The following reimagining and retelling of a familiar story are drawn from one of a series of talks I gave in the winter and spring of 2007 to staff and patients at Modum Bad, a psychiatric hospital, retreat center and learning community in Vikersund, Norway.
I discovered Modum Bad in 2005, and returned for a second extended time as a consultant in February 2007. Of course, I learned more than I taught. My first impressions of Modum Bad were gathered in a short essay after that first leisurely visit in 2005. I revised and extended that essay for publication later in 2007, Modum Bad's 50th anniversary year — in fact, its 150th anniversary year, as it began as a European healing spa in 1857. Modum Bad means the baths at Modum, gathered around St. Olavs Kilde, St. Olav's Spring. My own retelling of Jesus's parable owes a great deal to the translation and commentary of Stephen Mitchell in his Gospel According to Jesus Christ (2001).
The story I retell here is the last and longest of three parables of Jesus recounted in Luke's gospel. The thread they share is that of losing and finding and rejoicing in renewal or life-redeeming experience. It is a tale of critical turning in life's journey. The theme of turning – a cycle of loss, of tender, halting discovery and redemption – is a central one in the history of the human psyche and soul, in the generations that gave us birth, in our Judeo-Christian tradition. The movement is that from life to death to rebirth.
Let me share with you a familiar story of a son lost and found.
Many of you will know it in more traditional guise. Like most traditional tales, it is a teaching story. And it stands on its own, as must all true stories, as a deeply human document of suffering and healing, renewal and forgiveness.
If we retell such traditional stories freshly, with open eye and heart and lively imagination, we may find in them something of our own stories. We may come to recognize that in some sense they have been ours all along. So in the telling and the hearing, there is much that you already know.
“Once upon a time”: that invitation to participate, placing the story in another time, in our time, in no time. So once, then, now, always.
Once upon a time there is a man who has two sons. The older son is dutiful, hard-working, obedient to his father’s injunctions in their household and on their farm. But the younger son is restless and unhappy. His paternal home no longer feels like home: his mother, to whom he was deeply devoted, has died. His father and older brother are for him two peas in a boring pod, confining and insufferably provincial. He doesn’t know what he yearns for, only that it must be found elsewhere. So he chafes and mopes, daydreams and complains, and one day finally gathers the courage to say to his father, “Let me have my share of the estate. I’ve had enough of this.” So, we are told, his father divides his wealth between his two sons.
We’re not told how old the sons are, just that one is older than the other, that the younger asks for the proceeds from his one-third share—no more, no less—and that the father agrees, without question, hesitation or equivocation, without reservations or conditions. That’s our first tip that he’s an unusual man, an unusual father, more than the person his younger son is convinced he knows.
Soon after, the younger son leaves his family’s home and travels to a distant country. He knows much more about what he is leaving than where he is headed. The urgency he feels is that of putting distance between himself and the source of his pain, his feelings of restlessness and homelessness. As long as he remains on the road, traveling more or less without destination, he comforts himself with the thought that such distance is increasing and liberating.
But when he tries to settle in a distant land, the pain of his restlessness and homelessness seems to follow him like a long, supple and persistent shadow, almost as if he packed it with care among his belongings, carried unknowingly in his backpack. The freedom he seeks turns cruelly upon him. Relief from pain had been a terrible itch. Now it begins to consume him as an addiction. So he squanders his inheritance in wild and dissolute living. He doesn’t commit murder or suicide, or join the Roman Legion, or do heavy drugs – nothing catastrophic. He just makes a mess of his life and loses all his money.
And. needless to say, he becomes more desperately unhappy, and comes to know loneliness as he had never known it before, save perhaps during the terrifying time he barely remembers – when his mother fell ill and died. His loss had begun years earlier. He now suffers it with compound vengeance. The famine inside him grows. He cannot distinguish between his twin hungers, in his belly and his soul. He had never known destitution or true hopelessness before, but he knows them now.
With his thoughts in chaos, his feelings crowded into gnawing emptiness of body and spirit, he takes the only humiliating work he can find, from a man who sends him to his farm to feed the pigs. There is more nourishment for those unclean creatures than for him. In fact, he comes to envy the pigs. He longs to fill his stomach with the husks they are eating. No one will give him real food. Very few have food to spare, and those few more than others are afraid that the famine they see in him, in his eyes and tattered cloak, will come to them as well.
Cut off from any real connection with other people, he feels barely at one with those he knows as the most unclean of animals, hungry for the companionship he sees them enjoying as they wallow in mud.
And there, at that moment, in the trough and sty, as it must so often be, comes a critical moment of change, a still point — an eye of the storm — the fragile start of a profound turning, that which the Greeks called metanoia. Such a turning typically begins with a desperate cry. It is all he can muster.
