The Return Of The Prodigal Son: A Story Of Homecoming

Nouwen, Henri JM
Darton, Longman & Todd (1994)
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Henri Nouwen is the best represented author on our shelves and that is no surprise because he was a quite remarkable man. Born in the Netherlands, he taught theology at the University of Notre Dame and then at the Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools. In 1986 he became the Pastor of the L'Arche Daybreak Centre in Toronto, one of the remarkable communities founded by Jean Vanier to care for people with severe mental disability, where he stayed for the last decade of his life. (see Vanier, Jean: The Broken Body: Journey to Wholeness (1988) on our shelves).

Throughout his academic and L'Arche experiences he wrote prolifically and perhaps his most remarkable book was that on the subject of the Prodigal Son which describes his journey from one world to the other and which, incidentally, has a title uncannily similar the Vanier's book. One of the triggers for Nouwen's journey - there is always going to be more than one with him - was a poster of Rembrandt's Return of The Prodigal Son painted in 1668-9 near the end of his turbulent life. Nouwen made a special journey to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg where he sat before it for many hours.

One of the great attractions of this study of a great picture is that it sheds all kinds of different lights on a story we think we know, often as a simple parable about repentance and forgiveness but Nouwen sees it as a many-sided commentary on the route to spiritual maturity and he saw his own spiritual journey in the main protagonists, imagining himself first as the Prodigal Son, then as the brother who stayed with his father and then the father himself but also imagining them as different aspects of divine love.

This is an intellectually challenging essay but it makes a change from drier theological fare without being sentimental. Nouwen's eye for painting is as sharp as his eye for spiritual significance; and even if the book is not guaranteed to get us onto a higher level, it is to be hoped that it will prevent us from ever again walking past great masterpieces with barely a glance.

If you find this book somewhat involved, don't altogether give up on Nouwen who is a sensitive and lucid writer at many different levels.