This is the first of five reflections from St. Andrew's clergy as we travel on an all-parish virtual journey with Henri Nouwen this Lent, reading The Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s been about 16 years since I read this book, though I think of it often because a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting hangs in our dining room. I remembered the book with the fuzzy fondness you might have for an old friend from school. Reading the prologue and introduction again, I remembered quickly why Nouwen had felt like a soul friend when I read it the first time.
|Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son|
Rembrandt’s amazing painting was the doorway for Nouwen’s journey into a deeply personal relationship with God in Christ. He had been a priest, author, lecturer, and scholar; he had all the emblems of spiritual success pinned to his chest. But encountering this painting of the younger son, the elder son, the father, and several background bystanders, he found himself – as well as the Father who was bidding him home. His discoveries weren’t necessarily pleasant, as is often true about truth. He felt safe as the outside observer, the spiritual expert helping others along their paths and proclaiming truth he “knew” others needed to hear. What felt definitely not safe was the vulnerability of practicing what he was preaching. “Truly accepting love, forgiveness, and healing is often much harder than giving it,” Nouwen writes. “It is the place beyond earning, deserving, and rewarding. It is the place of surrender and complete trust.”
When I first read this book, I was in seminary. At an unconscious level, I could see myself being that spiritual expert, that outside observer of others in need. Interestingly, I didn’t read Nouwen’s book because of a class assignment but because of a crisis in my own life at that moment. It was one of the best assignments I never got because Nouwen’s journey shone so much light on my own. I still struggle with being vulnerable enough to come before the Father, or to acknowledge myself standing in the elder brother’s judgmental shoes. I still struggle to know God’s love, not simply to know about it.
As you read, you might ask yourself: What keeps you from entering into this painting, from entering into this story? What stands in the way of your moving, as Nouwen writes, “from bystander to participant, from judge to repentant sinner, from teacher about love to being loved as the beloved”?