Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son
Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son

I recently completed reading The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J.M. Nouwen, a Catholic priest who was so moved by Rembrandt’s painting that he wrote a book describing how his own life could be defined in terms of this depiction of the parable.


I was struck by how much of Nouwen’s thought paralleled my own. Despite the fact that he wrote around the age of 60, Nouwen was still self-doubting and self-critical. I had always assumed that one grew out of such thoughts with age; I’m concerned to find that that may not be true. It's also fun to realize that my thought processes parallel those of a 60-year-old clinically depressed closeted gay priest. I'll add him to the list of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Elie Wiesel, Dante Alighieri and Kurt Cobain. 


When I learned that Nouwen was working with people with mental disabilities in Toronto, I was sorely tempted to track him down until I discovered that he died in 1996. I felt a strong kinship to him. Only at the end of his book, when I read the conclusions he reached after all this struggle, did I begin to see the differences between himself and me. I was saddened to find that the conclusion he latched onto at age 60 was one I had found when I was 18, and have since rejected.


Nouwen struck me as a man of great understanding and kindness. I found myself crying on the train several times as I read on the way to work.

“[O]ur brokenness has no other beauty but the beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it.”


 “I tried constantly to point beyond the mortal quality of our existence to a presence larger, deeper, wider, and more beautiful than we can imagine…”


“[S]omething that represents the ongoing yearning of the human spirit, the yearning for a final return, an unambiguous sense of safety, a lasting home.”


“Every time I take a step in the direction of generosity, I know that I am moving from fear to love.”


“I saw a man like myself: afraid, but with a great desire to be forgiven.”


“Becoming a child is living toward a second innocence: not the innocence of the newborn infant, but the innocence that is reached through conscious choices.”


“Isn’t the little child poor, gentle, and pure of heart? Isn’t the little child weeping in response to every little pain?”


“I am beginning to see that much of praying is grieving.”


“Our human brokenness can be acted out in many ways, but there is no offense, crime, or war that does not have its seeds in our own hearts.”


Nouwen has some incisive words about gratitude and self-discipline.

“There is an Estonian proverb that says: ‘Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.’”


“The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”


“The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious.”


“Jesus, the Son of God, is the man of sorrows, but also the man of complete joy.”


“Who knows whether the world is kept from destruction because of one, two, or three people who have continued to pray when the rest of humanity has lost hope and dissipated itself?”


“This paralyzing fear of God is one of the great human tragedies.”


“God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end… God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found… It is the joy that comes from seeing a child walk home amid all the destruction, devastation, and anguish of the world.”


“I have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness… He keeps saying: ‘I saw something very small and very beautiful, something that gave me much joy.’”


I found that quite a few of Nouwen's self-critiques also defined me to an embarrassing degree of accuracy.


“There is indifference, curiosity, daydreaming, and attentive observation; there is staring, gazing, watching, and looking; there is standing in the background, leaning against an arch, sitting with arms crossed, and standing with hands gripping each other… all of them are ways of not getting directly involved.”

“I become more and more aware of how long I have played the role of observer.”

“[H]ad I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God?”


“[O]ne little step from bystander to participant, from judge to repentant sinner, from teacher about love to being loved as the beloved.”

“It is the place where I so much want to be, but am so fearful of being. It is the place where I will receive all I desire, all that I ever hoped for, all that I will ever need, but it is also the place where I have to let go of all that I most want to hold on to. It is the place that confronts me with the fact that truly accepting love, forgiveness, and healing is often much harder than giving it. It is the place beyond earning, deserving and rewarding. It is the place of surrender and complete trust. “


"[A] demand requiring me to let go one more time from wanting to be in control, to give up one more time the desire to predict life, to die one more time to the fear of not knowing where it will all lead, and to the surrender one more time to a love that knows no limits. And still, I knew that I would never be able to live the great commandment to love without allowing myself to be loved without conditions or prerequisites. The journey from teaching about love to allowing myself to be loved proved much longer than I realized.”


“For a very long time I considered low self-esteem to be some kind of virtue. I had been warned so often against pride and conceit that I came to consider it a good thing to deprecate myself.  But now I realize that the real sin is to deny God’s first love for me, to ignore my original goodness. Because without claiming that first love and that original goodness for myself, I lose touch with my true self…”


“Can I accept that I am worth looking for?”


“As long as I doubt that I am worth finding and put myself down as less loved than my younger brothers and sisters, I cannot be found.”


