Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: The Return of the Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen

Over the summer, I attended a conference for catechists through the generosity of our parish. While there, a bishop recommended this book. I was thrilled to find it at Blogging for Books shortly after I posted my last review.
A seemingly insignificant encounter with a poster presenting a detail of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son set in motion a long spiritual adventure that brought me to a new understanding of my vocation and offered me a new strength to live it.
Nouwen spent years contemplating the parable of the prodigal son and Rembrandt's interpretation of it. In the book's three parts, he presents his thoughts on the younger son, the elder son, and the Father, and his own experiences as each of the three. The painting becomes very important to him and he begins to see how it encapsulates the entire story of salvation.
The more I spoke of the Prodigal Son, the more I came to see it as, somehow, my personal painting, the painting that contained not only the heart of the story that God wants to tell me, but also the heart of the story that I want to tell to God and God's people. All of the Gospel is there...The painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God.
I marked passage after passage in this book. In many places, I agree that Nouwen's thoughts have delved right into the mystery of the Kingdom of God. One of my most favorite thoughts is in the chapters on the elder son. (I am the elder son through and through and the whole second part spoke right to my soul's most desperate sins and longings.) Nouwen reminds us that the parable of the prodigal son is unfinished. We never learn from Jesus whether the elder son sheds his resentment and joins his father and brother at the celebration. We are left instead with an image of the father with his arms outstretched, inviting his son (and therefore us all) to the feast.

The third part of the book, which focuses on the Father, is the most challenging. I had often thought through the roles of the younger and elder sons. In the third part, though, Nouwen asserts that he is to become like the Father, showing all people (including those who have hurt him the most) the compassion of God, the very compassion he sees in Rembrandt's painting.

The very best part of this book is the flap that folds behind the front cover. When you open the flap while reading the book, it places a print of the painting right before the reader. I left it open nearly the entire time I read, so I could focus on Rembrandt's painting and Nouwen's words at the same time.

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest, but the book itself is appropriate for any Christian. It's the kind of book that can help me live a better life, to be more like Christ. I highly recommend it.


I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review. The opinions above are my own.

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