It’s not uncommon to hear that a work of art changed a person’s life. In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri J.M. Nouwen, one of the great 20th century Christian writers, describes his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the same name. Nouwen first sees the painting in a colleagues office when he is exhausted after lecturing in US churches about preventing war and violence in Central America. Over the next few years he ruminates on its meaning as he leaves his teaching post at Harvard and begins working at Daybreak, a home for the mentally handicapped. Nouwen opens the book: “A seemingly insignificant encounter with a poster presenting a detail of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” set in motion a long spiritual adventure that brought me to a new understanding of my vocation and offered me new strength to live it.” Talk about life altering, it almost makes me afraid to visit a museum.
Nouwen divides his book into three primary sections which follow the primary players in the prodigal son parable: the younger son, the elder son, the father. In each section, he analyzes that character in the painting, in Rembrandt’s life, and in Nouwen’s spiritual journey.
The Younger Son
In the parable, the younger son asks his father for his inheritance early, the father gives it to him, and the son spends it on wine and song. Penniless, he works feeding pigs and realizes he would live far better as a servant of his father. He returns home to find his father watching for him, and then greeting him with exuberance. In Rembrandt’s painting, the younger son is in tatters and kneeling before his father receiving an embrace. Nouwen looks at one of Rembrandt’s earlier self-portraits, a vision of the younger son in the amidst of his spendthrift living, a girl in his lap, fancy clothes and a tankard held high, and compares it with this painting:
As I look at the prodigal son kneeling before his father and pressing his face against his chest, I cannot but see there the once so self-confident and venerated artist who has come to the painful realization that all the glory he had gathered for himself proved to be vain glory. Instead of the rich garments with which the youthful Rembrandt painted himself in the brothel, he now wears only a torn undertunic covering his emaciated body, and the sandals, in which he had walked so far, have become worn out and useless.
Nouwen looks at how he is the prodigal son. Every time he looks at how the world values him rather then how God sees him, he rejects his spiritual journey for a worldly one and denies his sonship. When Nouwen expects God’s love to be conditional and dependent on his own actions rather than from grace, Nouwen turns his back on the embrace we see between the father and son in Rembrandt’s painting because “one of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness.”
The Elder Son
The elder son worked side-by-side with his father his entire life. He is furious at the father’s reception of the loose-living, irresponsible son and leaves the party. In the parable, the father meets the elder son outside and reassures him of his importance. Rembrandt’s painting twists the events a little bit. In the parable, the elder son returns home in the midst of the party, but in the picture the elder son is witnessing the homecoming the moment it happened. During Rembrandt’s time, it was common to associate the elder son with the Pharisees, those unforgiving, uber-rule followers of Christ’s time. Here, the stern, disapproving man on the right fits that personification. Nouwen discovered Rembrandt was just as much the elder son during his life as the younger. Rembrandt was known to act bitter, resentful and vengeful. One of the worst examples was Rembrandt’s maneuvering to have his former housekeeper placed in a mental institution to be rid of her. Nouwen reflects that it is much harder to appreciate a man ”with deep resentments, wasting much of his precious time in rather petty court cases and constantly alienating people with his arrogant behavior.”
The younger son was externally lost among the world, but interiorly he repents and returns to a wonderful homecoming. The elder brother does all of the right things externally, but internally seaths and is lost in resentment. Nouwen describes his own struggle as the elder son:
The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being. My resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.
Nouwen finishes this section with how he found a way home of the land of resentment and judgmental reactions.
It is with the father that Nouwen feels Rembrandt painted the intersection of the human and the divine. The father is a half-blind, old man who suffered much but exudes love, compassion and forgiveness. Even from the reproduction on the cover of the book, I could feel the emotion, this is the heart of the masterpiece. Nouwen talks about the roles we all need to take on as the father, to “steal all the real joy in life” and point it out to others, not to ignore the hardship but to live in it while trusting the good more than the bad, to live without comparison, and to live with compassion. The role of the father reminds me of the saying of a former pastor–when living my everyday life, always chose grace.
The Return of the Prodigal Son is a beautiful story of how a masterpiece launched a spiritual, life-changing evaluation. The book analyzes the painting, the artist and the odyssey it sent the viewer on. Far more than an art history book, it also tells the personal story of viewer.