O Taste and See A Meditation on Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

Juliet Benner Part 14 of 16

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We do not usually tend to include seeing and awareness in the spectrum of spiritual disciplines. Yet they are an essential part of the spiritual life.

Spirituality is all about seeing. It is becoming aware of realities in which we are immersed but of which we are unaware. Surrounded by the presence of God, we are seldom aware of this great gift. Tragically, we go through life as sleepwalkers. We need to awaken and we need to learn to see.1

Once we see, the rest follows. This is why Jesus tells us that if our eye is healthy, our whole body will be full of light. Spiritual vision requires learning to notice the presence of God within and around us. The Christian tradition provides many ways to do this—centering prayer, lectio divina, listening to music, and meditation on art.

Much of the classical art in our modern museums was originally created for exactly this spiritual purpose. They still speak profoundly to our souls if we are willing to sit before them and open ourselves to the Scriptures that were their inspiration. But gallery statistics tell us that the average time a person spends looking at a work of art is three seconds! What could anyone hope to see in such a short time?

Artists are especially gifted in seeing. Van Gogh has observed that being an artist involves “grasping life in its depth.” Artists help us to open ourselves to mystery. Great art calls us to enter a quiet, contemplative space. Great Christian art prompts us to “ponder anew what the Almighty can do.”

The artist’s vision sharpens our own awareness of the deeper life because it makes the invisible visible, enriching our mind and nurturing our heart and soul. John Drury, dean of Christ Church (Oxford), says that looking at pictures “entails a contemplative waiting upon them which puts us alongside those who painted and viewed them so devoutly by putting us in the realm of prayer, with its passive expectancy, its active openness. Worship and looking at pictures require the same kind of attention—a mixture of curiosity with a relaxed readiness to let things suggest themselves in their own good time.”2

Rembrandt’s Return

The well-known picture on the front cover of this journal, Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” depicts the homecoming of the wayward son who had squandered his inheritance in riotous living. Measuring eight feet by six feet, this monumental work was painted near the end of his life in 1668 and reflected much of his own story.

Rembrandt3 had been a prolific and financially successful artist. But his appetite for spending—particularly in support of his personal collection of art and sculpture—far exceeded his income and often left him seriously in debt. Eventually, forced into bankruptcy, all of his art had to be sold to repay his debts, and he was obliged to depend on his family in order to survive. He also suffered a great deal of personal tragedy—including the loss of a son and two daughters, and the death of his wife, which left him with the responsibility of caring for a young son. The greatest of his paintings were produced in the last twenty years of his life and reflected these tragedies. His former concern to portray external grandeur and detail gave way to a focus on the spiritual qualities of his subjects. His work began to reflect his own return to the Father as he found new meaning in his faith.

Before looking at the painting, take time for a slow, meditative reading of this familiar story. It is found in the Luke 15:11–32. Read it as if for the first time. Notice any new images or thoughts that come to your mind. After you have done this, spend time looking at the painting. Sit quietly and comfortably, without any distractions, and prayerfully seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, asking for your eyes to be opened to the spiritual realities that the painting presents.

First Impressions

How does this painting change or enhance your understanding of the story? What is your initial response to it?

Observe the way darkness and light are juxtaposed. The focus of the painting—a father embracing his son—leaps out of a background of dark shadows. It is highlighted by a warm, golden light that creates a striking contrast to the surrounding shadowy darkness. Several figures emerge out of this darkness and add mystery to the drama taking place before us. Even without knowing the story, the viewer becomes aware that something momentous is taking place in this scene. But, knowing the story, we immediately catch a glimpse into the heart of a forgiving and gracious father.

Pause for a moment and consider what preceded this scene. The younger of two sons had brought disgrace to the family by asking for his inheritance before his father had died. Having received the money, he traveled to far places, spending it wastefully until it was used up. Destitute and desperate, he was forced to hire himself out to a swine-herder. Still starving, he now groveled with the pigs, jostling with them to share the scraps with which they were fed. In this desolate position, the younger son slowly began to realize how far he had strayed from his true home. The story tells us that “he came to his senses” and determined to return to his father and ask him to be treated as one of his hired servants.

Rembrandt’s meditation on this story does not tell us about the father’s anxious watching and waiting for his son. We see nothing of his sighting from a distance; no eager rushing out, robes fluttering in the wind; no clouds of dust nor arms spread wide; no sound of flapping sandals, nor of painful gasping to catch up with his son to restore him to his rightful place in the family. Here we see only stillness and rest.

