapters, Nouwen describes the pathway to a truly compassionate fatherhood. He suggests that this flows from a readiness to “dare to carry the responsibility of a spiritually adult person and dare to trust that …real joy and real fulfillment can only come from welcoming home those who have been hurt and wounded on their life’s journey, and loving them with a love that neither asks nor expects anything in return.”
Nouwen found that, for him, Rembrandt’s painting became more than the mere portrayal of a moving parable. It became the “summary of the history of our salvation.”
Imagine what Nouwen and Rembrandt might have done if they’d been able to “collaborate” on the other great stories of the Bible!