Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The St. Peter's Summer Read: Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Parable of Homecoming" - The Elder Son and the Bitter Pill

It isn't easy being the elder sibling. The hardships and tensions of that role cascade from being the one who must trail-blaze, to being the one who must be the "good" one...at least that is the way it works for most children. The reality is that a great deal is projected onto the role of first born that demands a kind of deportment that other siblings tend to be able to decline. "You are the oldest, act like it!" Don't forget to take your younger brother or sister with you!" "I would have expected more from you...." Those tapes loop continually in the heads of the elder children, and while most brace against the duty, there is also a deep awareness that we have been born to it, and that we should be good enough to live fully into those roles projected upon us.

The down side is that we seldom live up to those roles...and that the failures we experience inside often occlude the ones that are projected upon us. When we fail, which we try to avoid, we fail big and in the public eye. On top of that, being held responsible for our own conduct and the conduct of our younger siblings, we often draw double portions of frustration over shortcomings. We see that in the posture, presentation and deportment of the way Rembrandt paints the elder brother from the parable. We see it in the parable with the elder son's struggle to swallow the bitter pill of his younger brother's return.

Nouwen draws sharp parallels between the figures of the father and the elder son in the painting. Looking at them in contrast, he notes that they carry many similarities in appearance, even while at the same time demonstrating dramatic dissimilarities in deportment. The father's robe, the same rich red that the elder son wears, is thrown wide even as the elder son's hangs flat. This is caused by how they hold their arms. The father's flare outward to embrace the returning, younger son. The elder's hangs flat, as his hands are clasped in front of him, with his staff held as a ward and his hands folded to demonstrate his reluctance to join a scene in which he is a participant.

They have the same beard, the same face; though they inhabit different ages and stand on either side of the partition that every generation experiences over and against others. The light that emanates from the father only reflects from the elder son, and it is important to note that the light only strikes his face and chest, while the rest of him is in shadow. Nouwen draws our attention to this in order to illustrate to aspects of the painting that cannot be without comment: the first is that the elder son never is a witness to the reunion in the parable; and the second is that his wholesale rejection of not only his brother but also now his father is much more profound and painful in the parable than even Rembrandt intends to depict.

Nouwen reminds us of the profundity of the conflict that the elder brother is going through, and points out that his conflict does not resolve in the parable. The elder is present to the reunion in the painting, even as he expresses his frustration and probity at the reunion; but in the parable he is still standing out there in the dark while the celebration, warm and bright, unfolds inside the home.

The elder brother reminds us of the deep complexity of roles that come with being a member family in which siblings wind up playing roles in the dramas just because of birth order and their relative position in the social orbits of the whole structure of the family system. His role is to observe, struggle and reject....so we can see refracted through him the ways we, too, judge and reject when reconciliation would seem to be the best path forward. He shows us what being stuck really looks like, and at the same time inspires us to remember that the embrace of reconciliation is not just a light switch that takes us from rejection to acceptance. Sometimes, it takes a longer process that entails great struggle.

In many ways, the elder brother's struggle is almost more profound than that of the younger. He never left home...and yet in many ways has never known home to be the place of radical acceptance and forgiveness that his younger sibling is not enjoying in front of us.


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