July 5th to 11th: Chapter 4 – Response to The Return of the Prodigal Son & Chapter 5 – Living the Painting

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.

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

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10 Responses to July 5th to 11th: Chapter 4 – Response to The Return of the Prodigal Son & Chapter 5 – Living the Painting

  1. Charlie T says:

    May God continue to bless you Marge.

  2. Elaine M says:

    A few random thoughts about these chapters:

    1. I was not surprised to read that Henri’s now most beloved book resonated with so many people who had been made to feel unworthy or tentative about God’s mercy. I am afraid that many of us of a certain age had had at least a dose of this message about an authoritarian God of justice in our earlier religious upbringing. Over the years, both Henri and two wonderful spiritual advisors have helped me to get beyond this kind of limited, negative thinking and to embrace the kind of generous, loving, God that Henri finds in Rembrandt’s depiction of the father (Father.)

    2. I was pleasantly surprised to see Hillary Rodham Clinton’s reference to the “discipline” of gratitude. It is so true that the frustrations, worries, and busy-ness of daily life might so absorb us and exhaust us so that we fail to appreciate the beauty of a sunrise, a butterfly, the aroma of fresh bread (and the sustenance of our daily Bread), or even a random act of kindness–all little sacramental signs of God’s abiding love and goodness. To become a faithful “disciple” of the school of gratefulness would be a worthy life-long endeavor. So interesting that a spirit of gratitude might require that degree of “discipline”—but so worth the effort and attention.

    3. I am struck by this sentence: “He [Henri] wrote back IMMEDIATELY [to a heartbroken architect who had reached out to him.]” Though on sabbatical, Henri was nevertheless available to someone in need. Later at Daybreak, Henri made himself even more accessible to that community. As Wendy Lyman said, Henri’s “whole being became compassion.” I was especially struck by the scene when Janet’s call for a special blessing opened the floodgates for a slew of other similar requests, and Henri, of course, complied.

    4. I never had a problem with the gender references in the story of the prodigal son. As an adult I have been able to see the maternal side of a loving God, largely through the stories of the people Jesus touched physically, of Jesus’ concern that people be fed and provided for, physically and spiritually. Since many people’s experience of “father” has been that of disciplinarian or authority figure, this story of a MAn who defies the authoritarian male stereotype with his gentleness and expansive love is way more affecting than a story that defines manhood as power and self-assertion—and more striking than the story of a woman who would welcome home a prodigal son.

    5. In much of the “real” world, many institutions may not have been so patient with Henri’s need to seek respite from his daily ministerial duties to attend to his mental health or to go on a writing sabbatical. In a sense, Daybreak and Sister Sue in particular did serve as the understanding father who provided nurturing, acceptance, and gentle, unconditional love as Henri struggled to find a sense of “home” and to eventually assume his own role as father. Right now as a volunteer for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, I meet so many people who feel estranged from their families, who doubt that their families can ever forgive them or even acknowledge them, who are either angry that their fathers have summarily dismissed them or wallowing in despair that they are indeed too worthless to be welcomed home. Such people certainly need our prayers!

    • Sharon K. Hall says:

      I appreciate reading the comments on this blog and was especially struck by your observation, Elaine, about a “MAn who defies the authoritarian male stereotype with his gentleness and expansive love is way more affecting than a story that defines manhood as power and self-assertion–and more striking than the story of a woman who would welcome home a prodigal son.” I concur and can honestly attest that my relationships with my own father and with my husband and with men in general have been seriously helped out because have met some men along the line who have been MAn(s) who defied the authoritarian male stereotype and had that gentleness and expansive love as a corrective to the stereotypical behaviors and attitudes of the patriarchal culture that anyway my upbringing enmeshed me in. Thanks for contributing your observation on this.

    • marge says:

      Thank you, Elaine…what you say may be random thoughts, I find not random at all! Thank you for sharing how the Holy Spirit is surfacing, appearing in and through you…….grateful, especially for lifting out “immediately”….

  3. Charlie T says:

    I was very moved by the experiences of the community members asking for and receiving blessings from Henri (pp. 130-31). The descriptions left me with an embodied and heartfelt sense of Henri having truly become the Father in the painting. What an extraordinary and deeply sincere and compassionate blessing and embrace he gave, softening and opening their hearts and beings profoundly.

