A few years ago now I sat through an Advent Quiet Day that focused on Henri Nouwen’s book about the parable of the prodigal son.
I was very impressed that a man, not usually found leading quiet days, but for whom I felt great respect for the depth and sensitivity of his observations, was leading it.
And I grew even more impressed as he took on each of the three roles expressed in the parable and dressed himself up, so to speak, in each one’s part of the play. I couldn’t imagine myself doing that, considering myself as each one, each different one: the casting-off, cast-off younger son; the open-hearted, open-handed father; the self-absorbed, whining older brother.
That is a lot of personas to find in oneself.
As I sat there in the blissful quietness, I didn’t think of myself as any one of the boys. Instead, I imagined myself as the mother.
Absent from the story, invisible, no doubt working hard to oversee that the feast preparations were going according to plan, that everything was working right in her world.
I wondered what her take on all of it was.
Did she take any one of the boys’ positions? Did she understand the waywardness of some youth, and understood even more how her son had come to the end of his rope and needed to be tucked into his own bed once again?
Or did she celebrate in her heart along with her husband, singing songs of joy drowned out by the din of a frenzied kitchen?
Or did she grouse under her breath that her older son was being shafted by a lazy, scurrilous sibling and had no right to have the household turned upside down with the celebration of his return?
Not surprisingly, I didn’t think any of those.
Why agree with someone else when you can have your own mind, if only in the privacy of your own heart, as your sweat drips down onto the resisting, inflating dough under your gnarled hands?
As I contemplated on the mother, I wondered if she, indeed, would be the most practical of all and, considering the situation, wonder at her husband’s lack of confrontation of his wayward son. I imagine that she would want her son to have to apologize, to make amends to his father and family, to earn the forgiveness that was being so openly and freely given away, as though it meant nothing.
She was, after all, the one that made sure everything in the house ran smoothly. Shouldn’t emotions run smoothly, also? Shouldn’t grown boys have to pay their own way, even after throwing their inheritance away? Or, most especially, after having thrown it all away.
She couldn’t do that in her household. She couldn’t throw away all the flour in her storehouse and expect her staff to make bread the next day.
Are children so different than loaves of bread, she wondered?
Don’t they need to be kneaded, turned, left alone to rise, and cooked tenderly so that their best is expressed?
Or did her tears join with the drops of sweat that dropped onto the worktable below her?
Did she grieve that her son, her blessed little one, who had been gone from her for so long, without a word, without knowing how he was, if, even he was dead, had not come first to her kitchen and held her in his arms, cooing in her ear how much he had missed the special pudding she always made for him on his birthday? How he had dreamt of her holding his head while he was ill. How she had made sure all his seams held strong.
Was she crushed because she had, in the end, no role in the story? That she had to stand so far to the side that no one noticed her. That she ceased to exist in that most precious and stupendous moment.
Where am I? Who am I? What am I now?
Had I the ability to play a trick with time and sit through this Advent Quiet Day again, today, I would imagine it differently, I think.
Today, I would like to be the boy. Ragged and hungry. Dragging my feet.
Expecting a slap, at best. Worse in my imagination.
But at least contact. A touch.
I would like to be forgiven.
I would like to be surprised by love. By joy.
I would like to be welcomed home.