I first read Nouwen when I was in my 20's, and must confess that I did not like his writing very much. Looking back now, I think it was a combination of two factors for which I now acknowledge that our disconnect then was entirely creditable to my own immaturity and lack of empathy for his own personal journey. He, as a writer and as a spiritual pilgrim, was always ready to go a little deeper, risk a little more and seek a wider perspective than most of us are...and he made that effort a part of his daily practice, both in work and in life.
What that means is that for a young man who was only just beginning to life an examined life, his depth of self-reflection posed a threat to my own personal narcissism and his self-journeying struck a hard dissonance against my own clanging gong of self discovery and personal exploration/proclamation that often walks hand-in-hand with vocational discernment (particularly when undertaken at the age at which I began the experience). Now, in middle age (or at the beginning of it, as some would argue), I am walking in shoes that fit a little differently, and I wear the garment of my life in a slightly looser cut. Nouwen's writings, particularly this volume, speak more profoundly to me of his deep and probing honesty as he stands before us and God to offer up his struggles to be at home in God, in himself and alongside his fellow human beings.
His attraction to the painting on which this book is based is both testament and imprimatur to his willingness to swim boldly into deep waters. Over the next few weeks, I invite you to join in our journey through this text.
We begin today with the first steps he took on his pilgrimage with Rembrandt's painting and depiction of Jesus' parable of the Return of the Prodigal. With that effort, I will ask that you hold two apposite images at hand through this reflection: the first of the parable itself and the second is a painter's depiction of it. They are both "the same" and at the same time "different" in that we are going to have two reactions, perforce, to the tale and they depend on what we are seeing, and what we are hearing. We see the painting, and we hear the story...and with those two senses we move more closely to a third dimension of experience to the story of the Return of the Prodigal....our persona reaction to both.
Three experiences drawn up into each other...the Gospel story, the image and our experience. Nouwen invites us to sit down and listen, sit down and see....and then sit down and reflect. The invitation is both explicit and intentional. We cannot rush by this drama as it happens, and as harbinger of our relationship to God, to self and to other it is always happening, in and all around us.
The Bible story of a son who demands his share of what will be his when his father dies is a scandal. His wasting of that legacy is an insult to injury. His misery is tragic (and perhaps by our judgmental-ism...justified?). His resolve is provocative....and the reception given him by father, brother and (in the painting) the observers is a revelation....and all of it prompts us to reflect on our lives as we live, make choices and encourage or abuse our personal relationships.
The painting by Rembrandt is a beautiful testament to the complexity of the story. The skill of the painter (and the ability of Nouwen to illustrate his experience of that skill) challenges us to embrace the plastic and ever-shifting play of light, perspective and experience that sustained viewing of a single moment can provoke in us. Keep your eyes on this image, both the ones with which you look at the world and those in your heart by which you ponder God at work in it. As well, take your time to sit with Nouwen as he weaves his journey into his later life's chapters with those in his book.
All of us are on a journey in this life. the challenge is to find the right pace with which to engage its challenges. We must at once find the ability to keep moving, but to do so at a pace that allows us to walk mindfully in such a way as to allow God to reveal to us meaning in experience. That is something my 20 year old self failed to do the first time around. Let it be our common goal this time!