    I recall a time when I received an unexpected yet deeply sincere and compassionate blessing by the spiritual director of an inter-spiritual seminary program that I was participating in at the time. I won’t repeat her two simple words as I want to protect them. But in an instant my heart softened noticeably and I felt like I had made my own return home into the arms and embrace of a beloved, loving and accepting parent who was so delighted to see me and have me home. It truly was a transcendent experience, triggering tears of joy, sadness and loss.

    Remembering and reflecting on this experience has left me pondering what I might be able to do to offer deeply sincere blessings to others.

  4. marge says:

    For me, a consistent, constant theme throughout this reading is one of reconciliation – on many different, diverse levels of human existence. I’m surprised and grateful!

    Even as I read Nouwen’s journal entry, p. 131, reconciling “a familiar wound…as a gateway to my salvation, a door to glory, and a passage to freedom. I am aware that this wound of mine in a gift in disguise.” (Sabbatical Journey)

    This morning I read Acts 10….and made a correlation with Peter, telling Cornelius to “Stand up; I, too, am a man.” (V.26, ESV) it’s almost as if I can hear Henri (so relatable) speaking….and giving the strong witness of II Corinthians 12:9 “My Grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”

    I’m also reminded of Ecclesiastes 3:11 “He has made everything beautiful in it’s time. Also, He has put eternity into man’s heart….” thus, I think I will always experience a similar restlessness until eternity’s fullness (home) is realized.

    Until then, this read challenges me with the thought that reconciliation is always in the works, in response to and living the daily…….reconciled to reconcile takes on new freshness and desire to stay current in the here and now. My guess is those areas when I feel most resistance are actually “gateways, doors, passages, invitations” to God’s transforming power, as Nouwen so vividly portrays through the canvas of words and worlds of thoughts, emotions, relationships, struggles, choices, etc…….thank you!

  5. Michelle E says:

    I really appreciate Earnshaw’s recognition that Henri’s spiritual adventure “couldn’t take him all the way” (131). While reading Earnshaw’s book, I have been re-reading The Return of the Prodigal Son, this time with a relatively new awareness that I remain stuck in childhood in many ways. Though I have grown children myself, there is a part of me that longs to be loved, protected, and cared for as a child. And there are times I find myself running away from love, or standing apart and separate from others, nursing an inner resentment. I also have resisted being generous and loving like the Father because I have felt as if I need to receive my just due first, and the fear of feeling the loneliness of being misunderstand or of having to wait for an embrace dampens my desire to bless others. Knowing that Henri was “still on his way home” provides comfort for me. It reminds me that this is a journey and that it is okay to struggle, just like Henri, as long as I know where I am going and hold tight to the fact that I am God’s beloved (132).

  6. Sharon K. Hall says:

    These two chapters too were thoroughly interesting and definitely are leading me in different direction of reflection than I had expected. It’s been a long time since I read The Return of the Prodigal Son and now, with my new questions, I am intent on rereading it. Also have just ordered from amazon With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life. My life has involved a need I feel for reconciliation between the Catholicism of my father and the Protestantism of my mother and somehow my path crossed with a Franciscan parish here in town. For a while I was allowed to take communion but a Sister and some others felt that was wrong and I should make a decision for Catholic or Protestant and not try to straddle both. But I couldn’t or would not deny the faith formation in both. Also, for past two years the Protestant church my husband and I belong to has had a transitional Pastor and she has been leading the congregation by incorporating parts of the liturgies of communion partners so I’ve been having a lot of difficulty watching liturgy diverge in both congregations. Blessings and sacramentals have become very, very important to me and I have read considerable about theology and so forth of them and also have quite a number of books for Eucharistic Adoration. Used to use the word “blessing” sort of casually because it seemed like such a sweet word to say to people but now I use it rather sparingly and am more likely to point someone who has need to the Church and to the Priests. Really enjoyed reading all the things about Henri Nouwen and blessings!!!!! I am finding I can live on blessings, sacramentals, Eucharistic Adoration and Protestant communion informed by my deeper understanding and belief in Jesus’ meal with His disciples in the Upper Room. I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow or the day after or even next year in the Church but I’m with this statement, “Nouwen shows us that what matters most is that we claim over and over to walk the path toward home. We may struggle for the rest of our lives, but we know where we are going and we know whose and what we are: a beloved child of God.” Henri’s books and Gabrielle’s book surely have strengthened me for the journey and I look forward to the final part of the discussion.

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