Feb 22nd to 28th: Encounter with a painting

Readings:
The Story of Two Sons and Their Father (p 1-2)
Prologue (p 3-15)
Introduction (p17-20)

Welcome to a new week!  The Parable, the Prologue, and the Introduction of this book offer a great deal to reflect on.  Please feel free to share whatever came up for you through the readings.  You may also choose to reflect on some of the questions below:

1) For Henri Nouwen, Rembrandt’s painting is a window through which he can step into the Kingdom of God.  As you read the parable of the prodigal son, take in Rembrant’s painting and listen to Henri’s story:
b) Can you see areas where you have been the younger son?  …the elder son?  …the father?
c) Do you sense a calling to enter the mystery of homecoming in a way you never have before?  What excites you about this prospect and what scares you?

2) In reflecting on the painting, Henri says seeing  “… the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before” (p4).
a) How have you been touched by the hand of the Father in your life?   How did your life change?

3) Henri was given a very unique opportunity to view this painting, an experience which God used in a profound way to invite him and many others home. 
a) Can you recognize ways that God has gone to great lengths to arrange details,  circumstances and experiences (including painful ones) in such a way as to draw you home?
b) How might these experiences of your life also be used to draw others home?

4) Henri very honestly explains that “certainly there were many hours of prayer, many days and months of retreat, and countless conversations with spiritual directors, but I had never fully given up the role of bystander” (p 12)
a) What do you think keeps you in the role of bystander, instead of taking the next step towards being in the center of God’s love and plan for you?
b) What if you decided to take one step closer to the center?  What would that look like?

We very much look forward to hearing from each of you this week!

Ray and Brynn

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112 Responses to Feb 22nd to 28th: Encounter with a painting

  1. Tom Accardi says:

    The younger son succumbs to the “many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive…”Go out and prove that you are worth something” (p. 40)…because I love you if…(p.42).

    In my opinion, these voices and the need to “prove we are worth something” can be a positive or negative motivator. The “voices” can lead us in either positive or negative directions, but the beauty of the Father’s love is that it “allowed him to let his son find his own life, even with the risk of losing it” (p. 43).

    The wonder of the story for me is the wonder of God’s infinite love that “embrace[s] our brokenness” even when the “voices” have taken us along the wrong path – our “brokenness appears beautiful “from the compassion that surrounds it (p. 35).

  2. Trish Harrell says:

    I am struck by this painting in maybe an odd sort of way. As the oldest of three children and in a missionary family I was expected to be the ‘perfect’ older brother. One tiny step out of line was met with severe punishment – but worse was the verbal attack of how I had let God down. The second child was a boy and the third was the baby unexpected in life. If their grades weren’t A’s there was an excuse. If they believed a different theology than what was preached at home they were ‘finding’ themselves.
    In short, going to Christian boarding school 1500 miles away in another country probably saved my life! But self esteem at its lowest doesn’t heal itself. So I became the younger son. I ran. No one on the outside would have known it. I was the puppet I was trained to be. But I felt unworthy of God’s love and too dirty to return.
    I was 40 years old before I finally stood up to the anger in my father. I had plenty of good Christian counseling, meds for severe depression, autoimmune diseases caused by chronic stress, etc.
    Finally I came home. In was saved the whole time. But I had a fear of God because that was the father figure I knew. The mother figure always ended forgiveness with these words, “If you’re really sorry it won’t happen again”. Folks, that is NOT forgiveness!
    I’m now a Mom and sure that I’m not perfect. But I have done all I know how to instill in my children that nothing can make them so dirty that God can’t wash it white as snow. And they can never stray so far that Mom and Dad wouldn’t welcome them with open arms.
    Sorry so long!

    • Joni says:

      Trish, thank you so much for your heartwarming post. Although the pain and burden of life-destroying guilt comes through…so does your victory over it. It’s obvious to me that your husband and children are now reaping the benefits of this victory…May God be Blessed

  3. Donna says:

    Good morning, all. As I ponder the parable of the Prodigal Son, and gaze at Rembrandt’s beautiful painting, I am convicted by my reluctance, perhaps inability, to be the son. All the other roles fit quite nicely. I am day to day the father – nurturing, welcoming, accepting, loving – that is my outward persona. Focused on others, caring for others, listening to them, encouraging them, welcoming them. Not yet a grandmother, but fully “mother” to my young adult children and to the young staff with whom I work in international ministry. It is a role I am comfortable with. Perhaps the only role I feel fully at home with. But I am interiorly often the older brother. Resentful, prideful, stubborn. Not pretty qualities, but hidden under the surface. Of course, God knows they are there, as does my husband and a few very close friends. Resentful that my wants and needs are neglected by others (when it is I who don’t let them be known). Too proud to allow my insufficiencies to be known by others. Choosing to live as if I have no need of others. And feeling resentful (and lonely) that I am not known by others. And I stand on the sidelines, fearful of becoming involved because if I enter into the light and allow myself to be known, all will realize how selfish and incapable and needy I truly am. My prayer this Lent is that God would free me to be the younger son. That He would loose me from the bindings that “require” that I appear wise, capable, in control. That as I admit my utter insufficiency to God, I would also courageously allow others to really know me in my weakness. Lord, release me from my fear of honestly drawing near to You (coming home). I know that only in allowing You into the dark rooms of my soul can I be healed and released. Only in kneeling before you in utter brokenness can I truly know Your love. But I am afraid!

    • Gilly B says:

      Dear Donna,
      Thank you. In short because of life experiences my greatest distractions from receiving God’s love and forgiveness were anxiety and fear. Then through my training recently as a lay minister in my late 60’s and although an Anglican I discovered Ignatian Spirituality and with the help of a Catholic priest did the Examen based at home .
      On a daily basis I was encouraged to understand my past within the presence of Christ’s healing love which led me on in my faith journey.
      One of the most wonderful things was to discover God’s love and that embraced by it there is no fear of anxiety just an opportunity to be free to be as he created us to be accepted as you are.

      With best wishes and Prayers
      Gilly from across the pond.

      • Dena Hill says:

        I am fascinated by your term, “Examen at home”. Can you elaborate?

      • Cathy Olley says:

        Thank you Gilly! I totally understand – I am just beginning my journey of doing the Igniatian Spiritual exercies from home. I am an Anglican but desire to meet Jesus in this contemplative reflection of my life. It is a bit overwhelming but I pray that I will allow God to meet me at my point of greatest need…and that I will be open to examining my past and giving over all the hurt and pain to Him – the Great Physician!

  4. Lata Hall says:

    Hello Fellow Sojourners in our Christian journey through this lent, I have thoroughly enjoyed every post and what a privilege it is to finally have the time to sit and write. Living on the East Coast of Canada has given us so many snow storms that going to church has become a luxury and your contribution has kept me focused even when I was shoveling the snow or getting rid of 6’’ inches thick ice. In fact, it is during that mundane work I realized, how I have been an older son and the father. I have a copy of the picture and all these years I only saw the return of wandering younger son and the love of the father and attributed very little to the older son and the bystander, well I never thought of those. It is so easy to get smug with the feeling, I am home, I am the beloved of God and that is it. BUT, a big BUT is I have to get rid of this behavior all the time. I asked our Heavenly Father to show me when I have been and can still be like the big brother and a bystander.
    I am the oldest and always had many responsibilities. I was always told why I had to behave in a certain way as I had to set an example for my brother and sisters. I did that willingly but I did feel that my siblings often got away with many types of bad behavior. That made me very angry and in the end I also left home. I left India and settled in UK. Got married and had a child and went to India to see my family, not being sure how I will be received. But I was welcomed with open arms by my dad; my mother always had a grudge that I should not have left. I was reconciled with my siblings and became the reconciled older sister and it has been that way. However my mother was reconciled just before she died. That was a second home coming for me. That was when I felt in the embrace of my Heavenly Father. We were TWO being embraced by our Heavenly Father at the same time and I can relive that moment any time.
    I have become the father many times to my children. Our daughter, who now is 43 yrs. old decided only by completely breaking with us she will become independent and the sleepless nights and the pain my husband I went through for 2 years, brought us closer to our Heavenly Father and the Lord worked through her as well and now we are the best of friends and yet I am the mother at the same time. Our son did the same thing, he lived in this very town and yet we did not know where he lived. We had this strange comfort that the Lord was taking care of him and he will come back when he has sorted certain things in his heart and soul. Now, I have to often remind my daughter who can be like the older brother, that we had lost him and now we have found him and he will slowly heal living with us. He had a very painful divorce after his X-wife committed adultery and he has been pretty frail. Finally he has decided to let go off his daughter, who is living with her mum far away from here. Unfortunately, the mum lets her do what she wants. He cannot do anything as the daughter is with her mum during school time. He has a long way to go before he will be reconciled to our/his Heavenly Father, but we are able to be like our Heavenly Father and as parents we know, it will happen in the lord’s time. He has decided to work in L’Arche locally once his health improves. He is waiting for 2 surgeries.
    Yes, I have been a bystander when I was living at home in India, I would wait to see when my parents would punish my siblings when they were like the younger son, but now I do not think, I am much of a bystander, I get involved and I am palliative care Vol. and just a caring person for anyone who crosses my path. This was instilled in me by my grandparents. Yet, I am sure the Lord will show be when I can still be a bystander. My prayer life brings me in touch with my Heavenly Father and my daily quiet times are very important in my life. Yet, I am sure, by the time we finish reading this book, I will discover many times over where I have been one or the other and may be all the three, the younger son, older son and a bystander. The Lord is Gracious and forgiving and I shall by that Faith in our Heavenly Father and by His Grace be home one day! At the moment I would be just glad if I can get to Church tomorrow, Oh how I miss my Christian Community. God bless you all. Lata

  5. Don Noble says:

    It is Saturday when I write this. It has not been a good week in my area for those of us who have arthritis. Perhaps, though, I am being the younger son. Perhaps I am running away from God, from home. It is not the first time that I have done this.

    When I first decerned a call to full time ministry, I was scared. I must have questioned every preacher in town about the nature of their call. After six years of wandering and wondering I felt that yes, God was calling me to be a full time servant in His service. So I did the only sensible thing; I ran away.

    I ran to a town in the middle of nowhere. I told people that it was good for my teaching career and it was. But the real reason I moved was to get away from my call. Nice try but God was in that small town in the middle of nowhere. I came home where the father welcomed me; embracing my call. It was almost as though the father was saying to me, ” I’ve been waiting for you to come to you senses.

    There have been times, too when I have been the older son as well. There have been times when I have served difficult, angry congregations. I have been angry with God because I did sign up for this. I thought I had signed up to be a pastor, shepherd, in peaceful pastures, not in rocky, cliff filled land. It took being away from those places before I could be the father;welcoming and accepting of the sheep given to me to care for.

    Now, in retirement, I find myself more like the father yet also like the younger son. This study is a challenge to me to confront a deeper desire to be closer to home; to seek some sort of validation for the last 30 years of my life. It Is scary because instead of hearing “well done ” I could be like the servant who buried his talent.

  6. Jeanette says:

    I continue to be humbled by the honesty and insight I find in each person’s postings. For that reason, it is difficult for me to leave my “bystander” role and share the message I have received this week as I have been thinking. More often in my life I am the cautious, observing, responsible older son, not wanting to let go of what I perceive to be my control. Occasionally, I am the Prodigal son. What I find interesting in the painting is that even though the older son hasn’t joined the father or younger son in the center of the light, he still shares the light. To me, that means that God accepts me both as the older son or the younger, but to truly “come home,” I need to let go of my pride, self-sufficiency and control. I have to choose to step into the center of the light, throw off my older son “robe” and surrender to my Father as the Prodigal Son. In my life right now, I believe that God is helping strip away some of my layers so that I can return more fully to him. I feel a softening but don’t know exactly how to explain that. As I look back I can see that I am on a journey and I am a walker, not a runner. Yes, I am still breathing, too, Joni!

  7. Bob Pearson says:

    I am learning so much more of myself in reading your posts…Thank you for your vulnerability! Shalom…

  8. Lisa says:

    As the saying goes, “Better late than never.

