Thursday, December 20, 2012

Nouwen on Fatherhood in Rembrandt’s “Return”

I am nearing the end of Henri Nouwen’s short book The Return of the Prodigal Son, in which he meditates on one of the last great paintings of Rembrandt.

I am brought up short by some of his words about the father in the painting. They are words that any father might find moving, especially at Christmas, with its returns and reunions of children prodigal and not. Any mother too.

Nouwen writes,

The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home.

Oh, how much he would have liked to talk to them, to warn them against the many dangers they were facing, and to convince them that at home can be found everything that they search for elsewhere. How much would he have liked to pull them back with his fatherly authority and hold them close to himself so that they would not get hurt. 

But his love is too great to do any of that. It cannot force, constrain, push, or pull. It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return. It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost, a Father. 

As Father, he wants his children to be free, free to love. That freedom includes the possibility of their leaving home, going to a ‘distant country,’ and losing everything. The Father’s heart knows all the pain that will come from that choice, but his love makes him powerless to prevent it. As Father, he desires that those who stay at home enjoy his presence and experience his affection. But here again, he wants only to offer a love that can be freely received. He suffers beyond telling when his children honor him only with lip service, while their hearts are far from him. He knows their ‘deceitful tongues’ and ‘disloyal hearts,’ but he cannot make them love him without losing his true fatherhood. 

As Father, the only authority he claims for himself is the authority of compassion. That authority comes from letting the sins of his children pierce his heart. There is no lust, greed, anger, resentment, jealousy, or vengeance in his lost children that has not caused immense grief to his heart. The grief is so deep because the heart is so pure. From the deep inner place where love embraces all human grief, the Father reaches out to his children. The touch of his hands, radiating inner light, seeks only to heal.

Here is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless. . . . 

(From Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, Doubleday 1992)

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