Mar 29th to Apr 4th: 5th Week of Lent – Conclusion & Epilogue

Reading: Conclusion: Becoming the Father; Epilogue: Living the Painting (p. 120 to 139)

Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: “Be compassionate
as your Father is compassionate.” God’s compassion is described
by Jesus. . . to invite me to become like God and to show the
same compassion to others that he is showing to me. (p. 123)

Heartfelt thanks to those of you who have continued to participate in our Lenten journey, those posting comments and those remaining silent. I have been personally blessed by the warm and comforting thoughts exchanged among our virtual community during a Lent unlike any we have ever experienced.

Adapting Henri’s words that open the Conclusion and making them my own, when I found The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen for sale outside the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Singapore in 2004, a spiritual journey was set in motion that led me to where I am in my life today. (c.f. p. 120) When I first read The Return during that most difficult period in my life I was, in Henri’s words, “. . . deeply touched . . . because everything in me yearned to be received in the way the prodigal was received.” (p. 134) Reading The Return again this Lent–16 years later and for the third time as a participant in these discussions–my perspective has shifted dramatically and I better understand the challenge in the quotation above to “be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” While I remain, and we all remain, the younger son and the elder son, we are all called to become the compassionate father. And this has never been more true than it is now in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jesuit Cardinal Czerny recently tweeted, “During my years working on HIV/AIDS in Africa (2002-2010), I learned a helpful slogan ‘We are all infected or affected‘- so simple, true and challenging for the current pandemic, like the second half of the Great Commandment: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.‘” In the Conclusion and the Epilogue, Henri shows us that to live as people who are “infected or affected” we must become the compassionate Father and live the painting by “sharing the poverty of God’s non-demanding love.” (p. 138)

In words of great poignancy as we are social distancing or sheltering in place, Henri says it is the “Father’s call to be home. . . As the Father, I have to believe that all the human heart desires can be found at home (p. 132). . . . Living out this spiritual fatherhood requires the radical discipline of being home.” (p. 133). Home is where we grieve for our lost and suffering children and brothers and sisters; home is where we welcome them with forgiveness and generosity when they return.

As we come to the end of The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri ties together the threads of his spiritual journey in a way that encourages us to reflect on our lives and our call to “be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” We have another great week of sharing and discussion ahead. You are invited to share what touched your heart this week or at any time on our Lenten journey. We look forward to hearing from you.

Here are several of Henri’s ideas that might prompt your thinking.

“(W)hether I am the younger son or the elder son. I am the son of my compassionate Father. I am an heir. . . . Indeed as son and heir, I am to become a successor. . . . The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father.“(p. 123)

“(B)ecoming the compassionate Father is the ultimate goal of the spiritual life. . . . If God forgives sinners, then certainly those who have faith in God should do the same. . . . Becoming like the heavenly Father is not just one important aspect of Jesus’ teaching, it is the very heart of his message. . . . The great conversion called for by Jesus is to move from belonging to the world to belonging to God.” (p. 124-5)

“Jesus is the true Son of the Father. He is the model for our becoming the Father. . . . His unity with the Father is so intimate and so complete that to see Jesus is to see the Father. . . . In everything he is obedient to the Father, but never his slave. “(p. 126)

“As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.” (p. 139)

(I’m nearly a decade older than Henri was when The Return. . . was published. This image shows my 69-year-old hand and a detail from the poster hanging in our home.)

May the Lord be with you and give you peace.

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

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

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

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

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

Rembrandt’s masterpiece portrays a nearly-blind father “who recognizes his son, not with the eyes of the body, but with the inner touch of his heart. . . a seeing that reaches out to all humanity.” (p. 94). Henri paints a word portrait of a personal and loving father, not some distant authoritarian figure: “The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home. . . . As Father, he wants his children to be free, free to love. . . . As Father, the only authority he claims for himself is the authority of compassion. . . . Here is the God I want to believe in: (emphasis added) a Father who, from the beginning of creation has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop in despair, but always hoping that his children will return. . . His only desire is to bless.” This week you might reflect on both Rembrandt’s painting and Henri’s words, to see how together they influence your conception and understanding of the loving Father. Share what you discover.

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 15th to Mar 21st: 3rd Week of Lent – The Elder Son

Reading: Rembrandt and the Elder Son; The Elder Son Leaves; The Elder Son’s
Return (p. 59 t0 88)

Both (the younger son and the elder son) needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. . . (I)t is clear that the hardest conversion
to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home. (p. 66)

Let me begin with the words Henri Nouwen’s favorite saint, Francis of Assisi, said when greeting those he met on his journey, “May the Lord give you peace.” It is the Lord’s presence among his people that can give us peace even as we share a Lenten journey unlike any in my lifetime in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We ask that the Lord grant his peace and healing presence in a special way to the ill and suffering and to the medical professionals and others caring for them. It is a great blessing for me during this difficult season to participate in the honest and insightful discussion of The Return of the Prodigal Son that continued apace across our global community last week. This week we turn our attention to the right in Rembrandt’s painting–to the elder son.

Henri begins his reflection on The Elder Son by noting that during Rembrandt’s time “the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and the parable of the prodigal son were closely linked” (p. 63) and that the elder son represented the Pharisees and the scribes. This insight becomes an interpretive key for Henri who sees this painting “as a work that summarizes the great spiritual battle and the great choices this battle demands.” (p. 63) And what is this spiritual battle? The elder son can “choose for or against the love that is offered to him” as his younger brother already has. Henri then explores how the son who stayed home also became a lost man. “Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father.” (p. 69) Henri show us how the resentment, anger, and judgment of the elder son, like that of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time and people like us up until the present day, makes the “return” of the one who stayed home “the hardest conversion to go through.” Will the elder son choose to turn away (or convert) from his angry resentment in order to accept the Father’s love or not? Will we?

There is much to discuss this week. Please share whatever touched you in the reading to the extent you are comfortable. You might also consider replying to one or more of the following questions.

(T)he standing man looking at the father . . . is the elder son, representing the Pharisees and scribes.” (p.63) How does considering the elder son as a Pharisee or scribe influence your understanding of the parable? Does this understanding help you to see how you or someone you know might be acting as the elder son at times?

“Once the self-rejecting complaint has formed in us, we lose the spontaneity to the extent that even joy can no longer evoke joy in us. . . . Joy and resentment cannot coexist. The music and dancing, instead of inviting joy, become a cause for even greater withdrawal.” (p. 73) Have you ever experienced a situation similar to this? What was it like and how did you respond? What changes did you make in your life as a result?

Although we are incapable of liberating ourselves from our frozen anger, we can allow ourselves to be found by God. . . Trust and gratitude are the disciplines for the conversion of the elder son. (p. 84) How have you responded to feelings of resentment and chronic complaining in your life? Do you see how the disciplines of trust and gratitude might change that response?

Thanks again to each of you for sharing your Lenten journey. Each of you is a valued participant, whether you are posting comments or following along silently. You are all welcome and we’re grateful for your presence.

Blessings and be safe,