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but it is very easy to
    see myself as the younger returning one, (on a daily basis),
    the elder one, (on a daily basis), and because of the “work”
    I do in spiritual companioning, as the “father/mother”.

    The “younger one” – so many times each day, as Paul puts it
    in Romans 7:15 – “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” And so, gratitude for the grace of awareness – I can’t, You can, I will let You.” “Let it be done unto me.”
    Ah, the “older one,” — those little moments of “jealousy,” etc., when the ego feels like the spot light should have been on me; or I should have gotten the promotion, recognition, pay increase, etc.,or, I seem to do all the hard work and no one seems to ever notice all that I do, etc.

    The “Mother/Father” — gratitude for the gift of spiritual companioning. This is the safe place to be who one is warts and all without judgment or condemnation, the place where the law of physics is proven – “for every negative, there is a positive” where please God, I can help others who see so much negative about themselves see the positive of surrendering these negatives to the Divine One, who sees only the child created out of love. By merely looking at all the “little ones” in Scripture like Peter who denied Jesus, Paul who crucified Christians, James & John with the “pushy” Mom who wanted her sons to be first– these are the “little ones” that Jesus was closest to.

    I am also struck by the fact that Henri states that it was through a woman that his journey with the Prodigal Son began and who set in motion the opportunity to spend time with the painting. It was through a woman that he ended up living with the mentally handicapped. Additionally, looking at the culture of the mid- 1600’s where woman’s place was always in the shadows, it is extremely interesting that one of the background figures is a woman and one of the “Father’s” hands is very feminine in both painting style and clothing. This becomes excellent food for reflection considering the culture regarding women in those long ago times when the Scripture was written and also during the mid 1600’s when Rembrant created the painting.
    Blessings on all for many little pieces of Peace this weekend.

  9. Joni says:

    Thanks to each of you for your comments and sharings. I have been very fed but also very mich a bystander watching, listening but not really jumping in and tackling the questions. Today I hope to take that one step closer to the center. Deep breath…here goes!

    1. Can you see yourself as son, elder brother, father? Yes, although it has only been in the last few years that I have been open to becoming father. I am less comfortable confronting the elder son in my heart.
    Do you sense a calling to homecoming? Yes. What excites/scares you?
    I am excited to be reconnected with Henri through this book and this blog. I am scared of making myself vulnerable.
    2. How have you been touched by the hand of the Father? How did your life change?
    Many touches but the first thing to come to mind is pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1984. It was truly life/soul changing and I am still experiencing the fruits of seeds sown there.
    3. Can you recognize that God has drawn you home? Yes, as with many of us, hindsight is always clearer. I can see now how often He used my pain to draw me closer to His chest.
    How can these experiences be used for others? By sharing the spiritual journey we come to recognize Jesus’ presence in our relationships. I like the image of the young child giving his fish to Jesus–He blessed them and used them to feed thousands. I offer Him my fish of painful experiences, He blesses them and uses them to heal me and to feed others.
    4. What keeps you a bystander? Fear of becoming vulnerable and fear of what God will ask of me if/when I truly surrender myself to him.
    Am still breathing! 🙂

  10. Ray Glennon says:

    Thanks to each of you that have posted and to those that are journeying with us silently. It is a privilege and a blessing to be a member of such a caring community.

    An aside: I’m not sure how many of you read comment boxes on other Internet sites, but what is happening here is remarkable. The heartfelt and open sharing among this community and the compassionate responses are both moving and overwhelming, and something that I have not seen anywhere else on the web. Once again, thanks to each of you.

    Q3 Recognize how God has… drawn you home… In my response to Nancy O below I tell some of my story about how I first found Henri’s The Return… after Mass in Singapore in 2004. It was not a coincidence that I found that book at that place at that time. In my return to the Father I recognized that I am beloved (and I am able to accept it more than in the past); I grew as a man, as a father, as a member of the Body of Christ and, for the past six years, as a husband. I hope that I have been able to share some of the Father’s love that I experience with my family and those I meet along the way.

    Q4. …keeps you in the role of the bystander… This is a tough question for me. Growing up as the oldest son in a home with an absent and alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother, my four brothers and I rarely experienced normal parental love. I left home at 17 to attend college and rarely returned until many years later when I reconnected. I have spent much of my adult life as an observer afraid to get involved emotionally out of fear of being rejected or hurt. And my childhood experience translates into a reluctance to accept that I am beloved and fear that I won’t be accepted (even though I know intellectually that is a lie). As Henri writes, “…where the father embraces his kneeling son…. It is the place where I so much want to be, but am so fearful of being.” Related to my fear is my inability to trust or my lack of faith. Henri reminds us that the words spoken to Jesus at his baptism are meant for us too: “You are my beloved son (or daughter). On you my favor rests.” Here’s my problem. In the Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker watches Yoda use “the force” to lift the X-Wing fighter out of the bog; Luke is amazed and says “I don’t believe it.” To which Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.” For much of my life my response to God’s love freely offered to me has been, “I don’t believe it” (because I thought I was unworthy). Hopefully I am continuing to move past that lie. For me it is on ongoing struggle.

    Sorry for the lengthy and rambling post.

    Ray

    • Marilyn Magers says:

      In our Lenten meditations this season, our congregation is using a different lectionary (from Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking, and the Gospel readings are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’m finding powerful connections between the Beatitudes and Nouwen’s understanding of our belovedness – special belovedness! – in our own particular weaknesses, neediness, incompleteness. We are simply loved and blessed and welcomed, as well as called to remember that “we” includes everyone. Thank you for gathering this community in conversation!

    • Helen Ng says:

      Hello Ray,

      Please allow me introduce myself: I am Helen Ng, originally from Singapore up till 6 years ago when we moved to Perth, Australia. Though I read the daily Nouwen e-meditations, I can’t explain how I could have missed the launch of this online Prodigal Son Retreat until today! What struck me today was your post about the quiet God-encounter through the purchase of the booklet at the Cathedral (of the Good Shepherd, that’s the name) in Singapore. That same year my husband Dominic and I started a Bible Apostolate Team at our parish at the Church of St Francis Xavier in Singapore to promote bible studies. Little did we expect that in Lent of 2006 we would be organising the first and only ‘Prodigal Son Retreat’ in Singapore – conducted by the team comprising the Archbishop of Kuching John Ha and 2 lay theologians Dr Jeffrey Goh and his wife Angie. The 3-day retreat comprised 6 talks covering the themes of homecoming, affirmation and reconciliation that should be newly discovered by anyone who has known loneliness, dejection, jealousy, or anger – favourite Nouwen themes . It chokes me now to recall the attendance of over 300 people who faced the challenge to love as the father and be loved as the son. Particularly the hot tears that flowed at the Service of the Cross and Resurrection at the end of the retreat is a reminder that a homecoming is possible for both the individual and as a community.

      I hold a degree in Theology from Notre Dame Univ in Western Australia. My professor of Pastoral Theology was an ardent Levinas and Nouwen follower. Needless to say I have had to take several units on Nouwen’s writings including “The Wounded Healer”. But “Prodigal Son & Homecoming” never really left me. What I’m trying to say is there is never a time when I am ever home-free. It’s been 8 Lents since my “home-coming”. I wish to think I’m home but I find myself bouncing between staying reluctantly – crave to leave – leave -come back – censor my apologies – stand around – leave again – dare I even try to be like the father? I have to be truly honest to admit that even the muted fatted calf has a role in bringing me home. To me the key to come home is to face the woundedness inside of myself, just as the empty pods jolted the younger son.There will be many empty pods strewn on my journey…still too much in my head. I realise I’m not fully home yet. Perhaps that’s why we have Lent to help me metanoia.

      Sorry this is a long post.

  11. Jo says:

    My experiences as prodigal daughter, elder sister and Mother have been showered in grace. I met a wonderful priest through confession and he showed me the Father. My father passed away when I was 5 so in my 20’s I needed a father and One was provided. I’ve never known or understood God the Father as much as shown through this wonderful priest. He gave me unconditional love and showed me the way to the Father through Jesus His Son. I saw the presence of the Trinity in him and he became my teacher. I wouldn’t have met him had I not been in such a state of confusion nor would I have been as open to receive his love and commitment.
    So, learning to know Jesus through this wonderful priest and following in his footsteps was like following Jesus.
    I was working with and listening to a lot of wounded people and in the process ticked someone off by my presence. That evolved into me being persecuted for a time which caused humiliation and suffering. Sometime later I was greeted by the person who caused all that hurt and he asked me to forgive him. He told me he hadn’t been able to sleep for 6 weeks after telling lies about me. That’s when I understood how the Father feels when we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. He was the prodigal son and I became the Father. I embraced him with my heart and reassured him of forgiveness and felt such joy it couldn’t be contained. It also occurred to me never to hesitate to ask forgiveness because in doing so the sin is immediately forgiven and forgotten. A wonderful experience. Somebody has to be the prodigal and somebody needs to embrace in the Father’s name and I’ve experienced both.
    Sometimes I find myself now in a tempting place of being the elder son/daughter and it’s not a nice place to be. I used to be much more forgiving I think whereas now I’m tempted to Count the number of times this person requires forgiveness. When the temptation arrives I sense what’s happening and immediately run to the Father, again like the prodigal, asking for forgiveness.
    The painting is expressive of the Father’s loving embrace in an all encompassing way. His love is so great he wants to hide us under his wings. So much art expresses the Father’s love in this manner but Henri understood who the Father is – he got it. And teaching us through his written word helps us to grasp our frailty, embrace it and not be ashamed. When we see the bystander / elder brother in us we can embrace that also and ask for help in becoming more forgiving and less judgemental. We always require help in walking with Jesus and He’s always more than happy to give it. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

    • Pamela Renner says:

      Thank you! Your story of forgiveness will remain in me. Seeing ourselves in each of these roles is such a valuable tool as we continue on our journey of forgiveness and asking for forgiveness.

  12. Doris says:

    I have read the comments and am blessed. The strong embrace of the Father brings me to Himself during the times of difficulty. Henri has shown us that the Father welcomes us with open arms. As I walk this path of life – though the valley is at times bleak and dark I know who walks with me. It is Jesus my Lord and Saviour. Henri looked a Rembrandt’s picture for hours and sometimes as I read the scriptures and contemplate that is what I want to do. Just sit, hear the voice within. Wanting to grow deeper, filled with the Spirit, to love the unlovely. Then the voice within will say to me “I will never leave or forsake you, times are hard – but I am always with you. It is true He never leaves we need to trust. So for all those that have written, your words are powerful, helpful. I am glad to be able to read these words and digest them – knowing we are all on the same path and the path is not always easy. Bless you all.

  13. I’m humbled to read the many responses shared here. I’m pondering how gently the Father deals with the older brother. In becoming more like the father, we might have to face some angry older brothers (even within ourselves!) The Father doesn’t seem scared by this confrontation, it’s simply another opportunity to restate his love for both sons.
    I hadn’t noticed this before and will be reading with this in mind.

    • Max Coppes says:

      I very much like your suggestion that the Father seemed scared (concerned) by the possible confrontation. Rather another an opportunity to express his love in another manner. Never thought it that way. Thank you.

      • Elaine says:

        Lori and Max,
        Thanks for providing another interesting angle. The father also has the ticklish task of making the elder son feel valued for his faithful service while at the same time encouraging him to graciously forgive his younger brother for not doing his part. The younger brother needs to realize that he must seek forgiveness of everyone he has hurt, a task which will be more daunting in facing those who did not initially receive him with open arms.The brothers must be reconciled if the family is to become whole. It is a reminder to me that we are all members of God’s family.

      • Jan greene says:

        Thank you for that comment! I am finding how often I hesitate and back off where a confrontation may be involved. To see as another chance for compassion, self compassion rather than self critic. I think like the returning son, I practice what to say, how to avoid shame, how to protect myself when I could embrace forgiveness even if I give it to myself. That’s another way God speaks to us, being open to forgiveness! I am hoping to trust and surrender rather than control and protect!

