The Father of the Prodigal son by Henri Nouwen
Thefollowing passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” published in 1992.
I. THE FATHER WELCOMES HOME
While he was still a long way off his father saw him [younger son] and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him.
. . .his father came out and began to urge him [elder son] to
come in.(Luke 15:
1. Father and Mother
Often I have asked friends to give me their first impression of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son. Inevitably, they point to the wise old man who forgives his son: the benevolent patriarch.
The longer I looked at “the patriarch,” the clearer it became to me that Rembrandt had done something quite different from letting God pose as the wise old head of a family. It all began with the hands. The two are quite different. The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out a cover a large part of the prodigal son’s shoulder and back. I can see a certain pressure, especially in the thumb. That hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father’s left hand touches his son, it is not without a firm grip.
How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand.
Some commentators have suggested that the masculine left hand is Rembrandt’s own hand, while the feminine right hand is similar to the right hand of The Jewish Bride painted in the same period. I like to believe that this is true.
As soon as I recognized the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present. That gentle caressing right hand echoes for me the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you. Look, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”
My friend Richard White pointed out to me that the caressing feminine hand of the father parallels the bare, wounded foot of the son, while the strong masculine hand parallels the foot dressed in a sandal. Is it too much to think that the one hand protects the vulnerable side of the son, while the other hand reinforces the son’s strength and desire to get on with his life?
Then there is the great red cloak. With its warm color and its arch-like shape, it offers a welcome place where it is good to be. At first, the cloak covering the bent-over body of the father looked to me like a tent inviting the tired traveler to find some rest. But as I went on gazing at the red cloak, another image, stronger than that of a tent, came to me: the sheltering wings of the mother bird. They reminded me of Jesus’ words about God’s maternal love: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refused!”
Day and night God holds me safe, as a hen holds her chicks
secure under her wings. Even more than that of a tent, the image of a vigilant mother bird’s wings expresses the safety that God offers her children. They express care, protection, a place to rest and feel safe.
Every time I look at the tent-like and wings-like cloak in Rembrandt’s painting, I sense the motherly quality of God’s love and
My heart begins to sing in words inspired by the Psalmist:
You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High
and abide in the shade of the Almighty—
say to your God: “My refuge, my stronghold,
my God in whom I trust!
. . .You conceal me with your pinions
and under your wings I shall find refuge.”
And so, under the aspect of an old Jewish patriarch, there emerges also a motherly God receiving her son home.
As I now look again at Rembrandt’s old man bending over his returning son and touching his shoulders with his hands, I begin to see not only a father who “clasps his son in his arms,” but also a mother who caresses her child, surrounds him with the warmth of her body, and holds him against the womb from which he sprang. Thus the “return of the prodigal son” becomes the return to God’ womb, the return to the very origins of being and again echoes Jesus’ exhortation to Nicodemus, to be reborn from above.
Now I understand better also the enormous stillness of this portrait of God. There is no sentimentality here, no romanticism, no simplistic tale with a happy ending. What I see here is God as mother, receiving back into her womb the one whom she made in her own image. The near—blind eyes, the hands, the cloak, the bent over body, they all call forth the divine maternal love, marked by grief; desire, hope, and endless waiting.
The mystery, indeed, is that God in her infinite compassion has linked herself for eternity with the life of her children. She has freely chosen to become dependent on her creatures, whom she has gifted with freedom. This choice causes her grief when they leave; this choice brings her gladness when they return. But her joy will not be complete until all who have received life from her have returned home and gather together around the table prepared for them.
And this includes the elder son. Rembrandt places him at a distance, out from under the billowing cloak, at the edge of the circle of light. The elder son’s dilemma is to accept or reject that his father’s love is beyond comparisons; to dare to be loved as his father longs to love him or to insist on being loved as he feels he ought to be loved. The father knows that the choice must be the son’s, even while he waits with outstretched hands. Will the elder son be willing to kneel and be touched by the same hands that touch his younger brother? Will he be willing to be forgiven and to experience the healing presence of the father who loves him beyond compare? Luke’s story makes it very clear that the father goes out to both of his children. Not only does he run out to welcome the younger way ward son, but he comes out also to meet the elder, dutiful son as he returns from the fields wondering what the music and dancing are all about and urges him to come in.
2. No More or Less
It is very important for me to understand the full meaning of what is happening here. While the father is truly filled with joy at his younger son’s return, he has not forgotten the elder. He doesn’t take his elder son for granted. His joy was so intense that he couldn’t wait to start celebrating, but as soon as he became aware of his elder son’s arrival, he left the party, went out to him, and pleaded with him to join them.
In his jealousy and bitterness, the elder son can only see that his irresponsible brother is receiving more attention than he himself; and concludes that he is the less loved of the two. His father’s heart, however, is not divided into more or less. The father’s free and spontaneous response to his younger son’s return does not involve any comparisons with his elder son. To the contrary, he ardently desires to make his elder son part of his joy.
This is not easy for me to grasp. In a world that constantly compares people, ranking them as more or less intelligent, more or less attractive, more or less successful, it is not easy to really believe in a love that does not do the same. When I hear someone praised, it is hard not to think of myself as less praiseworthy; when I read about the goodness and kindness of other people, it is hard not to wonder whether I myself am as good and kind as they; and when I see trophies, rewards, and prizes being handed out to special people, I cannot avoid asking myself why that didn’t happen to me.
The world in which I have grown up is a world so full of grades, scores, and statistics that, consciously or unconsciously, I always try to take my measure against all the others. Much sadness and gladness in my life flows directly from my comparing, and most, if not all, of this comparing is useless and a terrible waste of time and energy.
