After the Party Ends Life Continues
Art appreciation was never high on my list of enjoyable classes. I admire those who can draw, I just do not happen to be one of them. I also was not particularly adept at trying to figure out what the artist was saying in his or her painting. My interpretations never quite aligned with my art teachers and I do not believe anyone who says that there are no wrong answers. My teachers could always find wrong answers in my essays.
My problem was two-fold. First, I have an analytical mind. I prefer reviewing hard data not the feelings of color. Number crunching provides information that can be evaluated, interpreted, and used. The slight stroke of a pen, the delicate flair of a brush are pretty, but what's the point? The other problem I had with art appreciation is my tendency to focus off center. Whereas the artist would skillfully line up everything in a painting to one focal point, my eyes would be wandering off into a remote corner of the scene to notice some peculiar misshaped image. This was once again apparent when I began to read some biographical material about the Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen.
Late in his life Nouwen developed a fondness for the famous painting by Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son. He first saw a poster of the painting in 1983. Nouwen had just completed an very demanding lecture tour on Central American justice issues. Something about the painting really touched him. Three years later he accepted an invitation to lecture in Russia, mostly because it would allow him to see the original painting which hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Nouwen would visit the museum sometimes twice a week and sit gazing upon the painting.1
The title of the painting suggests that the focus of the viewer should be on the son, kneeling before his father in tattered rags, but my eye was first drawn to the dark space above the father. In the shadows two figures lurk. I wonder who they are? What did Rembrandt see in those silhouettes? While I considered the possibilities and reflected on the other figures in the painting another thought came to me—what happened to these three people after the feast ended? After the food was eaten, after the music faded, after all the guests left, did they live happily ever after?
These questions really began to churn in my thoughts as I conducted a crash course in the biographical material. I was only able to scratch the surface of his life but in doing so I discovered why Nouwen fell in love with the painting. It was a portrait of his life. Shortly after returning home from Russia, Nouwen resigned his position as professor at Yale and wrote a book entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. In this slim book, the Catholic priest describes how he sees himself in each of the characters.
The Elder Brother
In the painting, the eldest brother stands the farthest from the father. You would not expect a Catholic priest to admit that he saw himself in such a cold, detached, isolated figure but Henri Nouwen was not an ordinary priest. Even as a small child, Nouwen knew that he would become an ordained priest. He was born in the Netherlands and while the other children were playing their games in the streets, Henri converted the attic of his home into a chapel so that he could say the Mass. However, after his ordination, after years of success as a professor and author, Henri found himself feeling very lonely and isolated, detached from the church he loved. The elder brother is depressed because he thinks that he deserves his father's love. He has met all the the family obligations. He has not only performed all his duties, the elder brother has met and exceeded his father's expectations. Nouwen wrote-
The more I reflected on the eldest son in me, the more I realized how deeply rooted this form of loneliness 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.2
The Prodigal Priest
The Catholic priest also saw himself in the prodigal, He would write:...over and over again i have left home. I have fled the hands of blessing and run off to faraway places searching for love! This is the great tragedy of my life...”(The Return of the Prodigal) But once he finally decided to return home Nouwen like the younger son knew that he did not deserve forgiveness but pleading with his father for acceptance and love. Henri Nouwen, the famed priest felt that all his life. After Henri's death a biographer revealed a secret that Nouwen kept hidden all his life. The priest was a celibate homosexual: “...he longed for intimate relationships yet recoiled in fear for where they might lead.” He never exposed his sexual orientation, instead he chose to reveal it through his feelings of rejection, loneliness, and restlessness. He considered over 1500 his friends and in times of despair he would often call them on the phone without any consideration for time. A friend told of often receiving calls from Henri between midnight and 6:00 am. Hearing the sad and lonely voice on the other end, he could never hang up on his friend. Nouwen's inner turmoil drove him to his knees. He wrote about this thirst for God, a thirst that so longingly desired but knew that he did not deserve. 3
After the Feast
Most of us should be able to see ourselves as both the elder sibling or the returning prodigal. We have been there, done that. But going back to my original question, what happened at the feast? What happens after all the guests go home? All too often evangelical Christianity presents a now they live happily ever after form of conversion. Accept Jesus and all your sins will be forgiven and all your problems will be solved. Unfortunately, that is not how life turns out. After the feast the prodigal son still has to live with the memories of his sin and the elder son with his feelings of anger. They do not just go away. We carry them with us the rest of our lives. Phillip Yancy in rephrasing Nouwen writes:
Much suffering, ...stems from memories, buried deep inside, which release a form of toxin that attacks the center of one's being. Good memories we display in the form of trophies, diplomas, and scrapbooks; other, painful memories remain hidden from view, where they escape healing and cause enduring harm.
Our instinctive response to such wounding memories is to act as if they did not happen, to not talk about them and think instead about happier things. But by the deliberate act of not remembering we allow the suppressed memories to gain strength and to maim our functioning as human beings.4
Nouwen learned that after the party, after everyone said goodbye. The memories and even some of the pain returned,but we like the parable's father, are called to extend our hands of grace and mercy even in our pain. Nouwen would write:
Poverty, pain, struggle, anguish, agony, and even inner darkness may continue to be part of our experience. They may even be God's way of purifying us. But life is no longer boring, resentful, depressing, or lonely because we have come to know that everything that happens is part of our way to the house of the Father.5
Strength can be displayed in weakness. Flaws and faithfulness may coexist. We may heal others even while we are wounded. We do not have to find someone to blame. We do not have to live as victims. We cannot remain children forever. God is inviting us to become like him. The father had a broken heart when receiving his wayward son. God is calling us to reach out and receive a wayward world even in our hurt and pain. We who are needy are called to place our hands on the shoulders of a crying world. This is the mark of true freedom.
Henri displayed this when he resigned his position at Yale and went to serve at a community that cared for adults with intellectual disabilities. He became so attached to the residents that he would take them with him on his speaking engagements. One evening before he spoke, he invited his friend Bill to the microphone to share with the crowd. A reporter later acknowledged his irritation. He had come a long way to hear Nouwen not Bill. When Bill looked out over the audience, stage fright overwhelmed him. Henri stood next to him for support. Trembling in fear Bill place his head on Nouwen's shoulder and wept. Many of the words that Nouwen spoke that night have passed from the audience's memory but few have forgot seeing Bill resting his head on a priest's shoulder. The elder brother and the prodigal had learned to offer the father's compassion.6
1Phillip Yancy, Soul Survior
2Phillip Yancy, Soul Survior
3Phillip Yancy, Soul Survior
4Phillip Yancy, Soul Survior
5Phillip Yancy, Soul Survior
6Phillip Yancy, Soul Survior
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