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Sabbath Evenings – Encounter With A Painting

. . . so begins the Prologue of Henri Nouwen’s little volume The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Dutch Catholic priest, psychologist, professor and author of more than 40 books.  The first book I read by Nouwen was The Wounded Healer. At the time I was ridden with hopelessness that I could ever be good enough; i.e. completely mature and healed, to become a Christian counselor.  Though forgiven, I continued to see myself as disqualified. I was not alone in this thinking.  Nouwen observed that many people do not think they are loved or held safe. Suffering to them is seen as an affirmation of their worthlessness. He offers Christ’s peace through learning to live with brokenness under God’s blessing, or in new creation, as opposed to remaining largely in the misery of the curse – or from depravity to dignity as I heard it said in grad school. Glorious ruins!  So, alongside Romans 8.1,  “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus,” Nouwen’s book pointed me to Christ’s message of unconditional love and hope, emphasizing our common woundedness and brokenness, and how our sufferings serve as a source of strength and healing for each other.   Hope restored!

For ministers [counselors] are called to recognize the sufferings of their time in their own hearts and to make that recognition the starting point of their service. — Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

Nouwen’s book sparked a curiosity to read more of his writings..  He has become a sort of spiritual mentor in helping me to  clarify what a “theology of the heart” looks like.  Now onto The Return of the Prodigal Son.  If you would like to read or re-read the biblical story, find it here:  Luke 15:11-31

In The Return of the Prodigal Son: a Story of Homecoming, Nouwen takes a chance encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the same title on a spiritual journey. The painting caught his attention on a visit to a friend:

One day I went to visit my friend Simone Landrien . . .  As we spoke, my eyes fell on a large poster pinned on her door. I saw a man in a great red cloak tenderly touching the shoulders of a disheveled boy kneeling before him. I could not take my eyes away. I felt drawn by the intimacy between the two figures, the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both. But, most of all, it was the hands—the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been before. (p.4)
Nouwen was immediately captivated. A few years later, he was able to see Rembrandt’s painting at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. He expounds and interprets the story from Luke by spending a day with the painting. It was spiritually transforming for him. I am intrigued by this.  I wondered why would Nouwen spend several hours sitting before this painting – recounting the compelling story of the Prodigal Son? There are many answers to this question which you can find by reading the book for yourself.  For me, it began with this paragraph:
Since my visit to the Hermitage, I had become more aware of the four figures, two women and two men, who stood around the luminous space where the father welcomed his returning son.  Their way of looking leaves you wondering how they think or feel about what they are watching.  These bystanders, or observers, allow for all sorts of interpretation.  As I reflect on my own journey, I become more and more aware of how long I have played the role of observer.  For years, I had instructed students on the different aspects of the spiritual life, trying to help them see the importance of living it.  But had I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God? (p. 12)

What difference does it make whether a Christian is being an observer or a participant in the spiritual journey?  I resonate deeply with Nouwen’s words.  Part of the allure in my role as counselor and teacher is control.  I can lead, advise, ask, tell, and encourage without ever entering what it is really like in another person’s world.  Afterall, I have much to say!  I call it “pontificating pathetically.” Sadly, sometimes the same holds true for reading and studying biblical stories, i.e. the prodigal son.   There is safety in being a bystander. Nouwen’s honesty humbles me.  He continues

Teaching students, passing on the many explanations given over the centuries to the words and actions of Jesus, and showing them the many spiritual journeys that people have chosen in the past seemed very much like taking the position of one of the four figures surrounding the divine embrace.  Looking at the figures in the painting—two women standing behind the father at a distance, the seated man staring into space at no one in particular, and the tall man standing erect and looking critically at the event on the platform in front of him—they all represent different ways of not getting involved.

There is
indifference
curiosity
daydreaming
attentive observation.

There is
staring
gazing
watching
looking

There is
standing in the background
leaning against an arch
sitting with arms crossed
standing with hands gripping each other.

. . . all of these are ways of not getting directly involved (p. 13)

This became a defining moment for Nouwen.  He went from teaching to living among mentally handicapped people.  This would be the place where he stepped toward becoming a participant “where the father embraces his kneeling son . . . it is the place that confronts me with the fact that truly accepting [Christ’s] love, forgiveness, and healing is often much harder than giving it.  It is the place beyond earning, deserving, and rewarding.  It is the place of surrender and complete trust.” Nouwen sees himself as having moved

one little step from bystander to participant, from judge to repentant sinner, from teacher about love to being loved as the beloved. I really did not have an inkling of how difficult the journey would be.  I did not realize how deeply rooted my resistance was and how agonizing it would be to ‘come to my senses,’ fall on my knees, and let my tears flow freely.  I did not realize how hard it would be to become truly part of the great event that Rembrandt’s painting portrays (p. 14).

From this point in the book,  Nouwen shares his encounter and exposition of the story of the Prodigal Son by way of this most powerful painting. I have the Rembrandt painting [poster] in my counseling office.  I have it positioned on the wall, not for the client, but for myself.  It nudges and invites me toward moving beyond being merely an observer to participating not only in my clients lives, but more so as one who dares “to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God?”

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Categories: Sabbath Evenings
  1. Phyllis
    June 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Yesterday, someone asked me if I was angry with God for all that I’ve gone (am going) through. Of course I’m not! He is the only way I’ve been able to come through it. Those hands have comforted me and those arms have held me when there were no others that would.

    Thank you, Lisa, for sharing this beautiful painting.

  2. June 7, 2010 at 10:02 am

    We have the written word to share and nurture our faith; in Rembrandt’s time there was primarily the visual. Think of everything that needed to be, and was expressed in the visual arts. For so many people, it was their only exposure to God’s healing word. This is a good reminder of the power of art to share and enrich. This was the primary focus of my father-in-law who has suffered from Alzheimer’s for over 16 years. Thank you, God for liturgical art! Have you seen many of the paintings of Tissot? I frequently use his work when I do powerpoints for our worship scripture readings.

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