Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The prodigal son stays home

Downsizing is the name of the ghost that continues to haunt our apartment. His nickname is Books. But he has a twin sister named Keepers. I frankly play favorites and I like Keepers better than Downsizing.

I am making progress. Really, I am. And along with deciding which books to recycle, I decide which books are beloved enough to keep around a while longer. This are books I will likely reread. Right now I’m rereading Cry, The Beloved Country, the wonderful novel about a changing Africa by Alan Paton. Stephen Kumalo, beloved pastor of the village of Ndotsheni in South Africa, is one of my favorite literary old men, and one day I will write about him.

But today I want to reflect on another keeper, The Return of the Prodigal Son. This is my favorite Henri Nouwen book. It details Nouwen’s discovery of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, a depiction of Jesus’ well-known parable.

Many years ago, Nouwen saw a poster of Rembrandt’s painting and he became entranced. Then he had the opportunity to visit the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the original painting is housed. The museum curator provided Nouwen with a chair and he spent hours in front of the painting, in wonder and meditation. His reflections resulted in the book that so affected me and that still sits on my shelf. One of my keepers.

I was (and am) especially moved by Nouwen’s reflections on the love of the Father and how Rembrandt had captured this in the expression on the old man’s face and in the position of his hands. Nouwen observed that one of the Father’s hands was clearly masculine, the other feminine, two aspects of love, acceptance, and nurturing. He also reflected on how we can see ourselves in each of the three main characters. I saw myself in the wayward and repentant son, in the resentful and entitled older brother, and then in the Father himself reaching out in compassion. That book fed me and I frequently gazed at its cover, a reproduction of the painting.

A few years after first reading the book, I had the opportunity to visit Russia. This was not a tourist trip but a pastoral ministry assignment sponsored by the Friends Board of Missions. We spent time with our friends who were living in the country as “Friends Serving Abroad,” Johan and Judy Maurer. Johan and Judy knew Russia and loved Russians, so our time with them was rich and educational, much more than “seeing the sights.”

A few free days were an intentional part of our schedule, and Johan and Judy gave us some options and asked us what we wanted to do. I instantly spoke up. I suggested we go to St. Petersburg and visit the Hermitage. The others readily agreed, so one morning we boarded a speed-train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, a trip that gave us a taste of the Russian country-side. On arrival we found our hostel, enjoyed some of the local cuisine, and went to bed. I could hardly contain my excitement for the next day to begin.

My time in the Hermitage was outstanding on many levels, including the huge palace itself with its winding staircases, intricate furnishings, lush drapes, and beautiful floors—each room distinct. It was thrilling to come face to face with original paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Goya, Picasso, and many others.

But as soon as I entered the palace, I was on the look-out for Rembrandt. A guidebook directed us to the right section, but even then, the multiple passages and creative arrangement of rooms made the search challenging. I was the one who spied it first (why is that factoid important?), in the distance, at the end of a long corridor. I walked as fast as seemed appropriate in that august place.

I was not disappointed. Quite the opposite. I knew the painting was large, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality. The only painting in that particular room, it covered the wall at 8 ½ feet tall and almost 7 feet wide. The figures were larger than life and very much alive.

The Father, hands on the shoulders of his runaway son; the son in his ragged clothes, bowing in sorrow and repentance before his Father; the older son off to the side, with a look on his face that expressed the complexities of anger, frustration, resentment, and suppressed longing—all this brought to life the story Jesus told the crowds over 2000 years ago.

It brought home to me the incredible love of God and his forgiveness of any human failure we can conjure up.

I stood before the painting transfixed for just under an hour, at moments in tears. I guess that’s what great art does. It touches us at a deep level and reminds us of what it means to be human. And what it means, in this case, to be forgiven.

I bought a canvas reproduction of the painting in the museum shop, and today it occupies a space on our living room wall. It reminds me of who I am, and how loved I am, as a child of God.

Thank you, Henri Nouwen.

Thank you, Rembrandt.

Thank you, Father.