Does art have a message for the onlooker? Does it have a goal or a possible meaning behind it for the observer? Artist Francis Bacon stated “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” In Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son, we learn that Rembrandt’s famous painting by the same name had a profound impact on the author. It revealed life-changing truths to him as he contemplated and studied it for years, beginning with his first gaze upon it. Those truths brought with it the fruits of peace, inner healing, and total freedom and certainty in the revelation of Christ’s incomprehensible mercy and love for him. It does make one wonder how a painting done in the seventeenth century, depicting a parable from the first century, could have such an effect on a person in the twentieth century! “A painting is never finished,” says Paul Gardener. “it simply stops in interesting places.”
In the book, Nouwen shows how he first, instinctively, saw himself in the prodigal son.
“Over and over again I have left home,” he writes. “I have fled the hands of blessing and ran off in search of love in all of the wrong places, dissipating myself in a ‘distant country.’” Leaving home is the denial of the spiritual reality that we belong to God with every part of our being, and that we are His Beloved.
As he studied the painting further, a friend pointed out to Nouwen that maybe he was more like the elder brother, who didn’t share the father’s joy over the younger brother’s return. The lostness of the elder brother was revealed in his cold anger, his jealousy and resentment. The author, too, shared the elder brother’s attitude. He had done everything by the book, but was imprisoned in obedience and duty, which brought him face-to-face with his true poverty when he couldn’t embrace his brother’s return.
As more time passed, he could identify also with the bystanders, the ones standing in the background with their arms crossed. It made him see how many years he had stood on the sidelines in his own life, being an observer, not partaking or taking any risks. It was so much more comfortable there (but also miserable) in his experience.
Wow, it seems art does have a message, especially for those who are willing to see. American author Julia Cameron wrote, “Art is a spiritual transaction.” We all have some artistic ability whether we are aware of it or not. And it doesn’t have to be in the normal way being artistic or creative is perceived. I recently asked a dental student who was shadowing my son, why he wanted to be a Dentist. His answer surprised me. He said, “Because of the creativity it involves.” “What?” I questioned. “Drilling teeth is an art form?” He went on to explain that making crowns, matching, aligning, and sculpting is all artistic. I thought, wow! That is an interesting perspective! Just as any creative pursuit makes us alive, his work as a dentist was making him alive! We have a Creator who has made us in His image.
It was eye opening to read, in “The Return of the Prodigal,” the way studying a piece of art (in this case a painting), spending time, and contemplating helped someone to see so much more: “something within something”. It seems God is always trying to speak to us, but we rarely hear. We rarely see. We miss so much, even in an ordinary day. The other day I asked my husband (once again) “John, how do you use this remote?” He replied “Teri, I’ve shown you a million times! The reason you have to be continually shown is because you are not attentive.” Ouch! The more his words came back to me in the following days, the more they rang true. Nouwen showed me the need to look deeper, to “do the work,” to be attentive to what and who is in front of me.
The author’s blatant honesty and vulnerability in sharing the deepest parts of himself, warts and all, humbled me, somehow chiseling away my own pride. His words were my same very own thoughts and struggles at times, but words I couldn’t articulate, or should I say wouldn’t articulate. Why? Why do we hide our hearts? Pride is an ugly thing. Being vulnerable is scary, but oh so beautiful! Being vulnerable and not ashamed to be honest is true living. Are we really living if we aren’t authentic? And this brings me to the last thing the author saw in Rembrandt’s painting.
It took years but the author was surprised by what he finally learned in contemplating Rembrandt’s painting. It was time to become the father. Time to grow up. After years spent looking for mercy, unconditional love, and affirmation, it was time to be the father and give those things to others. It was time to put away childish ways (1 Cor.13:11) and become a man, a compassionate father to all prodigals. Which means the same for us as mothers, as women. Think about the young teenage Mary, her fiat, the birth in a manger, searching for her lost teen, Jesus, the first miracle in Cana. Then the agony as she witnessed her son’s passion, then the joy of the resurrection. The young virgin became the mature woman, and who is now the Mother of the world!
“The Return of the Prodigal,” by Rembrandt—this piece of art so attentively studied—surely had a life-changing effect on the author, which makes me smile rather smugly, as I am reminded of my husband’s rebuke earlier of my lack of attentiveness. This morning I had eye surgery on my left eye. I was to lay low, rest, stay out of the sun and away from bright lights. I came home and was bored silly, not being able to do much, and thought I probably shouldn’t strain it by reading either. As the hours passed I could restrain myself no longer from doing what I love most—reading the books I keep stacked next to my favorite chair! I headed to a mirror and taped a patch over my left eye and marched upstairs to my books and read the hours away with one eye, all the while relishing in my regained belief in myself that I am attentive (hubby)…to the things I love!
Well-Read Mom read The Return of the Prodigal Son as one of our book club selections for the Year of the Artist. To find out more about starting or joining a group, please visit WellReadMom.com.
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