Coming home with Henri Nouwen
- Nelson T. Dy () - May 7, 2006 - 12:00am
This Week’s Winner

Nelson T. Dy started out as a chemical engineer and after earning an MBA degree, he is now engaged in industrial sales and marketing. He is author of the books
Finding Comfort (CSM, 2004) and the recently launched How to Mend a Broken Heart (OMF Lit, 2006). He also contributes articles to various magazines and lectures on personal and workplace issues. He is married to Lucy Cheng. You can write him via

An intense young man was looking for spiritual direction in his life.
He wrote to two well-known Protestant authors for advice. The authors wrote back, answering his questions and suggesting books on spirituality. When this searching man contacted an equally famous Roman Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, he was stunned by the response. Nouwen invited him, a total stranger, to live with him for a month so he (Nouwen) can mentor the young man in person.

Vignettes like this attracted me to Nouwen: Dutch priest and Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale professor; social activist, pastoral counsellor, prolific writer. I am a born-again Christian, but I have observed that many Protestants tend to limit their reading to Protestant writers. I like to tell my own students that there are many things we can learn from our Roman Catholic friends. Nouwen towered among my spiritual mentors. He penned about 40 books and innumerable articles and sermons, but my favorite Nouwen book is The Return of the Prodigal Son (Doubleday, 1992).

Nouwen himself recounted how one day in 1983, he stumbled upon a large poster reproduction of Rembrandt’s famous painting, "The Return of the Prodigal Son." He was gripped by the image of a dignified old man, laying his hands on a dishevelled youth who was kneeling before him. Towards the right is a third figure, another young man, as well dressed as the old man, but standing aloofly. (The painting is also reproduced in the cover of the book.)

Not content with a copy, Nouwen arranged to see the original painting at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg in what was then the Soviet Union. He spent several hours just staring at and meditating upon Rembrandt’s work. Years later, he collected his notes and insights into the book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, with the apt subtitle of A Story of Homecoming.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the basis of both the painting and the book, is well known. A certain father had two sons. The younger son demanded his share of the inheritance from his father. (In Jesus’ culture, this was an act of extreme imprudence.) He got his money, went off to a faraway country, and squandered all his funds. Broke, hungry, and reduced to feeding swine, he headed back home. While he was still a long way off, the father saw him and rushed to embrace and kiss him. The father then threw a lavish party to celebrate his son’s return. But the elder son refused to join the merriment. He complained to his father that he had been slaving for him all the while, but he never got anything in return. Yet when his worthless brother came back, the father pulled out all the stops for the party.

Most of us would focus on the prodigal son. We love to hear how he found mercy from his father, despite all the shameful things he had done. Many a sermon would uphold the prodigal son as a model of repentance: if we realize our sins and go back to God, He will receive us with grace and forgiveness.

But Nouwen gave me two deeper insights. This is what I love about his writing. He dug beneath the obvious and raised issues that we would otherwise miss or even avoid.

Here’s the first. I may not be a gross sinner like the younger son, but I may be like the elder son. I do not drink, smoke, gamble, do drugs or womanize. I go to church every Sunday and even serve in a few ministry positions. On the outside, I look upright, dependable and commendable. But inside, I may be seething with resentment, envy, greed or lust. Nouwen pointed out that the elder son was as equally lost as the prodigal.

To give a specific example, I frequently get envious of those who are very successful in their careers, drawing fabulous salaries and basking in the admiration of their peers. Meantime, I – the dutiful, morally decent son – have to make do with a slim paycheck that offers little margin for savings, let alone retirement. Like the elder son, I find myself grumbling, "Why is God blessing those guys and not me? Maybe God is like how the elder son viewed his father: unfair, uncaring, unkind."

If this candor is shocking to you, it is because Nouwen taught me to be transparent with my weaknesses, rather than to set up a "super-saint" façade. In the book, he narrated how he got very angry when a friend criticized him "for not being prayerful." Elsewhere, he admitted, "Against my own intentions, I find myself continually striving to acquire power… I am constantly concerned that I not be forgotten, that somehow I will live on in the thoughts and deeds of others." As I read such honest self-disclosure, I am comforted in that I am not alone with my struggles. Even "super-saints" have them, too.

Which brings me to Nouwen’s second insight. Instead of being a pouting, childish elder son, we are to be like the father in the parable. Nouwen queried, "Why pay so much attention to the sons when it is the father who is in the center and when it is the father with whom I am to identify?" The father symbolizes God, whom Nouwen took pains to describe as kind, generous and joyful –  the very virtues I should display in my life.

Remember my envy of rich and successful people? Instead of secretly fantasizing their downfall, I have to learn to rejoice with them on their accomplishments. Should they confess to a personal pain – say, a broken marriage or a handicapped child despite living in a plush mansion or having a fat bank account – I respond with compassion, not with gloating. I need to let go of my petty gripes and think of the welfare of others.

By the way, have you noticed that both the younger and the elder son needed to come home? The prodigal son was in a faraway country, throwing away his father’s wealth in booze and prostitutes. After he returned and while the father was throwing the party, the elder son stayed out of the house. And in both cases, the father reached out to them: welcoming the returning son and pleading with the resentful brother to join the party. He wanted both sons to be home with him. The sons’ home was where their father was. Our home is where God is.

I remember how prone I am in straying from my real home, that is, where God is. It doesn’t matter if I am an out-and-out sinner (the murderer, the rapist, the robber) or a subtle one (the self-righteous, the spiteful, the covetous). Either way, I am lost and need to come home. The wonderful surprise is that the Heavenly Father waits for me and reaches out to me. He does not do so with condemnation, but – like the father in the parable – with forgiveness, made possible because of how Jesus Christ died for our sins on the cross.

Nouwen spent the last 10 years of his life in Toronto, with a community called L’Arche Daybreak. Basically, it is a center for the seriously disabled. Nouwen was in charge of feeding, bathing, dressing and caring for a young, retarded man; an amazing career choice for someone who could have made a fortune on the lecture or publishing circuit. Yet, Nouwen does not see it as a waste of his brilliant intellect and talents. Rather, he affirmed that "while these discoveries have profoundly impacted on my life, the greatest gift from L’Arche is the challenge of becoming the Father."

Henri Nouwen died of a massive heart attack in September 1996, leaving behind classics such as Creative Ministry, Wounded Healer, The Way of the Heart and With Burning Hearts. He also left behind a legion of admirers, both Roman Catholic and Protestant (among the latter: Richard Foster and Philip Yancey). One may want to be acquainted with his life and writings through Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, 2nd Edition by Robert Durback (Bantam, 1998) or Henri Nouwen by Robert A. Jonas (Orbis, 1998).

Though no longer with us, Nouwen still speaks. Listen to him one more time:

"Living out this spiritual fatherhood requires the radical discipline of being home…To claim for myself spiritual fatherhood and the authority of compassion that belongs to it, I have to let the rebellious younger son and the resentful elder son step up on the platform to receive the unconditional, forgiving love that the Father offers me, and to discover there the call to be home as my Father is home. Then both sons in me can gradually be transformed into the compassionate father. This transformation leads me to the fulfilment of the deepest desire of my restless heart."

We ignore what Henri Nouwen had to say at great personal loss. It doesn’t matter who we are. It doesn’t matter what we have done. Simply, come home.

The Father is waiting.

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