The Return of the Prodigal Son:  A Story of True Forgiveness


 “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longe deserve to be called your son”; (Luke 15 11-31:)

A few years ago, whilst on holiday in the UK, I was happily browsing, as is my wont, in one of Waterstone’s well-known bookshops.  Being a somewhat typical ‘summer’s’ day in England, it was teeming cats and dogs so I grabbed the opportunity to lose myself in this wonderful haven.    At least two hours or so quickly passed as my eyes devoured and my hands caressed the treasures all around me.

This particular bookshop is large with lots of different areas tucked away in all sorts of public and obscure places.    About to leave the bookshop, my eyes spied an arrow pointing down a flight of stairs.   I couldn’t leave without investigating what might be below!   And this is where I ‘met’ Henri Nouwen for the first time!

I discovered I was in a sanctuary dedicated to spiritual writers, many of whom were familiar names to me but as I glanced around, my eyes fell on Henri Nouwen’s book, The Prodigal Son:  A Story of Homecoming.  

On the cover of the book was a copy of Rembrandt’s magnificent painting of the Father embracing his wayward son.     And not only that, inside the book, I found a copy of the painting which I have framed and sitting on my desk.

In the ensuing years, I have read many of Henri’s books but this particular book remains very special to me.     I have read it many times because not only is it written from Henri’s heart but it explains to me the true meaning of forgiveness as portrayed, firstly, by the great master painter, Rembrandt, and also how much it helped Henri through his years of contemplating the painting to find himself.

The story of how Nouwen ‘met’ Rembrandt is a fascinating one.   It began in the autumn of 1983 in the small village of Trosly, France where he was living and working at L’Arche, a Community that offered a home to the disabled.

One day he went to visit his close friend, Simone Lendrian.  He recalls that as they were talking, his eyes were drawn to a large poster pinned to her office door.   The poster was of an old man dressed in a great red cloak tenderly embracing a disheveled youth kneeling before him.

From that moment, he was mesmerized by the intimacy shown between the two figures but most of all, it was the hands – the old man’s hands – as they embraced the boy’s shoulders that touched him in a place where he says he had never been touched before.

He asked Simone to tell him about this intriguing poster.   She told him that it was a reproduction Rembrandt’s famous painting of The Prodigal Son based on Luke’s parable – The Return of The Prodigal Son.

In 1992, Henri Nouwen wrote his book, The Prodigal Son, a book expressing his reflections on Rembrandt’s beautiful painting and from which he initially had experienced a ‘devasting loneliness’.    Yet paradoxically, the painting also caused his heart to ‘leap’ as he contemplated the ‘tender embrace’ of the father for his wayward son.

Two years later, Henri did eventually come face to face with Rembrandt’s painting where it now hangs in The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.   He was overwhelmed by its ‘majestic beauty; its size, larger than life; its abundant reds, browns, and yellows; its shadowy recesses…the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellows of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both….’

The journey home is often fraught with difficulties.   One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to be open to forgiveness – the giving as well as the receiving.   Sometimes, it may seem that we want to prove that even God cannot forgive us.

To Henri Nouwen, I believe Rembrandt’s painting was not simply about the return home of a son and the joy it brings.   It significantly involved a particular homecoming, one triggered by a conversion of heart on the part of a son who knew his desolate life had to change.

Trying to put together my thoughts on the impact which this inspirational painting had on Henri Nouwen has been a real learning experience for me.   I feel I have been blessed to share the intimate thoughts and experiences of such a humble, troubled man who is then able to rejoice when he finds himself forgiven and accepted by God through the medium of Rembrandt’s inspirational visual masterpiece.

There is no immediate, or even distant likelihood of my ever personally contemplating Rembrandt’s masterpiece but it comforts me now that I understand and appreciate so much more the true forgiveness of Our Father for all of us.

Being finally in the presence of Rembrandt’s majestic painting was indeed a true home-coming for Henrie Nouwen.

Peggy Spencer is an active member of her parish church, St. John the Baptist, in Fern Tree Gully near Melbourne, Australia. Though not a "professional" writer, Peggy has always loved writing.

  • Donna
    Posted at 06:54h, 14 August Reply

    What a beautiful sincere essay!

  • Lorraine Majcen
    Posted at 09:22h, 14 August Reply

    Thank you Peggy!! This is truly Divine Providence in your life and in mine, as I see it. I have had Henri Nouwens book, The return of of the Prodigal Son on my bookshelf for 20 years, and had not read it. God in his wisdom and plan knew the time was right. He lead me to attend a five day retreat in June of this year, at Manresa, a Jesuit retreat centre in Ontario Canada. The retreat was lead by Sr Sue Mosteller who was Henri Nouwens closest friend and confidante at L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario. My experience was truly life changing and opened for me, what God wished for me, a journey of true inner healing, that has been needed in my life. So I thank you for allowing God to use you with this inspiring message of hope. Thank you, Thank you!! It is an interesting and intriguing journey so far.

  • Lorella D'Cruz
    Posted at 09:51h, 14 August Reply

    “Homecoming”: the word evokes such a heartwarming appraisal of the message behind Rembrandt’s masterpiece… Thank you, Peggy. A fellow Melbournian, I too love and appreciate the beauty of the written word.

  • Dennis McCloskey
    Posted at 11:45h, 14 August Reply

    I viewed Rembrandt’s iconic painting at the Hermitage in June of this year. Now that I have read Peggy Spencer’s poignant story about the painting and Father Henri Nouwen, whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak several times, I will now treasure the memory of seeing Rembrandt’s painting even more.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 10:23h, 15 August Reply

    Thank you Peggy!

  • Lorella D'Cruz
    Posted at 23:59h, 15 August Reply

    I’m embarrassed – In my comment above, I incorrectly described myself as a “fellow Melbournian” instead of “fellow Melburnian.” Peggy, did you throw up your hands in horror??

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