Book Thoughts: Return of the Prodigal Son

Return of the Prodigal Son was a 1992 Christian book by Henri Nouwen. Fr. Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest from Holland. He was in a transitional period at the time, having just started working for L’arche Daybreak in Ontario, Canada. He had many hopes and dreams but also many fears and worries. Henri appeared fine outwardly, but internally he was very conflicted. During one of his earliest days at his new place of work, he came across a large poster of The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. This famous painting has touched many people since its creation. Henri Nouwen wrote that seeing the painting was just what he needed at that moment in his life. He was moved so much by it, he eventually went to look at the real thing in what was then the Soviet Union. The end result of all his time spent thinking about the painting was this book: Return of the Prodigal Son.

Henri Nouwen used the three main participants in the painting to illustrate three stages of life. The Young Son represented the sinner that had squandered all the gifts he had been given by the Father. In his return to the Father, he had repented of his evil ways and been forgiven. The Elder Son represented the faithful follower who appears perfect externally but is still far from perfect internally. While closer to the Father than the Young Son, he, too, was not perfect. Finally, there was the Father himself. He represented God who loves all his sons (or children) equally and is always ready to forgive his lost children.

Based on this, the first stage of life would be the Young Son. This would be a person that is caught in the web of sin in the world. They might have some idea what they should be doing and just deliberately continue to sin, but many of them are so lost they don’t even know the meaning of sin. They are the furthest from God and called to come back home. Once a person has discovered God and come to believe, they start becoming closer to him. This would be the Elder Son stage. A person might be very holy yet still very far from perfection. The Elder Son harbored thoughts of jealousy about all the attention his brother was getting. They are called to learn how to love all their siblings (the children of God) equally as the Father does.

The final stage would be the Father. No one could be as perfect as God the Father, but people can get close enough to perfection to become father figures in their communities. Through much work they have improved in holiness enough to really know the truth. They might still have trouble living the truth, but at least they know the truth. People in this stage are called to share this truth with everyone. They are the teachers and leaders in the world. Those in the Father stage have gotten to the point of pretty consistently doing the right thing. They can be pretty sure about getting to heaven. They are always working on themselves a little each day, but now they can begin to work on those around them.

Henri Nouwen was transitioning from the Elder Son stage to the Father stage. He had learned the truth. He just hadn’t begun to teach others about it. After thinking about the three stages, I saw that I am mostly in the Elder Son stage but still have a few remnants of Young Son stage. I have clamped down most of my sins but still have a few bad ones that threaten my state of grace. Like the Elder Son I am still learning the truth. One day I feel like I know everything. The next day I feel like a baby. Unlike the Father, I am not so sure I can get to heaven. There are days where I definitely feel great, but others days I feel so bad I don’t know if I am good enough. Even though I am not a Father, I still try to teach others when I can. It’s just that much of my time is devoted becoming holier to assure myself that I will have eternal life.

I really enjoyed Return of the Prodigal Son. The text sometimes got too dense, but I think that was mainly caused by my quick reading of the book. I finished the whole thing in just a weekend. Books like this are not meant to be read that fast. They are full of deep meaning and reflection. It takes time to absorb all the wisdom on each page. Someday I will read it again slowly and summarize in detail all the important points. Part of every Catholic’s calling is to educate others. I am trying to do my part a little with this website.


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