More than an ordinary change of mind or heart, metanoia is a radical change of soul – mind, body, heart, spirit. When we give in to how lost we are, when our flotation devices have deserted us and ceased to function, when we sink like stones to the bottom of our emptiness, we may only then begin to rise, awaken, open our eyes, come to ourselves, glimpse a path we had not seen, or had seen only darkly, as confirmation of all that is irredeemable. Metanoia needs a safe place and the love of our friends, as well as — in the language of our forbearers — the grace of God. That it often begins in inhospitable and wretched circumstances is one of its mysteries.
The theme of turning — a cycle of loss, of tender, halting discovery, and of redemption — is a central one in the history of the human psyche and soul, in the generations that give us birth, in our Judeo-Christian tradition. The movement is that from life to death to rebirth.
Like any experience so close to death, like any birth, it is a time of great vulnerability. Our capacity for distraction remains. Our culture offers it in abundance. We may turn away, as we have before. Depression may beckon, even real death. And there are no authentic anodynes, no convenient shortcuts. The cycle moves from one impoverished and excruciating consciousness to a transition more than symbolically like dying, and thence, with grace, to an experience of renewal that is qualitatively other—larger, fuller—than the life one previously knew.
But I must pick up the thread of the story. This father’s son is halfway: the loss, the downward spiral, the pit of despond, are preparation. One unity of being and becoming has frayed and broken. The old life cannot be resuscitated or held beyond its time. It has become a poor, hapless shadow of itself, truly a death in life. A traditional name for it is purgatory, though it feels like hell. Choices and tasks — the hardest ones — remain. When he comes to himself he says, “How many of my father’s hired men, those I despise like the pigs, have more than enough to eat, while I am dying of hunger? I will get up. I will go to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Let me be like one of your hired men." And he got up, and sought his father.
He is beginning to emerge from the sorriest of states, but a crucial one. The pity he feels for himself has not yet turned truly into compassion, for himself or others. But he has begun to wake up, to come to himself.
He has a long way to walk, a painful journey with lots of time to think more about his deadening experiences and his family, to mull his return, to feel shame.
Shame is often a purgative part of recovery. Its imposition — even by well-meaning parents — is abusive. Such abuse can sometimes be ameliorated and repaired, but its legacy is corrosive to the human spirit. Even when it is experienced as a necessary part of coming to oneself it is excruciating. T.S. Eliot writes of shame in the last of his Four Quartets called “Little Gidding.” It is as if the poet addresses the young man, saying “This is now your burden.”
….The rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Finally, as the son comes close to home, but still some distance away, before he can see clearly, his father sees him. Perhaps his father had been looking all this time. He has, as the first storyteller said, eyes to see and ears to hear, and he is full of compassion.
As it is so beautifully told, “His father runs to him, and throws his arms around him, and kisses him.” One can speak no more eloquently of the beauty of that running, that embrace and kiss. It is not what fathers usually did in those days, nor often enough now.
The son was ill-prepared and can only say what he’s long imagined. “Father, I have sinned against God and against you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” At this moment the young man is stunned: those are the words he thought up while he was still lying in the sty. It’s like before we had CDs, we had records that got stuck; partly he’s still back there with the pigs, just beginning to wake up, and he doesn’t know his father’s been awake all the time.
The father, hardly letting his son stutter out his last prepared line, turns to the servants, “Quick, bring out the best robe we have and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf, and kill it. Let us eat and make merry. For this son of mine was dead, and he has come back to life; he was lost, and he is found.” Clothe him, feed him, welcome him as I have. His renewal is ours; ours is his. We are found.
As I imagine this father I am reminded of a voice from Jane Kenyon’s haunting poem, “Briefly it enters, and briefly speaks.” By her own testimony, that poem came to Kenyon unexpectedly, more than she to it. And she knew well the parable of the son lost and found.
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name. . . .
The shame and degradation, the wallowing lostness of the son, are being shed, the two — father and son — becoming one in the healing, the son washed, rebaptized in the father’s joy. The experiences of forgiveness and forgiven-ness come together, sealed in a loving embrace – the dancers and the dance.
You know there’s a third act to the play, a shadow cast over the rejoicing, another pain to endure, another redemption to accomplish.
The older son had been in the fields, working, dutiful as always. On his way home toward end of day, drew closer to the house, he hears music and dancing, and he calls over one of the servants to ask what is happening. The servant tells him: “Your brother has come home, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has him back safe and sound.” That makes the older brother angry, and he won’t go inside the house. But his father comes out, comes to him as he had come to his brother, and tries to soothe him.