Our God, who is both Father and Mother to us, does not compare. Never. Even though I know in my head that this is true, it is still very hard to fully accept it with my whole being. When I hear someone called a favorite son or daughter, my immediate response is that the other children must be less appreciated, or less loved. I can— not fathom how all of God’s children can be favorites. And still, they are. When I look from my place in the world into God’s Kingdom, I quickly come to think of God as the keeper of some great celestial scoreboard, and I will always be afraid of not making the grade. But as soon as I look from God’s welcoming home into the world, I discover that God loves with a divine love, a love that cedes to all women and men their uniqueness without ever comparing.
The elder brother compares himself with the younger one and becomes jealous. But the father loves them both so much that it didn’t even occur to him to delay the party in order to prevent the elder son from feeling rejected. I am convinced that many of my emotional problems would melt as snow in the sun if I could let the truth of God’s motherly non-comparing love permeate my heart.
How hard that is becomes clear when I reflect on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Each time I read that parable in which the landowner gives as much to the workers who worked only one hour as to those who did “a heavy day’s work in all the heat,” a feeling of irritation still wells up inside of me.
Why didn’t the landowner pay those who worked many long hours first and then surprise the latecomers with his generosity? Why, instead, does he pay the workers of the eleventh hour first, raising false expectations in the others and creating unnecessary bitterness and jealousy? These questions, I now realize, come from a perspective that is all too willing to impose the economy of the temporal on the unique order of the divine.
It hadn’t previously occurred to me that the landowner might have wanted the workers of the early hours to rejoice in his generosity to the latecomers. It never crossed my mind that he might have acted on the supposition that those who had worked in the vineyard the whole day would be deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to do work for their boss, and even more grateful to see what a generous man he is. It requires an interior about-face to accept such a non-comparing way of thinking. But that is God’s way of thinking. God looks at his people as children of a family who are happy that those who have done only a little bit are as much loved as those who accomplish much.
God is so naive as to think that there would be great rejoicing when all those who spent time in his vineyard, whether a short time or a long time, were given the same attention. Indeed, he was so naive as to expect that they would all be so happy to be in his presence that comparing themselves with each other wouldn’t even occur to them. That is why he says with the bewilderment of a misunderstood lover: “Why should you be envious because I am generous?” He could have said: “You have been with me the whole day, and I gave you all you asked for! Why are you so bitter?” It is the same bewilderment that comes from the heart of the father when he says to his jealous son: “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.”
Here lies hidden the great call to conversion: to look not with the eyes of my own low self-esteem, but with the eyes of God’s love. As long as I keep looking at God as a landowner, as a father who wants to get the most out of me for the least cost, I cannot but become jealous, bitter, and resentful toward my fellow workers or my brothers and sisters. But if I am able to look at the world with the eyes of God’s love and discover that God’s vision is not that of a stereotypical landowner or patriarch but rather that of an all-giving and forgiving father who does not measure out his love to his children according to how well they behave, then I quickly see that my only true response can be deep gratitude.
3. The Heart of God
In Rembrandt’s painting, the elder son simply observes. It is difficult to imagine what is going on in his heart. Just as with the parable, so also with the painting, I am left with the question: How will he respond to the invitation to join the celebration?
There is no doubt–—in the parable or the painting–—about the father’s heart. His heart goes out to both of his sons; he loves them both; he hopes to see them together as brothers around the same table; he wants them to experience that, different as they are, they belong to the same household and are children of the same father.
As I let all of this sink in, I see how the story of the father and his lost sons powerfully affirms that it was not I who chose God, but God who first chose me. This is the great mystery of our faith. We do not choose God, God chooses us. From all eternity we are hidden “in the shadow of God’s hand” and “engraved on his palm.” Before any human being touches us, God “forms us in secret” and “textures us” in the depth of the earth, and before any human being decides about us, God “knits us together in our mother’s womb.” God loves us before any human person can show love to us. He loves us with a “first” love, an unlimited, unconditional love, wants us to be his beloved children, and tells us to become as loving as himself.
For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.
Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home. In all three parables which Jesus tells in response to the question of why he eats with sinners, he puts the emphasis on God’s initiative. God is the shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep. God is the woman who lights a lamp, sweeps out the house, and searches everywhere for her lost coin until she has found it. God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them, pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home.
It might sound strange, but God wants to find me as much as, if not more than, I want to find God. Yes, God needs me as much as I need God. God is not the patriarch who stays home, doesn’t move, and expects his children to come to him, apologize for their aberrant behavior, beg for forgiveness, and promise to do better. To the contrary, he leaves the house, ignoring his dignity by running toward them, pays no heed to apologies and promises of change, and brings them to the table richly prepared for them.
I am beginning now to see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it as difficult as possible for me to find him, but, instead, as the one who is looking for me while I am doing the hiding. When I look through God’s eyes at my lost self and discover God’s joy at my coming home, then my life may become less anguished and more trusting.
Wouldn’t it be good to increase God’s joy by letting God find me and carry me home and celebrate my return with the angels? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make God smile by giving God the chance to find me and love me lavishly? Questions like these raise a real issue: that of my own self-concept. Can I accept that I am worth looking for? Do I believe that there is a real desire in God to simply be with me?
Here lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self—rejection, self—contempt, and self-loathing. It is a very fierce battle because the world and its demons conspire to make me think about myself as worthless, useless, and negligible. Many consumerist economies stay afloat by manipulating the low self-esteem of their consumers and by creating spiritual expectations through material means. As long as I am kept “small,” I can easily be seduced to buy things, meet people, or go places that promise a radical change in self-concept even though they are totally incapable of bringing this about. But every time I allow myself to be thus manipulated or seduced, I will have still more reasons for putting myself down and seeing myself as the unwanted child.
