Reading: Chapter 6 – The Enduring Power of The Return of the Prodigal Son
This book is for us what the painting was for Nouwen. . . .Reading The Return of the Prodigal Son is to be introduced to ourselves. Nouwen introduces us to our own depth. (p. 140)
We have come to the final week of another enriching book discussion. Thanks to each of you who have joined us along the way. I’m especially grateful that those of you who are regular participants in these discussions have responded positively to the scholarly and personal insights Gabrielle Earnshaw gleaned from her years immersed in Henri’s life and work. I know that her carefully crafted book deepened my understanding of Henri Nouwen and that appears to be the case for a number of you as well.
This week Gabrielle reminds us that both Henri Nouwen and his fellow Dutchman Rembrandt completed their masterful reflections on the Prodigal Son a few short years before they died at age 64 and 63 respectively. She perceptively writes, “The power of both works derives from their creators’ difficult lives of struggle, as well as their artistic maturity. The painting and the book are spiritual testaments to hard-won wisdom.” Gabrielle applies Nouwen’s wisdom to several timely themes and illuminates why The Return of the Prodigal Son continues to touch the hearts of people who may feel lost and are seeking the compassionate love of the Father in our challenging world today.
As we conclude our discussion, you are invited to comment on the reading this week or in any of the earlier chapters. As before, here are a few excerpts and questions that my prompt you.
Both Nouwen and Rembrandt were masters of self-portraits. . . Yet what set these works apart as masterpieces is portraiture of a different kind–God’s. (p. 137) Has your picture (or portrait) of God changed as a result of insights gained from reading this book and reflecting on the portraits painted by our two artists?
The Return of the Prodigal Son is the story of Nouwen’s journey from a needy, anxious university professor into a needy, anxious pastor, but he has grown in consciousness. (p. 139) Are there things you may have learned about Henri’s journey that may assist you on your own? Please share to the extent you are comfortable.
Drawing on her comprehensive research and “living with” Henri for many years, Gabrielle invites us to consider her personal observations on Father Figures and Toxic Masculinity and A Both/And God. How do you respond to these ideas? Are there implications for your life and spirituality?
With (Henri’s) example, we can be emboldened to take our own flights of courage and grace. We, too, can risk it all when we trust in God’s forgiving love. (p. 148) What holds you back from trusting in God’s forgiving love? What must you do take to take flights of courage and grace?
This Thursday, July 16th, author Gabrielle Earnshaw will respond to any questions or comments you may wish to address to her directly. If you have questions or comments for Gabrielle, submit them as usual, preferably by Wednesday night. They will be posted when submitted. Gabrielle will respond to those questions and comments throughout the day on Thursday.
Once again, thanks to all of you for making our 2020 summer book discussion an interesting, rewarding, and fruitful experience. We look forward to welcoming you back for this Advent to discuss another book by Henri Nouwen. We will announce our selection by early-October on our website and in the Daily Meditations email.
Reading: Chapter 4 – Response to The Return of the Prodigal Son & Chapter 5 – Living the Painting
In 1999, it may have been considered a “hidden treasure” but by 2011 it was cited in 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to Essential Spiritual Classics.(p. 116)
We have had such thoughtful and rich sharing throughout this discussion, and it’s wonderful to see so many of our regular participants contributing. I’m glad we were able to consider Henri’s work from a different perspective this summer.
This week we look first at the initial response to The Return of the Prodigal Son and how it changed over time. Then we consider how Henri “lived the painting” both at Daybreak and in his writing. Gabrielle presents what the late American radio broadcaster Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.” In these two chapters, Gabrielle takes us inside Henri’s daily activities as a writer and advocate for his books and his life as the beloved pastor at Daybreak.
As always, we are most interested in hearing what touched you in the reading this week. I would encourage you to reflect on how your perception and understanding of Henri may have changed based on what you read. Here are a few ideas that might prompt your thinking.
It was not the critics selling The Return of the Prodigal Son; it was the readers. The book had an underground buzz–with readings finding and buying it for each other. (p. 106) Gabrielle substantiated this statement by quoting from some of the many letters Henri received from his readers. How does the response of Henri’s readers expressed in these letters compare to how you felt when you read the book and the impact it may have had on your life?
Nouwen had found home and intended to stay there. He understood that part of being the father was to be present to his community. (p. 125) Gabrielle quotes long-term assistant Mary Bastedo to show us Henri’s life inside Daybreak during his final years. What are your thoughts on Henri’s spiritual adventure and transformation through his encounter with the painting and his life at Daybreak?
