Sue Mosteller & Joe Egan | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week we endeavor to bring you something new that will enhance your knowledge of the writings of Henri Nouwen and we invite you to share these podcasts with your friends and family. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts taking time to give us a review or a thumbs up will mean a great deal to us and will help us reach more people. Our goal is to allow the wisdom, honesty, and encouragement found in the life and the writings of Henri Nouwen to speak to a world hungry for meaning.
Now, let me take time to introduce today’s special program. We invite you to listen in on a retreat that was given at Saint Aiden’s Anglican Church in London, Ontario. The retreat leaders were Sr. Sue Mosteller and Joe Egan. Both these people knew Henri Nouwen well and they chose to base their talks on Henri’s famous book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. If you wish to both watch and listen to this retreat go to the resources page on our website where there’s a video; that’s go to henrinouwen.org or you may just wish to sit back and listen to this insightful podcast. Sr. Sue and Joe bring fresh insights about what Henri longed to communicate in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Narrator (Susan Sarandon): One of Henri’s most important works was inspired by Rembrandt’s painting the Return of the Prodigal Son. In this book he summarized some of the major themes which ran through his own life and work. In a recent issue of Oprah magazine, Hillary Clinton chose The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen as her favorite book.
Henri Nouwen: When I saw the poster of the Rembrandt painting in which the father embraces his returning son, I was totally overwhelmed. And when I saw the embrace, I said, “That’s where I want to be.” And out of that, I started to think about myself as the prodigal son that wanted to return home. But then I started to study the painting and I went all the way to St. Petersburg to see the original painting of Rembrandt. The older son suddenly started to speak to me: that I’m the oldest son myself in my family, that there was a lot of resentment in me, a lot of not fully enjoying being in the church. And so I suddenly discovered I was these two sons, both. And then something incredibly important happened. I got very depressed and I had to take some time away. And one member of my community came to visit me and she said, Henri you are talking about yourself being the younger son. And you’re talking about yourself being the oldest son, but you have to be the father now. That’s what you’re called to, the father. And look at the father in the painting. The father has a hand of a mother and a hand of a father, a male hand and a female hand touching the son. Look at the father who is like a mother with a big cloak, like the mother bird who holds his young son, look at the father who wants to welcome his son back without asking any questions.
The father didn’t even want to hear the story of the younger son. The father doesn’t even want to hear the story of the older son. All of a sudden he wants them to be back home at the same table with him. And so that he can grow up and become like him. And I suddenly discovered my final vocation is to not only to go home, but to bring people home by saying, I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad you’re here. Just get out the cloak, the beautiful ring and get out the sandals and get all – let’s celebrate because you’re back.
Reader: First reading is from the gospel of St. Luke:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, father, give me my share of the estate. So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had and set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, how many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare? And here I am starving to death. I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son, make me like one of your hired servants. So he got up and went to his father.”
Sr. Sue Mosteller: So we begin the story. And we have the first section of this story that was told 2000 years ago. And it’s so marvelous that we’re still listening and that the story has come down through the ages. It has survived because the story has been meaningful for others.
And about 300 years ago, Rembrandt painted a very beautiful portrait of the prodigal son. So we have a 2,000-year-old story and a 300-year-old painting which has also survived and which today hangs in St. Petersburg and is in the museum there and can be seen. I think the original painting is eight feet tall and six feet wide. So it’s very, very huge. And it was painted at the end of Rembrandt’s life after years and years of a very difficult time. Rembrandt was a young aristocratic painter who was very bold and everybody hated him when he was young because he was so arrogant. And then one by one, the sorrows of his life changed his heart. And at the end of his life, he was able to paint a beautiful portrait of who God is, of God represented. Again, it’s a painting that has survived and has touched the lives of many, many people.
And then we have a 52-year-old man, Henri Nouwen and he has an experience with this painting. And I just want to read the notes that tell about it. He said, “One day I went to visit my friend Simone,” (he was in the village of Trosley Breuil in France, in the L’Arche community there.) “She was in the small documentation center and as we spoke my eyes fell on a large poster pinned on her door. I saw a man in a great red cloak touching tenderly the shoulders of a disheveled boy kneeling before him. I could not take my eyes away. I felt drawn by the intimacy between the two figures, the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic and the mysterious light engulfing them both. But most of all, it was the hands, the old man’s hands, as they touched the boy’s shoulder that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before.”
That was a very, very significant moment in the life of Henri Nouwen. That moment in time when it was exactly the right time for him to see this and to grasp something about his own journey and then to take it very, very seriously. So Simone is talking to him and he’s not listening because he’s glued to this portrait on the door. And she says, “What’s the matter?” And he said, “Where did that come from”? Oh, she said, “That’s a painting by your fellow Dutchman. And you’ll like it because he’s Dutch as well.” And she said, “You know, they’re posters, you can buy them.”. And Henri said, “Where?”
And I think the next day he went to Paris on the train for an hour. And I think he probably bought 50 copies because, over his lifetime I’m sure that they’ve profited because he gave it to everybody. And all of Henri’s friends, every place he visited, you see these portraits that are framed and hung in significant places in people’s homes because that moment was so significant for him.
So I want to tell a little story about Henri and myself. And it was a story of us going to an art gallery. And I want to tell it because I think it might help us today, as we look at the painting and as we try to engage the story. We were at a meeting in Ottawa and we had an afternoon free and Henri said, “Let’s go to the art gallery,” – because he loved art, he loved Vincent Van Gogh. And he said, there’s a painting there on visitation by Van Gogh and I really want to see it. So I said, okay. I am not a connoisseur of art so I thought I’ll learn something because he really knows what he’s talking about. So Henri was quite nervous and he was very anxious. And so we ran, basically, to the museum because he wanted to see this painting and he paid quickly and we ran up the stairs and he said, I think it’s on the second floor. And we ran through the rooms and he was looking wildly to see where it was. And then finally he spotted it and he said, there it is. So we stood in front of it. It was about this big, it was not a large painting. It was about that big, it was a Van Gogh. So I looked at it too, and we stood for five or 10 minutes and he just kept saying, isn’t it beautiful? And I was saying, yeah, it’s really beautiful. And you know, isn’t it so beautiful? And I was saying, yeah, it really is. And I’m trying to look. And many, many people were passing by and he had his face right in the painting practically. He was right up against it.
So then he said, “Let’s sit down.” So the bench is about eight feet back. And of course, there’s this big aisle and all the people are walking by and they’re looking at the paintings. So we sat down on the bench and Henri immediately crossed his legs, put his elbow on his knee and he just sat there. So I looked at the — he was staring right at the painting –So I was looking at the painting too. And I was quite far away and my eyesight isn’t perfect. But anyway five minutes went by and he never moved. 10 minutes. And I don’t know how long it was, but finally I turned and I just said, “Henri, what are you doing?”
I said, “Just tell me, because I don’t understand what you’re doing.” And he just looked at me with this terrible look of sorrow. He was so unhappy and he said, “But aren’t you in the painting?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “I’m walking around in the south of France.” And he said, “It’s so beautiful.” And then he began to talk to me. He said, “Look at the flowers, look at the light, look at the way it’s portrayed. It’s so beautiful.” He felt so sorry for me. So I came away from that experience because nobody had ever talked to me about getting in a picture. I had never heard that expression before. So I looked superficially and I saw nice paintings and they were lovely, but I could easily walk away and forget, but Henri couldn’t walk away because he had an experience in the painting. It touched me so much. I mean, he was very kind and he felt very sorry for me. So he wasn’t angry. He was kind and that’s helpful. And I came away and in the days and the months and the years that followed, I began to look at art in a whole different way. But also I began to read scripture in a different way, because there are so many stories in scripture. And suddenly I realized that I could get into the story and I could become people in the story.
So you have the blind man, Bartimaeus sitting on the roadside begging, and Jesus comes along and there’s a crowd there. And for me, it’s a bit safer to be in the crowd because I’m too scared to be too intimate right away. So I can be a crowd member and I can see this thing going on. I can have an experience of this man, beggar calling out and yelling and saying, “Come Jesus of Nazareth, have mercy on me, have mercy.” And the crowd getting angry, saying, “Shut up, shut up and be quiet. You know, we’re trying to get close to this guy.” We want to get close and I could really feel myself wanting him to be quiet so that I could get close to the big man who was coming to town. And then the voice of Jesus saying, “Bring him to see me. Bring him here.” He heard the man and suddenly the crowd shifts and we’re all running to help him because we want to take him to Jesus. And then we’ll be close there too. And then you see Jesus looking at this poor beggar blind. And just the words that he said, so delicate and so sensitive, “What would you like me to do for you?” Those were the words that he spoke, so sensitive, not I’m the big man and I can cure you. “What would you like me to do for you?” And the man just says, “I’d like to see.” Jesus says, “Let it be done.”
So gradually I was living this whole reality of getting into the story and becoming a participant in this story. And there’s no sense talking about the parable of the prodigal son unless you and I make that same effort. We have to get into the story and we have to experience what these people were living, otherwise we don’t get it. I mean, we get a superficial story. We walk away and it means nothing in our lives. But this is a story that tells us about being daughters and sons of God and who God is. And it talks about, if we can do it, it talks about how God wants to relate to us. And that’s what Henri did from 1984. In 1987 Henri had a nervous breakdown and he had to go away from the community because we couldn’t hold onto him. He needed help. And he went away for seven months and he took that portrait and the Eucharist, and that’s all he had in his room for seven months. And he was in agony. And he just kept getting into the story. He makes a comment which I find interesting. He says, he talks about there are four other characters. If you look closely there are some women and people in the background. And he says, “These bystanders or observers are allowed all sorts of interpretations. And as I reflect on my own journey, I become more and more aware of how long I have played the role of bystander. So that’s what I was doing at the museum. I was a bystander. For years, I’ve instructed students and others on the spiritual life, helping them to see the importance of living in it, but had I myself really dared to step into the center, kneel down and let myself be held by a loving God. I never fully have given up the role of bystander. Even though there has been in my lifelong desire, an insider looking out, I nevertheless kept choosing over and over again, the position of outsider looking in.” And he says, “Sometimes I was looking as a curious bystander, sometimes jealous, sometimes anxious, sometimes loving, but giving up the somewhat safe position of the critical observer seemed like a great leap into totally unknown territory.”
Henri knew that if he put himself in the shoes of the young person that it would be a huge leap for him to kneel in front of these hands and to let these hands be on him. “I so much wanted to keep some control over my spiritual journey, to remain able to predict at least part of the outcome so that relinquishing the security of the observer for the vulnerability of the returning child seemed to me close to impossible.”
And I don’t believe that Henri ever would’ve been able to do that if he hadn’t had that breakdown. That somehow he was so vulnerable and so out of control that he was able to simply let go and say, here I am. And it was then that he began to recognize how God saw him. And God did not see him with all the faults that he himself knew, jealousy and anger and not enough affirmation and all the things that worried him and troubled him and wounded him. God did not see him as that. God saw him as a beloved child. And all God wanted was that he would claim that; that he would become one who believes that he is beloved. And that was such a beautiful thing and it took a long time.
I visited him a couple of times while he was away and his room was just stark. There’s nothing there. I said, “What do you do all day?” He said, “I can’t do anything.” He said, “I can’t.” But he said, “Sometimes I just gaze. And I try to recognize who I am and who God is.” Seven months!
And we weren’t sure that he would be able to return to Daybreak after this because he was very fragile. But he did want to come. He wanted to come back and be the pastor at Daybreak. And of course he was invited because we loved him. He was a wonderful pastor, very, very pastoral and very caring and loving and a bit crazy. But sort of a bit out of control, a bit wild, but that’s okay. And so we were so happy when he decided to come back and he was quite fragile, but he gradually we watched it happening. We watched him becoming like the figure of the father. He just couldn’t stop telling us that we were beloved daughters and sons. He couldn’t stop. And he couldn’t stop blessing us. I mean, you’re practically going out to the grocery shopping and he wants to give you a blessing. I mean, but everybody that came and went he wanted to offer them a blessing.
And when we had events, like this young man who did a life story book, who had resisted it for a long time because his life story was so violent and so terrible, and he didn’t want to do it. And then finally with the help of assistants Joe and his wife, and those who loved him, he began to write to some of his teachers and some people, and they wrote to him and told them about who he was and what his life was. And he had this little life story book. It was in comparison with others who had two books that were this thick. And, you know, Bill’s book was about this thick. And when he finished, he and Henri were friends, Henri said, “Let’s bless your life story book.”
So after the Eucharist one day we had the life story book on the altar. And after the Mass, Henri said, “Let’s bless Bill’s life story book.” So Bill came up and they were standing together and Henri had the book in his hand and he said, “Bill, this is such a beautiful and blessed story. And yes, you’ve suffered, but look at you. You’re such a wonderful man.” And he talked to him and Bill just burst out crying, just fell onto Henri’s shoulder. He was just so moved by the affirmation of Henri. And then Henri blessed his book.
After Henri died, I used to take Bill with me, we used to do talks together. And he always took his life storybook. And I felt sorry for the audience because he talked about it. And then afterwards, the poor people trying to eat their lunch and he was taking and showing them every page of his book and pointing at all the pictures and laughing and telling the stories that were told in the book. But it was blessed. And it was a life that was blessed because this man Henri took the courageous step of really recognizing that there is a God who loves us in a way we could never imagine.
So we want to enter more deeply into that story today. And each of us try to be a bit courageous. I want to just say a word – that it’s a very masculine story. And I being a woman – it’s painful. I have to say that and I can’t feminize it very well. So I just want to say that my sort of conclusion about that is that I shouldn’t be stopped by that because that was the time, that’s the way it was. And I can’t change it, but I can adapt and I can see all the maternal and the feminine in it if I work at it. So I just encourage you to try not to be stopped by the fact that it is painful, that there are no women involved.
So this morning we wanted to talk a little bit about the younger son. And we see a typical teenager, young man, probably very adolescent, intolerant and selfish. It’s all about him. And we know that we know people like that. So everything is about him. So he doesn’t even know how cruel he is when he asks his father for his inheritance. He doesn’t realize that that’s an insult that tells his father that he wishes he were dead, but because he hadn’t died, he wants his inheritance now. And it’s a very, very insulting thing to do. And then he goes away. And he gets far from home, so far from home. Yes in body, but also far from home in spirit, far from that home where there were loving parents who wanted him to grow up and become like them. He squanders, he lives for pleasure. It’s all about himself. And he is completely lost. And doesn’t even recognize it until he runs out of money. And then he recognizes that he’s not able to make it on his own. This young man does not know the heart of his parents. He doesn’t know the heart of the love that is there for him in his home. He doesn’t get it. And in a way, as a young adolescent, he doesn’t want it because it’s too sentimental. And he wants to go off and do his own thing. So he doesn’t return because he knows that there’s love waiting for him. He doesn’t know the heart of his father. He has no idea who his father really is. So he says to himself, he has this little thing going on in his brain, “I’ll return, but I’ll become a servant in his house because I know he won’t welcome me home. But I can become a servant and then I won’t have to worry about meals. Yeah. I’ll have to work, but it’s okay, I can do that. Maybe I can save a little money then I can leave again.” But that’s the attitude of the return. So his return might not be like Henri’s return or your return or mine because he had no idea. But it’s good that this happened because then we really can see the heart of the parent in this story. So he decides to go home and as Henri says, he makes up a little speech to talk to his father: “I’ve, you know, I’m sorry I’ve done this but I’ll just come and be a servant in your house.” And he’s got his speech all ready to give his father when he finally meets him with no expectation of what’s going to actually happen. That being that, since he left, this parent has been looking for him every day, hoping for his return because his love is so generous. It’s so overwhelming. There’s something about letting him go knowing that he’s is going to suffer, but saying I can’t control that. And so letting him go. I mean, in a way he blesses him almost in saying here’s the money, go. He blesses him in the leaving. And when the son is coming back he’s looking for him. And his first gesture is to run out, to greet him and to welcome him home. So here we have a huge contrast between the one who is all for self and the one who is all for others. And this is the beginning of our recognition of how God looks at us, how God looks at the children that God has made, the children that God has brought to bear and brought to life. And that God looks at us and sees just beauty and goodness and kindness and joy. And that all the things we look in the mirror and see — “I’m angry. I’m upset. I’m difficult. I’m hopeless.” — God, doesn’t see that at all.
I guess the question then is for you and I to ask, “Where are the characteristics of this young man in me?” And we’re going take a few minutes just of silence when I’m finished in a couple of minutes, and I’m going to ask you to just look at the portrait or you can just remain, but “How do I identify? I’ve been given so much by God, I’ve been given a loving heart. I’ve been given gifts that I have, and I can offer those gifts to others. I’ve been given amazing relationships that are wonderful and terrible. And I don’t know about you, but my family is fantastic and awful. And the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, I mean, I just give thanks every day. How can I thank you enough for bringing me, but it’s so awful living in community and I want to murder everybody before the day is over. So what about these relationships? What have I been given and what am I squandering and how am I in these relationships? And you and I today might look at — we all have what we call primary relationships, that is those closest to us, family and maybe friends. And then we can work out from there. I meet so many people where relationships are broken. My niece and my nephew they’re not talking to each other. And every day I say to the Lord, you know, before one of them dies, you said you would do anything If I tried to follow you; you said I could ask anything and you’d do it. So I’m asking before one of them or the other dies, get them talking to each other again. It’s so stupid. But it happens to us. We have these breakages and they have wounded us. And this is what the father could have claimed in this story. The father could have said you took all the money and you ran away. So you can just make it on your own, buddy. Because he had invested a lot in that relationship. And I can say the same thing. I’ve invested a lot in this relationship and now you’ve wounded me so I’ll never forgive you. But the point is that in the very, very first chapter of the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, very first chapter, you and I were made in the image and likeness of God. And that has profound meaning. That if we were made in the image and likeness of God, God is very, very creative and generative and loving. God can’t stop creating. And that God has created each one of us and every one of us recognizable by the difference, but millions and millions and millions of people. And each of us with a heart that is like the heart of God. And that is supposed to give life. And that is supposed to love. And that is supposed to forgive, even if it hurts, even if there isn’t anything coming from the other side,
I was just talking to my niece and I said, “How do you feel about this?” She said, “If he would come to the front door and say, ‘I’m sorry’, I’d take him in my arms.” So there’s an openness. But she’s been wounded because hard things have been said. She’s willing to put all that aside. That’s not, that’s not part of it. She loves her brother. That’s my niece. But it hasn’t happened.
And you and I have a heart that is like the heart of God and what Henri talks about and it’s so wise, if you haven’t read it, read it and then read it again. But read it slowly. You don’t read this like a novel you read this like a little bit at a time and you say, how does it affect me? How do I step into this story like he did? And he had a lot of wounds from people who had wounded him and he knew that he wasn’t to wait until they came and said they were sorry. It was to let them go free, to contact them and to say you’re my friend and I hope you’ll come and visit me even if it was broken. You and I have been given a heart like the heart of God we’re made in the image and likeness of God.
I loved it when one time I had this person that I was living with and I could not stand her, sorry to say. Anyway, she was in my face everywhere. Everywhere I went she was there because she loved me. I was dying every second. And so I’d come down the stairs in the morning and there she was and then she’d fight to get a place next to me at the table. And she didn’t have a lot of sense of her body. So she was always poking me with her elbow. And I was – after about two years, I said to my spiritual director, I’m having trouble with this woman. And then I said, this is really trouble, I really don’t know how to react. I’m so mad. And then it got – as the years went on. So finally one day I went and said, it’s over. I can’t do it. I can’t live with her. So I said, it’s either her or me. One of us has to move and I’m willing, I’m willing to move. So help me. How do I do this? I was crying and I was yelling and I was doing… and my spiritual director’s a Jesuit and he’s so funny because I do all that and he sort of puts his feet up and lies back and closes his eyes and has a little sleep and I’m crying and saying I can’t. And I, you know… and so finally I finished and I said, so what’s the answer? So he opened his eyes and looked at me very kindly and said, it’s not about her. I looked around and there was nobody else there. And it was a lesson. It’s not about her. I can’t change her. So can I change? And then the next thing he asked me, which I’m embarrassed about, but which was so good for me was, “Why are you so afraid of love?” That was a very important question. He said, “All she wants to do is love you and why are you running away?”
It happened 30 years ago, but I still live by it. And I still know that in these broken relationships and these places where we’re angry and we can’t forgive, it’s not about the other person who hurt me, it’s about me. What am I going to do? How is my heart going to respond? The heart that God gave me, which is a heart for loving, and to step through my pain, somehow, with the help of God and to let people go free. Whether they’re going to forgive me, whether we’re going to ever have friendship again is not the question. It’s not about them. It’s about me.
So let’s take a few minutes and I invite you to just take a little time. I want to say that I think that this day in our lives, it’s a call for us to turn and to come home to the truth of who we are. To come home. So I’ll finish with a story and then we’re going to have 10 minutes and this church will be totally silent. We’ll ask you, silent means, don’t say anything. Let it be silent so people can reflect, or you might like to get up and walk and so on. And then come back in 10 minutes for Joe’s talk, but just where are you with this?
So this last story is about David, who lived at Daybreak and a wonderful man. And he liked to answer the telephone, but he didn’t know how to use it too well. So he would answer the phone and the person, “Could I please speak to Sue?” And he’d say, “Yes. Now what’s your name?” And so the person would say their name and well, “How did you meet Sue?” So then they would tell the story of how they met me. So well, “What did you want to talk to her about? And do you have any children?” And he’d get the whole history. And then at the end he’d say, “Well “Sue’s not home, but I’ll…” So one day the phone rang and David answered the phone and the operator said, “I have a collect call from Joe Egan, from Boston. Would you accept the call”? And Dave said, “No, Joe’s away for the weekend.” So the operator said, “No, no,” she said, “This is from Joe for you. Would you accept the charges of this call from Joe?” He said, “No. Joe went to Boston, he has some friends there and he wanted to visit them. And I think he’s giving a talk. I’m not sure, but anyway, he’s not here.” So the operator, so there’s sort of silence and Joe can hear this at the other end. So Joe said, “Dave, just say yes.” So the operator said, “Excuse me, sir, if you don’t wish to pay for this call, please don’t speak to your party.” So Dave said, “Oh Joe, there’s a call here for you, what should I do?”
And I want to say to you and I, particularly: there’s a call. There’s a call. This is an invitation to come to the truth of who we are. We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, God loves us. And you and I are made in the image and likeness of God. So are we going to come home to be that person? Are we going to keep growing to be the one who is blessing, who is forgiving, who is full of compassion and who somehow deals with the pain so that it doesn’t leak out and make others unhappy. And it’s a good thing to just spend a little time with our relationships today. Thank you.
Joe Egan: I’m always encouraged when good people like you decide to give up a wonderful first spring day, as Kevin said, to be here. So thank you. And I ask you just to trust your choice and desire to be here. And it’s true that when we gather in his name, Jesus makes a very specific promise simply that, “I will be with you.” And what this means is that there a gift can be given to us. If we’re open to receiving it, for our God is always waiting to give us a gift.
Reader: Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Well, your brother has come home,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him back safe and sound.” Well, the older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him, but he answered his father. “Look, all these years, I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered all your property with prostitutes comes home, you killed a fatted calf for him.” “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me and everything I have is yours, but we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”
Joe: Henri never doubted that the man standing at the right of the painting was the elder son. And when he was in Leningrad in front of that picture and Sue explained the process that Henri went through, in front of the picture without knowing why, he wrote a lot spontaneously about this figure, what he was there for, what he was thinking, what was going on, et cetera. And Henri strongly felt that Rembrandt put the elder son into the painting to give us a clear challenge even though the parable, as we just heard says that the elder son was off in the field when the younger brother came home. And so for Henri, this painting summarized the great spiritual challenge and great choice the battle demands. He wrote, “The elder son can still choose for or against the love offered to him,” which calls us as Sue also said earlier, to make our own choices, to make personal decisions about our own lives. For Henri, he felt Rembrandt was as much the elder son as the younger one. And later on, Henri also discovered this for himself.
And of course it’s true. It’s true for all of us as sons and daughters too. Henri believed that you and I are as much the older son or daughter as the younger one and Jesus and Rembrandt and Henri all wanted us to find that older son or daughter in us and to start to listen to that reality as much as we are encouraged to find the younger son or daughter in us. Because that older one is a reality in us as well. And it’s important to become in touch with this reality in our own personal history and for our life today. And so I’d like to share a story of my own history. It’s a critical story of my time at L’Arche which I reread a bit differently because of this parable. It’s a story of a failed leaving, which paradoxically changed everything for me.
I’m here today because of that same David Harmon that Sue talked about in terms of the phone call story. And he is now an elder at Daybreak. He’s lived in L’Arche 50 years, longer than anybody else in Canada. And it’s hard to imagine for us, all the people that David has welcomed over those 50 years, all the people that he allowed into their lives. And I was one of those people over 45 years ago, but it was in my second year at Daybreak I decided to leave because I just found it too difficult. We lived in this house we essentially called the Big House and there were some 20 to 25 people living together and a good day was a bit chaotic and messy.
So it came time to share with David my decision, because it was going to be announced publicly in the community. And I put it off as long as I could because I knew David was going to get upset. But one evening we had to sit down together and I told him that I had planned to leave. And David started to cry. And then I started to cry and I didn’t cry much in those days. And he said to me, “I have something I want to give to you.” And he went off to his room and he came back a few minutes later with a little picture of himself, about 10 years old. And he handed me the picture and said, “I want you to have this picture of me so that you will never forget me. And I want a picture of you so that I will never forget you.” And in that moment I left and I returned; in that moment. I knew I couldn’t leave. And David helped me to realize how much he loved me. And he helped me to realize that he wasn’t going to let me sneak out the back door of the Big House at midnight.
And David called me back to the why I came to L’Arche in the first place and to let go of all the negative feelings I might have had about all the busyness and the messiness. He revealed to me something I didn’t know, and called me to give a second yes, a deeper yes, a truer yes, a more vulnerable yes. In short, he gave me a second redemptive chance. And he revealed to me one of the fundamental challenges that we live at L’Arche and Sue mentioned this: Can I be open and receive love from those whom I thought I was coming to help? Can we learn to accept this love for others? And if that happens, if that happens, everything can and does change after that point. Because at L’Arche and as family members, as parents, as grandparents, we can give tons and tons love and all the rest of it but can we receive too? If we only give, we have the illusion of staying in control, but receiving always implies a certain human vulnerability and mutuality. And so I learned so much from the risk he took that night to be so personal with me and to be willing to share what was in his heart. And I would say that he revealed to me my calling and my vocation; I would say he planted in my heart a seed of a covenant.
And he too asked me these questions through his tears: “Why are you leaving when you know, or you should know, how much I love you? Why can’t you accept this love? Why are you so afraid of this love? Why don’t you trust why you came to L’Arche in the first place?” And I would also say today, which is new for me, that David forgave me in that moment for planning to leave him.
And David has been a most faithful friend for over 45 years, Five years later, I asked him to be the best man at our wedding because I met Mary at Daybreak. And he was very good at that job. In fact, I was a little bit worried because he was more excited about the wedding than I was sometimes and he’d call me up and we’d talk about the plans and what was going to happen and who was coming and all of that. Every time we had a child, he came to the hospital to visit. When my father died, he came to Chicago with an assistant to be at the funeral. And when my mom died, he did that too.
And we often have lunch together. And typically he asks two questions. “How long have we known each other?” And he’d take a wild guess. He never gets it right. I think he does that on purpose. But every once in a while he’ll get serious and he’ll say, “Do you still have my picture?” And I still have his picture; it’s in my wallet. I’ve carried it with me for 45 years. And it’s my compass. It tells me where true north is. And when I have gone through difficult times in L’Arche I know I can pull out that picture and it will remind me of what’s really important and what my call and vocation in L’Arche is all about.
And this poem by e e cummings always reminds me of David. And I’d be happy to share it with you.
here is the deepest secret that nobody knows
( here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide).
and this is the wonder that keeps the stars apart.
i carry your heart. i carry it in my heart.
And I know that David has carried my heart in his for many years now. And I know I can never, never, never be grateful enough for that. So, like Sue, I encourage us today and during this Lent to look at our own story in light of this parable and to ask what is the truth that you carry in your heart today? And this was the key question for Henri too. What’s going on in the heart of this elder son?
And from the painting, Henri reflects it’s the elder son who’s the main observer of his brother’s homecoming, but he looks withdrawn. He does not smile. He doesn’t express welcome in any way. If you look at the picture, he just stands there stiff as a board. And he’s off to the right with an obvious gap separating him from his father. And one thing that’s obvious for Henri and all of us is that the elder son was the one who stayed home. And if you look at it carefully, you realize from an objective perspective, he did all the right things, all the right things. He didn’t run off. He took care of his father’s estate. He was obedient. He was dutiful. He was faithful. He stayed there. He worked very, very hard, but was it just trying to earn his father’s love? And in some ways that may be how we are too, trying to earn God’s love; trying somehow to prove that we’re worthy of being loved. Somehow trying to prove that we deserve it. Because on the outside this elder son — or we could say elder daughter — did all the right things, was a model child who was respected and admired, especially compared to the younger brother.
But for Henri interiorly, he wandered away from his father too. He became increasingly unhappy, unfree, bitter, resentful and angry. It became obvious to Henri both sons were lost spiritually, both of them. And that for many of us as elder sons and daughters, we too may be lost while still staying at home. And this lostness for Henri is characterized by frustration, judgment, anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy. And we all know these feelings at times. And the reality behind them and for Henri it was just so damaging to the human heart. And so the lostness of the younger son is so obvious, but the lostness of the elder is so much harder to identify because from the outside he did all the right things. Then suddenly what was silent and hidden, becomes quite visible. Having grown stronger and stronger over the years and then triggered by the return of his brother, the dam broke wide open as his anger and jealous words flowed from a heart which never felt he received his due. In short he wasn’t free in his relationship with his father. He felt he had to do it. And so there was this certain anger or resentment there which just grew and grew. He was trapped in this interior reality, a life of self-sacrifice not chosen, hardened his heart. And we can see this from the reaction of the elder son when he returns from the field. As the parable says he was angry, he refuses to go in to celebrate with the father and his younger brother. And we can so easily understand these feelings and this choice, because we too have complained in little ways and big ways that we have not received our fair share and our due as well. Just like we can understand the feelings of those workers in another parable that’s familiar to us. It’s when the landowner pays the folks who only work the last hour of the day the exact same wage as those who work so hard all day long in the sun. And it just isn’t right. It isn’t fair. Of course people should feel resentful. We’d all feel resentful if we were those people who worked all day long and the guys who came at the end got the same.
And so Henri in this parable calls us to look at this resentment. Henri wrote “resentment is one of the most vicious qualities of life because it makes human relationship and community life so difficult and it can settle in our hearts and just cause all sorts of problems”. He describes this resentment as cold anger. When we get angry with someone, okay, you know, and then it’s over with, but if you just eat it up, if you just stuff it inside and pretend it isn’t gonna pop out again, we’re fooling ourselves. And then we get a little bit more angry and a little more angry. It’s not hot anger anymore. It becomes cold anger and just sits in us and it can become so pervasive we don’t even know how angry we are. And as Henri said, it can become a way of life. And I think we all know some people for whom it’s become a way of life. Particularly as we grow older and feel we didn’t get what we deserved or life didn’t work out the way we had hoped. Our dreams were not realized. And so as sons and daughters, there are times things don’t work out for us either as we planned or expected. We too can feel unhappy and frustrated. And maybe too, we’re a little bit afraid to really claim our life and our deeper desires.
And so in short, Henri in this parable wants us to notice how lost we are when we are resentful. With the younger son it’s so clear, his sinning with the drinking and the women and the gambling and all the rest. He can come back and be forgiven but the problem of resentment is not as clear. It’s not as upfront. It can even present itself as holiness in doing one’s duty, but it can sit deep in our bones. And so we can be lost in a much deeper way that’s harder to get at. And one characteristic of this is the older son precisely says, I don’t consider this younger son an equal. He says and yells at his father, “I’m not that way like that younger son of yours, that son of yours, not my brother. He’s your son.” But all demonizing, all demonizing is always untrue. And there’s so much of it in our world today. You just listen to politicians and whoever, the easiest solution is just demonize the people we don’t like and what they’re doing. And it’s always untrue to say, “We are not the same.” It’s always untrue to say, “They’re not a brother or sister.” It’s always untrue to say, “They’re not my equal.”
And so we have to stop demonizing. So to return is to let go of that resentment and to become a brother or sister, an equal, a part of a family again and a part of a community. But in the end, this parable and the painting, don’t give us a nice TV movie ending. We don’t know what either of these brothers will live in the next moment, the next day and the weeks afterwards. For Henri, this leaves us with one of the most challenging spiritual questions: to trust or not to trust in God’s all-forgiving love. And we all have to make that choice about trust. Just like those original scribes and Pharisees who heard this parable because they were complaining loudly and often to Jesus about, “why do you hang out and eat with sinners?” And those are the people who they saw and we see as different, as not good enough, those who we want to exclude. And so for Henri a key question again is, can the elder son or the elder daughter in all of us come home because we’re just as lost as that younger one. What can we do to make this return home possible?
And for Henri, the answer was fairly straightforward, but damned difficult to live. For Henri, it meant we have to accept our reality, we have to accept the truth of our story, the brokenness in our story, which means we have to recognize at the very beginning that we are lost. If we never admit to being lost, we can’t be found. We’re off just living our lives. And so the first step is kind of like AA, the first step is admitting I’m lost. I’m like that younger son or daughter, I’m like that older son or daughter. I’m like both. And then he says, then we can prepare ourselves to be found and be brought home.
But Henri’s absolutely clear we can can’t do that by ourselves. We don’t have the freedom to do that, but we can prepare ourselves to be found. Julian of Norwich said it this way: “First there’s the fall, and then we recover from the fall and both are the mercy of God.” And so what Henri writes about in his book is trust and gratitude as the two disciplines for our conversion in our best preparation for return. For Henri, without trust, we cannot be found. Trust is that deep inner conviction that God who is our father and mother and so much more, wants us home and trusting that God always goes looking for us to bring us home. We must keep saying to ourselves, “God is looking for me, God loves me, God wants me home.” And yet we all have these other voices inside of us that say just the opposite. And that message can be summed up simply as, “You’ll never be good enough.” And how often do we listen to the wrong voice? So for Henri, in short, our trust has to go deeper than our lostness. And Jesus expresses this truth very simply when he said, “Everything you ask and pray for, trust that you have it already and it will be yours.” Trust that you have it already and it’ll be yours. And for Henri along with that trust, there must be gratitude. Resentment is, ‘I don’t get what I deserve. But resentment and gratitude can’t coexist together because gratitude claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. And for Henri it’s a discipline, an effort to acknowledge that all that I am has been given to me as a gift. It’s a gift of love. It’s a gift that Sue described earlier. And so what’s our choice? Is it to complain and become resentful over time, or to learn how to become more and more grateful?
And it’s always some effort to choose gratitude. Somehow it’s easier to complain. And somehow the people who are unhappy and who like to complain find one another. It happens in L’Arche all the time. Maybe not with the Sisters of St. Joseph, but unhappy people find each other. I’m amazed. I’ve witnessed it for 45 years. I’ve been part of it myself. And what do they do? The just reinforce each other’s unhappiness: “Oh, you think you have a good complaint? Oh, wait till you hear mine.”
So it takes an effort to choose. It’s a discipline, Henri said, to choose to be grateful. And he says it does become easier over time. We do become freer over time and it reveals to us the deep truth that everything is a grace. But both trust and gratitude require us to take risks. It’s a leap of faith to give them a chance to grow in us. Trust and gratitude reveal the God who runs out to meet us and invites us into God’s home with joy and celebration. This parable, the painting, Henri’s book, are all for our conversion and transformation. But it also greatly helps to have a David Harmon or two in our lives.
And where will you find your David Harmon? You just have to go to the margins and you’ll find someone who can transform you there. I was telling Sue at breakfast about being at a talk by Mother Teresa in Toronto many, many years ago where she shared about the house of the dying and so on. And at the end of the talk, there’s a Q and A and the first guy up was a bit aggressive and said, “Are you trying to tell us that we should all come to Calcutta and help you in the house of the dying?” And Mother Teresa was quiet for a moment and then she just said, “Only if it’ll make you happy. Only if it’ll make you happy.” And then she said, “But if you look around, you’ll find your own Calcutta. You’ll find someone in your family, down the street, at work, in your faith community. You’ll find someone who needs a hand up, who needs some support, who’s lonely, whatever.” And that’s the invitation to us all, to look for our own Calcutta, to look for those people whom we can help and to ask for the help that we need to receive.
So in the end, we must trust and be grateful for the truth that as elder sons and daughters, we can always become the beloved one in whom God delights and wants to bring home. And it’s hard to trust that but that’s the call for us today and every day. And so after lunch we’re going to look deeper into this challenge and this gift of forgiveness in our lives. And we’ll look closer at this reality of the father in this parable who says to each of us, with such tenderness, “My son, my daughter, you are always with me. All I have is yours.”
Karen: Thank you for taking time to listen. I hope you come away from this retreat as inspired and moved as I was. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you take time to give it a stellar review or a thumbs up, or even share it with your friends and family. As well, you’ll find links in the show notes on our website and any content, resources or books discussed in this episode. There’s even a link to books to get you started in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen.
Thanks for listening until next time.
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