“I say to myself: ‘I am no good. I am useless. I am worthless. I am unlovable. I am a nobody.’ There are always countless events and situations that I can single out to convince myself and others that my life is just not worth living, that I am only a burden, a problem, a source of conflict, or an exploiter of other people’s time and energy. Many people live with this dark, inner sense of themselves… They might not kill themselves physically, but spiritually they are no longer alive.” 

c.f. Hamlet Act III, Scene I: “I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.”

“There is seldom a minute in my life that I am not tempted by sadness, melancholy, cynicism, dark moods, somber thoughts, morbid speculations, and waves of depression.”


“Here lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing.”

Need for Approval

“I am constantly concerned that I not be forgotten, that somehow I will live on in the thoughts and deeds of others.”


“[A]m I doomed to remain so caught up in my own need to find a place in my world that I end up ever and again using the authority of power instead of the authority of compassion?”


“[L]et 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.”

“It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down.”

Envy & Pride

“[T]he hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the [son] who stayed home.”


“I find myself brooding about someone else’s success, my own loneliness, and the way the world abuses me.”


“It is the complaint that cries out: ‘I tried so hard, worked so long, did so much, and still I have not received what others get so easily. Why do people not thank me, not invite me, not play with me, not honor me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and so casually? …Condemnation of others and self-condemnation, self-righteousness and self-rejection keep reinforcing each other in an ever more vicious way… As I let myself be drawn into the vast interior labyrinth of my complaints, I become more and more lost until, in the end, I feel myself to be the most misunderstood, rejected, neglected, and despised person in the world.”


“A complainer is hard to live with, and very few people know how to respond to the complaints made by a self-rejecting person.”


“The music and dancing, instead of inviting to joy, become a cause for even greater withdrawal.”


“The experience of not being able to enter into joy is the experience of a resentful heart.”


“There is so much resentment among the ‘just’ and the ‘righteous.’ There is so much judgment, condemnation, and prejudice among the ‘saints.’”


“I am seldom without some imaginary encounter in my head in which I can explain myself, boast or apologize, proclaim or defend, evoke praise or pity. It seems that I am perpetually involved in long dialogues with absent partners, anticipating their questions and preparing my responses.”


“I reflect on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Each time I read that parable in which the landowner gives as much to the workers who worked only one hour as to those who did ‘a heavy day’s work in all the heat,’ a feeling of irritation still wells up inside of me… It hadn’t previously occurred to me that the landowner might have wanted the workers of the early hours to rejoice in his generosity to the latecomers… God looks at his people as children of a family who are happy that those who have done only a little bit are as much loved as those who accomplish much… God’s vision is… that of an all-giving and forgiving father who does not measure out his love to his children according to how well they behave…”


“I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation.”


“My human experience tells me that forgiveness boils down to the willingness of the other to forgo revenge and to show me some measure of charity.”


“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. Sometimes it even seems as though I want to prove to God that my darkness is too great to overcome.” 

c.f. Faust.

“[I]t seems that just as I want to be most selfless, I find myself obsessed about being loved. Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who gave in to theirs.”


“[O]ffer some hope to people caught in the resentment that is the bitter fruit of their nature to please.”


“Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift.”


“There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration.”


“I have to let go of all comparison, all rivalry and competition, and surrender to the Father’s love.

As a priest, Nouwen naturally looks to God to fill his internal emptiness. But I don't think that it's the only way.

Finding Satisfaction in Yourself…

“[I]t was not I who chose God, but God who first chose me.”


“Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one.”


“The world’s love is and always will be conditional.”

“I have fled the hands of blessing and run off to faraway places searching for love!”

“With my thoughts, feelings, emotions, and passions, I was constantly away from the place where God had chosen to make home.”


“[The younger son] was truly lost, and it was this complete lostness that brought him to his senses.”


“[M]y resistance to living a joyful life.”


“Jesus says, ‘Anyone who loves me will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home in him.’ …I am God’s home!”


“[T]he spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows.”


“[S]oon after rejecting Satan’s voice daring him to prove to the world that he is worth being loved… Jesus… says: ‘How blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness.’”


“Jesus wants me to have the same joy he enjoys…  ‘If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love…’”


“Jesus… says: ‘Everything you ask and pray for, trust that you have it already, and it will be yours.’”

The preceding lines led to three poems:

Nothing is Forbidden


If God's love
Is unconditional
And requires only
That we accept it
Into our hearts,

Why, then,
Were we given
His conditions?

If I can accept God
Into my heart
As I covet
My neighbor's wife,

Like the child
Who sweetly smiles
As he eats
The forbidden snack,

Does my acceptance
Not forestall
Almighty retaliation?

Is This True?

That you
Already have
The joy you seek
And it is yours.

It is only when
You cease to seek
That you may be



Pellinore Rides

Do not hunt
That magical beast
You must slay
To find

Find the joy
In polishing its scales
And sharpening its fangs
As you ride together
Into glory.