Janet raised her head and looked at him. Her beaming smile told him that she had received the blessing. . . . Finally, one of the assistants, a twenty-four-year-old college student, raised his hand and asked, “And what about me?” ( p. 130) Gabrielle tells the poignant story of Henri “blessing” members of his community. Have you ever received such a blessing? What can you do to share a blessing with others?
Nouwen’s spiritual adventure started with the Rembrandt painting, but it couldn’t take him all the way. Our hero, our friend, our guide is still in the struggle. (p. 131) You might consider how the struggling Henri has helped you in your struggle. Share to the extent you are comfortable.
We look forward to hearing from you. If you are following along silently, we are glad you’re here. Finally, a reminder. As we conclude our discussion next week Gabrielle Earnshaw will join us to answer your questions. May the Lord give you peace. Ray
The Prodigal Son manuscript is in my humble opinion, not only your best book so far, but also a classic. It captures something so universal and profound that it is truly a book for every person. (p. 81) – Sr. Sue Mosteller to Henri, 1990
Thanks to each of you for another week of fruitful sharing. Now we are ready to move into the heart of Gabrielle’s book, to understand the process Henri used to write what Sr. Sue Mosteller presciently identified as a spiritual classic after reading his draft.
Based on her exhaustive research in the archives and conversations with those directly involved, Gabrielle Earnshaw powerfully conveys that the writing of The Return of the Prodigal Son cannot be separated from the life-changes, emotional and physical trauma and struggles, and painful and affirming personal relationships that occurred over the book’s nine-year gestation. She provides new insight into Henri’s deep depression and recovery that allowed him to find a real home at L’Arche and ultimately resulted in his most influential work. As Henri himself wrote in 1987, “I am sitting in this small room far away from L’Arche trying to live through the experience of being completely lost. . . I want to write about this painting and the story it portrays.” (p. 69)
Gabrielle provides an in-depth look into Henri’s life and writing process during these crucible years, including his struggles and recovery, and the crucial role played by Sr. Sue Mosteller, CSJ — a close friend of Nouwen’s and a distinguished leader of L’Arche who was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2019. Highlighting this chapter are several never-before published letters between Henri and Sr. Sue illuminating her influence on Henri’s life and the resulting book. “She was his new ‘father figure,’ but of a very different kind.” (p. 67)
The is so much in this rich chapter for our reflection. As always, we are most interested in whatever thoughts and insights came to your mind from the reading. Here are several excerpts and questions you might choose to consider.
This encounter. . . mediated through pigments and canvas was not just research. It was communication. It was as if the painting created a portal for a relationship that bridged time and space. (p. 64) Gabrielle calls this an encounter between Nouwen and Rembrandt. Was it really? Or was it an encounter between Nouwen and God, with Rembrandt in addition to the pigments and canvas as the mediator? Or was it both?
Sue Mosteller. . . played the key role in his restoration to health. Indeed, much of Nouwen’s later contentment at Daybreak can be traced back to Mosteller. (p. 67) Sue wrote to Henri in 1988, “What I want to say is for you and your life today, where you are. I believe so much that the picture was given to you for your life and perhaps later for your writing. . . You have really “found yourself” more deeply there than anywhere. (p. 69) Henri Nouwen and Sue Mosteller share what Fr. Ron Rolheiser calls Real Friendship. In his book Domestic Monastery Rolheiser writes, “Friendship is more than merely human, though it is wonderfully human. When it is genuine, friendship is nothing less than a participation in the flow of life and love that’s inside of God.” Reflect on the friendship between Henri and Sue, her role as the “compassionate father” in Henri’s life, and how she helped Henri and Nathan to heal their relationship. Share your insights.
In a letter to Daybreak leadership, Henri writes, I am deeply convinced that my writing about the Prodigal Son is for L’Arche and for Daybreak and is only possible because of my being part of this community. (p. 79) Why do you think Henri feels this way? How does he show it?
The new theme that consumed him in 1992 was “being the beloved,” as explored in his book Life of the Beloved, published the same year as The Return. . . (p. 88) Gabrielle calls these still popular works “sister books.” How is theme of being the beloved related to story of the father and his two sons?
The Return of the Prodigal Son shares many characteristics of the publishing zeitgeist of the early 1990s. . . But as much as it tapped into popular themes, (it) was not a runaway bestseller when it first appeared. . . In some ways, (it) was for people who had read the other books and were still hurting, confused, and/or searching for peace. (p. 101) How is the The Return of the Prodigal Son different from other books of the time? Why has it retained its relevance for three decades while other seemingly more popular books have been forgotten?
We look forward to hearing whatever you choose to share.
May the Lord give you peace. Ray
P.S. Looking ahead to the final week of our discussion — Gabrielle Earnshaw will be joining us for the final chapter and a look back at the entire book. She will be pleased to answer your questions as well. You won’t want to miss it.