Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son
Home Again: A new Nouwen comes to light
A decade after his death, new work by acclaimed spiritual writer Henri Nouwen is discovered.
By Rev. Robert T. Jennings
(Originally published on Courier-Journal.com
July 11, 2009. Posted here with kind permission.)
When I was a seminarian, I attended a Pastoral Care class at Georgetown University. I remember little about the class except the day we had Henri Nouwen as a visiting professor. He and my professor, Doug Morrison, were writing a book on compassion. It was a theme that would haunt Nouwen for much of his life.
On that day, Nouwen was painfully shy and his eyes darted around the small circle of students. We had our notebooks open and we were preparing to listen to a lecture. Instead he simply asked in his thick Dutch accent: "What is on your hearts?" The question was embarrassing. It was loaded. It pierced the heart. There was silence. Then, came the intimacy of sharing. Students I had been with all semester changed right before my eyes. And there was Nouwen — the teacher — listening and learning.
With this indelible experience on my mind, I opened this little book, Home Tonight
. The title is based again on a question — only this time asked of Nouwen — by one of the mentally and physically disabled residents of the L'Arche Daybreak community where Nouwen served prior to his death in 1996. The resident, John, was a middle-aged man in the group home. Everyday he would ask the assistants in the group home — especially the very busy Nouwen, his friend and priest — "Are you home tonight?" For Nouwen, the answer was often painful. No, he was not at home.
Nouwen uses the question for himself and for his readers to begin the inner journey towards our spiritual home. He draws on the Biblical story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) as a framework and context for finding our way home. Looking at home through the eyes of the prodigal son, the elder son, and the father, the reader is encouraged to grow and apply the meaning of home to a welcoming Divine Father.
Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest and one of the more popular and prolific spiritual writers of the twentieth century. During one period of his life he suffered a dark depression and breakdown that seemed beyond recovery. At the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, Nouwen sat before Rembrandt's painting of "The Return of the Prodigal Son", where he contemplated his life and his relationship with God.
What came from this stretch of soul-searching was Nouwen's classic by the same title: The Return of the Prodigal Son
. Since his death, however, transcripts have recently been discovered from a three-day workshop and never-before published materials that Nouwen used prior to writing the book. These transcripts are edited and presented here in a way that invites the reader into a personal spiritual workout with Nouwen. He serves as both participant and guide.
The book offers classic spiritual disciplines in a new, fresh way so that as the reader listens, journals and communes, home and compassion are healed and reconciled.
As a preacher, I have spent the better part of my life with the parable of the prodigal son. I am well acquainted with the muck of the younger brother and the anger of the older brother. But the father?
A member from Nouwen's community visited with him as he was preparing this workshop. In the course of conversation, he said, "Henri, now it's time for you to become the father!" It was the only way to reconcile. It was the only way to heal.
As Nouwen writes: "In a moment I suddenly realized that my final vocation is not only to return home but also to welcome people home by saying, 'I'm so glad you are here! I'm so glad you are here! Come now."
It is a personal invitation extended to each of us like a light shining from a place known as home.
— The Rev. Robert T. Jennings is the rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church, Harrods Creek, Ky.
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