Mar 22nd to Mar 28th: 4th Week of Lent – The Father

Reading: Rembrandt and the Father; The Father Welcomes Home; The Father Calls for Celebration (p. 89 to 119)

Looking at the way in which Rembrandt portrays the father,
there came to me a whole new interior understanding
of tenderness, mercy, and forgiveness.
(p. 93)

As we share our Lenten journey during these unprecedented times, it is a great blessing and comfort to come together in this online community to read and discuss Henri Nouwen’s peerless reflection on the “parable (which) is in truth a ‘Parable of the Father’s Love'” (p. 93) and the painting that is “the human expression of divine compassion.”
(p. 92) This week we will turn our gaze to the father and ponder the “infinite compassion, unconditional love, everlasting forgiveness–divine realities–emanating from a Father who is the creator of the universe.” (p. 93) These divine realities are sorely needed today in an uncertain and unsettled world struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

As always, this is a rich chapter with much worth considering. Please share what has touched your heart. Here are several ideas that might prompt your thinking.

Rembrandt’s masterpiece portrays a nearly-blind father “who recognizes his son, not with the eyes of the body, but with the inner touch of his heart. . . a seeing that reaches out to all humanity.” (p. 94). Henri paints a word portrait of a personal and loving father, not some distant authoritarian figure: “The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home. . . . As Father, he wants his children to be free, free to love. . . . As Father, the only authority he claims for himself is the authority of compassion. . . . Here is the God I want to believe in: (emphasis added) 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 in despair, but always hoping that his children will return. . . His only desire is to bless.” This week you might reflect on both Rembrandt’s painting and Henri’s words, to see how together they influence your conception and understanding of the loving Father. Share what you discover.

Consider the details from Rembrandt’s painting below. “The true center of Rembrandt’s painting is the hands of the father. . . Those hands are God’s hands. (p. 96) . . . The father’s left hand . . . is strong and muscular. . . . How different is the father’s right hand. . . It’s a mother’s hand. . . The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is a mother as well as a father. ” (p. 98-9)
Does Rembrandt’s portrayal and Henri’s description of God in whom fatherhood and motherhood are fully present enrich or alter your understanding of God? If so, how?

Henri asks himself: “The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God? but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” Consider these questions for yourself this week and share what you learn.

Finally, Henri says, in words that resonate today, “The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. . . . I don’t have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand. This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible. . . ” (p. 115) If the “reward of choosing joy is joy itself,” what can you do to choose joy in these difficult days and to bring joy to others?

We have another great week of sharing ahead of us. Remain in touch with those you love and those you know who may not have anyone else to check on them. If anyone in our virtual community needs or wants a way to remain connected after our discussion ends, please let us know and we will make sure it happens.

May the love of the Father give you peace and bring you comfort in the challenging days and weeks ahead.

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30 Responses to Mar 22nd to Mar 28th: 4th Week of Lent – The Father

  1. Christopher Ciummei says:

    The hands! Before Nouwen mentioned the hands of the father, I had actually not paid much attention to them. That said, once one takes them all in, it is fascinating to observe the details. Why, as Nouwen points out, is the one hand so full of strength and assurance, while the other is withered and somewhat weakened in appearance? The hands pull the younger son, the inexperienced sinner, into His chest, assuring him that he is welcomed back at the table, even though he has strayed so far for so long. But isn’t that essentially a reflection of God’s own hands? One is for strength, authority, while the other is for assurance and love. Both service their purposes in welcoming us home.

  2. Janice says:

    I would not have noticed the difference in the hands had Nouwen not pointed this out. I’ve never given much thought to how beautiful my hands are and the gifts I receive and give to others through them. From holding my granddaughters hands out of love or to keep them safe to the love I received through them so many times in my lifetime. The last act of love to my husband was holding his hands before he went to our Lord. I’ve prayed so many times for God to welcome him in his loving arms and the hands of an all forgiving Father on his son seeking forgiveness is as beautiful as can be and the loving arms I’ve prayed for could be those beautiful hands in the painting, I just never thought of God’s embrace this way.

    This week we see the gifts of Gods hands through medical personnel, first responders, grocery store clerks and so many others. How beautiful and “joyful” this is.

    I will remember “From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed to bring God from his throne to run to his returning son and to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy”. The gift of joy truly is joy itself and how blessed I am to know this.

    • Christopher Ciummei says:

      I agree entirely! It is interesting that, at this period, it is the hands that are both needing to washed, and yet also do some much positive, saving work in a crisis! Important food for thought, I think, in this Lenten season!