  14. Nancy O. says:

    Twenty minutes to eat lunch and write down my thoughts on this week’s reading, before my students come back to class. Here goes…

    Four mutually exclusive actions: asking for forgiveness, granting forgiveness, observing forgiveness in progress, and being frustrated because grace exists in ways that feel unfair. It is impossible to be doing any of these things simultaneously. Therefore, it is sometimes essential to fall into the observers roll, if one finds oneself in the older brother’s position.

    When I feel frustrated, angry or overwhelmed, the only way to switch gears is to get out of my head space (which probably resembles the elder brother at the time), and become an observer of what is going on around me. As a high school teacher and a single mom to children (23, 21, 18, 15), I am surrounded by young adults for much of the day! It is easy to get sucked into the older brother’s mindset. Becoming the observer is what transitions me into being able to be the understanding, forgiving “father”.

    As I fell asleep last night, I was thinking about the younger son. When do I actively return to God seeking forgiveness and allow myself to feel His love and grace in return? It feels like a luxury to me – one that I am not deserving of. I have felt His amazing Joy and Grace course through me before, but always when He surprisingly gives it. When it happens, it is beautifully overwhelming – an amazing gift. As I think of it now, it may be God’s way to fill me, as I remain unbalanced – far too much time with the battling “father” and “older son” roles, with very little “younger son” time.

    I hope to find out how to be the younger son…

    • Ray Glennon says:

      Thank you for your wonderful insight on the four mutually exclusive perspectives on forgiveness: Asking for (Younger Son), Granting (Father), Observing (the three figures in the background), and being frustrated by “unfair” forgiveness (the Elder Son). This helps me to better understand the point made by David Irvine that on our journey we can be any one of the six figures in Rembrandt’s painting. And I know I have been all six.

      Now a question: Are you sure that you hope to find out how to be the younger son? Let me share a little of my story.

      I lived a very dutiful “elder son” life for many years and was blessed with five wonderful children, a good job, and involvement in church and community activities. At the same time, however, I often felt alone and as an outsider–much of this as a result of my dysfunctional childhood and distance and stress in my marriage. Around the time of my 50th birthday, I acted as the younger son and made a series of decisions that caused me to wander far from home and act in a way that hurt me and those that I love. And I knew that I was far from the Father but I didn’t think I could ever find my way home–or if I did I wouldn’t be welcomed there. It was during that time that I found The Return of the Prodigal Son outside the cathedral in Singapore–at at time when I was staying on the fifty-something floor in the Swissôtel The Stamford with an outside balcony, something that I recognized at the time. I bought the book and read it on the flight returning to the U.S. Among the many sentences I underlined was this one: “Do I want to break away from my deep-rooted rebellion against God and surrender myself so absolutely to God’s love that a new person can emerge?” And I wrote in the margin at the time: “This is where I and now 6/10/2004.” And then, “Do I believe this?” This book helped to turn my life around and it was nearly a year later, in May 2005, that I finally trusted enough to to turn away from my life as the prodigal and to return to the Father. And I found that my five children were there waiting to welcome me home too. I have been the younger son and wandered far from home–and I was welcomed when I returned. But if I could go back in time, I would hope that I could find other ways to address the issues in my life that would have been less damaging and painful for all involved. In hindsight, I know that God was with me every step of the way, even when I was refusing to accept his presence. That is why when I decided to turn to Him, I didn’t have far to go.

      You wrote that you have “felt His amazing Joy and Grace course through me…” Perhaps that is what the Younger Son was looking for when he left, but he didn’t realize it until he was lost in a far land. So he came home to experience what he was longing for. Blessed are you if you have found that already without needing to wander far from home.

      Ray

      • Nancy O. says:

        Wow. Thank you so much for that, Ray.
        Like you, I definitely have already experienced the turning away from God, as did the prodigal, during the years leading up to my divorce. Unlike you, I have not allowed myself what the painting depicts.
        It’s as if I am inching forward to get there, while simultaneously judging myself for not being able to just sprint into His arms.

  15. Deborah R says:

    My studies of the story of the Prodigal have been numerous and have included many reflections from quite a variety of teachers. At different times I have discovered myself, as the Spirit revealed, in the younger son, the older son and, as well as, the bystanders.
    As I did the reading for this week what spoke to me was Henri’s discovery that he was at a place where he was being called to be the father. I sensed the Spirit confirming that I, too, was in such a place!
    Apart from Henri I have never encountered any teaching regarding this possibility. I will be exploring this through the reading of the book and will need, as Henri shared much time for reflection, meditation and prayer. It is my desire to receive only what The Father has to say to me. So glad to be on this journey!

    • Joni says:

      Deborah, the first time I read this book, I had a similar reaction….I was awed by the challenge to become like the Father. I had never looked at this story from this viewing point. I also was very taken in by the tender way the Father reacts to the older son’s anger. Not defensive, but with love.

      Anger is such a powerful and potentially destructive force in my life and in our world. I am sure Satan often uses it to create havoc both internally and externally. I pray that through this group study of this powerful book, I will learn how to recognize and overcome the anger in my life.

  16. Lloyd says:

    Thanks to all who have responded. Your words have helped…I have identified with much of what was said. Now it’s my turn.( sorry for the length).
    I see my life as a path between being the eldest son, a bystander and the youngest son. Like many others I missed out on the earthly fathers love because my Dad was an alcoholic and a workaholic. My Mom died when I was 5, and my step mother was very physically and verbally abusive. My Grandmother was loving and kind, but taught me that only good people go to Heaven so if I wanted to see my Mom again I had to be good.
    I grew up in church and learned all about the “Laws “of God…treading lightly so as not to disturb this angry god. As an adult, I “got away” with some things I thought might anger this god; so I ventured deeper and deeper inside the foreign country.
    Once in that country I wasted all I had in very misguided living; ending in divorce(Failure) loss of job and income opportunities (failure) and loss of friends and family (more failure).
    I returned to my Heavenly Father, who welcomed me home.
    I was afraid to leave; I was like the elder brother who never left; but deeply resented the brother who did. Later, I became that younger; who left as dead his family and spent his inheritance on a wasteful lifestyle.
    This week as I read about the bystanders I can identify with Henri as He said “I become more and more aware of how long I have played the role of the observer”; never “…really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down and let myself be held by a forgiving God…”.
    Then came my AHA moment this week “did not realize how deeply rooted my resistance was and how agonizing it would be to come to my senses. 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.” That was such a Great lesson for me this week I have been reeling in the realization that I still add conditions and prerequisites on any love ever offered.
    Thanks for letting me share.

    • Pamela Renner says:

      Lloyd, what makes this group special, are people like you, willing to share so that we all may grow together….Thank you.

  17. Bob Brittain says:

    First I want to thank all of you for your sharing. I sense God touching me through your beautiful gifts of sharing yourselves through experience and insights.

    When I focused on the painting I was drawn to the mysterious light engulfing the father and the son, but also shining on who I had thought to this point, the elder son on the father’s left…in a sphere of love. Although the father’s attention may seem to be directed elsewhere, I am also included in the sphere of love.

    I grew up with an alcoholic father who was abusive through drunkenness, anger, and absence of presence as husband and father. I have no memory of experiencing the tender embrace of father. The best thing my father did for my younger sister and I was to introduce us to nature through long walks through the woods on weekends when we were kids, for which I will always be grateful. Perhaps not knowing the ‘tender embrace’ of a father is why over the years I connected with Jesus(God) rather than with Father God.
    I was confirmed in the Anglican Church at age 13. When the Bishop laid his hand on my head and prayed I had a physical experience as though electricity was flowing from his hand throughout my body and it was from that point in my life that I believed I was never alone, that God was looking out for me. As I write this today and at times throughout my adult life I have remembered this experience, I have sometimes thought this was just childish thinking, but I know what I experienced and in those alone times throughout my life, even in the darkest times when I couldn’t see or hear or feel God in my life and really needed to, later in time I could see when he was carrying me through them (like the poem ‘Footprints’). To this day I know the Lord is with me.

    As a young married husband and father I learned that one carries into a marriage what one experienced in his/her family of origin and so I carried the need to control, impatience, frustration, having things the way I thought they should be, for some time in our early years creating atmosphere of ‘walking on eggshells’ for my wife and fear for our two sons. I was not a bad man, but I carried a lot of baggage into our marriage and our family life. But I married a woman who more than any person in this world has brought me to believe in God’s unconditional love for me as a real possibility because of her unconditional love for me, in that she knows more about me than any human being yet loves me and wants to tenderly embrace me knowing all my faults and the good in me. I realize in writing this that I have experienced the Father’s unconditional loving embrace through my wife. How Blessed am I !

    Although I have grown through our almost 45 years of marriage, I do see myself as the younger son in that I cannot let go of the guilt of my actions and being as I indicated above, and although I do seek forgiveness, I have never been able to accept it.

    As I indicate in my introduction, throughout my adult life I spent my energy “working very hard on my Father’s farm”, doing my best to respond to the call ‘the harvest is plenty, labourers are few, come with me into the fields’, and therefore I see myself more as the elder son.
    Like some of you have shared, I at times encountered disillusion with the good people involved, and as I finished my involvement in L’Arche came to realize that all of us are just people with our strengths and weaknesses, no matter how good our intentions or the goal, and I realize that I must see what has been accomplished and be satisfied with what has been established, even if it doesn’t completely align with the plan or expectations. It took most of my adult life to learn this lesson.

    As for becoming Father, only once through a family crisis did I ever experience becoming the father I wanted to be but never saw myself as capable of being. And from that crisis so much good has come from it and continues to unfold. I know at that time it was all through the Grace of God, for I spoke words and handled things in ways that were just not me. Praise God!
    So today, in a much different place than I was in our early years, or even last year, I am hoping in whatever time I have left on this earth, to become the father ‘who can welcome his children (and all those whom I cherish) home, without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return’.

    • Gilly B says:

      Thank you for this “glorious ” start to another day which reflects God’s love at work in us all. I shall cherish it especially the surrendering and letting go words
      “I came to realize that all of us are just people with our strengths and weaknesses, no matter how good our intentions or the goal, and I realize that I must see what has been accomplished and be satisfied with what has been established, even if it doesn’t completely align with the plan or expectations. It took most of my adult life to learn this lesson” .
      It will remind me that we are all as Henri says “HIS BELOVED “

    • Pamela Renner says:

      Thank you so much Bob for your sharing. I appreciate your insight and willingness to be vulnerable. I admire your commitment and your walk with God.

      • Larry Bartenstein says:

        Hi companions in the journey,

        Bob – I share what seems, a very similar background in my relationship with my father. He was mostly absentee, occasionally had alcohol problems. When we were very young, would literally kick us around when we misbehaved when he lost his temper. My Dad was the youngest of four in his family and I believe was abused as he grew up and treated as inferior.

        Dad pulled me away from my younger brother’s crib when I was just three, when I got up from the dinner table. He broke my leg in doing so, and I still remember the cast and have pictures, but not him apologizing in any way.

        In reading the introduction, I am struck especially by how long Henri spent with the painting. How could one sit for so long? Be still?

        I have read and re-read this and many of Henri’s books – my favorite is “Life of the Beloved.” I am hoping through this process that I can continue to work through the healing process with my family – realizing my time is short.

  18. Max Coppes says:

    As I mentioned when I introduced myself, I was hoping that the next coming weeks would help me grow in becoming more who God has created me to be rather than a “loyal servant” who has a tendency to explain to Him what the best course of action would be. I had forgotten Henri Nouwen’s observations of the bystanders, the observers, and now realize how well I fit in that category. The most immediate reaction to the story of the prodigal son is to wonder how much of the older versus how much of the younger son one is. And truthfully as I reread the parable, I sympathized with the older son, who worked hard, did everything a father would hope a son would be doing and yet did not feel rewarded for his behavior. I am sure I will have the opportunity to reflect on that part later during the journey, but as my first reaction was the same I almost always seem to have, one of understanding the older son, Nouwen’s description of the observers hit home. Observers are a real part of the scene, are close to the action, can be more or less visible, but in the end they are not in the center, not fully vulnerable. In fact being neither the one who is being forgiven, the one who forgives, or the one who is mad because he was not rewarded for not needing forgiveness, is very comfortable. The observer status is really a nice and safe place to be. The event happens in your community, but it does not affect you directly. In this safe place you are free to develop and express your opinion; while in the end your opinion may have no impact on the situation, at least you will have the satisfaction of knowing that others know what you thought……But that is self-centered of course. Nouwen expresses well the different ‘observer reactions’ and I too recognize myself in them. Great opportunity to reflect on what it would take me to step away from being an observer to being the younger son, the father, or the older son.
    Parenthetically, it is interesting that Nouwen did not describe one observer being elated at the fact that the younger son returned, was forgiven, and fully embraced by his father. How often would we, as observers, truly celebrate the courage of the younger son and the generosity of the father? Was any of the observers a close friend to the father happy for the father? Or were all the observers, ‘strangers’?

