Prior to writing his great classic, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen suffered an enormous personal loss and breakdown that took him away from his home in the LArche Daybreak community for a period of seven months. His thoughts were intense, raw and deeply private, and ultimately revealed to him the passionate drama of parenthood, filial duty, rivalry, anger and unconditional love on display in Rembrandts painting.
On his return from solitude, Henri held small, private workshops on his revelations that were recorded in audio. The material of those extremely personal talks has now been formed into a unique work. Home Tonight brings to light Nouwens lectures on the Prodigal Son in a powerful guide for spiritual reflection. Providing exercises, suggestions for times of solitude, questions for pondering, simple prayers, and aides for personal journaling, Home Tonight leads readers to commune with God through spiritual listening. A practical guide for the inner journey home, this important book will give those who adore Nouwens works the chance to hear his voice anew on his most popular topic.
'Even though I often give in to the many fears and warnings of my world, I still believe deeply that our few years on this earth are part of a much longer event that stretches out far beyond the boundaries of our birth and death. I think of it as a mission into time, a mission that is very exhilarating and even exciting, mostly because the One who sent me on the mission is waiting for me to come home and tell the story of what I have learned.' - Henri Nouwen at the time of his death in 1996
Henri Nouwen was one of the most popular spiritual writers in the world. Through more than fifty books he touched countless people with his compelling interpretation of Christian faith and the gospel. In part his impact came from his willingness to draw deeply on his own experience, inviting readers to share his joys, his anguish, and his spiritual journey. That journey led him from his home in Holland to America; from a series of prestigious academic posts to a Trappist monastery, to the poor of Latin America, and finally to Canada, where he found his final home in a L'Arche community devoted to the care of handicapped adults.
Most of us are familiar with the story of the late Henri Nouwen, the famous Dutch Catholic priest and spiritual writer, who abandoned a successful academic career at Yale and Harvard to work with the mentally handicapped at the LArche Daybreak Community, Toronto, Canada.
Henri Nouwen was a deeply sensitive man and it was after a breakdown that he suffered, which required seven months leave from his work, that he decided to hold small private workshops on his sufferings and observations. These were recorded on audio tape. Rembrandts painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, held a special meaning and fascination for Nouwen and he spent long periods in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad studying the painting and reflecting upon it.
In many ways, Henri was a lonely man who craved affection and the affirmation of others. He was deeply human and easily hurt. In Rembrandts famous painting he saw so many things he craved and could identify with - compassion, love, the longing for forgiveness and acceptance and the healing and grace that come from forgiveness and repentance.
He also reflected on the understandable sense of hurt experienced by the older brother in the story. Nouwen points out that Rembrandt painted this famous picture when he was an old man who had suffered so much loss in his life. He writes: It was a man who experienced loneliness in his life that painted this picture. As he lived his overwhelming losses and died many personal deaths, Rembrandt could have become a most bitter, angry, resentful person. Instead he became the one who was finally able to paint one of the most intimate paintings of all time - The Return of the Prodigal Son, This is not the painting he was able to paint when he was young and successful.
No, he was only able to paint the mercy of a blind father when he had lost everything; all of his children but one, two of his wives, all his money, and his good name and popularity. Only after that was he able to paint this picture, and he painted it from a place in himself that he knew what Gods mercy was. Somehow his loss and suffering emptied him out to receive fully and deeply the mercy of God. When Vincent van Gogh saw this painting he said, You can only paint this painting when you have died many deaths.
There is a deep yearning in all of us for acceptance and love and a terror of rejection. We want to be popular and respected. Henri Nouwen truly personified this longing. He says: We work tirelessly to present ourselves in a good light before others in the false belief that our identity comes from who we are in their eyes, or from what we do or what we have. We look to people outside ourselves to tell us if we are unique, acceptable and good. We need to know from those around us if we pass the test of being someone unique and loveable. This thinking is encouraged by the world in which we live. How much money does he make? What does she own? Who does he know? Is she famous? What can he do for me? What are they writing about her? Whose arm can l twist? If I dont do well or have enough money, success, or good reputation, then I am nothing. These cultural illusions fill the world in which we live and profoundly influence how we feel about ourselves.
Henri Nouwen thinks deeply on all of this and just how pernicious these thoughts can be, but then he adds: The life of Jesus refutes this dark world of illusion that entraps us. To return home is to turn from these illusions, from dissipation and from our desperate attempts to live up to others expectations. We are not what we do. We are not what we have. We are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving creator. We no longer have to beg for permission from the world to exist. I think this is brilliant stuff!
Nouwen draws our attention to something I didnt know. Rembrandt painted the father figure in The Return of the Prodigal Son with a male and female hand. This was to express the warmth, gentleness, compassion and strength of both father and mother towards the child. When you look at the picture youll notice the difference in the two hands.
As with all of Henri Nouwens writing, this wonderful little book touches the heart in a deeply moving way.
- Anthony Redmond, The Irish Catholic. November 2009