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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Return of Prodigal Son a Profound Journey of Introspection...

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son
After several years of lingering in obscurity among dozens of unread books on my bookshelf (one of my many weaknesses is buying more books than my reading can keep up with), I finally picked up and read Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by late Dutch priest Henri J.M. Nouwen.

I'm sorry for letting it sit there for so long. What an amazingly powerful and profound little book (only 139 pages plus notes).

Return of the Prodigal Son was actually given to me as a gift by my wife, who bought it after hearing rave reviews on it by a young priest who gave a talk at a women's retreat she attended. I think all the husbands in our group of friends received a copy shortly thereafter.  Granted, it may have taken me longer to read than most of my friends.

The book is based on the 17th century Rembrandt masterpiece painting, Return of the Prodigal Son, considered among the greatest and most famous artworks in world history and hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Nouwen was captivated by a poster depiction of the painting that he saw in a colleague’s office.  The happenstance led him on a life-changing journey and in-depth study of the painting, which is based on the third parable of redemption told by Jesus to the Pharisees (who were questioning Him for eating and hanging with “sinners”) in the Gospel of Luke. (The Lost Sheep and Coin being the previous two)

In the book, Fr. Nouwen writes about his encounter and experience with the painting (which unexpectedly led him to Russia to see it and study it firsthand), its history and Rembrandt’s roller coaster life, which ended shortly after finishing the work.  But, most of all, Nouwen writes of his years of spiritual growth, exploration and reflection on the characters in the painting and parable.

As you may recall, there are three main characters in the story. The younger son, who demands that his father gives him his share of the inheritance, leaves home, blows all his wealth on debauchery and good living, goes broke, and hits rock bottom when he finds himself starving and working in a pigsty.  The ingrate son repents and humbly returns home to ask his father for forgiveness.

The second main character is the elder brother, who loyally stays at home and works in his father’s field.  But, when his younger brother returns, and gets a hero's welcome from the father, the older sibling feels jealous, insulted, and unappreciated. Even more, he gets angry at the father and refuses to join the celebration for his brother.

Finally, there’s the father, who willingly gives his younger son the inheritance, which at the time was the biggest insult any son, could have rendered upon his father, which basically amounted to saying, “I want you dead.”  Regardless of the pain his son must have caused him, when he sees his younger son returning from afar, he doesn’t wait. Instead, he runs towards him and meets him on the way, embraces him, dresses him in fine clothes and jewelry and throws him a feast saying, “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life.” Then, after realizing his older son was outside feeling hurt, he goes out to meet him too and tries to convince him to join the festivities.  

While examining each character, Fr. Nouwen invites readers to ponder them in relationship to their own lives and delve deeper into their relationship with God.

In my case, the prodigal son was easy to identify. I was the prodigal son, when I drifted from my faith in high school and it wasn't until my early forties that I returned.  During that time, I was lost in my own self-centeredness and lust for what the world told me was my reward; career, materialism and physicality.  But despite attaining many of the accomplishments that society sets as the standards for happiness, I never found true happiness. I was always seeking more. That more came about five years ago, when I finally realized the happiness I sought could only be found in God.

Then there is the elder son, which Nouwen, like me, found harder to discern.  Sure, there was the obvious similarities to my own family upbringing, since I stayed home, while my younger brother left to seek fame and fortune.  I was the George Bailey of the Espinosa clan (without having to save my brother's life, or the family business, or the entire town, and let me tell you, Hialeah would have been a challenge). But, while at some point, there may have been tinges of regret for not having gone off to explore the “world” (more for pleasure seeking then nobleness), it was a choice I made (and part of God’s perfect plan for me).  Now, after finding true happiness, I realize, like George Bailey did; it is a wonderful life.

However, the elder brother inside me is more subtle and evident only when I consider my everyday life. It surfaces in my selfishness, resentment and petty jealousies, or in my ego, pride, and anger (which the book explains is a characteristic of pride because anger is usually the result of someone not doing what you want them to do), and, like the older sibling, in my sense of entitlement.  While they are not always present in my life, they are constant reminders of my human frailty.

As for the father, I'm, what you might call, a work in progress.  Ten years after my first child was born, I’m still growing into the role. While, I’d like to think that I can show compassion and mercy for my children, many times, my love is not exactly unconditional. I often expect them to behave certain ways or do certain things. And, when they fall short, I regress to the anger of the elder son.  It's a struggle.

Nouwen describes the three characters in the parable as stages in our spiritual maturity.
Though I am both the younger son and the elder son, I am not to remain them, but to become the Father.  No father or mother ever became father or mother without having been son or daughter, but every son and daughter has to consciously choose to step beyond their childhood and become father and mother for others.
Moreover, the author notes, Jesus is the prototype for all three.
Jesus, the Beloved of the Father, leaves his Father’s home to take on the sins of God’s wayward children and bring them home. But, while leaving, he stays close to the Father and through total obedience offers healing to his resentful brothers and sisters. Thus, for my sake, Jesus becomes the younger son as well as the elder son in order to show me how to become the Father. Through him I can become a true son again and, as a true son, I finally can grow to become compassionate as our heavenly Father is.
As any great spiritual book, Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, may require a second, or third, reading to capture its full impact and profundity, but I would highly recommend it to anyone who has ever traveled off to a foreign land and is seeking a way back home or, like me, the George Baileys of the world, who loyally stayed behind but, just as our younger sibling, are searching for the same true happiness in life...


Fr. Henri J.M. Nouwen was a professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, wrote over 40 books, experienced monastic life with Trappist Monks in Genesee, and missionary work in Latin America, before finding a home as the pastor of a community for mentally handicapped people.  He was known for his writings on spirituality and spiritual life.


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