The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming


by Henri J.M. Nouwen


Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Sometimes a picture or a piece of music can draw us into meditation that leads to a peaceful contemplation. Henri Nouwen was drawn into a deep meditation when he saw a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. The meditation that he offers us is transformational. Nouwen spent more than four hours with the picture, making notes about what he heard, what the tourists were saying, about how the sunlight at different times of the day made a difference in regard to the picture. He was drawn into the picture in such a way that he became part of it. He moved from being an outsider looking in to the place of the returning son.


Leaving St. Petersburg’s Hermitage and coming to Daybreak in Toronto which housed people with cognitive and physical delays, he found the work at Daybreak to be filled with much inner struggle: basically mental, emotional and spiritual pain. Becoming part of the event of what Rembrandt laid before him was not an easy task. Each little step felt impossible as he had to let go of the control of the ‘observer’. Allowing himself to be loved was a monumental task. He began to see that God wanted every part of him all the time!


In the Introduction he tells us about the younger son, the elder son and the Father. Nouwen states that: “I felt quite ready to identify myself with the spendthrift younger son or the resentful elder son, but the idea of being like the old man who had nothing to lose because he had lost all, and only to give, overwhelmed me with fear”. In the first chapter, Nouwen gives us a meditation on the younger son. He lets us know that Rembrandt was close to his death when he painted his Prodigal Son. Rembrandt’s physical blindness coupled with his deep interior understanding of how the old father embraces the spent son. It took Rembrandt a long time to develop this deep interior light. The author describes in detail how Rembrandt changes or is transformed over time in a way that assists Nouwen in explaining the depth of the painting. From the repentant son to the compassionate father we see a movement away from wealth and glory to the “glory that is hidden in the human soul and surpasses death”.


In Chapter two, the author describes the younger son’s leaving. Some authors think that the leaving is similar to wanting his father dead. Many people are horrified at the ‘leaving’ as it is contrary to normal human emotion. This is a denial of the sacred space from where he came: his family, his friends, his home, his parents and all that defined him as a human person. He has fled hoping to find love and dismissing the love he received at home. In Chapter three, we meditate on the younger son’s return. “The understanding was not a customary part of the preaching and writing of his time. ….to see in this tired, broken young man the person of Jesus himself brings much comfort and consolation. The young man being embraced by the Father is no longer just one repentant sinner, but the whole of humanity returning to God”. (p.58)


In Chapter four, Nouwen gives us historical evidence about Rembrandt and the painting. How he envisioned each with the eye of the aging person. The elder son presents us with a leap of faith that is manifest in “loving without expecting, giving without wanting to receive, inviting without hoping to be invited, and holding without asking to be held. Every time we take a little leap I catch a glimpse of the one who runs out to me and invites me into his joy, the joy in which I can find not only myself, but also my brothers and sisters”. For Nouwen, Jesus becomes the elder Son of the Father. He is sent by the Father to reveal God’s unremitting love for all his resentful children and to offer himself as the way home. “Jesus is God’s way of making the impossible possible---of allowing light to conquer darkness”. (87)


In the last chapter where the father is discussed we see the unique heart of Rembrandt becoming the unique heart of the father. The inner light-giving fire of love that has grown strong through the artist’s many years of suffering burns in the heart of the father who welcomes his returning son. Nouwen states: here is a father I want to believe in: a father who from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting, never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. The meditation and the intertwining of the art makes this a very reflective and meditative piece. Nouwen writes with clarity but above all writes with the love of the Trinity. The reader can read this book on so many levels and so many different struggles and hopes they have in their lives. It is truly rich in graces and blessings.


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