  19. Margaret J says:

    Hello to all! I live in south Texas and have not read this book before! I discovered Henri Nouwen’s writings in 2014 as I prepared a Lenten Prayer Devotion booklet for my fellow church members to use during Lent! though I had never read any of Henri Nouwen’s writings before – I was captivated by the seeming simplicity of his writing and yet the depth of what he says and the amazing way I find he is putting into words things that I felt God saying but didn’t know how to express! I can relate to Henri’s words! I have since stumpled upon numerous of his books, including the one this group is studying presently and I am thankful for the opportunity to be involved with blog during Lent this year!

  20. Chris Harker says:

    Concerning Question 4 and the role of the bystander, I answered with this.

    During the last fifteen years or so I have stepped in the center of what I thought was God’s plan for me. I accepted being faithful, bold, and committed to the cause of Christ through appointed church and mission service. I was proud to be there and wanted others to join my journey. I may have been off target with what the Father wanted me to do, but there was no doubt many preachers, mission directors and church leaders were thrilled that they had found me and placed me in the center of their wheel (will).

    However, being in the center of church work opened my eyes to the political power of denominational leaders and the credit taken for going, teaching, giving and reaching the lost. Instead of bringing me closer to the Father, it brought me closer to the brothers. I could A) take all my toys and treasures to seek worldly happiness or B) stand around, sure of my convictions, judging the lives of others within the church. It didn’t take long till my place in the center left me discouraged and far from the Father. I wondered who would want to be in the center of Christian ministry if this is where it brought you. It is sobering realization. Not all who call Him “Lord, Lord” are faithful in their thinking, their speech and their actions. With my older brother attitude I questioned their very souls. With my younger brother response, I cared less and chose not to participate. This experience made being a bystander a safer place. As a bystander I was saved by grace, and ready to live eternally in heaven, but I wasn’t responsible for keeping the church doors open, the offering plates full or the leadership smiling.

    The center I experienced was not the center of God’s love and plan for me. It was the center of doing for the church, rather than being with the Father.

    Reading this book is one step closer to finding my spiritual center. Reading it with a companion keeps me from solitude, even loneliness. Reading it with seekers from around the world opens my eyes to our universal struggles. Reading it reminds me of my longing to feel the Father’s embrace above all else. Reading it reminds me that I do not belong in the pigpen or in charge of the Father’s fields. I belong in the center with the Father, who waits for me.

  21. Elaine says:

    A word on homecoming:
    In the prologue, Henri says that he was “looking for a home where [he] could feel safe,” where he could “feel a sense of belonging.” Although ultimately he is describing heaven, he moves toward heaven via a community of people whom the world deems mentally handicapped despite their ability to love unconditionally and to honestly expose their vulnerabilities without self-consciousness.

    I have admired the ability of so many of you to share honestly and articulately the ways in which you have been the elder son, the younger son, the bystander, or all three. While it may not always feel entirely “safe” to reveal our vulnerabilities, fears, and woundedness, I hope that we are all feeling a “sense of belonging” as we take our Lenten journey together on this blog.

    I am struck by the number of blog participants who are seeking or have found the safety of a prayer group, spiritual director, or personal confidante to communicate those spiritual longings and uncertainties that most of us hesitate to share with the world, even with our closest friends. The priest whom I trusted more than anyone else to reassure me and to answer my spiritual questions died a few years ago, and I am still looking for someone who can play that role in my life. In the meantime, I know I can find inspiration in my spiritual reading, the good people passing through my life, and the insights offered in this blog. Thanks to all.

    • Joni says:

      Elaine, I am sorry for the loss of your Spiritual Director, I know from experience that it’s tough to lose or be seperated from a trusted friend who shares our Spiritual Journey.

      My hope is that this blog group will help you feel connected to God and others until a new trusted friend appears in your life.

      God Bless

  22. Sr.Josephine Berchmans FMM says:

    I was thinking and praying along with the re reading of the Encounter with the Painting. A few thoughts from Henri Nouwen touched a chord in me :
    Coming Home meant “walking step by step towards the One who awaits me with open arms and wants to hold me in an eternal embrace” It is the step by step walking that is expected from me. Letting go of any control, leaving behind pretenses, setting my eyes on the One who is waiting for me is challenging; but I must persevere, walk day by day patiently and hopefully towards him. Total home coming may be my final homecoming to the embrace of the Father.
    “The place where the Father embraces the Son is the place where I want to be so much but I am so fearful of being…” I cannot hope to achieve this place on my own, through my effort. It is Grace. a Gratuitous gift.” It is a place beyond earning, deserving and rewarding.”All I have to do is Trust and surrender.
    Henri has so poignantly pointed out what is going on in my own mind and heart.Even though my heart is searching for that inner space where I too could be held safely, like Henri “I am grateful for not having known in advance what God was planning for me. But I am grateful as well for the new place that has been opened for me through all the inner pain”
    At this moment in my life I am called to Trust, let go and surrender with total abandon to whatever God has in store for me. Fiat!

    • Gilly B says:

      Thank you Sister Josephine that was a beautiful read to reflect upon and your footsteps towards homecoming echoed was prompt to consider each step and treasure it.
      Yesterday I had found myself lingering on the importance of the steps of our HOMECOMING gradually understanding for myself that it is good be attentive to the nature of God’s love beckoning within them. May I explain?
      I received a communication from our vicar this week. A 95 year old great grandmother who lost her husband 2 years ago and had a hip replacement before Christmas was needing support of the kind that had the seed of God’s love waiting to be nourished within it. Her daughter lives in Canada “across the pond” as we Brits say. She is planning a visit to her mother and is bringing her own daughter and her 15 month old triplet boys to the UK in May. So 4 generations will be together and precious family memories will be created.
      We run a baby project for new born babies born into challenging circumstances of any kind. Local churches, Christian and secular groups donate knitted items blankets nappies and baby accessories to put into a baby bath for each family. We have built up a network of supportive contacts and the vicar wondered if we could use that network to get the loan of cots highchairs car seats etc for the triplets. Within 10 hours we have secured most of their needs.
      In this quiet of a new day dawning, remembering the animated voice of the 95 year old great grandmother and witnessing the Christian response that followed we all took another step home. It afforded another understanding of the mystery of our Father’s love. I find whilst I must always keep sight of the glory of the embrace that is waiting I am challenged in solitude and prayer tine to give thanks for the mysterious moment of His presence within each step and with gratitude for our reflections I say thank you Father.

      • Joni says:

        Gilly, thank you for sharing. Such a simple example of the power of a caring community coming together in service. I am sure both the grandmother and her daughter were warmed by the outpouring and support of your donors.

        We hear so much about the evil in this world…and no doubt it is here, but just wonderful to read about simple acts of kindness.

      • Sr.Josephine Berchmans FMM says:

        Thanks for the heart warming sharing Gilly. It is kindness and acts like yours that makes the Father’s embrace visible in our seemingly uncaring world. Thanks once again. God bless.

  23. Matt Nash says:

    Hello everybody. I am joining the group discussion and very excited about reading this classic work by Nouwen over the next month leading up to Easter. I live in San Diego, California and I dedicate my days and energy to several people and things. My wife Jeana of 11 years, our daughter Emma who is 8 are my first priority and main ministry. I also serve full time with Dynamic Church Planting International as the Africa World Zone Coordinator. We lived in Africa for 4 years and now we are back in the States and I travel all over Africa about four times a year. I also serve as a pastor at a local church and love to preach and help disciple others on the journey with Jesus.

    I have read The Return of the Prodigal Son before but it has been many years and I am looking forward to diving in again. It spoke to me before because I am both the younger son and the older son wrapped up in one person. The reality of the story is that both sons are lost and the father is prodigal (definition – wickedly generous). The book Prodigal God by Tim Keller has awakened in me a new way of looking at this story in Luke 15.

    I feel like I am in a season right now where my ministry roles are stretching me and I need to make sure I prioritize time with Jesus because I can easily get dry in my realationship with God.

    I am very much looking forward to being a part of this discussion!

    Grace and Peace

    Matt

    • Michael Kenning says:

      Matt,
      Tim Keller’s book is really great isn’t it? I got handed it by a friend a few weeks ago when I was preparing a Sunday morning message on the Prodigal Son and it really opened the parable up to me in a fresh way and has led me on to Henri Nouwen and his book, as well as being here. For me it seems to have been the door to a new refreshing “spiritual adventure” (as Henri says at the start of his prologue) and I hope the same turns out to be true for you too!

  24. Rodolfo Leon-Paez says:

    I was struck by the author’s comment that this book is all about the story that Jesus once told and Rembrandt once painted, so there are as many paintings as there are changes in light. His comment is humbling.
    Q-1) Many times I have been de elder son: a) pretending selfish interiority; b) self-righteousness; c) trying to please the Father, but then in practicality failing to Love as He loves.
    As the younger son I have also enjoyed very much the distractions of life and what the world is constantly offering me.

    Q-2) It is when I denied myself from my own thoughts and affections that I sense the touch of God within me. It is when my focus is on “neighbor” and shifts from within that my life changes. It is at that moment of “survival” that I seek God’s hand s on my shoulders.

    Q-3) One important way that I recognize God’s hands, is through my vocation as a father in my family. Getting to learn to love all members unselfishly, has proof to be difficult but worth living. By witnessing (although not perfect) through our marriage and putting God in the center is how others (“bystanders” including our daughters) might be inspired to value to this sacrament.

    Q-4) The biggest obstacle that keeps me in playing the role of a bystander is FEAR, and not trusting GOD completely, and perhaps-using the words of the author- “not knowing where it all will lead”.
    Also the “distractions” of my life and probably not setting my priorities right are contributing factors to remain in the periphery.
    I believe that probably a good first step is to relate more to Christ through concrete actions for the poor and needy. Be able to recognize that those acts are made to the “least of His brothers” and consequently to HIM will probably allow me to experience the eternal embrace where I can totally surrender with complete trust in HIM.

  25. Julie Barrett says:

    Introduction – I hope I’m not too late
    Hello, I hope I am not too late to come into the discussion. My name is Julie and I live in Arizona. Although I am in my mid 40’s, I am a wife and the mother of two small children ages 5 and 16 mo. If it weren’t for grey hair, I’d say I keep up pretty well with the 20 year old mothers! I have read The Return of the Prodigal Son several times, it has truly changed my life. I have loved the Lord all my life and served at a church for twelve years. When I discovered Henri Nouwen’s writings I was very broken from disappointments I suffered through the church. It seemed Henri had the ability to articulate my own thoughts and feelings on paper as well as opening me up to new ways of thinking about those thoughts and the events I had experienced. The most touching part for me in this book was finding out that I am beloved. In very recent years, my husband and I suffered the loss of five children which we will now hold in heaven. Although I have two beautiful children, I am once again broken in ways I never thought possible. I am hopeful to discover a deeper place in God that will comfort and strengthen me and bring me to a new place in Him.

    • Ray Glennon says:

      Not too late at all Julie. Welcome. May the Lord give you peace and may you find a compassionate and caring community among us.

      Ray

  26. Suzanne says:

    It is 4:15am and I just finished an hour of reading all the comments with a cup of coffee. I am so relieved to know I am not alone in feeling like a bystander, on the outside of the group. This book and painting have been meaningful for me personally for years and professionally as I have it in the wall in my counseling office. Right now there is too much swirling around inside my head and heart to share. All I can say is thank you! I needed to hear what everyone of you said. I need to keep listening. I want to keep listening. I want to hear you and I want to hear God. I want to feel at home again where I am, not long for a particular place I lived for many years. Thank you for being a community of vulnerable honest people I can share with. Blessings!

