Review: Henri Nouwen & The Return of the Prodigal

Henri Nouwen & The Return of the Prodigal Son (Stories of Great Books), Gabrielle Earnshaw. Brewster: MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.

Summary: An account of the crisis, transformation and subsequent writing process behind Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Many of us have been deeply moved by reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen’s reflections on his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of “The Return of the Prodigal Son” address our loneliness, our “elder son” resentments, our need for forgiveness and to know we are loved. Nouwen invites us not only to be loved, but to love as the Father loves.

Gabrielle Earnshaw explores how Nouwen came to write this wonderful book, the response to it, and how the writing of it changed the last years of Nouwen’s life. Earnshaw is well-qualified for this task she is the founding archivist of the Henri J.M. Nouwen Archives and Research Collection at the University of St. Michael’s College and current Chief Archivist for the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust.

She traces the spiritual struggle of Nouwen to know he was loved that culminated in his collapse in front of a poster of Rembrandt’s painting and the series of life altering experiences that followed this initial encounter–the end of his work at Harvard, the extended meditation on the original painting in St. Petersburg, his call to L’Arche Daybreak, his strained relationship with Nathan Ball, breakdown, and recovery at the Homes for Growth.

It was during this time that he began to write about the painting and shared his writing with Sue Mosteller. Mosteller had invited him to L’Arche and stayed connected with him during his recovery. She affirmed the significance of claiming his sonship, but also challenged him to a further step that would prove transforming.

…I ask myself if the real call for you is the call to become the Father. Once the sons have made their unique passages are they not then ready to become like the Father, to become the Father? And truly Henri, aren’t you right there? Is that what this passage is all about? Isn’t this why you chose to come to Daybreak in the first place; because in your life journey you were more ready to be the Father and you knew somewhere in yourself that it was time to “put away the things of the son”?

With Mosteller’s help and wise counsel, he effects a reconciliation with Ball, with whom he shares leadership of L’Arche Daybreak. Earnshaw traces the difference in Nouwen after his return. She also recounts the writing process, work with Doubleday, his publisher, and the response to his book. It received little critical notice, despite pleas that his work was much like that of Madeleine L’Engle, reviewed in the New York Times. Sales grew slowly and steadily, fueled not by critical reception, but by word of mouth from readers. A paperback version further expanded circulation. Earnshaw even sets the book in the zeitgeist of the 1990’s.

Nouwen would live four more years after publication of Prodigal. He truly became father to the L’Arche community, not completely freed from his struggles, but growing into the father role. This was his most productive time of writing. His lifelong struggle with his sexuality continued, but his growing comfort as father allowed him the freedom to play a clown, and to care for the core members of the community. In his last years he became taken with the combination of freedom and safety in the trapeze act of the Flying Rodleighs. He even worked with them, but never had the chance to form his experiences into writing before his death from a heart attack in 1996.

Earnshaw writes both with scholarly care and deep insight into Nouwen’s journey of writing this book. One ordinarily would not think of an account of how a book was written as spiritually edifying. This was different because Earnshaw helps us enter into Nouwen’s journey with Rembrandt’s painting. She captures the “wounded healer” Nouwen, one who answered the vocation to become a father, even as he wrestled to believe in his belovedness. She traces the transforming process in his life, and the blessing he offered to the members of his community and thousands of readers. Reading this book not only points us to a classic. It points us to the Father whose hands rest on the prodigal’s shoulders and invites the elder son to share his joy.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Love and Lostness

The parable of the prodigal in Luke 15:11-32 is among the most famous Jesus told. Rembrandt did a famous painting of this story that has moved many. Yet to read the parable is always unsettling. I wonder why on earth a father would give half his estate to a son he knows is planning to squander it? That just does not seem like good parenting. It also doesn’t seem fair that this son receives such a lavish welcome on his return without even having to grovel! At least a part of me is with that older brother in pitching a fit and staying away from the party.

One of the insights from our pastor’s message this past Sunday that really helps me is to see how both of the sons are lost. What they share in common is that both are lost in selfishness. In different ways, each is a prisoner of his own self-absorption. They are different only in the way they express it, which might help explain why the older brother is upset. Down deep, I suspect the older brother was confronting the reality of his own selfishness in that of his brother, but didn’t want to see it.


Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son

Both brothers are absorbed in themselves to the exclusion of any concern for either their father or their other brother and for the future of their family. The younger brother essentially wishes his father dead and wants the present value of his inheritance now, not willing to share in his older brother’s labors that might have enhanced it. All he cares for it seems is maximizing his pleasure in the moment. Even his approach to his father, as repentant as it is, masks a shrewd appraisal that he might do better as a servant in his father’s home than he is feeding the pigs.

The older brother is lost in self absorption as well. He is absorbed in his personal rectitude and his resentment of the younger brother. Seeing his father’s distress, he makes no effort to find his younger brother. And when the younger brother finds his way home, he seethes in anger both against his brother and his father for not throwing him a feast, when he could have had this at any time!

There are so many ways I can be lost to the captivity of selfishness! There are so many ways I create a cosmos that revolves around closing myself off to God and others! In the end we dehumanize ourselves, whether in unrestrained hedonism or an ugly self-righteousness that is both angry and envious toward those who don’t match our personal rectitude. I vacillate between “I want what’s mine!” and cries of “It’s not fair!”

Rich pointed out that it is easy in this story to try to identify which brother we are most like. But identifying the kind of selfish we are can do little to liberate us from being lost in selfishness. The only thing left for us is to stop focusing on ourselves and rather on the Father who is truly extravagant in love. Both sons lived in a “zero sum game” world. By contrast, the Father is one who is extravagant in love, who always has enough to go around and who would much rather throw parties for those liberated from lostness than leave either son on the outside.

I’m struck that in Christmas, we celebrate this extravagant, prodigal love. The birth of Jesus reflects this collusion of Father and Son to rescue us in all the ways we are lost in self-absorption. Jesus becomes the truly loving and righteous Elder Brother and Father’s Son who rejoices not in condemning people in their failure but in finding lost people and restoring them to the Father.

Christmas is rightly a time of parties. It rightly reflects the parties of heaven over the lost who are found by the Savior whose birth we celebrate. The question for each of us is will we turn from our own forms of self-absorption to join the Father’s party or will we remain on the outside, a party of one in a cosmos centered around self?

[This post also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog for this week.]