The parable of the prodigal son that appears in Luke’s gospel has been popularly depicted in a wide variety of media. From medieval paintings and English morality plays to an opera by Benjamin Britten and a cover song by the Rolling Stones, its themes of loss and redemption are deeply human. In the spring of 2012, the Collegeville Institute had the privilege of hosting Sue Mosteller, SCJ, as a resident scholar. During her tenure, Sue—who served as literary Executrix of the Henri Nouwen Legacy—shared a reflection entitled, “A Painting, A Parable, and My Friend, Henri Nouwen,” in which she spoke about the parable of the prodigal son, the painting The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, and the importance of this parable and painting in the spiritual journey of Henri Nouwen.
Henri Nouwen, an internationally renowned priest and author, wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life. His books have sold over 2 million copies and been published in over 22 languages. Henri was a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute in the fall of 1976.
Sue first met Henri while working at L’Arche Daybreak—a community in Ontario, Canada for men and women with intellectual disabilities. Henri lived at Daybreak from 1986 until his death in 1996. During that ten-year period, Sue and Henri became close friends. Sue says, “[Henri] was a man who had an amazing combination of gifts. He was highly intelligent and very well read, but he was also deeply sensitive and very passionate. Passionate about the gospel, passionate about spiritual things, passionate about life, passionate about art. …He was eager about life.”
Henri Nouwen came to L’Arche Daybreak to be the resident priest for this ecumenical and interfaith community. According to Sue, “Living in community was not his gift. He was hopeless. But he had this pastoral heart. He could listen and he could guide us, and in those ten years, he was transformed. I was transformed. And our community stood up and said, ‘We’re here, we have a mission, and we want to be faithful.’”
Sue walked alongside Henri during a difficult period in his life. She says, “Henri was a man who suffered. This wasn’t widely known until he began to write about it in his books. A year and a half after he came to Daybreak, [he] had a nervous breakdown. He had to go away for a time, and in that time away—trying to find himself and recover from a very profound inner brokenness—he looked at the painting [The Return of the Prodigal Son], and he read [the parable of the prodigal son]. He spent hours and hours deepening, going farther and farther into the meaning of this parable.”
While meditating on this parable and painting, Henri finally began to comprehend that he was the beloved son of God. He began to see his mission and call as becoming like the father in the painting—the one who is not only blessed but also blesses others.
Sue maintains that all of us can follow Henri’s lead in how we envision our lives, “This parable, this painting, and this man reveal something [to us] about the God who calls us. [They tell] us that the central mystery of God is unconditional love.” She continues, “This can also become your most intimate story, where you discover that God has loved you with an everlasting love, and that your name is written in the palm of God’s hand.”
Watch the video of Sue’s talk, full of lively stories and interesting anecdotes about the life of Henri Nouwen, as well as insights into his spiritual struggles and writings:
Image: Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy of Museum Syndicate.