THE PRODIGAL SON: Walk With Me Into The Story by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Walk With Me Into The Story by Henri J. M. Nouwen

From Home Tonight

Read with a vulnerable heart.  Expect to be blessed in the reading.  Read as one awake, one waiting for the beloved.  Read with reverence.
(A Tree Full of Angels, by Macrina Wiederkehr)

From the outset I encouraged you to allow the Scripture story of the return of the prodigal son to descend into you – to move from your mind into your heart – so that images in this story become etched in your spirit. I trust that something new will be born in you that is very different from what happened in me; something that is yours alone.  Simply know that how you receive this parable is truly important.  The parable and the painting [Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son] are inviting you in, calling you to enter and participate as one of the characters.  Choosing to be part of the story will allow you to become conscious of new connections with your own personal life journey, so I urge you to gradually allow the story to become your own most intimate story.

Furthermore, I urge you not to walk into the story alone, just in your own name.  Rather, enter into the story in solidarity with all your brothers and sisters in the human family on Earth.  I honestly don’t say this lightly, because I truly feel that you will enter into it well if you enter in the name of all those who share your humanity.  Your desire to participate with those in the parable is not just good for you alone, but it is also good for many others because your personal life is a gift for the people immediately around you and beyond.  We know now, especially from scientific research, that you and I are are intimately related to everything and everyone in the universe.  This is an invitation, then, to see yourself right here and right now “in the name” of many brothers and sisters, believing that as something moves in you, something may also transpire in those in whose name you life.

This may be new for you, but I encourage you to imagine yourself surrounded first by family and then by loved ones, relatives, friends, acquaintances, business associates, those in your neighborhood, church, culture, continent, and world.  Perhaps some of the circles nearest you aren’t easy for you.  There are family struggles with spouses, parents, children, brothers, and sisters.  There are many painful memories and feelings around breakages, losses, and communication struggles.  Also, many other people near and far are in your consciousness; some doing well while others languish in poverty, sickness, abuse, violence, loneliness, famine refugee camps, and despair.  Bring them all around you, claim your humanity with them, never thinking or growing or speaking or acting just for yourself.

As you progressively become opened to others, allow all you choose in the most hidden places of your heart to be lived for all those who are alive and for those who have died.  Gather them and keep them around you.  You belong to every other person and to every particle of the universe.  Like a stone thrown in the water, your life has ever-widening circles of relationship surrounding it.  Enter the parable with all people in your heart.  Call them around you, identify yourself with them, and let your thinking be deeply one with them as you journey with me into the story.

As we feel the pain of our own losses, our grieving hearts open our inner eye to a world in which losses are suffered far beyond our own little world of family, friends, and colleagues.  It is the world of prisoners, refugees, AIDS patients, starving children, and the countless human beings living in constant fear.  Then the pain of our crying hearts connects us with the moaning and groaning of a suffering humanity.  Then our mourning becomes larger than ourselves. (From With Burning Hearts, by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

Throughout this book, where I often paraphrase when quoting from scripture, I write of my personal experience in the parable of the prodigal son.  If you understand my suffering and the joy out of which my words are born, you may then be able to take enough distance to say, “My life is different, but I find connections between those in the story and my story just as he did with his.”  I trust that as you engage the scriptural story you will let all my words go except what is relevant for you and your sacred relationship with God’s creative Spirit.

Since I was very young my life has been dominated by two strong voices.  The first said, “Make it in the world and be sure you can do it on your own.”  And the other voice said, “Whatever you do for the rest of your life, even if it’s not very important, be sure you hold on to the love of Jesus.”  My father was a little more inclined to say the first and my mother the second.  But the voices were strong.  “Make your mark.  Be able to show the world you can do it by yourself and that you are not afraid.  Go as far as you want to go and be a man.  Be relevant.”  And the other said, “Don’t lose touch with Jesus, who chose a very humble and simple way.  Jesus, by his life and death, will be your example for living.”

I’ve struggled because one voice seemed to be asked me for upward mobility and the other for downward mobility and I was never sure how to do both at the same time.

I suppose that being the eldest son and part of a very ambitious family, I let the voice of upward mobility quickly win out.  I initially did want to show the world I could do it, so I became a hyphenated priest.  Do you know what a hyphenated priest is?  Priest-psychologist.  It wasn’t enough to just be a priest.  I wanted to be a psychologist too.  Then if somebody didn’t like priests, they might at least like psychologists!  Thus I went on my upwardly mobile way.  From Holland I went to the United States and soon went on to teach at Notre Dame.  Then I went from Notre Dame to Yale, and from Yale to Harvard, and my father said, “Henri, you are doing very well!”

My mother, on the other hand, was asking, “Yes, but are you losing your connection with Jesus?”