4. A First and Everlasting Love
For a very long time I considered low self-esteem to be some kind of virtue. I had been warned so often against pride and conceit that I came to consider it a good thing to deprecate myself But now I realize that the real sin is to deny God’s first love for me, to ignore my original goodness. Because without claiming that first love and that original goodness for myself, I lose touch with my true self and embark on the destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of my Father.
I do not think I am alone in this struggle to claim God’s first love and my original goodness. Beneath much human assertiveness, competitiveness, and rivalry; beneath much self-confidence and even arrogance, there is often a very insecure heart, much less sure of itself than outward behavior would lead one to believe. I have often been shocked to discover that men and women with obvious talents and with many rewards for their accomplishments have so many doubts about their own goodness. Instead of experiencing their outward successes as a sign of their inner beauty, they live them as a cover-up for their sense of personal worthlessness. Not a few have said to me: “If people only knew what goes on in my innermost self, they would stop with their applause and praise.”
I vividly remember talking with a young man loved and ad mired by everyone who knew him. He told me how a small critical remark from one of his friends had thrown him into an abyss of depression. As he spoke, tears streamed from his eyes and his body twisted in anguish. He felt that his friend had broken through his wall of defenses and had seen him as he really was: an ugly hypocrite, a despicable man beneath his gleaming armor. As I heard his story, I realized what an unhappy life he had lived, even though the people around him had envied him for his gifts. For years he had walked around with the inner questions: “Does anyone really love me? Does anyone really care?” And every time he had climbed a little higher on the ladder of success, he had thought: “This is not who I really am; one day everything will come crashing down and then people will see that I am no good.”
This encounter illustrates the way many people live their lives—–never fully sure that they are loved as they are. Many have horrendous stories that offer very plausible reasons for their low self—esteem: stories about parents who were not giving them what they needed, about teachers who mistreated them, about friends who betrayed them, and about a Church which left them out in the cold during a critical moment of their life.
The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is Father as well as Mother. It is the fountain of all true human love, even the most limited. Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives. In his painting of the father, Rembrandt offers me a glimpse of that love. It is the love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate.
II. THE FATHER CALLS FOR A CELEBRATION
The father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to l he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
1. Giving the Very Best
It is clear to me that the younger son is not returning to a simple farm family. Luke describes the father as a very wealthy man with extensive property and many servants. To match this description Rembrandt clothes him and the two men who are watching him richly. The two women in the background lean against an arch that looks more like a part of a palace than of a farmhouse. The splendid garb of the father and the prosperous look of his surroundings stand in sharp contrast to the long suffering so visible in his near-blind eyes, his sorrowful face, and his stooped figure.
The same God who suffers because of his immense love for his children is the God who is rich in goodness and mercy and who desires to reveal to his children the richness of his glory. The father does not even give his son a chance to apologize. He pre-empts his son’s begging by spontaneous forgiveness and puts aside his pleas as completely irrelevant in the light of the joy at his return. But there is more. Not only does the father forgive without asking questions and joyfully welcome his lost son home, but he cannot wait to give him new life, life in abundance. So strongly does God desire to give life to his returning son that he seems almost impatient. Nothing is good enough. The very best must be given to him. While the son is prepared to be treated as a hired servant, the father calls for the robe reserved for a distinguished guest; and, although the son no longer feels worthy to be called son, the father gives him a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet to honor him as his beloved son and restore him as his heir.
I remember vividly the clothes I wore during the summer after my graduation from high school. My white trousers, broad belt, colorful shirt, and shining shoes all expressed how good I felt about myself. My parents were very glad to buy these new clothes for me and showed great pride in their son. And I felt grateful to be their son. I especially recall how good it felt to wear new shoes. Since those days, I have traveled a lot and seen how people go through life barefoot. Now I understand even better the symbolic significance of new shoes. Bare feet indicate poverty and often slavery. Shoes are for the wealthy and the powerful. Shoes offer protection against snakes; they give safety and strength. They turn the hunted ones into hunters. For many poor people, getting shoes is a benchmark passage. An old Afro-American spiritual expresses this beautifully: “All of God’s chillun got shoes. When I get to heab’n I’m going to put on my shoes; I’m going to walk all ovah God’s heab’n.”
The Father dresses his son with the signs of freedom, the freedom of the children of God. He does not want any of them to be hired servants or slaves. He wants them to wear the robe of honor, the ring of inheritance, and the footwear of prestige. It is like an investiture by which God’s year of favor is inaugurated. The full meaning of this investiture and inauguration is spelled out in the fourth vision of the prophet Zechariah:
Yahweh showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of Yahweh. . . . Now Joshua was dressed in dirty clothes as he stood before the angel. The latter then spoke as follows to those who were standing before him. “Take off his dirty clothes and dress him in splendid robes and put a turban on his head.” So they put a turban on his head and dressed him in clean clothes, while the angel of Yahweh stood by and said, “You see, I have taken your guilt away.” The angel of Yahweh then made this declaration to Joshua: “Yahweh Sabaoth says this, ‘If you walk in my ways and keep my ordinances, you shall govern my house, you shall watch over my courts, and I will give you free access among those in attendance here. . . . So listen, High Priest Joshua. . . . I shall remove this country’s guilt in a single day. On that day . . . invite each other to come under your vine and your fig tree.’”
As I read the story of the prodigal son with this vision of Zechariah in mind, the word “Quick,” with which the father exhorts his servants to bring his son the robe, ring, and sandals, expresses much more than a human impatience. It reveals the divine eagerness to inaugurate the new Kingdom that has been prepared from the beginning of time.
