Henri Nouwen's 'The Return of the Prodigal Son'—August Catholic Book Club Selection

August is a spectacular month in the northeast of the United States. It is hot, the days are long, the ocean is warm enough for swimming, and the trees and shrubs wear a deep green.  Northeasterners know that this will not last, that just on the other side of a short autumn will be a grim winter. Yet, during August, there is still time to linger outside, to listen to baseball on the radio, and to read books that are truly, truly enjoyable.

The Catholic Book Club interrupts its series on Jesus books, postponing our look at Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth to cooler, shorter days, more suitable to long swaths of reading indoors. For August, the Book Club considers Henri Nouwen’s 1992 book: The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. It is a slim volume packed with art and insight into divine love. Like the month of August, the book’s writing has a lightness about it. I mean this in the best possible sense. The joy and relief in the author’s recounting—akin to the joy of the father in the Lukan parable (Lk 15:11-32)—is palpable and extends to the reader. It is the joy of the Beloved, the joy of the forgiven son and the joy of the compassionate father. The joy extends to the reader and warms the reader’s heart.

I would imagine that many participants in The Catholic Book Club are quite familiar with Henri Nouwen, a well-known spiritual author and guide who died in 1996. I am quite sure many have read this book, however, it demands a rereading. I first read the book around nine years ago. I encountered it for a second time while on retreat this summer, and I was moved by how wonderful the book is. I had forgotten how rich a read it is. I offer two quotes to demonstrate what I mean:

The first is a vivid interpretation of Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal son (1669). The painting fuels Nouwen’s meditation and represents the heart of the book. Henri Nouwen writes:

The true center of Rembrandt’s painting is the hands of the father. On them all light is concentrated; on them the eyes of the bystanders are focused; in them mercy becomes flesh; upon them forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing come together, and, through them, not only the tired son, but also the worn-out father find their rest (96).

The second quote brilliantly conveys Nouwen’s insight into the crux of Luke’s parable of the prodigal son as well as the Christian mystery as a whole:

Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.’ God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing me…What I am called to make true is that whether I am the younger or the elder son, I am the son of my compassionate Father. I am an heir. No one says it more clearly than Paul when he writes: ‘The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided that we share his sufferings, so as to share his glory.’ Indeed, as son and heir I am to become successor. I am destined to step into my Father’s place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me. The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father (123).

Rembrandt’s painting is a snapshot filled with light, intimacy, deep reds, characters at the periphery, and dark, empty spaces. Nouwen masterfully describes the elements of the painting and how they relate to Rembrandt’s biography. The painting and the parable that inspires it brim with meaning. Nouwen breaks open such meaning by relating the dynamics of the painting and the parable to his own life of desolation, resentment, reconciliation and renewal. The great insight that Nouwen offers into the painting comes from one of his great friends, Sr. Sue Mosteller: “Whether you [see yourself as] the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father” (22). The compassion manifest in Jesus Christ must animate and define those who claim to be his disciples. This sounds like a tall order. However, we are all loved sinners, and we have already experienced and continue to experience God’s transforming love. We have had the experiences of both sons and by virtue of such experiences, we can become sources of love and reconciliation to others.

Nouwen’s book is a gem. I heartily encourage the members of the Book Club to read it—for the first time or the fourth. Before I offer a question for our discussion, I include a number of links. First, there are two articles that America published in 2006, ten years after Nouwen’s death. They provide some background on Henri Nouwen: Robert Ellsberg and Gerald Twomey. I also offer two wonderful podcasts featuring Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arch community in which Nouwen found his place at the end of his life. The first link is to Vanier’s 1998 CBC Massey Lectures (the Massey Lectures are Canada at its intellectual and cultural best). The title of these talks is “Becoming Human.” Please have a listen. The second link is a more recent converstion with Vanier and Krista Tippett.  It is an enjoyable, rich conversation. (While we are at it, I would like to introduce you to another prominent Catholic intellectual who offered the Massey Lectures in 2002, Margaret Visser. Her talks are entitled “Beyond Fate.” Not only is she a wonderful thinker, her voice and diction alone will enrich your afternoon or your long summer drive.)