  3. Linda MacDonald says:

    Friends. All of your comments and insights have really filled my spirit with hope!
    Many of you were drawn to the way Rembrandt painted the hands of the father. I too was drawn to those hands. I had never looked so closely at those hands before. Henri’s words directed my eyes to that part of the painting, and I noticed as for the first time just how different they looked. And still there was also an odd similarity. There is both gentleness and strength painted in those hands, two attributes which I believe are part of every human being. Sometimes the strength is what we glorify while the gentleness is considered a sign of weakness. We teach our children not to cry. Maybe we teach them not to care as well. “Get up, brush yourself off, be strong.” I recall a film years ago about the training of soldiers which was called “Anyone’s Son Will Do”. We do much harm to one another because we spend to much time being afraid of others, and seeking to take advantage of others and exploit them and the planet. Now the times we are in show us something else. We are all living in the midst of a global experience that is transforming every single person and place. We have no idea how what we know will be changed. Some of the change will be wrought by loved ones who die during this time. We ourselves may die of this virus. Our institutions will be changed. Perhaps they will become more humane, and more capable of supporting the last, the least, the little, and the lost with more heart than they tend to do. I certainly hope for that change. But these institutions and ways of organizing our life together won’t change without our having been transformed, without our having returned to the Father and the ways the Father offers:life, mercy, and forgiveness to and for everyone. What I so love about the painting and Henri’s description of the father (Father) is that despite how far away we may have wandered the Father desires our return. This Father does not plan for punishment but for welcome. My parents grew up too much under the judgment aspects of organized religion.They turned away from all that. In that type of spirituality no one is ever good enough UNLESS you prove you are one of the group at least with words and strictness. And you are always threatened with an ouster. Who can ever be who they are truly called to be in this kind of belief system. That is the elder brother. Do it my way or else. This kind of theology has really done a number on so many people across generations. It has driven people out, as the blind man now healed was driven out. The pandemic may help us realize that no one is ever driven out, but is rather drawn to the one whose hands rest upon our shoulders with love. The pandemic has become a parable for the entire planet, another act of creation which contains within its presence the very mysterious workings of the Creator . What will we discover through all of it?

  4. Amy Crawford says:

    For years (perhaps the last 8-9) I have been really taken by the Father being all things masculine and all things feminine. Meaning, the full essence of the triune God holds all attributes of our beings in love, not in categories. When I read about the description of the hands in the reading – I was stunned with affirmation! I keep going back to the painting noticing the nuances of the hands. Beautiful! So encouraging to me – spending most of my spiritual formation in the evangelical sub-culture, (predominately men-centric) this idea of all things masculine as well as the feminine wasn’t a typical thought. So, since removing myself from that environment for numerous reasons, this book discussion has been life-giving serving as wonderful encouragment. This week especially…

  5. Sharon K Hall says:

    This is the first time I’ve been able to check in on the reading, but have participated many times before. The part of the book being discussed now regarding the painting and the father’s Father’s Hands is particularly meaningful to me because I have been and know so many people who have been hurt by sort of the extreme polarization and stereotypes of gender roles. The father is supposed to be one way, strong and masterful, able to control everything; the mother is supposed to be the other way, nurturing, having all the expressed emotions of crying, so forth and so on. It’s actually sort of inhumane expectations on people and no wonder sometimes they resort to self-medication, addictions of all sorts, nervous illnesses, even abuse of others to cope and get through life. Rembrandt’s thinking about the Father and Henri Nouwen’s perceptive seeing I believe are spot on. In the parish here, our Priests have a robe which shows the Guadaloupe (spelling) image of the Virgin Mary on it, the visitation of the Virgin Mary to the Saint in Mexico which we celebrate on the Saint’s Day and when I see either of the Priests joyfully preaching and offering the Eucharist, with that robe on, I also am overjoyed (actually I am all the time with the Priests) because for me the image of God is just so full then of all possibility and supernatural reality that also becomes able to be lived earthly reality then too–Divine and human for sure. Rembrandt and also Henri Nouwen must have had eyes to see God’s revealing Himself in this way that we really need, even though supposedly we have now-a-days all of this freedom and liberation though so many are still suffering from the stereotypes and polarization of gender roles.