There is no doubt that the father wants a lavish feast. Killing the calf that had been fattened up for a special occasion shows how much the father wanted to pull out all the stops and offer his son a party such as had never been celebrated before. His exuberant joy is obvious. After having given his order to make everything ready, he ex claims: “We will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found,” and immediately they begin to celebrate. There is an abundance of food, there is music and dance, and the happy party noises can be heard far beyond the house.
2. An Invitation to Joy
I realize that I am not used to the image of God throwing a big party. It seems to contradict the solemnity and seriousness I have always attached to God. But when I think about the ways in which Jesus describes God’s Kingdom, a joyful banquet is often at its center. Jesus says, “Many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven.” And he compares the Kingdom of Heaven with a wedding feast
offered by the king to his son. The king’s servants go out to invite people with the words: “Look, my banquet is all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come
to the wedding.” But many were not interested. They were too busy
with their own affairs.
Just as in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus expresses here the great desire of his Father to offer his children a banquet and his eagerness to get it going even when those who are invited refuse to come. This invitation to a meal is an invitation to intimacy with God. This is especially clear at the Last Supper, shortly before Jesus’ death. There he says to his disciples: “From now on, I tell you, I shall never again drink wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in the kingdom of my Father.” And at the close of the New Testament, God’s ultimate victory is described as a splendid wedding feast: “The reign of the Lord our God Almighty has begun; let us be glad and joyful and give glory to God, because this is the time for the marriage of the Lamb. . . . blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb . . .”
Celebration belongs to God’s Kingdom. God not only offers forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, but wants to lift up these gifts as a source of joy for all who witness them. In all three of the parables which Jesus tells to explain why he eats with sinners, God rejoices and invites others to rejoice with him. “Rejoice with me,” the shepherd says, “I have found my sheep that was lost.” “Rejoice with me,” the woman says, “I have found the drachma I lost.” “Rejoice with me,” the father says, “this son of mine was lost and is found.”
All these voices are the voices of God. God does not want to keep his joy to himself He wants everyone to share in it. God’s joy is the joy of his angels and his saints; it is the joy of all who belong to the Kingdom.
Rembrandt paints the moment of the return of the younger son. The elder son and the three other members of the father’s household keep their distance. Will they understand the father’s joy? Will they let the father embrace them? Will I? Will they be able to step out of their recriminations and share in the celebration? Will I?
I can see only one moment, and I am left guessing as to what will happen next. I repeat: Will they? Will I? I know the father wants all the people around him to admire the returning son’s new clothes, to join him around the table, to eat and dance with him. This is not a private affair. This is something for all in the family to celebrate in gratitude.
I repeat again: Will they? Will I? It is an important question because it touches–—strange as it may sound–—my resistance to living a joyful life.
God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found. What I am called to is to enter into that joy. It is God’s joy, not the joy that the world offers. It is the joy that comes from seeing a child walk home amid all the destruction, devastation, and anguish of the world. It is a hidden joy, as inconspicuous as the flute player that Rembrandt painted in the wall above the head of the seated observer.
I am not accustomed to rejoicing in things that are small, hid den, and scarcely noticed by the people around me. I am generally ready and prepared to receive bad news, to read about wars, violence, and crimes, and to witness conflict and disarray. I always expect my visitors to talk about their problems and pain, their setbacks and disappointments, their depressions and their anguish. Somehow I have become accustomed to living with sadness, and so have lost the eyes to see the joy and the ears to hear the gladness that belongs to God and which is to be found in the hidden corners of the world.
I have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness. He travels much and meets countless people. When he returns home, I always expect him to tell me about the difficult economic situation of the countries he visited, about the great injustices he heard about, and the pain he has seen. But even though he is very aware of the great upheaval of the world, he seldom speaks of it. When he shares his experiences, he tells about the hidden joys he has discovered. He tells about a man, a woman, or a child who brought him hope and peace. He tells about little groups of people who are faithful to each other in the midst of all the turmoil. He tells about the small wonders of God. At times I realize that I am disappointed because I want to hear “newspaper news,” exciting and exhilarating stories that can be talked about among friends. But he never responds to my need for sensationalism. He keeps saying: “I saw something very small and very beautiful, some thing that gave me much joy.”
The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see. Yes, I know that not everybody has been converted yet, that there is not yet peace everywhere, that all pain has not yet been taken away, but still, I see people turning and returning home; I hear voices that pray; I notice moments of forgiveness, and I witness many signs of hope. I don’t have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand.
This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself: Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.
Surely I will be called naive, unrealistic, and sentimental, and I will be accused of ignoring the “real” problems, the structural evils that underlie much of human misery. But God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter. Who knows whether the world is kept from destruction because of one, two, or three people who have continued to pray when the rest of humanity has lost hope and dissipated itself?
From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed to bring God from his throne to run to his returning son and to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy.
3. Not Without Sorrow
If that is God’s way, then I am challenged to let go of all the voices of doom and damnation that drag me into depression and allow the “small” joys to reveal the truth about the world I live in. When Jesus speaks about the world, he is very realistic. He speaks about wars and revolutions, earthquakes, plagues and famines, persecution and imprisonment, betrayal, hatred and assassinations. There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the kingdom of joy.
This is the secret of the joy of the saints. From St. Anthony of the desert, to St. Francis of Assisi, to Frère Roger Schultz of Taizé, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, joy has been the mark of the people of God. That joy can be seen on the faces of the many simple, poor, and often suffering people who live today among great economic and social upheaval, but who can already hear the music and the dance in the Father’s house. I, myself see this joy every day in the faces of the mentally handicapped people of my community. All these holy men and women, whether they lived long ago or belong to our own time, can recognize the many small returns that take place every day and rejoice with the Father. They have somehow pierced the meaning of true joy.
For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hid den schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.
People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.
