The Depth of Return

I am continuing to read Henri Nouwen’s Lenten meditations, From Fear to Love, in tandem with Anthony Bloom’s book on prayer, Beginning to Pray. Each has been insightful on its own, but the conjunction of the two is powerful. The overarching model of the Prodigal Son, from Nouwen, is especially poignant for learning how to pray. It seems that every attempt at prayer is simultaneously an attempt at making our way back to God.

Nouwen makes bold use of the aforementioned parable and says, “I want you to know that you are the younger child, you are the older child, and you are called to become the parent who loves unconditionally.”

The younger child he paints as obviously needing forgiveness. Everyone knows it. The older child is a different story, he thinks. The older child resents the Father’s forgiveness. He just can’t accept it. It’s not a reality that exists for him. That kind of forgiveness is wrong—it’s unjust. And so he resents.

But the Father forgives. He lets it all pass away, every last bit of wrongdoing that his Prodigal has done. He’s only happy to receive him.

I know that I have been all three of these characters at different moments in my life. I have had times where I resented others who I thought got off way too easily. But I have also gotten off too easily myself. I have known the mind of each of those parabled children all too well. Even still, it would be dishonest to neglect that I have played the role of the Father on some occasions as well. I thank God for the grace that was given me in those moments.

These are all outward affairs.

Nouwen wants us to take a look inside. Sometimes we can forgive others with more ease than we can forgive ourselves. It’s probably all too familiar. You hear that internal voice criticizing something that you’ve just done, maybe a mistake that isn’t a big deal. This is the older child in you. Or perhaps you’ve done something that seems unforgivable. You run, looking inside yourself for some good thing you’ve done in the past so that you can hold that up and claim that you’re not all that bad.

But it is a rare person who can actually forgive oneself. Can anyone actually forgive oneself—I mean really forgive?

It might be possible, but it seems highly unlikely. Nouwen’s model of realizing that you are all of the characters in the parable becomes heightened when you take it inside yourself, seeing how you interact with yourself in your own head. This is where Nouwen meets up with what Bloom is doing in his book on prayer.

Bloom is asking us to go inside ourselves. He’s asking us to look and see what we find. He believes that most people live from the outside, taking things into themselves. This shouldn’t be the case, he thinks. People should be living from the deep source within themselves. By this, he ultimately means God. He means meeting God as the source of your own being, your own life. But you do this by realizing that you don’t sustain yourself. At this point, you realize that the source inside of you is something other than you. And this is the only “outside” source that you should concern yourself with when it comes to the core of who you are.

To find this place, this source, it’s likely—if not necessary—to go through a Broadway drama of emotions. You will be that older child. You will resent yourself. You’ll be that younger child, too. You will run away even as you run toward the source of life. Our emotions are complicated, if beautiful, realities. There will be fluid overlap in all of our searching.

One thing will present itself as sure. In all of this wavering, all of this sea-tossed uncertainty, it becomes clear that there is a unity holding all of it together. There is the One, the source. In the moment of discovering this, you will be free. You will let go of resentment, knowing that you partake of the same source of life as those you resent. If you need to be forgiven, you will be. You will know that this Life has given your life as a gift. And while you might not be forgiving yourself here, you will have come to know forgiveness in and through yourself, through the Life that gives you life.

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