  6. Patricia Hesse says:

    A couple of weeks ago, before Covid 19, my five year old granddaughter spent the night. She was sitting on my lap, listening to me read her a book. After a bit, she picked up my hand which was pointing to a picture and she said: “Gran, will those blue lines on your hands ever go away?” I told her they were blood vessels, doing their work. Then she asked, “Where are mine?” You can imagine the conversation that followed.

    I love my hands. I love the paper thin skin. I love the blue lines that never go away.

    Like Henri, I have long been drawn to hands. I like to think about the loved ones they have touched, the flowers they have planted, the tears they have touched, the cakes they have baked, and their coming together in prayer.

    On page 96, Henri penned the most exquisite writing about the Father’s hands: “…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 …Those hand are God’s hands. They are also the hands of my parents, teachers, friends, healers, and all those whom God has given me to remind me how safely I am held.”

    During this difficult time, I have been humbled watching the hands of health professionals in Italy, touching patients with compassion and tools of healing in a seemingly impossible situation –the hands of the Father.

    This past week and perhaps for weeks to come, I missed and will miss, the hands of our Pastor handing me the body and blood of Christ, but during this pandemic I see God’s hands are everywhere and they are …open in love.

    • Elaine M says:

      Thank you, Sharon and Patricia, for your beautiful insights about hands: the father’s strong paternal touch balanced by the maternal touch as representative of our need to transcend narrow and often unhealthy gender roles, the many loving and creative gifts we have given and received through the work of hands. The other day I had focused my gratitude meditation on the colors I enjoyed on my walk in our mostly white winter wonderland. Today I will focus on gratitude for hands: my dad’s rough, work worn hands also used to patiently teach me to tie my shoes or wield a screwdriver, my grandma’s hands as we cuddled in her rocker, the first time my newborn’s hand took my finger, my grandchild’s first wobbly step toward my hands, the hike where my sister’s hand grabbed the back of my shirt to keep me from sliding into a ravine, holding my mother’s hand as she passed from this world –so many reasons for gratitude. I had not noticed the hands of the prodigal’s father until I read Henri’s observation, and, Patricia, thank you for reminding me to think about the meaning of hands in my own life. There are blessings to be found everywhere if I would only look.

      • Patricia Hesse says:

        We know a person by their hands more than their face, don’t we? We know what matters and endures by hands as well. Your expression: “the first time my newborn’s hand took my finger” is beautiful.

    • Liz Forest says:

      God’s love is surely “hands-on” love. Thanks for all your thoughts here about the reach and hold of the Divine. I think of the Good Shepherd whose hands reach out to the lamb in distress, picks up that lamb and holds it safely with love.

    • Christopher Ciummei says:

      That is such a beautiful observation! Kids often notice the beautiful parts of God’s creation which adults sometimes overlook.

  7. I wasn’t sure I was going to get a whole lot out of the section about the father. God as father is not a concept I really want to entertain, and God as mother isn’t any better. In my personal experience mothers and fathers beat and abuse their children. The idea of God as either of these two people means I can’t stomach God. For many, many years I have not been swayed on this.

    I’m not going to say that I’m excited about the idea of God as father, but that I’ve possibly gotten a point where I’m open, even though God seems to be somewhat of an abusive father (punishing the son for the actions of others and killing him for it) himself. Advising Abraham to murder his son to prove loyalty. Those are things that I still can’t reconcile. Please don’t try to feed me the narrative that it’s loving, because it’s not, it’s blatantly abusive. I need to reconcile it, but that won’t be how.

    So this whole issue is very complex for me. Currently, there is no way of reconciling it, but I’m at least open to trying to do so, now. Maybe that shows some growth as far as healing goes.

    The part of the section about the father that really gets me thinking is: “here lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing. It is a very fierce battle because the world and its demons conspire to make me think about myself as worthless, useless, and negligible. Many consumerist economies stay afloat by manipulating the low self-esteem of their consumers and by creating spiritual expectations through material means. As long as I am kept “small,” I can be easily seduced to buy things, meet people, or go places that promise a radical change in self-concept even though they are totally incapable of bringing this about. But every time I allow myself to be thus manipulated or seduced, I will have still more reasons for putting myself down and seeing myself as the unwanted child.” p. 107.

    I said something to a friend the other day about how I just wanted to feel productive and successful and offer some value to society. I’m a disabled single mother who doesn’t have a job. I feel like I have nothing to offer my family, my friends, and the church. But then, I got to thinking…God isn’t measuring my worth by the values of a capitalist society that tell me that if I don’t contribute to production that I’m not worth anything. Karl Marx was a smart man.

