Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Heart speaks to heart!

Father Henri Nouwen’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’

by John Fencik, for the Inland Register

(From the March 17, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)

John Fencik One of the most prolific spiritual writers of the 20th century was the late Father Henri Nouwen. In 1983, while in France, he saw a copy of a Rembrandt painting titled “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It led him to go to Saint Petersburg, Russia to see the original. His contemplative encounter with this magnificent painting led him to write the book The Return of the Prodigal Son. In this spiritual reflection, Father Nouwen invites the earthly pilgrim to consider the three main characters of the Lucan parable as found in the painting which gives a portrayal of the son returning home: the wayward son, the merciful father, and the angry elder son.

Many people can relate to Father Nouwen’s works, because he wrote about his own internal spiritual struggles. It has been well documented that he endured serious bouts of depression and loneliness. These issues presented him with the dilemma in that they seemed opposed to the message of the Gospel and his own faith. His success probably was based on his ability to see himself as just another person on this earthly pilgrimage. By sharing his own spiritual issues, Father Nouwen sought to assist others on their journey. In the pages of The Return of the Prodigal Son, he invites the reader to see into the very depth of his own spiritual life and relationship with God.

In the section on the person of prodigal son, Father Nouwen presents this challenge: “To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?” (42) The problem is that we are more attracted to the fleeting, conditional love of the world that will always leave us unsatisfied and incomplete – still searching for the world’s answer. Father Nouwen addresses the feeling of emptiness that seems to be so prevalent in the lives of so many people. With the explosion of social media and “instant” celebrity status, people are no longer content with being an ordinary, everyday person. We have become bored! Like the son, we are looking for real happiness often in places that will never bring fulfillment: “Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father?” (43)

Father Nouwen challenges us to look at the motivations behind our everyday actions – using our God-given gifts for earthly adulation, instead of seeking first the Kingdom of God – the intimacy of my heart’s encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ (a phrase popular with both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis).

Chapter Three is titled “The Younger Son’s Return” – the image Rembrandt captured in his masterpiece. It is often said that forgiveness may be the most difficult human act – especially unconditional forgiveness. The son seeks reconciliation, but not from a loving and compassionate father. No, he seeks a return for mere survival. (52) Father Nouwen says it is the sinner coming back to God seeking just a “minimal punishment” (52) that enables him to survive. This God is ever the “harsh, judgmental God.” (53)

Even in this return, there is no depth of intimacy or respect, because to truly receive the mercy and compassion of our Father in Christ is too difficult for one to accept. Can God really forgive me? My sins are certainly far too great for him to embrace me ever again as his son or daughter. Writes Father Nouwen: “There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offer us a completely new beginning.” (53) Of course, that would require abandonment to God, in letting him scoop us up into his arms – like the Good Shepherd carrying home the lost lamb. This is an important lesson, for often in life we must be the Father to others by our own unconditional compassion and mercy.

As we approach Holy Week in this Year of Mercy, let us be ever-mindful of that image of the father running to the son and restoring him to his family – the same powerful restoring grace that we realize in the Sacrament of Reconciliation!

(John Fencik is director of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services of Spokane.)

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