This is a moment of complete calm, a hushed and awesome silence. The eyes of all the spectators in this tableau are riveted on the two figures who are bathed in light and colour. It is the moment of humble surrender for the younger son. He kneels before his father with his head buried against his chest, embraced in strong arms that offer forgiveness and restoration. He is clasped so closely that he can hear his father’s heartbeat. It is a heartbeat that throbs with the rhythm of love and tenderness in spite of the unlovely estate of the son. It is the life pulse of the father that reminds and reaffirms the son whose he is and where his identity is grounded.

The Younger Son

Look now at how the artist portrays the condition of this son. Look at the details used to illustrate his situation. What do they tell us about his outward and inner circumstances?

Notice the similarity between the rich profusion of lace on the father’s sleeves and the traces of lace on the son’s robe. His clothes—once as fine and regal as his father’s, with the tattered remnants of lace still visible around his neck—have become ragged and dirty. They may represent his futile attempts to reclothe himself in some vestige of respectability to recapture his lost identity. But clothes of his own making are poor substitutes for the rich, more adequate clothes his father can provide.

He is filthy, his hair seems to be shaved off, and his shoes are sadly worn. One shoe lies beside a foot that is calloused and grimy, and the other has deteriorated to the point of having no heel at all. A closer look at his feet reveals the haste with which he has returned. He appears to have hurriedly and carelessly placed his shoes on the wrong feet. This only emphasizes his broken and lost condition.

The last remaining trace of his true identity is the short sword at his right side. An indication of his former status as the son of a nobleman, this is the only article that he has managed to save. It is the one thing that connects him to his home and his father. His head, once crowned with healthy hair, is now shorn, reminding us of a prisoner whose identity is lost.

In his lustful pursuit of an identity apart from his father, he has instead experienced a loss of his true self. He no longer resembles the wealthy father or reflects his nobility. His identity is that of a ragged beggar. Yet, as Henri Nouwen suggests, his head also looks like that of a newborn baby.4 This insight adds a new dimension to this homecoming. This son is being reborn. He is being given a new identity, a new beginning.

There is a profound spiritual truth presented here. How often we have strayed from who we were created and intended to be by losing our connectedness with our heavenly Father. In our desire to live life apart from dependence and trust in our Father’s love, we have settled for scraps of slop instead of feasting at the rich table that home offers us. Instead of clothing ourselves in the fine garments which ennoble us, we have pieced together scraps of our own making to try to cover our shame and nakedness. This is the false self. We see echoes of it in the condition of our first parents in the garden of Eden when they hid from God, fashioning for themselves clothes of leaves. But God had better clothing for them, clothing that would offer dignity and worth.

How would you describe the garments you have made for yourself—the clothing of your self-made identity? What is the far country that has provided your sense of identity and self? What is the meager food on which you try to satisfy your hunger? Why do you leave home?

Look again at the son. There is no pretense here. He kneels before the father just as he is, with no attempt to hide his seamy appearance. Exposed to the light, which emanates from his father, the son clearly sees himself as he is—his destitution, his poverty of body and spirit. This is the first step of return.

Yet this same light shows him how much he is forgiven and loved. Unlike Adam and Eve, this son has chosen to return home and not hide from his father any longer. He has taken the path of humility and courage, bravely facing his own sorry state as well as the father’s response—an expected response of punishment or rejection.

Before making the journey home, he had rehearsed a speech which he had intended to use to convince his father to allow him back into the household. His speech revealed much that was wrong about his view of the father. He had planned to confess his sin and then ask to be made as one of the hired servants. He thought he could earn his father’s love. He failed to see himself as deeply loved by his father. He anticipated a father who would angrily keep score and then compare him to his dutifully obedient brother. Instead, he returns to a father who never makes comparisons and cares more about who he is than what he has done. He receives love, grace, forgiveness, and welcome. Examine your own ideas about your heavenly Father. Do you view God as a tyrant, taking delight in waiting to punish you for your sins? How have your misperceptions of God distorted your image of him? How does your view of God need to change?

The Father

But now let us turn to the father. Go back to the picture on the cover and spend some time looking at him. Notice his posture, his clothing, his facial expression.

What do these tell us about him?

The story describes the father’s response to seeing his son’s shape approaching in the distance: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him.” This father has rushed out to meet his son, oblivious to the fact that it was undignified and disgraceful for an old man in his culture to do so. Now, his old body, weary from waiting, leans into the boy, and his arms encircle the forlorn figure with tenderness and love.