    I struggle very much with self-hatred, it’s something I’ve been trying to be mindful of during Lent and to get to where I can believe and live in to the fact that I’m beloved. This book study has definitely helped with that.

    • Diane Frances says:

      Katy- Anne, it seems to me that you have a lot to offer the world. Your sheer honesty and courage is an example for all of us in confronting our inner demons.

      I also cannot reconcile the idea of an all loving God who demands his son’s torture and death as some kind of substitutionary atonement for our sins. I don’t accept it, and neither do a lot of current sound Christian teachers. So I won’t tell you that it’s loving. There are other ways at looking at the death of Jesus that are consistent with a God who understands what human suffering is really like, who promises never to forsake us, and who wants to show us how to respond to the hatred and violence that are part of this world. After this course, I can give you some resources if you’d like that I have found to be very helpful.

    • Chuck says:

      Yes , it seems the starting point is knowing you are the beloved. As Henri asks how am I to let myself be loved? This is passive not active. This is Jesus/ The Holy Spirit seeking us out.We have to open the door and let him into our soul.He created us in his likeness and image and thus he sees us as as beloved know matter what we know . As Henri says it is not how I am to know God but how am I to let myself be known by God. Open the door . We are the beloved.When he enters we see the tender, compassionate, merciful , forgiving, healing God. We then return that love. We then gain in trust in him.We realize that the creator says to us ,crystal clear, you are my beloved daughter with which I am well pleased.

    • Ray Glennon says:

      From Marta Edwards
      Thank you for your very brave comments. God Bless! I was born and raised in main stream Christian theology but I have found an alternative theology that has reframed God for me from a punitive God to a loving God, not atonement but at-one-ment. There are other ways to interpret the Bible within the Christian format that I would be happy to discuss with you after this course ends. Peace on your journey.

    • Ray Glennon says:

      I am a long-time Nouwen reader, but not a Nouwen expert or scholar. With that said, I offer my thoughts for your consideration about how we can know and experience the love of the Father.

      In the Gospel of John ( the most meaningful gospel for Henri) Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.” (John 14:9-10) This understanding deeply influenced Henri’s spirituality and writing. In brief, we meet the loving Father by knowing and following Jesus.

      During Advent we discussed Henri’s Following Jesus: Finding Our Way in an Age of Anxiety, a never-before published work based on a series of six talks presented by Henri during Lent 1985. In a book review posted on Amazon, I wrote:
      “In a letter to his nephew Marc, Henri Nouwen wrote, “If you were to ask me point-blank, ‘What does it mean to you to live spiritually?’ I would have to reply, ‘Living with Jesus at the center.’” Following Jesus is Nouwen’s personal testimony about how to live with Jesus at the center. Nouwen writes, “Following Jesus is focusing on the One who calls and gradually trusting that we can let go of our familiar world and that something new will come.” And, “(Following Jesus) is a letting go of our worldly self to find our true self in Jesus.” Continuing on, “Following Jesus means following the Lord who is the Lord of history, the Lord who is with us here now and here, at this moment.” Finally, “(Following Jesus is) to live fully in the present, because God is always the God of now, of here. The day in which we live is the day of the Lord. . . . Prayer and service are at the heart of following Jesus.””
      The complete review is here:

      For me personally, the redemptive act of Jesus is an act of love and not the result of a vindictive Father punishing his Son for the sins of others. Jesus lived his entire life with one purpose–to do the will of his Father.
      John 3:16 says it best, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

      May the Lord give you peace in this most difficult time.

    • Katy-Anne says:

      Thanks for all the replies.

      I am trying to work out what I believe about things, but right now I’m trying to learn to sit with the questions for a while.

      • marge says:

        You make me smile, Katy-Anne…I remember reading Greg Levy’s thoughts about callings…”Calls are essentially questions. They aren’t questions you necessarily need to answer outright; they are questions to which you need to respond, expose yourself, and kneel before…..You want a question that will become a chariot to carry you across the breath of your life.” God bless and God-speed, Katy-Anne, you and your household……

    • Susan McNeely says:

      Katy-Anne, you are a strong soul who has much to offer by being vulnerable and sharing your innermost struggles and questions with this community. Never stop questioning or reaching out to others for understanding and sharing. I cannot relate to your hardships first hand, but am very moved by your honesty. I believe, as Henri has said that we need to let ourselves be found by God and by being open with your thoughts, feelings and struggles you are doing just that! May God bless you in your journey!