As far as a prompt for discussion, please feel free to comment on Nouwen or Vanier or Visser or Rembrandt or Luke’s parable. The one question I offer concerns the parable itself. The story is open-ended. How do you envision its conclusion? Are the children transformed by the father’s love so much that they are able, in the future, to love as he loves?

Anne Chapman
1 year 10 months ago
Henry Nouwen is one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century. I will re-read this book in honor of it being this month's selection. Nouwen's reflections on the painting are the result of the hours he spent gazing upon it. Not looking at it, not studying it, but gazing upon it. He would move his chair in order to see how the changing light changes what is easily seen in the painting, highlighting different areas and softening others. Like the painter Monet, who painted what he saw in his mind and soul as the physical light changed how he saw the subjects of his paintings, Nouwen knew that our impressions and understanding of what we see is influenced by the soul light by which we see. Seeing is not just physical. How I see with mind and soul, as a woman, is often different from how men see. My understandings and perceptions reflect the feminine that is the light by which I see and understand. Nouwen spent many hours studying the painting, reflecting on every aspect of the painting, integrating what he saw physically with what he saw with his soul. He saw Rembrandt's life in this painting, completed only two years before his death, after he had experienced much personal loss and pain. He saw all of our lives in this painting. Nouwen focused on the hands. The quote from p. 96 is part of the reflection on the hands. But it is incomplete. On p. 98, Nouwen writes: "Often I have asked friends to give me their first impression of Rembrandt's Prodigal Son. Inevitably, they point to the wise old man who forgives his son: the benevolent patriarch. "The longer I look at 'the patriarch', the clearer it becomes to me that Rembrandt has done something quite different from letting God pose as the wise old head of a family. It all began with the hands. The two hands are quite different. The father’s left hand, touching the son’s shoulder, is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal’s shoulder and back. We can see a certain pressure, especially the thumb. That hand seems not only to touch, but with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father’s left hand touches the son, it is not without a firm grip. How different is the father’s right hand. This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. This hand lies gently on the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand. The father is not simply patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds and she caresses; he confirms and she consolesAs soon as I recognized the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is , indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present (p. 99) Nouwen, and, it seems Rembrandt, even though he was a man of the 17th century, understood what the institutional church still does not understand - that God made them male AND female in God's image. The institutional church denies the feminine in God, persisting in an exclusively patriarchal understanding that excludes the feminine, and promotes a false understanding of what true complementarity means. God is not just patriarch, not just father, God is also matriarch, and mother. The people of God have been hurt, and will continue to be hurt, until the understandings of God that are seen by the feminine mind and soul are reflected in the church in all ways - not a secondary role meant to support the masucline, but the feminine as true equal. When this happens, when the feminine understanding is reflected and integrated into all levels of church governance and into doctrine, the church may begin to reflect a fullness of understanding, and more of the fullness of God's love, that is now missing. And because it is missing. the church suffers.
Steven Reynolds
1 year 10 months ago
I will certainly go back to this book for the balance of this month. A beautiful reflection drawing on one of the best known parables and a beautiful work of art. One of the other instructors in our parish RCIA program used an outline of the book as a single session lesson, with a large print of the painting as prop, to great effort. Will comment again after diving back into the book.
Steven Reynolds
1 year 9 months ago
Return of the Prodigal Son is a beautiful reflection on a great piece of art, the life of the artist, one of the most well known parables, and the life and faith experience of the author. He sees himself in each of three main characters of the parable - the son who left and has returned, the son that stayed, and the father. A thoughtful reader will as well. I envision the parables conclusion optimistically - that the father's love wins out. The parable is placed as the third of three. In the first two what is lost is found. We can hope so as well for the third. It is though far more complicated with people than sheep or coins.

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