  27. Mary Tauzin says:

    Veronica Wells, in answer to your question about a spiritual director in the previous discussion, please go to http://www.marianservants.com and follow the links to Spiritual Directors. There you will find contact information to reach a director. God bless!

  28. Bonnie says:

    Here I go. So many many thoughts. I will try to distill the mess of my mind.

    Yes, I am a bystander. I have been for so many years, even though others would certainly not think so. I have been involved in my church in ministry, been a regular in a prayer group, brought up three daughters in the faith, three daughters who are still faithful and involved in their own churches with their own families. Outwardly I appear solid and sure of my beliefs. But I have realized within the last year or two that I am afraid to become too close to God. In meditation, I had an image of a moth who is attracted to the flame but afraid to go too close in case it should be consumed by the flame. I am afraid to be consumed.

    I have been praying with my group for a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but I know, in fact, I am afraid of what might happen with a great outpouring. I worry about becoming one of the Christians who are very forthcoming about their faith and who are eager to convince others of the wonderful relationship they have with Christ. I have been afraid of those people in the past. I am not afraid any more but I am certainly cautious. I really need authenticity! I reflected on this problem and realized that what would happen with a greater outpouring of the spirit is that I would become more like Christ. Which doesn’t mean I have to go around obviously preaching and converting (my worry). As I become more like Christ, I will need to say nothing. People will see that light simply in who I am. So I am not afraid any more. I would dearly love to be more like Christ.

    • Rose says:

      Dear Bonnie:

      Reading your comment “As I become more like Christ, I will need to say nothing,” I immediately thought of a book written in 1929 (before I was born, but not by much!). The title is “Magnificent Obsession,” by Lloyd C. Douglas.

      Because that two-word phrase–magnificent obsession–long ago entered the nation’s sensibility–and two popular movies were made based on the bare-bones outline of the book (in 1935 and 1954)–I strongly recommend the 1929 book to you. Douglas based the book on Matthew 6:1-4.

      When watching movies, we tend to focus on what other people are doing on the screen, watching eagerly to see “what comes next” for those characters.

      On the other hand, reading a book, we can read as slowly or as rapidly as we wish; we can read for a while and then set aside the book to muse on what we have read; and we can consider ways in which we might try living in ways similar to those the actors portray. I have no idea when I first read Douglas’s “Magnificent Obsession” (probably when I was about thirty years old–fifty years ago) reading it struck me with such force (actually, as an epiphany) that I resolved then and there to try to live the way Douglas portrays his character “Dr. Hudson” as living.

      Never a believer in “co-incidence,” I point out that today’s Henri Nouwen Society “Daily Meditation” (February 25, 2015) echoes the same theme: “Some of the greatest works of art and the most important works of peace were created by people who had no need for the limelight. They knew that what they were doing was their call, and they did it with great patience, perseverance, and love.”

      Lloyd C. Douglas’s “Magnificent Obsession” has probably never gone out of print. I have in front of me a crisp edition that I ordered only a couple of years ago that carries an International Standard Book Number: 0-89966-387-7. I am confident that many libraries would have a copy for check-out or would be happy to secure a copy through Inter-Library Loan.

      “Take and read.”

      Rose

  29. Marisa says:

    How often I have felt like the bystander who is watching life instead of fully participating in it! I use my photography to capture it and to make a record of it, but often protect myself by staying behind the camera. As an oldest child myself, I can appreciate that Henri N. felt a lot of pressure to be a role model and “perfect” eldest child and yet he is also able to put himself in the other roles as well. What blows me away is that he is so honest in telling his very personal story in the context of the prodigal son parable, where we are all of the characters at some point of our lives. I believe that he was given the rare opportunity to study the painting in such detail because he was meant to share his reflections with the world. If that isn’t God working in a life, I don’t know what is!

  30. Ray Glennon says:

    From Bill Helsley
    I have great empathy for the returning son. My young life was tumultuous due to divorce, family alcoholism and living in a variety of homes with different values. At one time, between 8 and 12, I lived with my father and his parents.

    By that time my grandparents were in their seventies. They had farmed until 1914. Both of my great grandfather’s discharges hung in the entrance halway. My grandparents were by circumstance, very frugal and conservative and by my estimation “not of this time”.

    My father died when I was twelve and I went to live with my mother and step father who were both alcoholics. My mother was quite severe in her alcoholic binges which lasted sometimes for two to three weeks.

    During this time I felt very alone and lost. For the most part I was left on my own with no direction or guidance. I spent my time mostly acting out waiting for someone to set me straight.

    I lost contact with my grandparents and my mother’s family.

    In my late thirties I decided my life was a mess and I entered a re-hab center. After re-hab I was blessed to be in the company of some very special people. They helped me open myself to new states of awareness.

    After this total acceptance I began to have what I truly believe are deep spiritual experiences. Most notable was one day I on a business trip and began thinking of my grandparents and my relationship with them. Suddenly, it came to me that my grandfather really loved me. I felt his love and felt a warm glow and peace that I had never felt before.

    At this time I can say that this awakening experience has helped to become a more loving, caring, forgiving and especially grateful person. At this juncture we could say I was mostly the prodigal. Subsequently I found through foregiveness and gratitude what, I hope the elder son also found. In that sense I am both sons.

    If asked, I could take you that same intersection in rural Indiana and describe the sky, the white billowy clouds and the sun casting shadows from the clouds. That was 46 years ago.

  31. Christine says:

    I’ve been thinking about the 2nd part of question one about entering the mystery of homecoming in a new way and what is exciting and/or scary about that.

    I’ve been pondering returning to the Father stripped of all pretense of control as the younger son did. He left thinking he would conquer the world no doubt, but returned battered by the realities of that world he had hoped to take by storm. How humbling and scary to approach his Father with the stench of the pigs he ended up tending still clinging to his ragged clothes. How hard it must have been for him to admit his mistakes and his weakness and his need.

    But then, how freeing and amazing to be welcomed so warmly and enthusiastically into the safety and warmth of the Father’s arms. That is an exciting prospect.

  32. Judith Bacon says:

    Thank you for presenting this opportunity and encouragement to read this marvelous book. After reading several pages and becoming totally involved with the image and Henri’s words, I found a photo of The Prodigal Son, downloaded it, and have made it my desktop background. This causes me to contemplate the painting each morning and every time I go to the computer. I like “living with it. ” So much meaning and significance to explore.

  33. marianne welch says:

    It is such a beautiful story about our human imperfection and of compassion and forgiveness.. Let go, let God…

  34. Clarence says:

    Reading the scriptures and Henri’s reflections brought to me new illumination on the three main characters. First, my heart was gripped with the son’s rehearsal and eventual expression to the father. As a young adult, our own son had distanced himself from us. That was the most heart-wrenching period of our lives that came full circle during the last year of his life in 2007. During a brief time of sickness before entering the Lord’s house, he poured out his heart to us in a way that reflected years of preparation. His speech of return brought healing to our broken hearts. Our present meditations inspire me to be more intentional, more transparent, more extravagant in the sacred ritual of return to my heavenly Father. Secondly, my heart was also moved by the uncalculating grace of the waiting father. The wideness of his mercy triggered swift, surprising and overwhelming acceptance of his wayward boy. There always was a fattened calf on hand! Something within me cries, “Lord, make me more like You – swift, generous and gracious toward others, especially those who cause me pain”. On the other hand, the elder brother accused the father with “you killed the calf WE had been fattening”. I saw myself and the church to be too-often shortsighted and selfish as to the application of the means of grace, wanting the full benefits of membership in the family, while being out of touch with the heart of the Father. While the prodigal was lost in a far-off place, it sobers me to think I can be so lost within the house.
    These days of reflection are bringing me closer to the heart of the Father. Thank you all for your inspiring contributions.

    • Joni says:

      Thank you to Clarence. I am sorry for the loss of your son, but am so glad you were able to reconcile before his homecoming.

      Your thoughts about us, and our Church, sometimes being out of touch with the heart of the Father have really given me cause to pause…and ponder!

    • Marilyn Magers says:

      “You killed the calf WE had been fattening” – wow…
      Thank you!

  35. Elaine says:

    4. At first glance, I found it surprising that Henri felt like a bystander (“an observer”) during the years when he was teaching and writing powerful articles and books about spirituality that touched the souls of so many readers. “Oh, to be that kind of bystander,” I thought. However, one can’t judge the heart of another: Henri’s reputed bouts of depression, perhaps memories of his early meaningful work with troubled patients, his travels, and the search for a “home” that the rarified world of academia did not provide led him to see himself as that bystander.
    For this first blog reflection, I have read and reread Henri’s descriptions of the bystanders in the painting: “indifference, curiosity, daydreaming, and attentive observation.” Since I do not have a large poster of the painting (many regrets for that omission), I searched online for an enlarged image in an attempt to see the background figures. Are all of them merely bystanders? Has any heart been secretly touched by the moving scene? Before this scene, had they thought the old master was aloof or distracted—or just merely “the master”? Yet here he reveals himself in all of his own emotional vulnerability—his power stemming from his unconditional love for the wayward son. Is one of the figures the boy’s mother, who has loved the boy all these years and knows that the reconciliation of father and son must precede her own embrace of her child?
    I may be that bystander of “attentive observation,” seeing and feeling for the suffering of the world but watching others do the heavy lifting of unconditional sacrifice and service. But I am moved by their stories, just as I am by the story of the painting, and resolve to do more to creep out of the dark background into the light of commitment. Now in my semi-retirement (as many of us bloggers are), I am attempting to find the kind of service that will lead me home. It occurs to me that I am now older than Henri was at his death. I want to make this Lent the time I move more intentionally toward my real home.

    • Christine says:

      Thanks for pointing out the fact that there was a female figure in the background of this painting. I have looked at reproductions of this painting and the top left was too dark to notice the figure there. I wondered where the fourth figure that Henri mentioned was as well. I took your suggestion and found an enlarged version of the painting that was light enough to see all four bystanders. Your idea that the woman might be the boys’ mother is intriguing. That adds another dimension to the scene and I’ll be thinking about that.
      I am beginning to understand all the hours, days, and years Henri spent studying and pondering the meaning of this painting.

      • Joni says:

        Christine, your words have been a comfort to me. This will be the second time I’ve read this book, but one of the fears I have had in writing on this blog was that I have never been able to see the fourth observer, and believe me, I have looked and looked.

        So, my first reaction to your post is “I’m not the only one, it shouldn’t stop me from sharing here.” My second thought is, maybe at some point I will find an enlarged version that will allow me to see with new eyes! Thanks!

        • Hi Joni,
          There is a link on the top navigation bar of this blog that says “Rembrandt’s Painting”. It will take you to a very clear image of the painting – you can see the fourth observer.
          Blessings,
          Maureen
          Nouwen Legacy Manager

          • Elaine says:

            Thanks, Maureen, for pointing out the link to the painting. Zooming in several times really helps to see the background figures. I am sad to see the most distant figure not only in the dark but in a cave-like enclosure–I guess another fitting metaphor for the consequences for the bystander who chooses not–or cannot find a way–to become more intimately in the lives and struggles of others. Sometimes I think it is more about not knowing how to become involved.

          • Joni says:

            Thanks so much! I just looked at the picture and so the lady for the first time ever! It felt like my own little homecoing with this picture!

            I’m curious how many other little moments of enlightment will be granted through this group study.

            Thanks to each of you for sharing. My cup overfloweth this week.