It is a hard job. His son says, “Look, all these years I have been doing your bidding as a loyal son. I’ve never disobeyed you. Yet you haven’t even given me a goat – much less the fatted calf – so I could feast and make merry with my friends. But now my no-good brother comes back, after spending your money on gambling and whores and drink, and you kill the fatted calf for him!” (Killing the fatted calf is expressive of a long tradition of ceremonial sacrifice and renewal.)
So here is another crisis. You can imagine many things that could go wrong. The father doesn’t want his joy and generosity spoiled by the older son who already got two-thirds of his estate anyway. Who is he to remind his father just as this celebration is getting underway that he hasn’t thought to reward normal filial loyalty with the gift of a goat? This son could afford his own goat.
The older son is at a turning point of his own. He’s telling the truth. He’s not smug or puffed up with pride. He’s been obedient as he should, and now he feels hurt and resentful, even betrayed. He has reason to complain. His father hasn’t done for him what he’s doing for his wastrel brother. He has a point, and it’s a dangerous moment. His father, had there been time, could have sent someone to call him home from the fields. Earlier, he could surely have been more attentive to his older son’s need for appreciation and love.
Listen to the tenderness of the father’s response:
“The father says to him, ‘Child, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But it’s proper to make merry and rejoice, for your brother was dead, and he has come back to life; he was lost, and is found.” I hope — I imagine — that his son can see the tears in his father’s eyes, and feel the encompassing love in his words.
If the father’s heart has long been open, the younger son’s heart is healing. He doesn’t have to do anything to earn his father’s forgiveness. It’s simply there, in his father’s running, his flapping robes, his sandals slapping on the ground, in their whole body embrace, in the father’s face, which looks like the rising sun.
Coming back to life, finding and being found, awakening fully, isn’t done in a single critical moment, or once and for all. It takes time and is never finally finished. For a start, imagine the younger son waking up the next morning. He wonders if yesterday is still true today, and what of tomorrow? Then he smells bread in the oven, and he comes down to breakfast. There is his father, and his brother too. The morning sun lights their faces.
Today is enough. At this moment, today is all there is.
In the last two and more millennia, there have been many variations of the father-son tableau represented below by the paintings of Batoni and Rembrandt. It is among the classic Biblical scenes of Western art. Why does the history of portraiture of this story take as its universal theme a moment the story itself does not record? The comparable occasion in the story itself, surely of no less power, is the father’s wholehearted embrace of body and soul, and the son’s response, unrecorded and open to our imagination. “His father runs to him, and throws his arms around him, and kisses him.”
That moment is not dissimilar to the one portrayed, but it is not the same. Both are full of tender, transformative emotion — joy, relief, release of the tension of anticipation and repentance. But the scene in the story, however it may consciously feel to its protagonists in the moment, is one of two men, father and son but not man and boy. It is, as Jesus surely intended, an expression of the kingdom of God — of incarnation, communion relieved of hierarchy. It is liberation and wisdom hard-won – won and lost and won again and lost again throughout our histories. Small wonder, I suppose, that it has escaped portraiture.
For a lovely meditation on the original story and the Rembrandt painting, see Henri Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son (1994).
(Clicking on any of the figures below will enlarge the image.)
Figure 2: Hieronymus Bosch’s “Prodigal Son” (also called “The Wayfarer,” c. 1500) is pictured leaving the farm and the pigs – scrawny, tattered, traveling hat in hand. He is trailing his walking stick, one foot shod, the other in a sandal, more like a slipper. His face is fearful. He looks backward at what he is leaving, still slinking away rather than moving forward. As in other Bosch compositions, small figures in the background are eloquent, illustrating the character of life on the farm.
Figure 3: Pompeo Batoni’s version of “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1773) is bold rather than subtle, its color and shadow dramatic. Note the tension in the son’s bent back and his anguished hidden face, buried as much in his own hands as in his father’s less than full embrace. Is he, with his right hand, reaching to clothe his son’s back? Does his left hand grasp or hold? If there is blessing, we cannot tell whether hard or soft. The painting is less revealing than Rembrandt’s masterpiece below. Batoni’s son appears more anguished, the character of his father’s passion more ambiguous, and their reconciliation less clear than that portrayed in Luke's text, or by Rembrandt. Compare the light, the faces of father and son, as well as the father's arms and hands.
Figure 4: Rembrandt’s magnificent “Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1669) There is so much to see: the father’s tender hands and face in strongest light, the son’s penitent feet, his head turned in to his father’s body, his face in half shadow. Perhaps the older brother stands behind, in full shadow, his face a mask.