Every moment of each day I have the chance to choose between cynicism and joy. Every thought I have can be cynical or joyful. Every word I speak can be cynical or joyful. Every action can be cynical or joyful. Increasingly I am aware of all these possible choices, and increasingly I discover that every choice for joy in turn reveals more joy and offers more reason to make life a true celebration in the house of the Father.
Jesus lived this joy of the Father’s house to the full. In him we can see his Father’s joy. “Everything the Father has is mine,” he says, including God’s boundless joy. That divine joy does not obliterate the divine sorrow. In our world, joy and sorrow exclude each other. Here below, joy means the absence of sorrow and sorrow the absence of joy. But such distinctions do not exist in God. Jesus, the Son of God, is the man of sorrows, but also the man of complete joy. We catch a glimpse of this when we realize that in the midst of his greatest suffering Jesus is never separated from his Father. His union with God is never broken even when he “feels” abandoned by God. The joy of God belongs to his sonship, and this joy of Jesus and his Father is offered to me. Jesus wants me to have the same joy he enjoys: “I have loved you, just as my Father has loved me. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this, so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.”
As the returned child of God, living in the Father’s house, God’s joy is mine to claim. There is seldom a minute in my life that I am not tempted by sadness, melancholy, cynicism, dark moods, somber thoughts, morbid speculations, and waves of depression. And often I allow them to cover up the joy of my Father’s house. But when I truly believe that I have already returned and that my Father has already dressed me with a cloak, ring, and sandals, I can remove the mask of the sadness from my heart and dispel the lie it tells about my true self and claim the truth with the inner freedom of the child of God.
But there is more. A child does not remain a child. A child becomes an adult. An adult becomes father and mother. When the prodigal son returns home, he returns not to remain a child, but to claim his sonship and become a father himself. As the returned child of God who is invited to resume my place in my Father’s home, the challenge now, yes the call, is to become the Father myself. I am awed by this call. For a long time I have lived with the insight that returning to my Father’s home was the ultimate call. It has taken me much spiritual work to make the elder son as well as the younger son in me turn around and receive the welcoming love of the Father. The fact is that, on many levels, I am still returning. But the closer I come to home the clearer becomes the realization that there is a call beyond the call to return. It is the call to become the Father who welcomes home and calls for a celebration. Having reclaimed my sonship, I now have to claim fatherhood. When I first saw Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, I could never have dreamt that becoming the repentant son was only a step on the way to becoming the welcoming father. I now see that the hands that forgive, console, heal, and offer a festive meal must become my own. Becoming the Father is, therefore, for me the surprising conclusion of these reflections on Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.
III. CONCLUSION: BECOMING THE FATHER
“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”
1. A Lonely Step
When I first saw the detail of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, a spiritual journey was set in motion that led me to write this book. As I now come to its conclusion, I discover how long a journey I have made.
From the beginning I was prepared to accept that not only the younger son, but also the elder son would reveal to me an important aspect of my spiritual journey. For a long time the father remained “the other,” the one who would receive me, forgive me, offer me a home, and give me peace and joy. The father was the place to return to, the goal of my journey, the final resting place. It was only gradually and often quite painfully that I came to realize that my spiritual journey would never be complete as long as the father remained an outsider.
It dawned on me that even my best theological and spiritual formation had not been able to completely free me from a Father God who remained somewhat threatening and somewhat fearsome. All I had learned about the Father’s love had not fully enabled me to let go of an authority above me who had power over me and would use it according to his will. Somehow, God’s love for me was limited by my fear of God’s power, and it seemed wise to keep a careful distance even though the desire for closeness was immense. I know that I share this experience with countless others. I have seen how the fear of becoming subject to God’s revenge and punishment has paralyzed the mental and emotional lives of many people, independently of their age, religion, or life-style. This paralyzing fear of God is one of the great human tragedies.
Rembrandt’s painting and his own tragic life have offered me a context in which to discover that the final stage of the spiritual life is to so fully let go of all fear of the Father that it becomes possible to become like him. As long as the Father evokes fear, he remains an outsider and cannot dwell within me. But Rembrandt, who showed me the Father in utmost vulnerability, made me come to the aware ness that my final vocation is indeed to become like the Father and to live out his divine compassion in my daily life. Though I am both the younger son and the elder son, I am not to remain them, but to become the Father. No father or mother ever became father or mother without having been son or daughter, but every son and daughter has to consciously choose to step beyond their childhood and become father and mother for others. It is a hard and lonely step to take—especially in a period of history in which parenthood is so hard to live well—but it is a step that is essential for the fulfillment of the spiritual journey.
Although Rembrandt does not place the father in the physical center of his painting, it is clear that the father is the center of the event the painting portrays. From him comes all the light, to him goes all the attention. Rembrandt, faithful to the parable, intended that our primary attention go to the father before anyone else.
I am amazed at how long it has taken me to make the father the center of my attention. It was so easy to identify with the two sons. Their outer and inner waywardness is so understandable and so profoundly human that identification happens almost spontaneously as soon as the connections are pointed out. For a long time I had identified myself so fully with the younger son that it did not even occur to me that I might be more like the elder. But as soon as a friend said, “Aren’t you the elder son in the story?” it was hard to see anything else. Seemingly, we all participate to a greater or lesser degree in all the forms of human brokenness. Neither greed nor anger, neither lust nor resentment, neither frivolity nor jealousy are completely absent from any one of us. Our human brokenness can be acted out in many ways, but there is no offense, crime, or war that does not have its seeds in our own hearts.
But what of the father? Why pay so much attention to the sons when it is the father who is in the center and when it is the father with whom I am to identify? Why talk so much about being like the Sons when the real question is: Are you interested in being like the father? It feels somehow good to be able to say: “These sons are like me.” It gives a sense of being understood. But how does it feel to say: “The father is like me”? Do I want to be like the father? Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receives compassion, but the one who offers it as well?
