Saturday, August 1, 2009

With My Own Eyes

Of the many books I read during the past year, the late Henri J. M. Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming has had the most enduring impact. The author described how he became interested in exploring the deeper meaning of the gospel parable of the loving father and ungrateful son (Luke 15:11-32). In the course of his reflection, he came across Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's 17th century depiction of that graced moment when the wastrel son kneels at the feet of his father to beg reconciliation. This family circle also includes an elder, "faithful" son faced with the sudden reappearance of his despised sibling.

When Nouwen learned that the original painting was on display in St. Petersburg's Hermitage State Museum, he traveled to Russia. His desire was to study the masterpiece, meditate on it, crawl inside the main characters of the scene.

To accomplish his goal, Nouwen obtained special permission to pull up a chair and sit opposite the painting. This he did for hours, under the watchful eye of a grumpy room monitor, who was unused to having her tourists linger for more than a glance and a "Wow!" before moving on to view room after room of treasures collected by Catherine the Great (1729-1796) .

While meditating, Nouwen easily identified with the weak-willed prodigal. Next he turned in spirit to the older son and found himself again in the taken-for-granted good boy. Only when the author turned his gaze to the father did he understand the essential lesson of Jesus' parable. Yes, we are like the younger son . . . the older son, too. But, our call as human beings is to be like the father, whose love is so indelible that it eliminates any possibility that his ungrateful son will be welcomed home. This unconditional love is our model and our goal.

After reading The Return of the Prodigal Son, I added the Hermitage to my list of "must see" places in the world. Little did I know the opportunity would come so soon. Desperate for passengers, Princess Cruises offered a cut-rate trip to the Baltic Sea. Seeing a two-day visit to St. Petersburg on the itinerary pushed my wife and I to sign on.

On the morning of July 9, 2009, as we headed for the Hermitage, I approached our tour guide, Natasha. "Is there any possibility that I could see Rembrandt's 'Return of the Prodigal Son'?" I asked. "Of course," she said and kept her promise. We entered the Rembrandt exhibit and there I was, staring at the floor-to-ceiling painting with my own eyes. I stood close enough to touch this 350-year-old canvas, but I'd have suffered the scorn of that no-nonsense woman in the nearby chair. And who knows what else? Access to the painting was so free that I was able to take the above photograph, as long as I didn't use flash. Too soon, our tour moved on. I envied Nouwen and the time he had to absorb not only the painting's beauty but its essence.

According to the Rembrandt Prints website (, "Return of the Prodigal Son is considered one of the most moving paintings in religious art because of its profound insight and sympathy for human affliction. A boy weeps as he kneels at the feet of his father who forgives him and welcomes him home." I could not have said it better.

Later, in the museum shop, I purchased the 16" x 12" print on canvas that now hangs on the wall over my workspace. I reminds me of the kind of father I am called to be--and want to be.

[See also my post of July 2, 2009, below.]
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