He has told his servants to hurry and bring his best robe, his ring and sandals—all symbols of restoration and ownership—for this ragged creature. Before giving his son a chance to apologize fully or to give his prepared speech, he orders his servants to prepare a feast with a fatted calf to celebrate this great event.

We see none of this background activity here. Instead, we see a father whose eyes seem almost blind from weeping. This is a father who has grieved much over his lost son. Yet his face radiates with an intense inner light and grace that extends to the son in compassion and tenderness. In his eagerness to forgive and embrace his son, and perhaps in haste to protect him from the wrath of the entire village to which he is returning, the father is unconcerned about his son’s condition. Here, there is no holding at arm’s length or repellent scorn. The father hugs him and kisses him just as he is.

The son may not have looked or smelled as he once did, but his status as a son never changed. The father doesn’t demand that he get cleaned up before he is accepted. This is unconditional love. This is pure grace!

The father’s clothing is rich with sumptuous fabric. His wealth is reflected in the luxurious color and texture which Rembrandt renders so realistically and beautifully. Yet the father is unaware of the cost to himself. He is unconcerned that he is absorbing the dirt and pigpen-stink of his son. All he wants is to love him and express his joy at his son’s return. His arms are extended in blessing. His red, womb-like cloak, warm and rich, offers a tent-like refuge from the harsh realities of life apart from home. Like sheltering wings, it is spread wide in welcome. We recall the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:37—“How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (NASB). From the ends of this cape flow luxurious crimson tassels toward the shoulders of the son. The father’s own lifeblood appears to be pouring into the son, offering a fresh transfusion that will restore new life to him.

Take time to notice the father’s hands. What more do they tell us about the father?

If you look closely, you will see that the hands are quite different from each other. His right hand is smaller, more delicate, more feminine and refined. It rests on the right side of the son’s back—the side which shows a completely naked foot. It is this vulnerable, more tender side that this motherly hand caresses and nurtures, offering comfort and gentleness. It gives a picture of the maternal love of our heavenly Father. Isaiah 49:15,16 reminds us of God’s words:

 

Can a woman forget her nursing child.

Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.

Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands. (NASB).

 

The left hand of the father is masculine and strong. Larger and more powerful, it rests with more pressure on the son’s right shoulder. This strong hand protects rather than punishes or hurts. Both hands encircle a large, ragged hole in the son’s garment, drawing attention to his plight. Loving tenderness and firm strength are necessary to restore wholeness of body and spirit to this son. Both the feminine and masculine aspects of God are necessary in providing the healing we need and the fullness of life for which we long.

Allow yourself to be held in this maternal yet masculine embrace of the father’s sheltering hands. Feel his gentleness and his strength.

Let your senses absorb the clean, familiar smell of the father’s clothing as it begins to erase the smells of your own brokenness; touch the texture of his rich garments, and let that touch remind you of your new righteous clothing; feel the warmth of his nearness as his light infuses your own body with warmth; listen closely to his heartbeat pulsing new life into you and bringing healing and wholeness.

Let your own heartbeat be brought gently into harmony with God’s.

Listen for what this heartbeat tells you about who you are—his beloved child (Isaiah 43). For as long as you need to, enjoy this moment of cuddling with your heavenly Father, allowing him to hold you just as you are.

The Older Brother

Shift your focus for a moment and look at the other figures who appear outside this brilliant circle of light. The most prominent one is the man standing at the right of the painting. This is the older brother. Although the biblical story tells us that he remained outside and had to be told the news of his brother’s return by a servant, Rembrandt has placed him at the scene of the homecoming, a spectator to this drama. This artistic device telescopes all the parts of the story into one. What insights can we get from this depiction of this first son of the father? How is he different from or similar to the younger son and the father?

In many aspects, the older son is very much like his father. His facial features are like his father’s, as are his lavishly rich robes. Yet a closer scrutiny affords greater insight into some important differences.

Contrast his face with the father’s. Unlike the tender expression of love in the father’s face, the older son’s face seems to reflect criticism, judgmentalism, and disapproval. Remember his reaction to the return of his brother and to his father’s plea to join in the celebration:

 

He became angry, and was not willing to go in. “For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours: and yet you have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him” (Luke 15:28–30, NASB).

 

Although the father’s light partly illuminates his face, it shows him up for “who he really is: a bitter, angry and self-righteous man.”

