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When I was in college, I read a lot of Henri Nouwen. A Catholic priest who left an illustrious career in academia to live with the mentally disabled, his simple spirituality and his incredible honesty spoke to me at a time where my own spiritual journey had taken me from a very devout and robust community of faith to the relatively unchurched Northwest. The Return of the Prodigal Son is a book written during his time of transition from professor at Harvard to pastor of a L’Arche community in Canada and follows his journey with the parable and also with the titular painting by Rembrandt.
In the parish where I made my first reconciliation, communion and confirmation, this same painting hung on the wall. Nouwen first saw it in a friend’s office and then went on a journey to see the actually painting in Russia. At that time, he most identified with the younger son in the painting, but as he talked about it with more and more friends, he began to see ways in which he was more like the older son. Then the same friend who had the painting on a poster in her office told him that his real challenge was to become the Father in the painting.
And that is how the book is organized: his encounter with the painting, and then a series of reflections on each of the characters in the painting and in the parable. Each section held different insights for me, but I really appreciated Nouwen’s honesty about his own struggles with unforgiveness and resentment. At this season in my life, that part of the narrative really resonated with me. At times his analysis of the painting reminded me why I DIDN’T take art history in college, but I really enjoyed his personal reflections and the parts that focused more on the Bible story. This has always been one of my favorite parables, and I know I will have more depth of knowledge when teaching it next year.
Popcorn Rating: 4. If you love art history, probably a 5.
Stars: 4. I got a lot out of this book, but it wasn’t one that I immediately felt like I needed to take action on after reading.