If you look
At your reflection
You will find
Its haunches
Already coiled
Beneath you.

…is Part of Allowing Yourself to be Loved

“I am convinced that many of my emotional problems would melt as snow in the sun if I could let the truth of God’s motherly non-comparing love to permeate my heart.”


“The question is not ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself by found by him?’… the question is not ‘How am I to love God’ but ‘How am I to let myself be loved by God?’”


“[W]e can allow ourselves to be found by God and healed by his love through the concrete and daily practice of trust and gratitude.”


“I knew that God was a jealous lover who wanted every part of me all the time. When would I be ready to accept that kind of love?”


“[T]he true voice of love is a very soft and gentle voice speaking to me in the most hidden places of my being… It is a voice that can only be heard by those who allow themselves to be touched.”


“But there are many other voices… These voices say, ‘Go out and prove that you are worth something.’… They are always there and, always, they reach into those inner places where I question my own goodness and doubt my self-worth. They suggest that I am not going to be loved without my having earned it through determined efforts and hard work.”


“A voice… whispered that no human being would ever be able to give me the love I craved, that no friendship, no intimate relationship, no community would ever be able to satisfy the deepest needs of my wayward heart.”


“I cannot be reborn from below; that is, with my own strength, with my own mind, with my own psychological insights… I can only be healed from above, from where God reaches down.”


“Is there a way out? I don’t think there is—at least not on my side. It often seems that the more I try to disentangle myself from the darkness, the darker it becomes. I need light, but that light has to conquer my darkness, and that I cannot bring about myself. I cannot forgive myself. I cannot make myself feel loved. By myself I cannot leave the land of my anger. I cannot bring myself home nor can I create communion on my own. I can desire it, hope for it, wait for it, yes, pray for it. But my true freedom I cannot fabricate for myself. That must be given to me. I am lost. I must be found and brought home by the shepherd who goes out to me.”

This last quotation perfectly describes the conclusion of my first novel, Fragile Order—except I argue that human love can do just that.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make God smile by giving God the chance to find me and love me lavishly?”


“As the Beloved, I can confront, console, admonish, and encourage without fear of rejection or need for affirmation… As the Beloved, I am free to live and give life, free also to die while giving life.”

This doesn’t just have to be about God. It can be about any kind of love. Through our complaints about ourselves, through our insecurities, we close ourselves off to it. But once we open up, it can be found almost anywhere.

Becoming the Father

Nouwen considers three roles in the parable: the younger son (the prodigal son), the elder son, and the father. He particularly contrasts the two sons, and how part of him lies in both—but recognizes that the call is not to remain either son, but to become the father.

“[T]he final stage of the spiritual life is to so fully let go of all fear of the Father that it becomes possible to become like him.”


“[M]y final vocation is indeed to become like the Father and to live out his divine compassion in my daily life. Though I am both the younger son and the elder son, I am not to remain them, but to become the Father. 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.”


“As Father, the only authority he claims for himself is the authority of compassion. That authority comes from letting the sins of his children pierce his heart.”


“And aren’t we ourselves constantly trying to escape the fearful task of fatherhood?”


“[T]he 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.”


A friend at the Daybreak center told Nouwen, “’You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right. The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return… We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.’”


“Here is the God 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…”


“I have to dare to stretch out my own hands in blessing and to receive with ultimate compassion my children, regardless of how they feel or think about me.”


“I realized that I was indeed heir, successor, the one who is admired, feared, praised, and misunderstood by others, as my dad was by me.”

Marching Orders

Nouwen finds what I have always read into the story of Christ and the meaning of God as man: the idea not of a being to be relied upon, but a model against which all of our forms can be measured.

“The mystery of redemption is that God’s Son became flesh so that all the lost children of God could become sons and daughters as Jesus is son.”


“Jesus is the true Son of the Father. He is the model for our becoming the Father.”


“Through [Jesus] I can become a true son again and, as a true son, I finally can grow to become compassionate as our heavenly Father is.”


“God who suffers because of his immense love for his children…”


“[God] loves us with… an unlimited, unconditional love… and tells us to become as loving as himself.”


“It has to be this absolute compassion in which no trace of competition can be found. It has to be this radical love of enemy. If we are not only to be received by God, but also to receive as God, we must become like the heavenly Father and see the world through his eyes.”


“Can I give without wanting anything in return, love without putting any conditions on my love?”


“[L]ove your enemies and do good to them, and lend without any hope of return.”


“To become like the Father whose only authority is compassion, I have to shed countless tears and so prepare my heart to receive anyone, whatever their journey has been, and forgive them from that heart.”