Isn’t there a subtle pressure in both the Church and society to remain a dependent child? Hasn’t the Church in the past stressed obedience in a fashion that made it hard to claim spiritual father hood, and hasn’t our consumer society encouraged us to indulge in childish self—gratification? Who has truly challenged us to liberate ourselves from immature dependencies and to accept the burden of responsible adults? And aren’t we ourselves constantly trying to es cape the fearful task of fatherhood? Rembrandt certainly did. Only after much pain and suffering, when he approached death, was he able to understand and paint true spiritual paternity.
Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me. If the only meaning of the story were that people sin but God forgives, I could easily begin to think of my sins as a fine occasion for God to show me his forgive ness. There would be no real challenge in such an interpretation. I would resign myself to my weaknesses and keep hoping that eventually God would close his eyes to them and let me come home, whatever I did. Such sentimental romanticism is not the message of the Gospels.
What I am called to make true is that whether I am the younger or the elder son, I am the son of my compassionate Father. I am an heir. No one says it more clearly than Paul when he writes: “The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided that we share his sufferings, so as to share his glory.” Indeed, as son and heir I am to become successor. I am destined to step into my Father’s place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me. The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father.
This call to become the Father precludes any “soft” interpretation of the story. I know how much I long to return and be held safe, but do I really want to be son and heir with all that that implies? Being in the Father’s house requires that I make the Father’s life my own and become transformed in his image.
Recently, on looking into a mirror, I was struck by how much I look like my dad. Looking at my own features, I suddenly saw the man whom I had seen when I was twenty-seven years old: the man I had admired as well as criticized, loved as well as feared. Much of my energy had been invested in finding my own self in the face of this person, and many of my questions about who I was and who I was to become had been shaped by being the son of this man. As I suddenly saw this man appearing in the mirror, I was overcome with the awareness that all the differences I had been aware of during my lifetime seemed so small compared with the similarities. As with a shock, I realized that I was indeed heir, successor, the one who is admired, feared, praised, and misunderstood by others, as my dad was
2. The Fatherhood of Compassion
Rembrandt’s portrayal of the father of the prodigal son makes me understand that I no longer need to use my sonship to keep my distance. Having lived my sonship to its fullest, the time has come to step over all barriers and claim the truth that becoming the old man in front of me is all I really desire for myself. I cannot remain a child forever, I cannot keep pointing to my father as an excuse for my life. I have to dare to stretch out my own hands in blessing and to receive with ultimate compassion my children, regardless of how they feel or think about me. Since becoming the compassionate Father is the ultimate goal of the spiritual life, as it is expressed in the parable as well as in Rembrandt’s painting, I now need to explore its full significance.
First of all, I have to keep in mind the context in which Jesus tells the story of the “man who had two sons.” Luke writes: “The tax collectors and sinners . . . were all crowding around to listen to him, and the Pharisees and scribes complained saying: ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ “ They put his legitimacy as a teacher in question by criticizing his closeness to sinful people. In response Jesus tells his critics the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.
Jesus wants to make it clear that the God of whom he speaks is a God of compassion who joyously welcomes repentant sinners into his house. To associate and eat with people of ill repute, therefore, does not contradict his teaching about God, but does, in fact, live out this teaching in everyday life. If God forgives the sinners, then certainly those who have faith in God should do the same. If God welcomes sinners home, then certainly those who trust in God should do likewise. If God is compassionate, then certainly those who love God should be compassionate as well. The God whom Jesus announces and in whose name he acts is the God of compassion, the God who offers himself as example and model for all human behavior.
But there is more. Becoming like the heavenly Father is not just one important aspect of Jesus’ teaching, it is the very heart of his message.The radical quality of Jesus’ words and the seeming impossibility of his demands are quite obvious when heard as part of a general call to become and to be true sons and daughters of God.
As long as we belong to this world, we will remain subject to its competitive ways and expect to be rewarded for all the good we do. But when we belong to God, who loves us without conditions, we can live as he does. The great conversion called for by Jesus is to move from belonging to the world to belonging to God.
When, shortly before his death, Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples, he says: “ they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. . . . May they all be one. . .just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.”
Once we are in God’s house as sons and daughters of his house hold, we can be like him, love like him, be good like him, care like him. Jesus leaves no doubt about this when he explains that: “If you love those who love you, what credit can you expect? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit can you expect? For even sinners do that much. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to get money back, what credit can you expect? . . . Even sinners lend to sinners to get back the same amount. Instead, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend without any hope of return. You will have a great reward, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and to the wicked. Be compassion ate just as your Father is compassionate.”
That is the core message of the Gospel. The way human beings are called to love one another is God’s way. We are called to love one another with the same selfless outgoing love that we see in Rembrandt’s depiction of the father. The compassion with which we are to love cannot be based upon a competitive life—style. It has to be this absolute compassion in which no trace of competition can be found. It has to be this radical love of enemy. If we are not only to be received by God, but also to receive as God, we must become like the heavenly Father and see the world through his eyes.
But even more important than the context of the parable and the explicit teaching of Jesus is the person of Jesus himself. Jesus is the true Son of the Father. He is the model for our becoming the Father. In him the fullness of God dwells. All the knowledge of God resides in him; all the glory of God remains in him; all the power of God belongs to him. His unity with the Father is so intimate and so complete that to see Jesus is to see the Father. “Show us the Father,” Philip says to him. Jesus responds, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Jesus shows us what true sonship is. He is the younger son without being rebellious. He is the elder son without being resentful. In everything he is obedient to the Father, but never his slave. He hears everything the Father says, but this does not make him his servant. He does everything the Father sends him to do, but remains completely free. He gives everything, and he receives everything. He declares openly: “In all truth I tell you, by himself the Son can do nothing. He can only do what he sees the Father doing; and what ever the Father does the Son does too. For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he himself does, and he will show him even greater things than these works that will astonish you. Thus as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to anyone he chooses; for the Father judges no one; he has entrusted all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son as they honor the Father.”
