June 28th to July 4th: Chapter 3 – The Writing Process

Reading: Chapter 3 – The Writing Process

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

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.

9 Replies to “June 28th to July 4th: Chapter 3 – The Writing Process”

  1. I believe the painting was an invitation from God to Henri which was for his own healing. He had to see the original to fully accept. I think that’s why he ultimately chose to join the trip; he was drawn there by the Holy Spirit. The painting truly was a portal. Henri entered it as the son, but came out as the father.

  2. “The poor in spirit are given to us for our conversion” (p. 65). As teachers of profoundly handicapped children, my daughters have seen the “spiritual gifts” their students have to offer: their lack of inhibition with bear hugs and sloppy kisses, their unabated fascination with and curiosity about small details the rest of us may be too busy to attend to (a cricket on the classroom floor, playing with their shadow, my own wrinkled hands), their dogged determination to learn to cross the room in their walker or to eat whipped cream with a straw. Many of their parents, despite the huge challenges of raising such a child and the heartbreak of knowing they will most likely not have careers or marry or reach the milestones of other kids, still seem able to revel in their humor and the purity of their love. I see in my daughters an ever growing sense of compassion, patience, a commitment to social justice for the poor, and a respect for the human dignity of “the least of our brethren.” I think I have always been drawn to Henri because he saw the beloved in the L’Arche community in much the same way. How humbling for the author and Ivy League professor to learn it and live it from people with arms open wide, giving Henri the opportunity to leave this home multiple times and still always willing to keep the door open and rejoice in his return.

  3. The sincere, intimate and deep friendship between Henri and Sue seemed like it was “…nothing less than a participation in the flow of life and love that’s inside of God”.
    In her communications and interactions with Henri she presents as an extraordinary friend, as a spiritual companion / counsellor and as a compassionate mother (rather than father) in his life. As a mother / parent she reminded me of our Holy Mother Mary, showing genuine and unconditional love for him, as well as warmth, affection, care, protection, encouragement and hope. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Sue was able to do this more than his biological mother during his formative years, given the approaches to parenting and child-rearing within his culture at the time.

    Furthermore, Sue was able to see something emerging in Henri that she was inviting and encouraging him to see: “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..…You begin to KNOW who you are from a very deep place and you begin to claim it and stand up and to live from there. I guess I just want to ask you if, in fact, you are not almost there?” (p.69).

    Their friendship was truly beautiful, nurturing and nourishing. They were very fortunate to be able to experience each other in such a deeply intimate manner.

    Finally, I don’t know how Sue helped Henri and Nathan to heal their relationship or what this conflict was about, but I would love to know more about who Nathan Ball was and what occurred between Henri and Nathan, as this relationship is mentioned many times in the book. Can anyone assist me with this?

    1. Charlie,
      Here is how Henri described the breakdown of his friendship in The Return of the Prodigal Son.
      “A few years ago, I, myself, was very concretely confronted with the choice: to return or not to return. A friendship that at first seemed promising and life-giving gradually pulled me farther away from home until I found myself completely obsessed by it. In a spiritual sense, I found myself squandering all I had been given by my father to keep the friendship alive. I couldn’t pray any longer. I had lost interest in my work and found it increasingly hard to pay attention to other people’s concerns. As much as I realized how self-destructive my thoughts and actions were, I kept being drawn by my love-hungry heart to deceptive ways of gaining a sense of self-worth. Then, when finally the friendship broke down completely, I had to choose between destroying myself or trusting that the love I was looking for did, in fact exist. . . back home! (p. 49-50) (Ray’s note: For Henri, our “home” is the active presence of God at the center of our living, or in our “heart”.)

      Gabrielle provides more context in her book writing, “Nouwen had gradually become obsessed with it. (Nathan) Ball began to feel claustrophobic and cut off all contact between them.” (p. 65). She continues, “With the help of Mosteller, and his own commitment to finding a way to share community life together with Nathan Ball, he (Henri) was able to return. Not as the prodigal son, but as an important member of the community. He was welcomed home.” (p. 74). Nathan as community leader and Henri as pastor worked closely together to faithfully serve the L’Arche community until Henri’s untimely death.

      A final thought: In September 1996, Nathan Ball visited Henri in the Netherlands where he was hospitalized after a heart attack. Henri’s last known words were to Nathan the night before he suffered a second and fatal heart attack, “I think I’m going to be OK, but if I die, tell everyone I’m grateful. I’m enormously grateful. You tell them that.”


