Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son and the Pandemic
Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
By Gabrielle Earnshaw
Henri Nouwen’s encounter with Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son was a turning point in his life. Is the current pandemic ours?
Dread and unease. There are other feelings. Fear is all around us and may be more infectious than the virus itself. There’s very real suffering – the sick and dying, and those without enough food or security. There is also the grief of those who have lost loved ones. Even for the more privileged detainees among us, boredom is creeping in and we begin to question our mental stability – how will we pass the time when our games have all been played and our podcasts watched?
It feels like a time of reckoning. But what are we to reckon with? Some see it as a time of unveiling - of how our way of life has damaged the earth. We are seeing appalling inequalities and the ugliness of polarized world-views. We are seeing the best and worst in human nature.
At times like these my inclination is to turn to books for wisdom, and I find myself reaching for Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. This spiritual classic published twenty-eight years ago tells the story of Nouwen’s encounter with a poster of Rembrandt’s painting of the parable of the Prodigal Son. It was a turning point in Nouwen’s life. Is this pandemic our turning point?
Nouwen’s book suggests that somewhere, individually or collectively, we have taken a wrong turn. Can this pandemic help us change our direction? And when it’s over, can our society reconfigure into something better?
The subtitle of Nouwen’s book is A Story of Homecoming. With most of us being housebound for the past month it may sound ironic. But what about our spiritual homes? Is this a moment to turn around and return to where we really belong?
Nouwen first identifies himself with the younger son of the parable. He describes him as squandering his life and finally “coming to his senses”. By giving in to his compulsions and addictions he has ended up dissipated and starving. Are we having our own ‘coming to our senses’ moment? How have we, as a society, been like the prodigal son – squandering the plenitude of beauty and natural wealth of our planet? Will this be the moment we turn back from compulsive consumption and selfish greed? I must also face the personal aspect of this. Can I look honestly at myself and ask: Where have I been squandering my life? My time? My gifts? My loving heart? In what areas must I face the truth of my life? Nouwen describes the younger son as being confronted with his unconverted self. Am I also being confronted with a self in need of conversion?
Nouwen then relates to the elder son of the parable, who is equally ‘not at home’. Although he has done all the right things, he is filled with anger and resentment. Unlike his younger brother whose decrepitude is there for all to see in his rags and worn shoes, the elder son looks good by outward appearances, but inside he is raging. His brother’s return brings up his competitive instincts and wounded sense of justice. He refuses to join the welcome party. In Rembrandt’s painting he is just outside the warm circle of light, his hands held stiffly in front of him like a shield. Does the elder son show how I might have become rigid and calcified in my judgments of others, and complacent in my own sense of correctness?
Where in fact do I get my sense of self-worth? Through his analysis of the elder son, Nouwen exposes how much we get it from where we work, how much we earn, what kind of car we drive, how much we travel, etc. We use props to hide our propensity for self-rejection. In this pandemic many of these external supports are missing.
Our identities are being shaken. We are in a place beyond earning, doing and buying. Who am I without these props? This is the great homecoming; to return to the place where we belong without condition, to our true home.
Can the elder son see this? Can I?
Nouwen shows us that Jesus’ parable is really about the immensity of God’s love. This is what we need to be reminded of more than anything else in this pandemic – that we are loved unconditionally, extravagantly, by God. As the world goes crazy around us, can we bring ourselves to allow God to place hands on our shoulders, bless us and welcome us home, with no preconditions, no questions asked?
Nouwen remarks on the stillness at the centre of Rembrandt’s picture. Rembrandt focusses in on the tender moment of reconciliation. I am comforted by this. Like the wayward son I can just “be”, with my rags and worn shoes. Like the elder son, I can release myself from the need to prove my worthiness. I can rest in divine comfort.
Finally, there is an even greater spiritual challenge laid out by Nouwen. It is the call to become the father in the parable. Nouwen emphasises the quiet, gentle quality of God’s love. Could we assume these qualities ourselves? Not just to be like the Father but to actually be the Father. Could we give up our childish ways and be the grown-ups the world needs right now? In this pandemic the world needs mature people more than ever. Will I be that person? Like the Father in the parable, will I be the one who blesses people? Affirms them? Loves them? This is the challenge before us. Is the pandemic our time for transitioning from being restless, needy children to loving, forgiving adults?
How could we do this? Nouwen suggests three disciplines: grieving, forgiving and exercising generosity. We must grieve what we are losing today in this pandemic. We must grieve the loss of our childish naivety. Lamentation must be our daily prayer. Then we must forgive all whom we encounter who are fearful and who act out of fear, even when that fear is expressed toward us in anger. And finally we must be generous with our time, with our gifts, and with our love, as we go through this pandemic together.
But, as Nouwen reminds us, we don’t do it alone. We won’t achieve it with willpower or harsh self coercion. We do it by claiming that we are the beloved of God.
Nouwen provides us with a beautiful image: “I have to kneel before the Father, put my ear against his chest and listen, without interruption to the heartbeat of God. Then, and only then, can I say carefully and very gently what I hear.” (15). What if I sat for ten minutes every morning leaning my head against God’s chest as I ask: Who am I going to be today? How can I be a source of God’s presence in a world that needs it more than ever?
Sometimes the path of spiritual parenthood requires us to contend with loneliness and emptiness. But the reward is joy!
Nouwen’s treatise on the parable teaches us that it is possible to find joy in the midst of sorrow. He claims that we don’t have to wait for everything to be perfect before we celebrate.
We can start now:
“Celebration belongs to God’s Kingdom. “Rejoice with me” is the voice of God…God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found. Look for hidden joy!... I don’t have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand. This is the real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded by lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward for choosing joy is joy itself.” (Prodigal Son, 107, 108)
The Return of the Prodigal Son is a book about choices. Will we stop squandering our riches? Will we let go of our carefully constructed identities of success? Will we choose spiritual maturity and the discipline of celebration? These are small choices but ones with enormous implications for ourselves – and for our world.
Join us on Tuesday, May 12 at 3:00pm ET for a book launch and conversation with Gabrielle Earnshaw, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser and Karen Pascal—Henri Nouwen and The Return of the Prodigal Son: The Making of a Spiritual Classic. Register here.