 

To further reinforce this aspect of the older son, the artist places him at the edge of the action. His posture, emphasized by the long, thin rod which he holds, suggests a cold rigidity, an unwillingness to enter into grace. His cloak, unlike the father’s, hangs uninvitingly around him. Notice also how he stands above the two central figures. He has placed himself two steps higher than the father and younger son, suggesting a judgmental haughtiness and an aloofness from them. He is controlled and upright. In contrast to the open, receptive arms of the father, his arms are held tightly against his body, reminding us of a handcuffed prisoner being taken to his cell or to trial.

We can easily sympathize with his anger at this seeming injustice, identifying with him in our own faithfulness and devotion. He has stayed at home, working hard for his father, doing all the right things and never complaining. But, like his brother, he also has a wrong view of the father. He thought his father’s love could be earned. He expected his obedient works to be the only requirement for membership in his father’s household. But the father wanted sons, not slaves. He wanted relationships of love and intimacy. He desired that his children serve him out of hearts of love rather than from mere subservience.

Recall how the father takes the initiative and goes outside to the older son to plead with him to come to the celebration of a son who was dead and “has begun to live, and was lost and has been found,” (Luke 15:32, NASB). He risks rejection as he extends his love toward this other son. But the older son is angry that his sinful brother, who has disgraced his father’s household, is being offered forgiveness and, of all things, a party.

Could he possibly be as lost as the young son? He never left home, doing all that was right and proper. But both sons needed the father’s forgiveness. Both needed to see the inadequacy of garments of their own making—one opulent, the other ragged. They both needed the “best robe” that the father offered. The older son was as much a foreigner in his own home as the younger son. He also left home, refusing to enter into the loving relationship to which his father always invited him. In his inner homelessness, he too needed to return home to his father’s embrace.

What are the dutiful things in your life that you use to avoid intimacy with the Father and with your brothers and sisters? What are the things that make you rigid and willfully your “own person”? How do you use objectivity to keep you from being fully involved in the drama of salvation? What do your robes look like that you have created to give yourself identity and meaning?

We are not told how the older son responds to his father’s invitation. Does he step down the short distance that separates him from his father and brother to join in the reconciliation? Does he choose to go in and join the party, or does he stay outside and sulk? The question is also addressed to us. What is our response to grace? Are we willing to receive the generosity of love and forgiveness offered to us? Does it make us angry or resentful to see others who are less dutiful than we receiving attention? Or do we enter joyfully into the celebration of another’s return home from a “far country”?

The Spectators

While these are the main figures in the drama of this story, other figures emerge out of the darkness. The seated man wearing the large hat appears to be a self-portrait of Rembrandt as a younger man.

Inserting himself into many of his paintings, this depiction is particularly powerful. It shows him looking at the younger son reflectively, contemplating his own waywardness—the inner and outer bankruptcy of his own shattered life. In many ways Rembrandt is the younger son, returning to the bosom of the father for love and forgiveness.

Two women faintly appear in the shadows of the background. You may not even be able to see them. One standing next to the pillar beside the seated figure appears to be a serving maid.

Hardly visible in the left corner above the father’s huddled shape is another woman, who may be the son’s mother or even the wife who has been chosen for the younger son by his father. We cannot be sure. But what they do add to this story is significant.

They all portray noninvolvement. They all stand or sit in the shadows, observing the scene—spectators to this incredible drama. They are insubstantial figures, phantoms in the dark, who also need to become real, solid beings by emerging out of the shadows and moving into the light of love. They perhaps mirror our own incredulity at such amazing grace—a grace that also invites us to enter into that wonderful, glowing circle and participate in it.

 

The Viewers

Reflecting prayerfully on Rembrandt’s marvelous painting presents us with questions and choices. In your imagination, repaint the scene. Where would you place yourself? With whom do you identify most? Are you presently most like the older son, the younger son, the father, or the observers in the background?

As you look meditatively at the painting and ponder the biblical text, what keeps you from “coming home,” from running to the embrace of the forgiving Father? What aspects of your independence do you treasure and cling to? What are the “rags” with which you clothe yourself to provide your self-worth? Are you so tightly held by your heavenly Father that you hear his heartbeat? Does this loving heartbeat provide the rhythm and the affirmation you need for your life? Where do you look to find yourself?

The real focus of this story is the father. It is he who holds all the tensions of this painting in his welcoming embrace. This is a wonderful picture of our heavenly Father: his unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace. He accepts us just as we are, but does not expect us to remain unchanged. Once we have experienced this grace, we cannot stay the same. If we dare to enter this intimate circle of light and love, we begin to be transformed into the persons we were intended to be. We move toward becoming our authentic selves and begin to bear a family resemblance to our Father.