      1. Hi Ray

        Thank you so much for your reply. Background context enriches what is read. I am looking forward to reading Henri’s book. It should arrive any day now.

        Warmest regards, Charlie

  4. In this chapter, I am drawn to Earnshaw’s comparison between Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love and Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. She notes that both books highlight how self-rejection affects our relationship with God and the healing power of love, but from two very different places. Williamson firmly believes that love conquers all, which was a popular message at a time when people were seeking the positive effects of self-transformation. Nouwen, by contrast, speaks plainly that suffering remains but that “we continue to live it differently because of God’s love” (95).

    I think that Nouwen’s genius is that he recognized that we cannot fix ourselves; rather, we need to return to the “God who is seeking us while we are doing the hiding” (94). So, whereas various self-help books have come and gone, The Return of the Prodigal Son remains a genuine spiritual classic because it holds a timeless, yet deeply relevant, message: It is only in recognizing our suffering and need for God that we come to truly love ourselves (102). Knowing that I am loved as I am, wounded and seriously flawed, transforms my own self-rejection into a deeper acceptance of the beloved I am created and called to be. I am grateful that Nouwen, through this particular “real help” book and his own vulnerable sharing, continues to pave the path of true transformation for me.

  5. I want to add, I am particularly impacted by Sue’s writing to Nathan and Henri, p. 73, third complete paragraph….reconciliation, and I am returning again and again to “We want churches to remember and welcome membership in the Broken Body of Jesus.” What happens when we forget and are disillusioned by the many “divisions everywhere that are cause of such deep and profound sufferings.”?

    May God grant me, “space to hear the truth of the other.” , whoever he or she may be.

  6. I am so grateful for this chapter! As I recuperate after hip surgery, I find it helpful and therapeutic to piece jigsaw puzzles together. This chapter brought so many pieces together for me. I have often pondered how the times we (I) live in and through, in relation to persons we (I) share life with, shapes us (me) and and influences how we (I) see and experience my place, my faith in the world. Certainly none of us live in isolation!

    I was delighted for the mention of Madeleine L’Engle, her book, “Certain Women”! While I gained courage to see and accept myself in her writing, Nouwen gave me courage to see and embrace my soul.

    It’s easier for me to think in soul terms with my special needs grandson, Henry, and my friends who lived Alzheimer’s……when life is stripped of all the usual ways of being and doing….”changing our (my) perception of our (my) imperfections and wounds…….Nouwen doesn’t proclaim. He encourages, suggests, invites.” (p. 101) Kind of like what you do, Ray, in facilitating, asking questions….

    So grateful for this offering, how Gabrielle’s “behind the scenes” offers such a perceptive, trustworthy “wholeness” for me, in a similar way that, perhaps, Sue M. provided for Henri…as my friends do for me and I pray, as I do for my friends (on-line and off-line!)…mirroring the divine reality of God within, the broken body of Christ Jesus, and Holy Spirit’s ongoing comfort, counsel, and companionship.

  7. I think Rembrandt’s painting somehow became a mediating way that Henri Nouwen was able to internalize his relationship with God because of the paragraph quoted at the bottom of page 75. It is interesting to me that he was able to verbalize these feelings and thoughts before evidently any glimpse that such acceptance as he describes was possible to be realized. So many of us are wandering around, feeling a void and so forth and wondering what exactly do we feel we want? Actually, I wonder if Henri Nouwen had not found, or been found by this painting, if life would had worked out OK for him? Also, I believe him when he writes that the book is for L’Arche and for Daybreak, and is only possible because of his being part of this community. Maybe somehow being a part of the very physical and one might say unusually nurturing part of the daily lives of these vulnerable people, also being supported and cared for himself by the woman who somehow by the unusualness of her particular psychological/spiritual personality was able to fulfill for him a role as a “compassionate father figure”, plus also that the hands of the father figure in the painting are so unusually portrayed as both manly and womanly, everything is an extraordinary timeline that one can actually realistically conclude is the nature of God for all of us, before any of the creating He did and forward in eternity where all of creation is redeemed. Actually, now that I read the part where Henri Nouwen wonders if his book is “too masculine”, I find that I feel like I must go read it again because when I read the book was not at all entertaining any concerns like this. That paragraph at the bottom of page 75 is very compelling and I look forward to reading the rest of Gabrielle’s book to see more of how all of Henri Nouwen’s vision of profound acceptance and grace plays out.

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