      • David T. Irvine says:

        Dave Irvine here, age 78, newcomer to this site after Googling ‘Nouwen’ after the recent conclusion of a reading/reflection on this book by our church book group. This blog group seems to be discovering, as our book group did, that Nouwen’s reflections on Rembrandt’s painting, and the painting itself (we had a most excellent slide to look at), amounted to a kind of Rorschach self-examination; it was amazing how the dozen or so of us saw elements of the prodigal son, the older brother, and the father in ourselves during at times explicit sharing. In more recent weeks I have found myself contemplating the three more shadowy figures, esp the most remote of the six, located in the upper left corner of the painting, so dim it doesn’t even appear at all on some internet lesser reproductions. I can’t tell if the figure is male or female, but its sheer obscure remoteness suggests to me that Rembrandt had a reason for it. For me that figure in that setting reminds me of a most unhappy period in my life at age 16 when my mother unexpectedly died, shattering and scattering our family forever. This tragedy made an instant adolescent atheist of me with the thought that “If there is a God how could He let such a terrible thing happen?” But atheism is a difficult position to sustain for very long, and really amounts to a faith-based religion in itself. However, feeling like an alien in a hostile world, my slog through a dry spiritual desert has been decades long, the real issue for me being where is the evidence this First-Cause Creator-God is aware of me or anything else in His creation or cares about any of it, not abating until I looked back over my life and discerned what I take to be the influence of the Holy Spirit (to use Christian vernacular), that I am not an alien but a part of God’s creation and I am in the hands of that Higher Power, and it is my faith that it will ultimately be all right (my agnostic friends scoff at such unscientific logic but it’s a perception of my sense of reality I can’t ignore). Yes, I see my spiritual pilgrimage progressing through all six of Rembrandt’s figures to the unconditional-loving Father, what a splendid Rorschach! Thanks to Rembrandt for portraying his inner spiritual journey, and to Henri Nouwen for discerning and describing the elements of Rembrandt’s (and his own) journey for the rest of us.

        • Ray Glennon says:

          Thank you your insight that on our spiritual pilgrimage we may be one of the six figures, rather than just the three of primary interest. And our perspective on the “life at the center” will differ based on where we are located on the periphery. I know I am often the observer, and sometimes the one that wants to recede as far away as possible…even while longing to be in the Father’s embrace.

      • Marilyn Magers says:

        One new and very important insight for me came through Henri Nouwen’s account of his repeated experiences with the painting itself in a room that allowed light — ever-changing in quality and direction — to illuminate new aspects of the work. When I look at the two reproductions on the cover and inside front flap of my copy of the book, I think I see slight differences that help make darker figures visible. This is a good reminder of the complexity of our experiences as we perceive and discern in different moments (one way I’m understanding the very theme of this wonderful, humbling book). Thanks, everyone!

  36. Kieran says:

    What wonderful shares, thank you everyone. I have been reflecting on the ways i have often found myself in the place both of the younger brother and the elder brother. At times in the past i feel as if I drift a long way from home, a place which really offered me security and safety, my Father’s house. Why would I choose to leave this place? Why would the younger son? My honest answer is that at times I struggle with boredom, spiritual dryness, and so the ‘world’ outside seems so exciting and enticing at times that I choose to leave the Father’s house. And yet as Henri reminds us the Father waits patiently. I give thanks for the Father’s patience with me and all my sisters and brothers. Perhaps this Lent I can try to stay at home!
    Look forward to hearing more from you all, Kieran

  37. Milton Marks says:

    Sorry to be so long but lots came up as I read and reflected once again on Nouwen’s work.
    1B: In response to question 1.b, I say “All of the above but mostly the elder son.” The elder son ends up, tragically, being the “prodigal.” He has enjoyed all the grace and love of the father and yet, feels something deep and profound is missing in his life. He hates his younger brother for having the guts to break away and experience life on his own. He deeply resents the gifts of grace, love and forgiveness the father extends to this “prodigal” who now has the nerve to return home again. He will not celebrate this homecoming. He will miss the joy of the Father’s homecoming celebration. He is “home” and yet, somehow, “not home.” He refuses the embrace of his father. He has been “good” and stayed close to home. None-the-less, he is lost and alone without a home even though he is close enough to hear the joyful sounds from a family celebrating the return of a son that once was dead and is alive again. He is very nearly dead and doesn’t know it. Only his anger keeps him alive.

    I am an only son. I have stayed “home.” The son of a pastor, “Mother / Father Church” is the only home I have ever known. I was a “youth director” while in college. I entered seminary right out of college. I took my first appointment to a local church right out of seminary and there I have stayed for 42 years. In a few months, I will retire and Mother / Father Church via the Pension Board, will pay my bills and put food on my table.
    My life has flowed on like a river rolling quietly down to the sea. I have no stories of tragedy to share. (Well, maybe just one. I will get to that later.) No stories of great highs either. My life has been simple and unexceptional. If my life was written in the form of a novel, I can’t imagine it would ever be published and if published, most would find it quite boring. It’s title would not be found on any best seller list. (If you could get to the story “underneath” (Listen to the song “Underneath” by Dave Wilcox) and write that down, that story would be a best seller.) The tragedy? I can’t find the party! The elder son in the biblical narrative hears the laughter and the sound of the band but chooses to stay angry, isolated and alone and outside the party. I want to enter into the party of a family that celebrates the return of all of this world’s “prodigals.” I hoped Mother/Father Church would be the place where the party would be held and all would be invited to come. While there are important exceptions, for the most part I have not found that party being held in local churches. Of course, lots of good deeds are none and many good lessons are taught in local congregations. Yet, again with only a few exceptions, I don’t see many celebrating the dawning of the Kingdom of God nor the return of prodigals. I don’t see the party hats. I don’t hear the dance band music rolling across the land. From time to time, I do hear a few amazing voices in this culture proclaiming the Good News and for that I am grateful. Those voices help keep by faith alive and of course, the father’s love remains, so even here, the story is not finally, tragic.
    Still, I feel homeless. I have bet on the wrong horse. I have placed far too much of my final hope in a feeble human institution. For most of my 66 years, I have failed to notice and celebrate the arms of a loving Father holding me. Still, the deep wound of a lost home and a lost spiritual family remains. The images of the horrors of war displayed daily on the news and the tragic shootings and beatings of young men of color and more make me wonder if my years of service to my denomination have made any difference at all. More frightening still, is the thought that we may have made things worse.

    1.c) I have the sense that God’s Kingdom is very near and yet, just out of reach. I am not so much afraid as frustrated by my apparent inability to read the signs and touch the sacred. Like Sheldon on the TV show, “Big Bang Theory,” I know something significant is happening but I can’t quite understand it. When I respond to this mystery more often than not, my response is wrong. The difficulty here is to translate the experience of the sacred . . .of God’s blessing. . . of God’s Call, into meaningful action to bring hope and faith to more folks in this world and to change the culture itself . . so God’s Kingdom happens.

    2a) A number of years ago I have a experience I find impossible to describe. I will try as best I can to share the experience but words really fail to convey the power of that experience. I had the sense of being “held” like a child in there mother’s arms, by a sacred force, compassionate and yet, a force over which I had no control. At first, I was very uncomfortable and found that “touch” very disconcerting. Having no other options, I finally gave in and allowed myself to be. . . . awe . . . how can it describe it? . . . carried to a different realm. I was left confounded and confused but with a with a profound sense that I had been “touched” by the sacred. For me, it was a confirmation of the existence of a holy, and loving God.

    3A&B: God does not “arrange details, circumstances and experiences in your life to call you home.” God is not an unseen manipulator of one’s life. This would compromise free will. Furthermore, it raises all sorts of issues when we see things like 21 Coptic Christians beheaded! I hope God was not involved in that circumstance as claimed by the perpetrators. I would frame this issue in the following way. God “enters in” to very detail, every circumstance and every experience life brings. In every circumstance, God seeks to empower us with a measure of His/Her Spirit to move us through each event life. God’s desire is to turn every circumstance in ways that serve His/Her purpose. In this way, God is always presence. God is always calling us home. This is how God is found in the ordinary and extraordinary experiences of life.

    b) God is always there. Sometimes I am aware of God’s presence. Most of the time, I am distracted and unaware. When I have been aware of the God’s presence, I have experienced deep joy and peace. At other times, God’s presence has been disconcerting, humbling, and dare it say, even, judgmental. I know we don’t like that word, judgmental, but here it is set in the context of a wholly loving and gracious God. The “judgement” here is to, in the words of John Wesley, move us on to perfection. The spiritual disciplines help focus our attention on the sacred, and holy presence and respond appropriately to God’s Call.

    4A&B: To be in “the center of God’s love and plan for you” you have to find that center. God is always present in, through and around us to move us to the center of his love and plan. Often I resist entering that “center.” It seems too crazy, too risky. I prefer staying outside that center much of the time so I miss the experience of God’s glory. Be careful about making this “all about you.” God’s plan is bigger than any one of us and bigger still, than the whole of all of us.

    • Bonnie says:

      Regarding “Still, I feel homeless. I have bet on the wrong horse. I have placed far too much of my final hope in a feeble human institution. For most of my 66 years, I have failed to notice and celebrate the arms of a loving Father holding me. Still, the deep wound of a lost home and a lost spiritual family remains. The images of the horrors of war displayed daily on the news and the tragic shootings and beatings of young men of color and more make me wonder if my years of service to my denomination have made any difference at all. More frightening still, is the thought that we may have made things worse. ”

      I worry about that too, about the institution. I sometimes hate the rhetoric of religion. It encourages my disbelief immensely. It is a constant struggle for me to not give up religion. Even though I love my Lord and feel so completely loved in return. I do believe that some (but certainly not all) of what I believe to be a strong and constant spirituality is maintained by that institution with all its flaws.Mostly I feel immensely blessed to have a very strong sure faith.

      Thanks for your openness. I appreciate that. May God bless you.

    • Sonya says:

      I, too, have had such deep sense of frustrations working within the church. Eventually I quit my job for two years before returning once again to church ministry. Most of my problems of doubt, anger, frustrations were probably from “burn out”. My two years away I nearly turned away from worship also, but I didn’t want to be a bad example to my children and grandkids. In those years I was refreshed as I looked at the goodness of God in my life–which, unlike Milton’s has so many crisis in it a novel about my family’s life would sell.

      In spite of all personal problems, I could see the goodness of God. I spent the time away from ministry reading the Bible from cover to cover and copied scripture into a tablet to remind me of things I needed to do.

      Then I returned to work with a parish family who gently and lovingly guided me from my bruised body to place of sunshine. My anger left (I must have been the Son who resented his brother) and eventually was accepting my place in life. Others on staff were not charitable and caused a great deal of ugly attitudes as did a tiny group of parishioners.

      The intense whirlwind of believers showing themselves to be hateful was another lesson I learned. We all aren’t in the same place spiritually. Some are still learning what others already know.

      Reading the Old Testament gave me insight to how even then humanity acted as today–beheading, killing for their own advantage, stealing. We really haven’t changed much. Yet I believe we’re called to keep doing what we can to show the image of Christ reflected in us to others in our little corner of the earth.

      It may look as if we haven’t done anything. We have planted the seeds of faith that I believe will sprout when we aren’t looking. Through my difficulties and time spent being refreshed, I am able to just believe I am doing what I’m supposed to do and not worry about how bad things look–and for sure they do look bad. But I remind myself God always “wins” not Evil, or Satan if you prefer that name.

      I have no idea how God will be just and yet merciful, but I pray Hell is empty. Believing in Purgatory, I hope many land there for the evil deeds they’ve done such as the obvious racial hate we have in USA as well as hate for other’s faith. This belief keeps me going.

    • Ray Glennon says:

      Milton,
      Thank you for this touching, honest, and thought-provoking sharing. It is a blessing. I have read it several times during the week and only now am I willing to offer a response.

      As I re-read your sharing I connected two of your ideas and I offer them for your consideration and that of those joining us on our Lenten journey. You wrote: “Still, I feel homeless. I have bet on the wrong horse. I have placed far too much of my final hope in a feeble human institution…. (and later) God does not ‘arrange details, circumstances and experiences in your life to call you home.’ God is not an unseen manipulator of one’s life. This would compromise free will…”

      I completely agree with you that we have free will and that God is not an unseen manipulator of one’s life. But are you really certain that you have bet on the wrong horse? What about your parishioners over these past 42 years? Perhaps (actually, almost certainly) your presence in some (likely, many) of their lives was a key factor on their spiritual journey home. So from your perspective at this time, perhaps it seems that you bet on the wrong horse. But from the perspective of those whose lives you touched, (or from God’s perspective) if you had ridden a different horse (if you hadn’t been a person, a circumstance in their life), their lives would be different as well. So by your free will choice to follow what you perceived to be the will of God you have touched the lives of others and the world is a better place for it.