This is divine sonship. And it is to this sonship that I am called. The mystery of redemption is that God’s Son became flesh so that all the lost children of God could become sons and daughters as Jesus is son. In this perspective, the story of the prodigal son takes on a whole new dimension. Jesus, the Beloved of the Father, leaves his Father’s home to take on the sins of God’s wayward children and bring them home. But, while leaving, he stays close to the Father and through total obedience offers healing to his resentful brothers and sisters. Thus, for my sake, Jesus becomes the younger son as well as the elder son in order to show me how to become the Father. Through him I can become a true son again and, as a true son, I finally can grow to become compassionate as our heavenly Father is.
As the years of my life pass, I discover how arduous and challenging, but also how fulfilling it is to grow into this spiritual father hood. Rembrandt’s painting rules out any thought that this has any thing to do with power, influence, or control. I might once have held the illusion that one day the many bosses would be gone and I could finally be the boss myself. But this is the way of the world in which power is the main concern. And it is not difficult to see that those who have tried most of their lives to get rid of their bosses are not going to be very different from their predecessors when they finally step into their places. Spiritual fatherhood has nothing to do with power or control. It is a fatherhood of compassion. And I have to keep looking at the father embracing the prodigal son to catch a glimpse of this.
Against my own best intentions, I find myself continually striving to acquire power. When I give advice, I want to know whether it is being followed; when I offer help, I want to be thanked; when I give money, I want it to be used my way; when I do something good, I want to be remembered.I might not get a statue, or even a memorial plaque, but I am constantly concerned that I not be for gotten, that somehow I will live on in the thoughts and deeds of others.
But the father of the prodigal son is not concerned about him self His long-suffering life has emptied him of his desires to keep in control of things. His children are his only concern, to them he wants to give himself completely, and for them he wants to pour out all of himself.
Can I give without wanting anything in return, love without putting any conditions on my love? Considering my immense need for human recognition and affection, I realize that it will be a lifelong struggle. But I am also convinced that each time I step over this need and act free of my concern for return, I can trust that my life can truly bear the fruits of God’s Spirit.
Is there a way to this spiritual fatherhood? Or am I doomed to remain so caught up in my own need to find a place in my world that I end up ever and again using the authority of power instead of the authority of compassion? Has competition so pervaded my entire being that I will continue to see my own children as rivals? If Jesus truly calls me to be compassionate as his heavenly Father is compassionate and if Jesus offers himself as the way to that compassionate life, then I cannot keep acting as though competition is, in fact, the last word. I must trust that I am capable of becoming the Father I am called to be.
3. Grief, Forgiveness, and Generosity
Looking at Rembrandt’s painting of the father, I can see three ways to a truly compassionate fatherhood: grief, forgiveness, and generosity.
It might sound strange to consider grief a way to compassion. But it is. Grief asks me to allow the sins of the world–—my own included–—to pierce my heart and make me shed tears, many tears, for them. There is no compassion without many tears. If they can’t be tears that stream from my eyes, they have to be at least tears that well up from my heart. When I consider the immense waywardness of God’s children, our lust, our greed, our violence, our anger, our resentment, and when I look at them through the eyes of God’s heart, I cannot but weep and cry out in grief:
Look, my soul, at the way one human being tries to inflict as much pain on another as possible; look at these people plotting to bring harm to their fellows; look at these parents molesting their children; look at this landowner exploiting his workers; look at the violated women, the misused men, the abandoned children. Look, my soul, at the world; see the concentration camps, the prisons, the nursing homes, the hospitals, and hear the cries of the poor.
This grieving is praying. There are so few mourners left in this world. But grief is the discipline of the heart that sees the sin of the world, and knows itself to be the sorrowful price of freedom without which love cannot bloom. I am beginning to see that much of praying is grieving. This grief is so deep not just because the human sin is so great, but also—and more so—because the divine love is so boundless. To become like the Father whose only authority is com passion, I have to shed countless tears and so prepare my heart to receive anyone, whatever their journey has been, and forgive them from that heart.
The second way that leads to spiritual fatherhood is forgiveness. It is through constant forgiveness that we become like the Father. Forgiveness from the heart is very, very difficult. It is next to impossible. Jesus said to his disciples: “When your brother wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I am sorry,’ you must forgive him.”
I have often said, “I forgive you,” but even as I said these words my heart remained angry or resentful. I still wanted to hear the story that tells me that I was right after all; I still wanted to hear apologies and excuses; I still wanted the satisfaction of receiving some praise in return–—if only the praise for being so forgiving!
But God’s forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that does not demand anything for itself, a heart that is completely empty of self—seeking. It is this divine forgiveness that I have to practice in my daily life. It calls me to keep stepping over all my arguments that say forgiveness is unwise, unhealthy, and impractical. It challenges me to step over all my needs for gratitude and compliments. Finally, it demands of me that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged and that wants to stay in control and put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive.
This “stepping over” is the authentic discipline of forgiveness. Maybe it is more “climbing over” than “stepping over.” Often I have to climb over the wall of arguments and angry feelings that I have erected between myself and all those whom I love but who so often do not return that love. It is a wall of fear of being used or hurt again. It is a wall of pride, and the desire to stay in control. But every time that I can step or climb over that wall, I enter into the house where the Father dwells, and there touch my neighbor with genuine com passionate love.