Through it all, I’ve carried within me the pain of loneliness and a nagging need for affection.  Although I loved teaching in the universities I was always yearning for intimacy in my life.  I found this special love to a certain degree in my relationship with my mother.  She loved me in a particular way, followed my every move, faithfully corresponded with me, expressing a love that was tangible, full, and close to being unconditional.  When she died in 1978 during my time at Yale, I grieved her absence in a very profound place inside.  Her love had always “held” me safe, but now it was gone.  Her death was a double loss for me of both her person and also my whole sense of “home.”  Her absence plunged me into a downward spiral so that my final teaching years at Harvard in the early 1980s were some of the unhappiest of my life.  It was there that I began an important life passage, from loneliness to L’Arche.

. . . I have entered deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am exhausted from weeping;
I thirst as in a desert.
I no longer see the path while
Waiting for your return.
(From Psalms for Praying, by Nan C. Merrill)

For the past year, I’ve been called into another, more challenging passage, from L’Arche to the second loneliness, and the parable of the prodigal son has companioned me along with way to a homecoming of large proportions.,  Now, quite simply, I desire to walk into the story with you as a potential entrance into a new passage of reclaiming something precious for you in your own life.

This story has the potential to be your most intimate story.  It holds unique insights for you in this moment of your life.  I only offer you my story to encourage you to claim your story, and to more seriously embrace your humanity in relationship with the One who created you.  It is a call to engage your heart as well as your mind, and your life experience as well as your beliefs, to turn inward toward the unique “presence” that offers you safety, healing, forgiveness, and other important gifts.

To enable you in all of this you are invited to stop at certain intervals to engage in the practice of three ancient spiritual disciplines: listening, journaling, and communing.  Each “spiritual workout” is a potential gateway for you to move beyond my story and more personally enter into the parable and the painting yourself.  Similar to physical workouts that limber the body, spiritual disciplines support your fragile heart to bypass mere reading and to accept that you are being spoken to by the text in a most personal and specific way.  Spiritual disciplines allow you to let the words descend from your mind into your heart, possess you, and live in you.  They move you from learning about spiritual realities to encountering the living Spirit of Love.  Regular spiritual workouts enliven you for the journey to integrity, the journey home.

. . . our familiarity may pose problems.  These are stories from the Christian scriptures that some of us have been hearing all our lives.  They have been interpreted for us so often that our minds may be closed to new meanings. (From The Active Life by Parker J. Palmer)

The following story from Luke 15:11-32 provides the complete backdrop to my own story.  Find a quiet, comfortable space, put aside preoccupations, and trust as you embark on the adventure to the spiritual disciplines.  Read slowly.  Drink it in.  Let it soak into your bones.  Allow it to flow freely from your mind into your heart.

Then [Jesus] said: “A certain man had two sons.  And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.  And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.  But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.  Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’

“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.  And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.

“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’

“But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.  So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.  But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’

“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.  It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”

Consider what you have read as a sacred trust, as the gift of a fertile field full of yet-burled tiny seeds that need to be tended and watered so as to grow and bear fruit in you.  Move forward in stillness.


You have read many words.  Try not to be overwhelmed but rather focus on the one detail from the story that touches you more than the rest.  Who is voicing that message?  Why do you think it is meaningful for you?  Stay attentive only to these stirrings in your heart.


Mindful of what you feel, look at Rembrandt’s masterful depiction of the parable. [picture:] Give your attention to how the light falls on the scene.  Record in your journal all that you observe about the light.  Stay with it, and write what you heard when you listened and what the light in the painting is saying to you.  Take special note of the shadows and the darkness and write about them in contrast to to the light.  Find the words that express your thoughts and feelings about light, darkness, and shadows in your own life.


The exercise doesn’t end at the tip of your pen, so put it down and allow yourself to move on.  Imagine yourself before the One who loves you more than a daughter or a son, and speak your thoughts and feelings without fear.  Lay them out as you would with a most trusted and cherished friend.  Try to pinpoint your feelings and beliefs in terms of the light, darkness, and shadows you’ve encountered.  It may be painful, but resolve to be completely honest, trusting that all you articulate will be heard without judgment and with loving compassion.  Remain and be quietly present in the moment.

Heart speaks to heart.

But it’s not so simple, that sort of “quiet hour.”  It has to be learned.  A lot of unimportant inner litter and bits and pieces have to be swept out first.  Even a small head can be piled high inside with irrelevant distractions.  True, there may be edifying emotions and thoughts, too, but the clutter is ever present.  So let this be the aim of the meditation: to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth to impede the view so that something of “God” can enter you, and something of “Love,” too. (From An Interrupted Life, and Letters from Westerbork, by Etty Hillesum)

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