      As St. Francis said to those he met along the way, “May the Lord give you peace.”
      Ray

  38. Twyla says:

    This Beautiful Story Jesus told is one that brings healing and cleansing & restoration to everyone.
    Everytime I read the passages in Luke, I feel as if Jesus is standing by me looking into my eyes and heart and soul and spirit with HIS eyes seeing ALL and understanding ALL . We all have our “specialty sins”….and Our Father in Heaven shows us that He understands all of our woundedness and weaknesses.

    I think that is why I was so drawn to Henri’s book The Return of The Prodigal Son …. I have reread this book so many times, I think, because some gentle level of fresh Spiritual understanding seems to happen as I meditate on the Parable.
    Henri’s loving way of sharing his own woundedness is a healing experience in itself. That alone shows me that if we love Our Heavenly Father and keep ourselves open to Him, He never abandons us in our failures and in fact still uses us for wonderful things.
    I think that both of the sons were suffering from an “orphan spirit”….
    The youngest, was a youthful ignorant mess and was so full of guilt, shame and fear he could not hope to think his Father would still have him as His son.
    The eldest, was a thoughtful, wise mess in his sins of bitterness, unforgiveness and self righteousness. He could not really believe that his Father accepted him without all his perfect works. And so, it was as if he also was an orphan, needing to work hard to show his worth to convince someone to adopt him.
    Both, needed the Father’s Forgiveness, Cleansing and Restoration from their own sin mess….and both needed to come to the understanding that they fully belonged to their Father Already. Both were already Loved and accepted by the Father, and needed come home to that reality.

    I see myself in both categories…. And whichever side or mix
    of the prodigal story I fall on day by day…..
    One thing is always the same…..
    If I could just move from FEAR to LOVE
    move from feeling like an Orphan to a 100 % ALREADY beloved child of God….. And not just a barely accepted one who just got in the door and is still in real danger of being kicked to the curb by “My Father in Heaven”……
    THAT I think would ease my need to strive to prove my worth and my shame and guilt of not being very successful in my striving anyway…. Even if it could have “worked”. 🙂
    Well, I see Jesus love and HE brings me lovingly to Himself, The Father with A lot of Holy Spirit help in my day to day life…..
    And frankly, some days I just pray over & over, Father, I’m your girl…. Help me to REALIZE that.
    This Lent, reading this story again and reading and sharing our journey of coming Home to The Father…..will be a few more steps in the right direction.
    🙂

  39. Ray Glennon says:

    From Lisa, Copied from Introduction
    As a spiritual companion and retreat director for the past 19 years,
    part of my “job” is to help others see the connections with the Divine in the ordinary. I begin my introduction with this information as a statement to myself about seeing my own connections.

    I have just begun companioning retreatants on a month long retreat at home, in their daily lives. The room I was given for meeting my retreatants each week has a very large (probably 3’x7’ picture of Rembrant’s Prodigal Son). Having read Henri’s
    book many years ago and arriving early for my first meeting, there was time to study the picture, especially the difference in the two hands, i.e., one being a feminine hand and sleeve and the other a masculine hand and sleeve. One of the other companions came in to ask a question and stated how much he had always hated that picture. When the difference in the two hands was pointed out, the comment was made, “Maybe there is something to like about it after all.” (Hhhmmm)!

    When my first retreatant came in, he also noticed the picture and mentioned that he had a much smaller version of it above his fireplace. Henri’s book was mentioned and the gentleman commented that his pastor had given a Lenten retreat based on the book but the gentleman had never finished the book, and wasn’t it really “coincidental” that we were meeting in the room with the picture he had at home, he had made a weekend Lenten retreat based on parts of the book several years ago, and I had read the book and had been assigned to be his companion for the retreat. (Retreat directors/companions are assigned at random with the only provision being that the companion does not know the directee.)

    The question surfaced as to whether this was all just “coincidental” or could this possibly be where the Divine One was leading him for his month long retreat at home.

    Upon returning home from the meetings and looking for my own copy of the book, it could not be found that night but was immediately found the next morning. Upon opening it to the last page I had read, the underlining fit perfectly with where I was in my own journey. That afternoon, I opened a Lenten letter from Center for Action & Contemplation (Richard Rohr) and a small copy of Rembrant’s Prodigal Son picture fell out.

    Anyone who has ever done Spiritual Direction/Companioning or Retreat work readily understands that it is definitely a two-headed coin – one receives and is challenged as much as one gives and challenges. Having “stumbled” across this website, the question now surfaces- Is this where the Divine One is not only leading one of my retreatants, but where I am also being led to “spend” my own Lent?

    From Mary Lord, Copied from Introductions
    Hello, I’m Mary and I live in New Jersey – the southern portion of the state, right outside Philadelphia. I’m in my mid-60’s, and am active in an Associate group (laity sharing the charism of a Religious order). My life’s journey has taken me many places, and many states of grace, and I am now blessed to be back in the house where I lived as a young girl. It has been the scene of much heartbreak – sadness, alcoholism, abuse, neglect, shame. It was my great fortune to be able to reclaim the house and restore it, and bring a little justice to the two generations of children raised here. I thought this was the end of my story, but recently have come to suspect God has more surprises ahead. The story of the prodigal appeals greatly to me, I am always touched by the Father’s love.

    From Tom Accardi, Copied from Introductions
    The need to “lose control” with the “risk of letting the situation control me” as stated on page 12 was especially relevant to me. As a Stage IV prostate cancer patient at age 61, and a pilot since age 17, I can relate to strong desire to be in control and the challenge and “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…(p. 13). Significant events cause each of us to realize how little we are in control of our lives, but it can also be a time of self revelation and personal growth by “surrendering one more time to a love that knows no limits” (p. 13).

  40. Deb Gustafson says:

    Question 4: I really feel like what keeps me in the role of bystander is comfort and safety. It is so much easier and safer to stay on the outside. Letting go completely and totally trusting God is frightening for one who feels a need to “control.” I am at a place in my journey with God where I find myself spending more quiet time just being with him. As I sit and listen more and speak less, I am finding more joy and peace in my life. The uncertainty and “unknowns” in my life right now are still a bit scary, but as I continue to work on letting go and letting God take over I am slowly feeling more peace. It is an incredible and amazing journey!

  41. Rose says:

    (1) Thank each one of you for your thoughtful letters and responses. This is the second time I have studied “The ReturnI would like to share with you some of my throughout-adulthood thoughts on “Home.”

    I was brought up an “only child” during the last part of the Great Depression. My parents were devoted to each other and devoted to me, but/and determined to cherish me but not to spoil me. My parents always told me that I was free to approach them whenever my child’s heart or mind desired something, asking for anything I wanted. They would then discuss my request together and later let me know their decision. I don’t know whether they ever argued with each other. I was never aware of their arguing, but, when they gave me their answer, I was to accept that answer graciously. I would accept it happily, if my request had been granted but without whining or pouting, if my request had been denied.

    Thus I realized from a very young age is that I appreciated being truly listened to, being understood. That’s the way my parents and I related to each other for seventeen years, until I went off to college and for the rest of their lives. Marrying young and completing college a bit later, I never again lived under my parents’ roof , but for a number of years we lived in the same town and saw each other almost daily.

    For more than seventy-five years, remembering my appreciation of being truly listened to, I have endeavored to listen truly to my family, to my children, to my grandchildren, to my neighbors, to my colleagues, even to strangers. I believe that genuine “paying attention” to others makes life more pleasant for everyone.

    (2) Over past decades, I have taught at three universities in the U.S. and have lived and taught at colleges in three overseas countries, for a total of nineteen years, never forgetting where “home” is (the town where I was born and reared). I have now been “back home” in my birthplace for twelve years. Ever since offering my child’s heart to Jesus and being baptized at the age of ten, I have felt “at home” because I felt as though I were in the center of God’s will for my life at that time in my life.

    (3) That’s true, even though my remarks probably come across as much too much “Goody Two-Shoes.” Jesus IS the Good Shepard, among His other roles, and I never for a moment have lost sight of the fact that “All we like sheep have gone astray, everyone to his own way.” Many’s the time have I behaved “sheepishly,” but never once have I kidded myself that Jesus wasn’t right beside me–perhaps casting disappointed glances in my direction but never indicating by word or gesture that He might leave my side and head off in a different direction.

    (4) That’s what “Lo, I am with you always” has always meant to me.

    Longwindedly: Sorry.

    • RoseS says:

      I just added an “S” to diferentiate us —
      (You joke “long winded” and I smiled that it must be in our name…..)
      Thank you all — I am just perusing as I can NOT “revisit” this book “AT THIS TIME” in my life (for many reasons not to be explained herein). God Bless You All.
      Still praying for all of you and especially those fighting cancer!!!

  42. Julia says:

    The prospect of “coming home” excites me because of the joy and freedom I experience as I come closer and closer to my real Father. But I am much more afraid of facing the guilt, shame and perhaps necessary interaction with my earthly father that certain next steps might entail… [He is, thankfully, still alive – but unwilling to change.] This parable has always been one of the hardest for me to read. The younger son’s realization that his father’s servants were better off than he, and that he no longer deserved to be called his father son and would return and say so, seems too clear cut to apply to real life. I try to forgive my father for his shortcomings that handicapped my own life, and I try to forgive myself for all the mistakes I’ve made, and I try to remember that all of it has been used by my Heavenly Father to mould my life into something good … but the sense of forgiveness (for my father or myself) doesn’t last very long, and I am most often left feeling guilty and afraid.

    I hold this up to my Father , and ask for his help to take the steps he wants me to take toward my home with him. I am so thankful for what he is doing through this online community.

  43. Michael Kenning says:

    I have never read any of Henri Nouwen’s writings before – to be honest I had heard of him, but shied away from his books because I imagined they would be hard, dry and complicated, but already I am captivated by the seeming simplicity of his writing and yet the depth of what he says and the amazing way I find he is putting into words things that I felt God saying but didn’t know how to express!

    I have decided to consider the questions more deeply as the week goes by, but just wanted to start off by seeing what I felt God was saying to me from an initial reading of the prologue and intro and I have been touched by three things:

    1. About 4 years ago I felt God speaking to me through a dream – in it I had to go down an exposed precarious ladder. Gradually and prayerfully I came to realise that God was calling my family and I out of being part of the leadership team of one of the biggest charismatic churches in Ireland to attend a small semi-rural Anglican parish. I fought against this calling and a lot of my friends I am sure think we are mad, and it seemed like we were going backwards, and yet we have experienced such peace and the presence of God in a wonderfully fresh way. Hearing how Henri too “stepped down” from his Harvard career to minister to those with intellectual disability spoke to me deeply! Sometimes we have to step down and loose our status and roles and reputation to gain the Lord.

    2. I have felt God calling me to draw near to him in meditative prayer and just sit seemingly doing nothing, thinking about God. The way Henri saw the changing light on the painting just because he sat and reflected was a wonderful example of what I have heard God saying to me. He also talks about being “led to an inner place where I had not been before. It is the place within me where God has chosen to dwell”. This description ministered to me.

    3. I was literally in tears as I felt these words hit me with force: “sometimes I still feel the desire to remain the son and never grow old”. My own father died last year and I miss his love and wisdom. But I realise that even though I am well into middle age and a father myself, I have been hiding behind my father and his love and clinging to the role of son for too long “The time has come to claim [my] true vocation” as Sue Mosteller said to Henri. But that fills me with sadness and fear as well as knowing it is true and that I need to act.

    • Kieran says:

      Welcome Michael, I am so pleased you have discovered Henri Nouwen, I hope you will continue to find his words of depth and simplicity!