  8. Diane Frances says:

    “Do I believe that there is a real desire in God to simply be with me?”

    This sentence really stood out for me. I have some contemplative practices and although their goal is not necessarily to experience consolations, when they do bring me into an awareness of the presence of God, there is nothing more peaceful and joyful. However, I never really considered that this time together may bring joy to God. What an amazing idea— that I could be that important to God! When I have a difficult time comprehending God’s love for us, I often compare it to our human relationships. And now I see this: what parent isn’t pleased when his or her child just wants to spend time with them, especially as that child gets older and has more autonomy, exercises more free will, and has more influences that pull her away? I love it when one of my kids calls just to check in, or wants to come home for a visit. Isn’t that what our time with God is like?

    • Sunday’s Gospel reading was the guy who was blind and Jesus spit in the dirt and mixed it with the dirt and put it on his eyes and healed him (that dude must have really, really, wanted to be well is all I can say, which goes to show that we need to be open to the fact that healing may not look like what we think it looks like). But anyway, after he was healed and the Pharisees in the temple rejected his story, they drove him out because his story endangered their own religious narrative.

      The thing that really stood out to me in that whole situation is that when they did drive him out, Jesus went and found him, sat with him, and probably had coffee with the guy while having a good chat and catching up. Jesus sought him out.

    • My husband and I had the same conversation just yesterday about our gratitude when our daughter in New Zealand (8,000 miles away from our Ohio) takes the time to facetime with us.

    • Liz Forest says:

      That question struck me as an important one. “Do I believe that there is a real desire in God to simply be with me?” (P.107) These words and text deserved a reread. Letting God find me and carry me callsfor me to accept who I am and who God is. LOVE.

  9. Mark Herwick says:

    I would like to recommend a book by former professor in seminary, William J. Richardson’s The Forgiving Father. It focuses the parable on the main character, Our Heavenly Father.

  10. Elaine M says:

    I admit that I am struggling with my increasing anxiety about the pandemic: the need to keep my husband, a cancer victim, safe; my mind racing to find ways to help the increasing number of callers to our parish’s St. Vincent de Paul help line; my sorrow over neighbors who are being laid off; my worry that the food bank may not be able to keep meeting people’s needs. Somewhat ironically, my prayer is that I will be able to pray– patiently, hopefully, faithfully.

    So this week I am trying to focus on Henri’s call in these chapters to look for “the gladness that belongs to God and which is to be found in the hidden corners of the world” and to choose “the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me,” thus mirroring the joy of the father who provides the light of reunion, forgiveness, and welcome after the darkness of estrangement. I will start by sharing a few examples of unexpected, seemingly serendipitous light in those hidden corners of my own world:

    –video of my daughter’s puppy reveling in the glory of our recent 15-inch snowfall—such unabated sheer joy!

    –a video of my daughter’s social skills lesson with three students with Down Syndrome (now conducted on Zoom due to school closures) —school buddies showing off their jammies for at-home lessons, using a bedroom full of beloved stuffed animals to show off their social skills, giggling the whole time, giddy with excitement at seeing the faces of their teacher and classmates, shouting out, “I love you, Miss Beth, and I missed you!”

    –my own joy at getting outside in the falling snow and the sheer physical exertion of shoveling–a winter wonderland antidote for cabin fever

    –a quick chat with a neighbor (with social distancing, of course) who saw me shoveling and stopped her car to ask if she could pick up anything for us at the pharmacy or grocery store

    –the joy of seeing my husband eating scrambled eggs and waffles—a huge culinary breakthrough after a month of a liquids-only diet during chemo and radiation treatments, his joy as his sense of taste is returning

    Looking for the light in the hidden corners of my world may not directly dispel the darkness lying heavy on those most impacted by the pandemic, but perhaps my prayers for them will become more enlightened, more infused with gratitude, hope, and trust in our God under whose “wings I shall find refuge.” In these hard times how can I be that refuge for someone else?

    • Hi, Elaine, I, too, share your concerns about a spouse with cancer in these challenging times. And as a retired special ed teacher, thank you for sharing about the work your daughter is doing with her students. My joy today springs from the first daffodil that finally opened.

  11. Ray Glennon says:

    On Saturday afternoon and evening a number of people added comments to the post on The Elder Son from last week. You can use this link to see those comments.

    To return to the current post for Lent Week 4 – The Father, you can click on Home on the far left in the black bar under the photograph at the top.

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