Desire to be forgiven

In 1986, Henri Nouwen visited the Hermitage Museum in what was then Leningrad in the Soviet Union. It was his dearest wish to spend some hours contemplating the Rembrandt painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son. Thanks to connections with a director of the museum he was able to do so. As he sat for some hours he noted how the emphasis of the painting seemed to subtly alter as the light changed. Returning after lunch, he came up against the obduracy of Russian bureaucracy as he dared first to move the chair to avoid the glare of sunlight, then to sit on the floor and then the radiator, none of which was permitted by the security guard. Then his friend brought him a grand armchair placed it right beside the painting and told the guard not to bother him. At the end Henri tried to thank the guard, and he said ‘as I looked into his eyes under the large Russian cap, I saw a man like myself: afraid, but with a great desire to be forgiven. From his beardless young face came a very gentle smile. I smiled too, and the two of us felt safe.’

Henri Nouwen wrote a popular book about his reflections on Rembrandt’s painting, it is a journey of self-discovery, as he identifies with the three characters of the story.The parable of the prodigal son may speak to us in different ways at different stages of our lives. There may have been times when we have identified with the younger son, or the elder son or the father. Henri Nouwen saw that the destiny of the Christian is to pass through the stages of being like either son and become the Father, for if we can become like the Father of the story, we will be acting like our Father in heaven.

To be like the younger son, is to be impetuous, not to listen to any advice except our own. The younger son lacks the experience of life, he is unwise. We may well have been like him when we were young. It is hard for a loving parent to let go of grown-up children, to let them live their own lives, make their own mistakes, and still be there for them when needed. It is not just the young who behave like the prodigal son. We can all feel the lure of the distant country, to seek pleasure and shun responsibilities, to fall into old ways of sin.

But the younger brother is not completely stupid, because he does not wallow in his misery, he recognizes how foolish he has been and he resolves to do something about it. He does not seek to turn the clock back to how things were before he left, he just intends to admit his mistake and ask to be treated like a servant. The eureka moment, starving hungry, worse off than the full-bellied pigs, is pivotal. Without recognizing his mistakes, without setting off back home, there would be no chance of redemption. There was a risk, the finding has the losing in the background, the returning has the leaving under its cloak.

The elder son, is also lost, though he does not recognize it. He is lost in bitter resentment. He has worked hard and been a good and faithful son, but he is joyless. He cannot celebrate with his Father the return of his lost brother. Joy and resentment cannot exist together. How easy it is to sink into complaining ways, to always find the negative and never the positive. There is no love in the elder son’s outburst.

Henri Nouwen described how hard it was for him to leave behind the ‘land of his anger.’ Henri had always resented the fact that his father appeared to love his younger brothers more than him. After being run over by a car, he lay close to death in hospital but was blessed with a eureka moment: that  he would not be able to die as long as he still held on to the complaint of not being loved enough by his father. After his father flew from Holland to America to see him, he was able to thank his father for the love he had never appreciated. His Father was surprised and puzzled, but received his words with understanding and a smile.

He saw this as a true return from a false dependence on a human father who could not give him all he needed to a true dependence on the divine father who says, ‘you are with me always and all I have is yours,’ the one whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger and makes us free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.

Nouwen concluded that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story that speaks of a love that existed before any rejection was possible, and that will be there after all rejections have taken place. It is a love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate.