The woman sitting next to me on the plane either must have thought me mad or, at the very least, wondered about the book I held that had procured such pervasive highlighting.
It had not started this way. At the beginning of my reading of Henri J.M. Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” I would mark a page here and there, put a star by an occasional sentence, or draw attention to a particularly compelling thought as it struck me.
But as I neared the end, Nouwen’s insights over Rembrandt’s portrayal of the biblical story “The Prodigal Son” — one of the famous artist’s final works — came like an avalanche of love. And there I was, right in the middle of the storm.
I needed to keep track of the best insights. After all, in a few weeks I’ll be helping guide a meaningful rumination on this book, which my spiritual director and I chose because of its theme of mercy.
Pope Francis named this year the Year of Mercy. This helped in our choosing a book focused on mercy in its myriad dimensions for a book study for local faithful yearning to escape the winter doldrums.
Now in my third year of assisting with Catholic Collage — a series of short winter courses for the laity through the Fargo Diocese — I’ve found this book the most captivating so far. Nouwen, a fellow writer and faith-seeker, kept me enthralled.
For those who’ve never seen Rembrandt’s portrayal of what many claim as their favorite biblical story, I’d suggest a Google gaze. Even digitally, the painting has a mesmerizing effect. Nouwen decided it merited a whole book.
He separates his resulting work into three parts: perspectives of the younger son, the elder son and the father. Exploring each character separately, he brings a surprising depth of meaning and connection to each.
In the prologue, “Encounter with a Painting,” Nouwen explains how he came to be drawn to the image through a poster likeness. Just having finished “an exhausting, six-week lecturing trip” at the time, he says, he was searching for reprieve.
“During the trip I had felt like a strong fighter for justice and peace, able to face the dark world without fear,” he explains, “but after it was all over I felt like a vulnerable little child who wanted to crawl onto its mother’s lap and cry.
“As soon as the cheering or cursing crowds were gone,” Nouwen continues, “I experienced a devastating loneliness and could easily have surrendered myself to the seductive voices that promised emotional and physical rest.”
Enter “The Prodigal Son” on the door of an office. “My heart leapt when I saw it,” Nouwen says. “After my long, self-exposing journey, the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment … I was looking for a home where I could feel safe.”
All who live in this demanding world can no doubt relate to his desire for refuge.
Nouwen says in the months and years that followed that first glance, the painting remained imprinted on his soul. Two years later, he traveled to St. Petersburg in the Soviet Union to encounter the original.
The compelling image then took him on a spiritual journey, he says, “from teaching about love to allowing myself to be loved.”
“The painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God,” Nouwen writes. “It is like a huge gate that allows me to move to the other side of existence and look from there back into the odd assortment of people and events that make up my daily life.”
As I reached the final pages, I imagined Rembrandt reading Nouwen’s account, and what a gift that would be to Rembrandt. As a writer, I am always moved to learn how my work has affected others beyond what I’d intended or could have anticipated.
This is the beautiful, spiritual aspect of art — that what begins with creator becomes a living thing, uniquely so to each person who touches it.
The upcoming discussion on this painting with the Rev. Kurt Gunwall, as interpreted by Nouwen, will take place on three consecutive Sundays, beginning Feb. 21 and ending March 6, at Shanley High School in Fargo. Anyone can register for this or any other class being offered, by Feb. 17, through catholiccollage.com.