“Forgiveness from the heart is very, very difficult. It is next to impossible. Jesus said to his disciples: ‘When your brother wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I am sorry,” you must forgive him.”


“There, in that completely non-judgmental state of being, I can engender liberating trust.”


“Just as the Father gives his very self to his children, so must I give my very self to my brothers and sisters.”


“Jesus is God’s way of making the impossible possible—of allowing light to conquer darkness.”


“For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naïve, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by ‘escapist emotions.’ But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.


“People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.”

Here, for the first time, Nouwen creates a “they”, and I become disappointed. His formerly inclusivist writing introduces an artificial division, a straw man, an illusory group of people who do not feel as he feels. An "other". These people do not exist.

“There are so few mourners left in this world.” 

Here again, Nouwen despairs, and thinks of himself as one of a persecuted few. Yet who does not mourn for a world that slips into ruin?

Every moment of each day I have the chance to choose between cynicism and joy. Every thought I have can be cynical or joyful.”

And why must there be a choice only between the two? Are there not other outlooks? And is there not a continuum on each scale? Why must the world be Manichean? Manicheanism is not a result of divisionits absolutism artificially creates the very division it abhors.

Spiritual Completion

“As the Father, I need to be free from the need to wander around curiously and to catch up with what I might otherwise perceive as missed childhood opportunities. As the Father, I have to know that, indeed, my youth is over and that playing youthful games is nothing but a ridiculous attempt to cover up the truth that I am old and close to death. As the Father, 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 home those who have been hurt and wounded on their life’s journey, and loving them with a love that neither asks nor expects anything in return.”


“Each time we touch that sacred emptiness of non-demanding love, heaven and earth tremble and there is great ‘rejoicing among the angels of God.’”

What Nouwen describes as “spiritual completion”, I discovered when I was 18. It was too early. To find that a 60-year-old had struggled all this way toward something I had already found and discarded led to the following poem:

I Was Never Incomplete

Sing to me
You sirens
Of a life
I never desired:

I see you now
For what you are.

I gave ear
Not to your might
But because my kindness
Sought sharing
And equality.

You children of the air:

My foot
Has trod
Every inch
Of this earth
To which you, too,
Shall settle.

And when your wings tire
I will show you
To the place
That has been prepared for you.


As much as I appreciated his kindhip, Nouwen finds too simple a conclusion for himself:

“I realize that people with a mental handicap and their assistants made me ‘live’ Rembrandt’s painting more completely than I could have anticipated.”


“Looking at the people I live with, the handicapped men and women as well as their assistants… all have suffered from the experience of rejection or abandonment; they all have been wounded as they grew up…”

It is too easy to become a father to people with mental and emotional problems. Of course they rely on you. They will cling to any structure sturdier than themselves.


The greater call is to become a father to people who are just as capable as you, and those who exceed you.

“My people… seek a father who can bless and forgive without needing them in the way they need him.” 

Of course—who doesn’t want a trough at which they can gorge without having to worry about how it is refilled?


This is sacrifice of the self to others rather than a collective rejoicing. It is not the right solution.

“Who is going to convince them that, after all is said and done, there is a safe place to return to and receive an embrace? If it is not I, who is it going to be?”

And here Nouwen presents himself as Atlas. He does not need to do this. Are we all not pillars to one another?

“True fatherhood is sharing the poverty of God’s non-demanding love.”


“[T]he loneliness of the Father, the loneliness of God, the ultimate loneliness of compassion.”


“It is the joy of a fatherhood that takes its name from the heavenly Father and partakes in his divine solitude.”


“His loneliness has become endless solitude, his anger boundless gratitude. This is who I have to become.”

Why must compassion be lonely? And why beatify solitude? As I discovered at a young age, compassion that generates loneliness is innately flawed.

Some Great Reward?

Finally, I found that Nouwen fell into the occasional habit of describing what he did as work toward the reward of heaven. I’ve never felt comfortable with this concept, and reading Nouwen's work led me to finally coalesce the thought into a poem:

And if there is nothing, what then?

Is all about
More life for me:

It offers morality
Only as a service rendered
To gnaw
The endless

Can we not aspire to more
Than to emulate our asses?


Nouwen has some beautiful ideas, and I deeply enjoyed his reflections. At the same time I lamented that at 60 he was no further along than I had been at 18. He did, however, reinforce some of the conclusions that I had found for myself, and reminded me of a few I had forgotten, as well as revealing to me the strength I already had.


It was good to have read.


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    Nouwen has some beautiful ideas, and I deeply enjoyed his reflections. At the same time I lamented that at 60 he was no further along than I had been at 18.