My Reflection on Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.

“I was dead tired, anxious, lonely, restless and very needy.” How could this be, a priest and theologian, half a world away, 30 years ago, felt just like me? Aren’t I the only one who feels this way? Isn’t this how working moms of teenagers feel?

Again and again Henri Nouwen echoed, predicted and faced the emotions I am facing in his Return of the Prodigal Son.

Meeting with the small group (Small Christian Community – SCC) in the weeks following Easter (2016) we worked our way through the parables of mercy in the Gospel of Luke. Each week I was looking for instruction on how to be merciful, while everyone else was seeing where they needed or received mercy.

I am perpetually looking outward – who knew I needed to look inward first – to recognize myself in this parable, to recognize my own faults and feelings, to recognize the mercy already being so freely given to me – and then actually being able to witness myself receiving it.

We focused on Luke’s Return of the Prodigal Son and our guidebook suggested reflecting on Rembrandt’s painting of the parable when the father embraces his returning younger son. And one of the members of the group spoke of us each being in the parable – as each of the three characters – at some point in our lives – and that hit home.

After the next week’s SCC meeting she lent me Nouwen’s book and I cried through the first 60 pages in one sitting.

I realized I needed to receive the mercy of God in order to be able to give it to others, all the instruction in the world on “how to” wouldn’t matter if I didn’t have any mercy to give.

I learned and recognized so much about myself in Nouwen’s writing. The very first recognition was my addiction to control, the lack of real risk I take in my life because it would result in my not being in control. (Of course, that addiction to control can adversely affect others in my life.) I have to participate more with others and to allow God to guide me. To do that, I must trust, to trust, I have to have faith in His love, His will and His mercy for me, no matter what I face by letting go.

“… requiring me to let go one more time from wanting to be in control, to give up one more time the desire to protect life, to die one more time to the fear of not knowing where it all will lead and to surrender one more time to a love that knows no limits…” (p14)

A month ago, before the Small Christian Community meeting, I had a dream. It woke me up out of a dead sleep with a voice asking the single question: “Are you working for man, or are you working for God?” My immediate response was, “Please don’t make me give up my family” and for twenty-four hours I worried I was being asked to give up something, and maybe I am – to give up control.

Like the parable’s younger son, I want all “my due” and I want it now, so I can administer and manage it, and while I will likely not lose it all on “loose women” and end up feeding pigs – that desire for control drives me far into a distant country where I don’t hear God and I certainly don’t allow Him to guide me.

“… As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in “the distant country”, leaving us to face and endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled… It’s almost as if I want to prove to myself and my world that I do not need God’s love, but I can make a life of my own, but I want to be fully independent.” (P 43)


“The farther I run away from the place where God dwells, the less I am able to hear the voice that calls me the beloved, the less I hear that voice, the more entangled I become in the manipulations of power games of the world… The world around me becomes dark. My heart grows heavy. My body is filled with sorrows. My life loses meaning. I have become a lost soul.” (P 47)

This loss of everything brings me to what is left – my identity. Maybe not rock bottom – but my very bedrock. It is then that I might (or I can finally) hear His voice, ever so faintly.

When one hits that bedrock one can then begin again, and it is my hope to be like the wayward son, and know that the new beginning needs to be made with God, the father, who will guide, ground and give me all I need. Through Him I am saved, with Him I live my life and in Him is everything I truly need. “God is the only resource left me.” (P 52)

And so I clearly recognize myself as the younger son, needing to return to God, to be reborn (again and again) in Him, to receive the mercy He is waiting to give me.

As I then reflect further on the painting, and as I read on, I see and agree that the entire painting presents “an enormous spiritual challenge.” (P 64) I sink back into those dangerous feelings:

“… I tried so hard, worked so long, did so much and still I have not received… I catch myself complaining about little projections… The more I analyze it, the more reason I see for my complaint… An enormous, dark drawing power in our complaint… I’ve become more and more boss until in the end, I feel myself to be the most misunderstood, rejected and neglected and despised person… Then the complaint, once expressed… Leads to further rejection.” (P 72)

I cannot enter into God’s joy or easily accept His mercy when it is presented to me if complaint engulfs me. And so I see that I am the elder brother too,… (And I think he represents the Pharisees, not a positive feeling for this self-described Biblical scholar.)

Here Nouwen discusses the reality that I am not poor hungry or persecuted, I am not marginalized, I am public with my faith – so have I already received my reward? – Is there a place for me with God since I am not wretched, poor and outcast? – the parable says “yes” I am with God, always. Perhaps I need to rest in that (or not rest) and be open, loving and caring for other “children” that need to be welcomed or welcomed back.

“… let 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.” (P 83)

Now I learn that the father loves both sons, and His love is not divided into “more and less” for them. Living in a world of compassion, how do I let others know (my partners, children, friends, family) that they don’t just get a portion allotted to them? They get what I can give and what they’re willing to receive – there is no measurable depth or worth of this kind of love. It is pure grace and gift, whether it is from God, parents, spouse, sibling or child or from me.

When I recognize this, I feel it in my core, I see where Nouwen is leading me – to be the Father. I must become like the father. As a parent, I see this naturally but could never quite put it to words, especially when accused by my kids of favoring one over the other.

“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. It is a hard and lonely step to take … but it is a step that is essential for the fulfillment of the spiritual journey.” (P 121)

Henri Nouwen speaks of a dreadful emptiness: no power, no success, no popularity, no easy satisfaction but it leads to true freedom that then leads to the real spiritual strength only then can I offer hope and mercy to others.

“I have to dare to carry the responsibility of a spiritually adult person and dare to trust that the real joy and real fulfillment can only come from welcoming love those who have been hurt and wounded on their life’s journey, and loving them with the love that neither asks nor expects anything in return… [Otherwise] who is going to be home when they return – tired, exhausted, excited, disappointed, guilty or ashamed? Who is going to convince them that, after all is said and done, there is a safe place to return to and receive and embrace? If it is not I, who is it going to be?” (P 132)

To know and feel called to serve others yet not have received mercy of God myself leaves me handicapped, not fully-equipped to do the very service I feel called to. That impact with rock bottom or bedrock that finally cracks me open to receive is not always a visible deterioration, at least not necessarily visible to others. But my husband, he knew I was breaking, but few others could see the fissures, except perhaps the friend that lent me this book, and my own father (earthly, that is).

These three allowed me to break, safely in the arms of God’s mercy, they made me safe, they opened the door, they were able to give me mercy in ways they were not aware and ways that I now realize I want to be able to give to others when I serve. And now that I have tasted some of that mercy, I can share it. For as my friend said in that small Christian community meeting in reflecting on this parable, “How can we give mercy from God if we have not received it from Him ourselves?”

I need works like this, books like this, and maybe in Henri Nouwen I have found a new companion on my journey. My academic self sometimes needs to leave behind the hermeneutics, the historical context, literary genre, chiasms and even theology. I can only discover that deeper teaching, meaning and mercy of Christ by looking deep within myself, opening the heart’s door, to see what He has indeed written on my heart. He is my God I am His, He chose me.



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