Two summer experiences come to bear on my reflections for this week’s readings. The first is a study in contrasts. I was blessed to travel to Charlottetown, PEI. Here was a small East Coast city teeming with tourists and beautiful old buildings. Here was the birthplace of Confederation, and these Islanders show off our Canadian heritage and history with great pride. It struck me that the miracle of this “union” between provinces could only have been the work of the Holy Spirit, since so few leaders began their trek there with any stated purpose of creating a country! Just the magic of the island could have swayed them! Beautiful harbours, unusual red sandy beaches and a certain “Anne of Green Gables” optimism that must have made everyone more agreeable!
But I was also there to see my son perform in a musical entitled “Spoon River.” The story takes place around 1915, in the cemetery of a small town in Illinois. Each of the characters comes up from their grave to share their perspective on life and sometimes the lives of those around them. Their honesty and forthright portrayals of life in a small town, complete with its cruel judgements and hostile relationships, is deep, disturbing, and invites one to search their own soul for the truth of their existence. The concluding tableaux is a group number that has a haunting question for the living: “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!” I left the theatre asking this question: Is my soul alive? What is the “condition” of my soul? Is it fed by “soul” food? Is it dead in areas where I have not let the Spirit bring life? This is all taking place, remember, in the midst of the disarming enchantment of a Charlottetown summer music festival.
This kind of “soul-searching” would have been a worthwhile question to ask the Israelites in today’s first reading, as they fashioned a golden calf and decided to worship it as the power that rescued them from slavery. The allure of a concrete object like a golden calf offered them more clarity than Moses’ God in the clouds and on a mountain. Sometimes we make choices for “golden calves” in our life, choosing “clarity” and “control” over “mystery” and the “otherness of God.”
But our God is patient and waits for us to see the dead-end paths we sometimes choose. God waits as the father waits in the Prodigal Son story of today’s Gospel, going out to look down the road, praying for a wayward child to come home. This story now holds deeper meaning for me since I attended a convention in Mississauga, held by the Henri Nouwen Society, celebrating his legacy on the 20th anniversary of his death. In Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son he reflects on each of the characters in Rembrandt’s painting with the same title.
Nouwen invites the reader to enter fully into the skin of each of the people in the painting. He begins with the younger son, then goes to the older brother, then to the father himself. It struck me as I read the book that the soul searching taking place within each character is similar to the reflections of the characters in “Spoon River.” The same question could be asked of the two brothers. To the younger: “After you had spent everything and you were in desperate need, was your soul alive?” To the older son the question could be posed differently: “Since you fulfilled the defined roles of a dutiful son, but had done so while building up great resentments and self-pity, was your soul alive?”
According to Nouwen, entering more deeply into these brothers and their search for fulfilment prepares us to enter into the heart of the father. It seems that as we honestly identify with both brothers, we can progress on the road of self discovery. Each of us has elements of both brothers in our spiritual path. We can find times of recklessness and self-indulgence, like the young brother. Times when we’ve bowed to the “golden calf.” But there can be a grace-filled point where we realize how little these ways feed our souls. This bids us return to a place called “home.” This is where a new beginning can be born out of the ashes of a chaotic life. The father not only welcomes the son back, but runs out to meet him along the road, with love in his heart for a son so sorely missed! “Quick, take the finest robe and put it on him . . . for my son was dead and come back to life!”
The second son is not so easily recognized in us. The reason is that we can hide behind our good behaviour. We can be trapped by our own egos and self righteously justify our judgment of others by showing how we have sacrificed to answer the call of duty. We can mount trophies of good rule-following, all the while piling up stone walls of resentment in our hearts for all the ways God has showered “cheap grace” on the undeserving. As Nouwen puts it: “Here I am faced with my own true poverty. I am totally unable to root out my resentments. They are so deeply anchored in the soil of my inner self that pulling them out seems like self-destruction” (The Return of the Prodigal Son).
A conversion of the second son begins, once again, with a father who comes out to meet him. His father reminds him of their closeness. “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” The door of compassion is open to the older brother, but Jesus never tells us if the older brother walks through that door!
Nouwen’s unique insight is that to identify with the two sons is precisely so we can develop a wider, more merciful and understanding heart ourselves. This is the birth of real compassion. In other words, the journey takes us to the point where we can become the father — loving others through their struggles and shortcomings, constantly being the one to go out to meet them. We can then embrace them with the merciful love of Jesus, as they discover a place where their soul is truly alive!
Williston is a retired parish life director for the Diocese of Saskatoon and a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.