Grief allows me to see beyond my wall and realize the immense suffering that results from human lostness. It opens my heart to a genuine solidarity with my fellow humans. Forgiveness is the way to step over the wall and welcome others into my heart without expecting anything in return. Only when I remember that I am the Beloved Child can I welcome those who want to return with the same compassion as that with which the Father welcomes me.
The third way to become like the Father is generosity. In the parable, the father not only gives his departing son everything he asks, but also showers him with gifts on his return. And to his elder son he says: “All I have is yours.” There is nothing the father keeps for himself. He pours himself out for his sons.
He does not simply offer more than can be reasonably expected from someone who has been offended; no, he completely gives him self away without reserve. Both sons are for him “everything.” In them he wants to pour out his very life. The way the younger son is given robe, ring, and sandals, and welcomed home with a sumptuous celebration, as well as the way the elder son is urged to accept his unique place in his father’s heart and to join his younger brother around the table, make it very clear that all boundaries of patriarchal behavior are broken through. This is not the picture of a remarkable father. This is the portrayal of God, whose goodness, love, forgive ness, care, joy, and compassion have no limits at all. Jesus presents God’s generosity by using all the imagery that his culture provides, while constantly transforming it.
In order to become like the Father, I must be as generous as the Father is generous. Just as the Father gives his very self to his children, so must I give my very self to my brothers and sisters. Jesus makes it very clear that it is precisely this giving of self that is the mark of the true disciple. “No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”
This giving of self is a discipline because it is something that does not come spontaneously. As children of the darkness that rules through fear, self-interest, greed, and power, our great motivators are survival and self-preservation. But as children of the light who know that perfect love casts out all fear, it becomes possible to give away all that we have for others.
As children of the light, we prepare ourselves to become true martyrs: people who witness with their whole lives to the unlimited love of God. Giving all thus becomes gaining all. Jesus expresses this clearly as he says: “Anyone who loses his life for my sake . . . will save it.”
Every time I take a step in the direction of generosity, I know that I am moving from fear to love. But these steps, certainly at first, are hard to take because there are so many emotions and feelings that hold me back from freely giving. Why should I give energy, time, money, and yes, even attention to someone who has offended me? Why should I share my life with someone who has shown no respect for it? I might be willing to forgive, but to give on top of that!
Still . . . the truth is that, in a spiritual sense, the one who has offended me belongs to my “kin,” my “gen.” The word “generosity” includes the term “gen” which we also find in the words “gender,” “generation,” and “generativity.” This term, from the Latin genus and the Greek genos, refers to our being of one kind. Generosity is a giving that comes from the knowledge of that intimate bond. True generosity is acting on the truth—–not on the feeling–—that those I am asked to forgive are “kinfolk,” and belong to my family. And whenever I act this way, that truth will become more visible to me. Generosity creates the family it believes in.
Grief, forgiveness, and generosity are, then, the three ways by which the image of the Father can grow in me. They are three aspects of the Father’s call to be home. As the Father, I am no longer called to come home as the younger or elder son, but to be there as the one to whom the wayward children can return and be welcomed with joy. It is very hard to just be home and wait. It is a waiting in grief for those who have left and a waiting with hope to offer forgiveness and new life to those who will return.
As the Father, I have to believe that all that the human heart desires can be found at home. As the Father, I have to be free from the need to wander around curiously and to catch up with what I might otherwise perceive as missed childhood opportunities. As the Father, I have to know that, indeed, my youth is over and that playing youthful games is nothing but a ridiculous attempt to cover up the truth that I am old and close to death. As the Father, I have to dare to carry the responsibility of a spiritually adult person and dare to trust that the real joy and real fulfillment can only come from welcoming home those who have been hurt and wounded on their life’s journey, and loving them with a love that neither asks nor expects anything in return.
There is a dreadful emptiness in this spiritual fatherhood. No power, no success, no popularity, no easy satisfaction. But that same dreadful emptiness is also the place of true freedom. It is the place where there is “nothing left to lose,” where love has no strings attached, and where real spiritual strength is found.
Every time I touch that dreadful yet fruitful emptiness in myself, I know that I can welcome anyone there without condemnation and offer hope. There I am free to receive the burdens of others without any need to evaluate, categorize, or analyze. There, in that completely non—judgmental state of being, I can engender liberating trust.
Once, while visiting a dying friend, I directly experienced this holy emptiness. In my friend’s presence I felt no desire to ask questions about the past or to speculate about the future. We were just together without fear, without guilt or shame, without worries. In that emptiness, God’s unconditional love could be sensed and we could say what the old Simeon said when he took the Christ child in his arms: “Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace as you promised.” There, in the midst of the dreadful emptiness, was complete trust, complete peace, and complete joy. Death no longer was the enemy. Love was victorious.
Each time we touch that sacred emptiness of non-demanding love, heaven and earth tremble and there is great “rejoicing among the angels of God.” It is the joy for the returning sons and daughters. It is the joy of spiritual fatherhood.
Living out this spiritual fatherhood requires the radical discipline of being home. As a self-rejecting person always in search of affirmation and affection, I find it impossible to love consistently without asking for something in return. But the discipline is precisely to give up wanting to accomplish this myself as a heroic feat. To claim for myself spiritual fatherhood and the authority of compassion that belongs to it, I have to let the rebellious younger son and the resentful elder son step up on the platform to receive the unconditional, forgiving love that the Father offers me, and to discover there the call to be home as my Father is home.
Then both sons in me can gradually be transformed into the compassionate father. This transformation leads me to the fulfillment of the deepest desire of my restless heart. Because what greater joy can there be for me than to stretch out my tired arms and let my hands rest in a blessing on the shoulders of my home-coming children?