Can we risk the kind of love the Father has extended to us and lavished upon us? Can we love without expecting anything in return and without control? Are we able to see others through eyes of love and acceptance instead of with cool judgmentalism? How willing are we to enter into the joy of another’s forgiveness?

As you hold the image of the painting in mind, listen to Sister Maura Eichner’s poetic telling of this amazing story. Watch and listen for new hints of the profound mystery it communicates. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!

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The Father

Never had the old man made such a journey. His robes enfolded him like driving wind. No one remembered the old man running. Even fire had never moved him. His estates were the light of the town. Yet, there he was, running to a dark figure huddling the road. Love was flood-water carrying him forward. Some tried to dike the water; nothing could hold him. Love loosed a wind of words: “My son is coming home. Dark grief behind, the father ran, arms open as light. He had to lift the boy before his son’s fire of sorrow burned the father’s sandals. Journey?

The old man could remember no other journey but this homecoming: he held his son in the fire of his arms, remembering his birth: water and fire. Servants ran along thrusting at the wind of excitement: what shall we do? what torchlight prepare? “Bathe away the pig-pen-slopping-dark that clothes my son. Prepare a banquet. Jewel the dark with fires.

My son was dead. My son is afire with life. The land is fruitful. Joy is its water. Where is my eldest son? The end of the journey is ours. My son, do you grieve? Turn from the light to say you are unrewarded? Son, is the wind from the south closer than you to me? Is the wind of your doubt stronger than my love for you? Water your hardness, my son. Be a brother to the dark of your brother’s sorrow. Be a season of light to his coming home. 

You will make many a journey through cities, up mountains, over abysses of fire, but for tonight and tomorrow, my eldest, fire your heart, strike at its stone. Let it journey toward dawning, be a thrust at the dark your brother will never forget. Find a woman of water and fire, seed her with sons for my name and wind-supple daughters for bearing daughters and sons of light.

I am a father of journeys. I remind you the dark can be conquered by love-blazing fire. I made air and wind a compassionate homeland. Be at home in the light.” 5

Express your gratitude to God for new eyesight, physical and spiritual, that has increased your awareness of deeper spiritual realities as you have taken the time to immerse yourself in this painting and biblical story. Allow the Father’s love to begin to transform your heart and life.

Come out of the darkness and come home to the warm embrace of forgiveness just as you are. Enter into the cleansing and rest that he offers. Accept the freedom that comes with knowing who you really are—a person loved and cherished by God. Then celebrate with joy this new life, sharing it with others and drawing them also into this intimate relationship of light and love.

A Final Reflection

In her book, Inner Compass, Margaret Silf speaks of “living true”—orienting ourselves to God as the true reference point for our identity. By meditating6 on this story, we discover that both sons were living from a false reference point.

The younger had left home, seeking his own way, focused on self. His wanderings took him further and further from his true center, and he became lost and inauthentic. The older brother also lived out of a false way of being. His focus on self kept him from seeing that his true identity can be found only when he keeps his focus on his father’s love.

Our heavenly Father wants each one of us to draw close to him and to receive his extravagant love. It is here that we discover our own true selves. With Rembrandt, we too are invited to find our true fulfillment in God and not ourselves. It is when we cling to the Father, through all that life brings, that we find our true selves—who we really are and who we are becoming in God.

Footnotes
  1. Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 27–33.
  2. John Drury, Painting the Word (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), xiii-xiv.
  3. Born and raised in Holland to parents in the Reformed church, Rembrandt was a believer in the risen Christ. He was immersed in the Bible from early childhood, his lifelong meditation on it allowing him to express biblical truths in his art in fresh and personal ways. Rembrandt considered his artistic calling to be from God. Convinced that ordinary human reality was deeply connected to the divine, he sought to use his art to stimulate viewers to make personal connections with the biblical events portrayed.
  4. Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1994).
  5. Maura Eichner, Sr., “The Father” in A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation, ed. Luci Shaw (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984).
  6. Margaret Silf, Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1999), 142.
Juliet Benner is a spiritual director and retreat leader at the Institute for Psychospiritual Health (www.psy.edu/iph). For many years she was a docent at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario, Canada). Her special interest is in art and spirituality, particularly the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer. She can be contacted by e-mail at julietbenner@aol.com.
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