To my father Laurent Jean Marie Nouwen for his ninetieth birthday

Darton. Longman and Todd London
16th printing 2003

The Story of Two Sons and Their Father

Prologue: Encounter with a Painting

introduction: The Younger Son, the Elder Son, and the Father




Rembrandt and the Younger Son

Rembrandt and the Elder Son

Rembrandt and the Father

The Younger Son Leaves

The Elder Son Leaves

The Father Welcomes Home

The Younger Sonís Return

The Elder Son's Return

The Father Calls for a Celebration

Conclusion: Becoming the Father

Epilogue: Living the Painting


During the year after I first saw the Prodigal Son, my spiritual journey was marked by three phases which helped me to find the structure of my story.

The first phase was my experience of being the younger son. The long years of university teaching and the intense involvement in South and Central American affairs had left me feeling quite lost. I had wandered far and wide, met people with all sorts of life-styles and convictions, and become part of many movements. But at the end of it all, I felt homeless and very tired. When I saw the tender way in which the father touched the shoulders of his young son and held him close to his heart, I felt very deeply that I was that lost son and wanted to return, as he did, to be embraced as he was. For a long time I thought of myself as the prodigal son on his way home, anticipating the moment of being welcomed by my Father.

Then, quite unexpectedly, something in my perspective shifted. After my year in France and my visit to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the feelings of desperation that had made me identify so strongly with the younger son moved to the background of my consciousness. I had made up my mind to go to Daybreak in Toronto and, as. a result, felt more self-confident than before.

The second phase in my spiritual journey was initiated one evening while talking about Rembrandt's painting to Bart Gavigan, a friend from England who had come to know me quite intimately during the past year. While I explained to Bart how strongly I had been able to identify with the younger son, he looked at me quite intently and said, "I wonder if you are not more like the elder son." With these words he opened a new space within me.

Frankly, I had never thought of myself as the elder son, but once Bart confronted me with that possibility, countless ideas started running through my head. Beginning with the simple fact that I am, indeed, the eldest child in my own family, I carne to see how I had lived a quite dutiful life. When I was six years old, I already wanted to become a priest and never changed my mind. I was born, baptized, confirmed, and ordained in the same church and had always been obedient to my parents, my teachers, my bishops, and my God. I had never run away from home, never wasted my time and money on sensual pursuits, and had never gotten lost in "debauchery and drunkenness." For my entire life I had been quite responsible, traditional, and homebound. But, with all of that, I may, in fact, have been just as lost as the younger son. I suddenly saw myself in a completely new way. I saw my jealousy, my anger, my touchiness, doggedness and sullenness, and, most of all, my subtle self-righteousness. I saw how much of a complainer I was and how much of my thinking and feeling was ridden with resentment. For a time it became impossible to see how I could ever have thought of myself as the younger son. I was the elder son for sure, but just as lost as his younger brother, even though I had stayed "home" all my life.

I had been working very hard on my father's farm, but had never fully tasted the joy of being at home. Instead of being grateful for all the privileges I had received, I had become a very resentful person: jealous of my younger brothers and sisters who had taken so many risks and were so warmly welcomed back. During my first year and a half at Daybreak, Bart's insightful remark continued to guide my inner life. .

There was more to come. In the months following the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, I gradually entered into very dark interior places and began to experience immense inner anguish. I carne to a point where I could no longer feel safe in my own community and had to leave to seek help in my struggle and to work directly on my inner healing. The few books I could take with me were all about Rembrandt and the parable of the prodigal son. While living in a rather isolated place, far away from my friends and community, I found great consolation in reading the tormented life of the great Dutch painter and learning more about the agonizing journey that ultimately had enabled him to paint this magnificent work.

For hours I looked at the splendid drawings and paintings he created in the midst of all his setbacks, disillusionment, and grief, and I carne to understand how from his brush there emerged the figure of a nearly blind old man holding his son in a gesture of all-forgiving compassion. One must have died many deaths and cried many tears to have painted a portrait of God in such humility.

It was during this period of immense inner pain that another friend spoke the word that I most needed to hear and opened up the third phase of my spiritual journey. Sue MostelIer, who had been with the Daybreak community from the early seventies and had played an important role in bringing me there, had given me indispensable support when things had become difficult, and had encouraged me to struggle through whatever needed to be suffered to reach true inner freedom. When she visited me in my "hermitage" and spoke with me about the Prodigal Son, she said, "Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father."

Her words struck me like a thunderbolt because, after all my years of living with the painting and looking at the old man holding his son, it had never occurred to me that the father was the one who expressed most fully my vocation in life.

Sue did not give me much chance to protest: "You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as Iíve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right. The time has come to claim your true vocation -to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return. Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be. We, at Daybreak, and most people around you don't need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother. We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion. "

Looking at the bearded old man with his full red cloak, I felt deep resistance to thinking about myself in that way. I felt quite ready to identify myself with the spendthrift younger son or the resentful elder son, but the idea of being like the old man who had nothing to lose because he had lost all, and only to give, overwhelmed me with fear. Nevertheless, Rembrandt died when he was sixty-three years old and I am a lot closer to that age than to the age of either of the two sons. Rembrandt was willing to put himself in the father's place; why not I?

The year and a half since Sue Mosteller's challenge has been a time to begin claiming my spiritual fatherhood. It has been a slow and arduous struggle, and sometimes I still feel the desire to remain the son and never to grow old. But I also have taste1 the immense joy of children coming home and of laying hands on them in a gesture of forgiveness and blessing. I have come to know in a small way what it means to be a father who asks no questions, wanting only to welcome his children home.

Ali that I have lived since my first encounter with the Rembrandt poster has not only given me the inspiration to write this book, but also suggested its structure. I will first reflect upon the younger son, then upon the elder son, and ultimately upon the father. For, indeed, I am the younger son; I am the eider son; and I am on my way to becoming the father. And for you who will make this spiritual journey with me, I hope. and pray that you too will discover within yourselves not only the lost children of God, but also the compassionate mother and father that is God.