I hope to not write a book review, but for this season, my spiritual life has been little more than a deeply recurring investment in and reflection on The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henry Nouwen, his meditation on the painting by Rembrandt of the parable.
I’m not sure what I hoped, originally, to encounter in the work. I’d heard sermons on the parable, read Tim Keller’s excellent The Prodigal God, agonized wondering if the words of blessing of the father could be mine. So I suppose I entered the book hopeful (having picked it up at a particularly low point) but not expectant. Which, as I write it, could be the mantra for my spiritual life—hopeful, but not expectant.
What I found is a work which haunts me. Not like some ghastly ghoul out of a two-bit horror show, nor even the banshees and other apparitions of folklore. If you know the Harry Potter works (and if you don’t, spoiler alert), near the end of the last book, as Harry goes to what he is sure is certain death, a talisman allows him to conjure the spirits of those most dear—his lately passed protector, his father, and his mother. It is they who walk with him in the darkness, giving such comfort and support as is fitting and good.
Nouwen haunts me so.
Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father…we…don’t need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother. We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.
These words were spoken by a friend to Nouwen. A spiritual leader, priest, mentor, leader, speaker, writer, healer…they perhaps resonate with him more than they would immediately with others of us. But if our spiritual calling is to follow Jesus, who came to reveal the Father, to make us one with the Father, with Himself, with the Holy Spirit, to become partakers of something of the Triune eternal love, then they must speak to me, to us.
Yet I come to them with great fear and trepidation. To become the father in the parable, to become the Father of whom he is a type…costs. Nouwen writes of Rembrandt
One must have died many deaths and cried many tears to have painted a portrait of God in such humility.
And of the Father pictured in the father
It is the voice of a nearly blind father who has cried much and died many deaths.
To become the father means to let all the pain and anguish fall upon me. I think we understand, in some small, human, measure, the pain of separation Jesus felt when, as the hymn says, “the Father turns His face away.” We feel the anguish of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet do we feel the anguish of the Father, who no less than the Son must feel the separation (in whatever mysterious way the persons of the Trinity can experience separation)? The Son willingly gives Himself up, and the Father willingly sacrifices His Son.
In my own imagination, I have somehow pictured the Father remote, removed, pitiless and remorseless as He turns away. Yet how wrong a view of the Father, who is the Father, the one from whom all fathers take their name?
It is easy to read the parable and find in ourselves either the younger or elder son, though Nouwen rightly highlights how each is present in our spiritual lives. As the younger son, my temptation often, as the son in the parable frames it, is to name myself a servant, not a son. Though seeming repentance and return, this is the same sort of moral platitude the elder son offers and which we so often (and rightly) abhor.
The reality is that as the younger son, we flee forgiveness. We fear it.
[Do] I truly want to be restored to the full responsibility of the son? Do I truly want to be so totally forgiven that a completely new way of living becomes possible? Do I trust myself and such a radical reclamation? Do I want to break way from my deep-rooted rebellion against God and surrender myself so absolutely to God’s love that a new person can emerge?
Why resist? Because, to the younger son, to us all
Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring, and renewing.
I must give up all claims to any rights of separation I might claim as a servant. If I name myself truly a son, I cannot run, flee, or fight. I must only allow the Father to be the Father.
What is more, I must move beyond seeing my sonship as mine to have and keep.
As the beloved son, I have to claim my full dignity and begin preparing myself to become the father.
As much as I may rest in my Father’s arms, as much as I find security there, my call is not to remain just as a son, but to become the father. I must become the one, not who rebels, but who bears the rebellions of others. I must become the one, not who is sought out, but who seeks out. The one who bears the shame and reproach by others for others and even from others. The one who can rebuke and accept at once, join truth, love, justice, mercy… the one who ever extends arms of forgiveness and love, an eternal embrace without end, which may be rejected and despised, yet still remains outstretched.
And the elder son?
He has become a foreigner in his own house. True communion is gone. Every relationship is pervaded by darkness. To be afraid or to show disdain, to suffer submission or to enforce control, to be an oppressor or to be a victim.
Who would not wish to give up such conflict? Who wouldn’t long for the true communion not, as for the younger son, in memories of a now-distant home, but in the home in which one dwells? The despair of the elder is in many ways more powerful than the despair of the younger. So what fear might keep reconciliation at bay?
The return to the “father from whom all fatherhood takes its name” allows me to let my dad be no less than the good, loving, but limited human being he is, and to let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger and makes me free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.
The great fear for the elder brother and the younger brother in me is the. Both fear, not just to trust in the Father’s goodness, but to trust in the goodness of becoming the Father to others.
Yet we follow the Son who was each son. He who gave up every right and privilege to live in a distant land, surrounded by tax collectors and sinners, open to the scorn the elder brother heaped upon the younger. He who never broke faith with the Father, remaining ever in His Father’s house, listening and obeying perfectly in loving communion with His Father.
And the Son who is the Father, in the mystery of our faith in a Triune God. The Son who came to claim the inheritance given Him by the Father, which He Himself, the very Word of God, had created and sustained. The Son who reveals the Father.
I’ve been drawn, along with The Return of the Prodigal Son, to the upper room discourse of John 13-17. What God has illuminated is the frequency with which Jesus calls us to abide in Him, in the Father, in His love, just as He abides in the Father, in the Father’s love, just as They abide is us.
I find that I cannot abide; only God can cause me to abide in Him, only He can cause Himself to abide in me. And only He, then, can make me one who can offer some human sense of abiding Fatherly love to offer others to find their abiding love in their Father.
Todd is married to Rebecca and they have two daughters, Anna Ruth and Ellie. Todd serves as both upper school Principal and Academic Dean for The Academy of Classical Christian Studies.