      • Michael Kenning says:

        Thanks Kieran – I definitely plan to make a point of reading some more of Henri Nouwen’s books this year after this Lent study is over 🙂

  44. Gilly B says:

    A BLOOD RED ROSE IN A GLASS VASE- The mystery of Homecoming experienced in God’s timing over 20 years ago
    A blood red rose in a glass vase stood on a window sill the morning my first husband left our family home. Beside it was a note from my daughter,”Mum I understand what you must be feeling. “ That blessing reminds me now of the body and blood of Christ sacrificed on our behalf – a spiritual experience within the mystery of God’s timing . The night before the 17 year old had been lying in the darkness of her room and called out.
    “Mum Dad’s going tomorrow and he hasn’t said goodbye”. My first husband did not find communication of emotion easy. I went downstairs to share her need with him and volunteered to initiate a conversation of farewell. Together we went to her and with our arms around each other I explained this was difficult for us all. I spoke the words I knew were needed for them both and then quietly withdrew.
    Divorce was a very painful experience and within it I felt the overwhelming emotions of sin, guilt, rejection, anger, betrayal of trust and the breaking of my marriage vows. Even in the events of the last 24 hours of a marital relationship faith can motivate us all to put those emotions to one side. Because of a growing faith I began to understand the selflessness and forgiveness of Christ on the Cross. His once and for all sacrifice was far greater that any I could ever experience .
    The red rose had been the symbol of God’s loving presence of forgiveness for us all even then. Yet again gently patiently He was calling me closer. Far more calls and choices were ahead and always will be but in that moment given by Him through my daughter the healing of the Cross began.

  45. Janice K. says:

    Three months ago, after many years of feeling on the periphery of the Catholic church and very far from Christ, I suddenly had the strong urge to make a personal silent retreat. The last time I had done that was thirty years prior. It was triggered primarily by a very stressful situation in my work place. That retreat, in January, proved to be the impetus for me to turn my life back toward Christ. This definitely puts me in the role of the younger son.

    As part of that returning to God, I realized I needed the guidance of a spiritual director. I reached out to several people without success. Some how, I knew I had to keep trying. I then mailed a letter to the mother abbess at a Trappistine convent, humbly asking for help.

    Three weeks later, the morning after another very stressful day at the office, I received an email response in the affirmative, offering much more than I expected. Sister and I am still feeling our way but God answered my prayer and I feel as though a burden has been lifted from my shoulders. With God’s help there is nothing I cannot accomplish.

  46. Nancy says:

    This is in response to discussion question #2 regarding The Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen

    So lonely, so afraid I was. Driving back to our rented apartment in the college town of Lexington, Kentucky, I had finished my four hour shift of part time work while attending university. At twenty years of age, with only a new marriage and studies on my mind, I had been feeling a little “off” and had visited the student clinic. Blood had been taken two days prior, and a pregnancy test had confirmed that I was, indeed, pregnant. I had just been told this through a phone conversation with clinic personnel, then finished my work and continued home.

    Steering down the curving street toward our attic apartment with tears in my eyes, feeling so desolate at receiving this news of an unwanted pregnancy, tears were welling up in my eyes. How would my husband react to this news? The year was 1969. I prayed for a sign that I could get through this ordeal, give birth to a baby, become a mother, and that my schooling was not at an end. I noticed a bird while I was praying, just to the left of my driver’s side window. It was perhaps twenty feet away, flying toward the west; it was a bluebird. I took it as a sign of that all would be well. Immensely shored up by this sighting of a “bluebird of happiness,” it was a sign I have not forgotten over forty years later.

    God had reached me in a place of deep despair. It was the first of many times that I would call on Him for consolation and peace. God’s signs may have come in many other instances in which I was not aware, but this sign touched me to the core.

    • Ray Glennon says:

      Nancy… This is simply beautiful. Thanks you for sharing. …Ray

    • Marisa says:

      I had a similar experience where a bluebird was a very hopeful sign in a very dark time. It seems they continue to show up just when I need them, so I appreciate your story very much! God is always giving us signs, but often we are too busy to see them!

  47. Anthony Paul says:

    Henry Nouwen’s The Return Of The Prodigal Son puts me in mind of another book by John Bradshaw: Homecoming, Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child. Bradshaw’s book has been foundational in helping me to discover the core of my own true identity and I am most grateful for his work. However, it was not until I read Henri’s Prodigal Son that I came to understand that simply reclaiming the shamed and wounded child within is not enough. Just like the younger son in the parable, we must make a very conscious choice to return to our true home back into the arms of a Father who longs to receive us in a manner that transcends forgiveness… He receives us in the way of true unconditional love in which we hear Our Father say to us, “You are back home where you belong… and that is more than enough; nothing more need be said”. I have found with my own children that oftentimes a hug or an embrace can say far more than words can ever convey.

  48. Q.1
    Following my heart and my deepest feelings, I imagine being the younger son. And I realize that in order to leave he must have sensed a desire, may be a deficit, but certainly a need, to go to “places” elsewhere.
    I know “places” in myself where I wanted to stay, and places where I was afraid or reluctant to go to. Certainly both of them brought me some good, but it was the “good” that was not the result of deeply living through choices and experiences, no matter good or bad.
    Whenever I made choices to leave a “place” , I always found a new “places” from where I could see a broader perspective on myself. Like including more “places” in myself.
    It’s a beautiful thought that in order to return, one has to leave. I am convinced that the father realizes that in order to return it can’t be without “investment”, without willingness to put something at risk. He could have sent his son on a journey. That would not have been the same. The retunr would not have been his own will or decision.

    Q.2
    Being touched on the back, while kneeling down in front of someone, is for me an utterly image of surrender. Surrender as a “place” where anxiety transforms into the experience of love. I am sure that I was touched by the hands of God in situations where I felt most desperate, in order to find out that my desperation belonged to my resistance to accept the unavoidable.

    Q.3
    This question is a beautiful question, because it brings so much trust and consolation to my heart. Yes, at some moments I am aware that the past is not responsible for the future, but rather the other way around: the future reveals itself in the past and present. As a human being I can’t know the purpose, but somehow I can be able to become aware of another story of which my life is a part. In how I relate to this other story, there I can bring harmony into the world.

    Q.4
    When I translate “bystander” into my language, it means “someone who stays outside the group”. I am familiar with this “place” in me, where I observe but don’t take part in what is going on. I “left” church when I was 12 years of age. Now, so many years later, I can see how this moment revealed what I missed most, and how I had to learn to bring exactly that into the world where I longed for most: joining a community.
    Thank you for these questions! Answering them brought me a deep connection with my soul.

  49. Sr.Josephine Berchmans FMM says:

    This time when I read the Prologue and introduction I seem to understand better how I had not recognized the loving embrace of the Father so many times in my life. I saw (felt?) in retrospect how the first time (when I read the book in 1993) I thought I was the elder son only fighting to overcome some resentment. Now I realize I was very much the younger son – listless and lost-. The Father was there with his unconditional welcoming and acceptance. Because I didn’t realize His embrace so I still felt lost. That’s why I resented others, their comments and actions; interpreted their intentions and made myself miserable.
    The Father surely has put things together( as you expressed it in your fourth question) both painful and pleasant experiences to wean me to Himself. When the first life stopping event happened in my life – surgery for removal of a tumour in my brain which left me handicapped – little did I accept it as a call to come home.It is only now after this second life stopping event – a stroke, paralysis and two long years in the hospital – a see the grace of this call.
    Now it is time for me to be the Father, welcoming and accepting all unconditionally. Through my brokenness become compassionate. This is very challenging to live constantly and consistently. Living in a community where many are wounded and face daily adjustment, I do not know how to be accepting and welcoming all the time. I myself am physically not that fit, needing assistance and emotionally stressed at times.
    I will read again and again the Prologue and the Introduction. When he was alive Fr. Nouwen had helped me personally when I was alone, away from home in a foreign land. He will definitely help and show me the way. This reading community to will share their rich experiences.
    Thanks Ray and Brynn for your thought provoking questions.I feel privileged to be part of this study. May our loving Father show us the way home.

    • Anthony Paul says:

      Dear Sister Josephine:

      I am deeply touched by the openness of your post in as much as I can feel the pain, the love and the struggle which you are feeling at this time in your life. Your words mean a great deal to me because I was young once and compassion and feeling for the pain of others was often far from me. To paraphrase what Jesus said to Peter, when we were young we went about as we pleased; but when we are old others will gird us with a belt and take us where we do not wish to go. How true those words have proven to be. True wisdom only comes from the experiences of both joy and sorrow which we are privileged to live through day by day. And wisdom can give expression to Truth only insofar as we recognize the fact that, in one manner or another, we are all called to take up our cross and follow Jesus to that place outside the city walls.
      Your words are so true when you say that you do not know how to be accepting and welcoming all the time. I too have found it hard to keep my ear attuned to the voice of The Good Shepherd, especially in a world so full of noise and clamor making so many endless demands upon our flesh. But through it all I have discovered, as I am sure you have as well, that I do indeed know His voice from those others… it is more a matter now of following the call.
      There is so much I would like to say to you, but I will close with this thought: do not be distressed over the fact that you are not physically fit and perhaps no longer able to move about as you would like. Remember what Henri wrote so many times about Jesus’ own ministry: The heart of Our Lord’s work was accomplished during the time of His passion; the time when He no longer had the ability to do for Himself but rather had others doing unto Him… this was the will of The Father and it was good.
      May God Bless You in your journey; and remember that the cross you carry is not one which you carry alone.

      • Sr.Josephine Berchmans FMM says:

        Dear Paul,
        Shalom!
        Thank you so much for your supporting, understanding and kind words. I am touched and deeply appreciate your writing to me.
        I am 66 and so no longer young. I have lived the truth of someone else girding me and taking me to a place not of my choice, since my first surgery took place when I was 32. I had to struggle for over a year to manage things on my own. It is only now after the second crisis when I was paralyzed and recouping that I realized the wonderful way the Lord had worked through me. It is a long story.
        God has blessed me with a compassionate heart and a sensitive nature. While this helps be to be gentle with the feelings of others, it makes me vulnerable and I get easily hurt with unkind words, callous remarks and uncaring attitude. Well I am working on it. I always wonder how the Father with his Prodigal Love could bear all the insults, injuries and still reach out in love. This is my quest.
        Thanks for quoting Henri’s words about Jesus’ mission. I too would like to share much more but cannot find the correct words. Thanks a lot for the assurance that I am not alone in my journey.
        May the good bless you abundantly

    • Christine says:

      Sister Josephine, I was very touched by your reflection. When you spoke of not realizing you were “very much the younger son – listless and lost-.” and “The Father was there with his unconditional welcoming and acceptance. Because I didn’t realize His embrace so I still felt lost,” triggered something in me.

      Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally), the church bulletin I picked up at evening mass had on its cover a detail of Rembrandt’s painting focusing on the father’s hands embracing the returning son. The son’s head is nestled against his father. The profile of the son’s face, eyes closed, expresses to me the complete relief and sense of safety the son is feeling in that moment.

      The reflection from one of our priests was about “grace through reconciliation” that the painting and parable of the prodigal son inspired in him. It began, “When we are honest, open and willing to allow the spirit to touch us, a grace of healing can be felt and experienced.”

      Looking at that detail and reading those words made me recognize the type of homecoming I’m seeking at this stage in my life. I realized that the search for and attempts to build home in my recent past had been very self-directed. Home then involved erecting walls to keep me safe within. I found, however, that loss and pain and grief cannot be kept at bay with walls.

      Having lost one of my own adult sons who I pray is resting eternally in the Father’s embrace, I now realize that I too must seek my Father’s embrace. I think when I step beyond the walls and I feel the strong yet gentle touch of the Father’s hands upon my shoulders the healing will begin.

      I can picture myself in the place of the younger son, kneeling before my father, relieved and redeemed and encompassed by his unending love.

      • Sr.Josephine Berchmans FMM says:

        Thanks Christine for commenting on mine and sharing your reflection.It is so true when we realize the Father’s embrace”there is complete relief and sense of safety”. This is what I have been graced to experience after this illness and prolonged hospitalization.
        My prayers are with you. May the Father of all mercies bring you out of the walls of seeming safety into his unconditional and loving embrace.
        God Bless!

    • Twyla says:

      Sister Josephine,
      I shall be praying for you dear one .
      May you Feel Jesus Love all over the place, wherever you are ~!!

      • Sr.Josephine Berchmans FMM says:

        How very supportive of you Twyla for offering me your loving prayer. I feel strengthened. May the good Lord and hold you in his gentle embrace.
        I live in South India.

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