I was the last of the three sons to leave home. My younger brother Wesley Who is about 4 years younger than me left home just after school at the age of 18 when he got a tennis scholarship in the US. The first time he came home a number of months later it was really wonderful. My Mom prepared everything in advance. She cooked his favourite food. On his pillow she placed his favourite crisps (Ghost Pops). When he arrived home, he knew that he had come home.
I left home only about two years later at the age of 23 when I was accepted as a minister in training in the Methodist Church. I was moved around quite a bit in those early years living in four different places over a four year period. In some way it was an exciting time, but it was also an unsettling time and so trips back home to my Mom and Dad were just wonderful. It was wonderful to be able to return to the warmth and security of a place called home.
But I am very conscious that there are many who don’t grow up in warm inviting and secure homes. For many home was and perhaps is been a place of insecurity, anxiety, trauma and abuse. There are many who at home don’t feel at home.
But even for those of us who have grown up in fairly stable homes there are many who from time to time experience a strange feeling homesickness even when finding themselves at home.
I read on the internet that in the Welsh language there is a word that expresses this mysterious feeling of being homesick even when you’re at home. It is the word: hiraeth.
I understand that it is a word that can have a variety of shades of meaning. Samantha Kielar writes that hiraeth can describe “...a combination of a sense of homesickness, longing, nostalgia, and yearning, for a home that you cannot return to, or perhaps no longer exists, or even maybe never was. It can also include grief or sadness for who or what you have lost, losses which make your “home” not the same as the one you remember.”
Lastly she says, one attempt to describe hiraeth in English says that it is “a longing to be where your spirit lives.” …” a sense of dislocation from the presence of spirit…. “a longing to be where your spirit lives”.
I get the sense that this was the feeling that Henri Nouwen was experiencing when he first caught sight of a painting by the Dutch artist Rembrandt.
Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest who had been born in the Netherlands in 1932 and ordained in Utrecht in at the age of 25 at St Catherine's Cathedral in the city of Utrecht.
He studied not only theology but also psychology and throughout his life he sought to integrate spiritual ministry with modern psychology. For a large part of his career he worked not as a parish priest but as an academic in a number of Universities in Europe and in the United States, most notably at Yale Divinity School and also as Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School where he taught until 1985 when his academic career came to an end.
By his late 40’s a restlessness began to grow in him. His work as a professor, a priest and a writer of spiritual books while also doing part time voluntary work a seminary in Central America kept his life going at a pace that was not really sustainable.
And so he began to explore a new direction for his life and ministry, which led him to sit in the office of a women from the L’Arche community for the mentally handicapped in France. He was exploring with her the possibility of taking a sabbatical to live and minister for a year in one of the L’Arche communities for the mentally handicapped.
He had just finished an exhausting 6 week lecturing tour around the United States.
While sitting in that office talking about his plans for a sabbatical and a possible new direction for his life, Henri Nouwen became mesmerised by a poster of one of Rembrandt’s paintings that was hanging on the back of the door. It was Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son, a painting that he had finished in 1669 very near the end of his own turbulent life.
It is a beautiful and a moving painting of the prodigal son’s homecoming when he meets his father. The prodigal son is depicted in a wretched, bedraggled and destitute state with clothes like rags hanging off his body, with only one shoe left, after having wasted his inheritance.
The painting depicts the prodigal son kneeling before his father in repentance, seeking forgiveness, while the father, who is depicted as quite elderly and seemingly almost blind, receives him back with a tender and warm embrace; his hands placed gently and tenderly one over the prodigal’s shoulder and back as he draws his once wayward and lost son towards himself with love. In the painting there is a warm and gentle glow of light shining on the prodigal as he buries his face into the bosom of his welcoming father.
Standing to the right is the older brother who seems set a little higher in the painting as though on a platform. His posture is bolt upright, his hands in a crossed, closed position as he appears to look down in a mixture of judgement, disgust, pity and disapproval.
In addition to these three main characters in the painting are three others looking on from different positions in the painting each with expressions ambiguous enough to make one wonder what they are thinking of all of this.
But for Henri Nouwen, the moment he laid eyes on the painting, it was the figure of the prodigal being received home with warmth and tenderness by the father that captivated his attention interrupting the conversation he was engaged in.
As he looked on the painting with longing in his heart he writes of his own condition: I was dead tired, so much so that I could hardly walk. I was anxious, lonely, restless, and very needy. During the [recent 6 week trip] I had felt like a strong fighter for justice and peace, able to face the dark world without fear. But after it was all over I felt like a vulnerable little child who wanted to crawl onto its mothers lap and cry.
It was in this condition that he found himself staring at Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the Prodigal Son. His heart leapt as he saw it. After his long self-exposing journey, the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything he desired at that moment. He was indeed exhausted from the long travels; He wanted to be embraced; He was looking for a home where he could feel safe.
He writes that in that moment, “...the ‘son-come home’ was all I was, and all that I wanted to be. For so long I had been going from place to place: confronting, beseeching, admonishing and consoling. Now I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel a sense of belonging, a place I could feel at home.”
In John 14:23 we read these words: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
Henri Nouwen writes that these words had always deeply impressed him with the profound insight ‘I am God’s Home’. It is not only that God, like the father in the parable is waiting with tenderness and love to welcome us home, but paradoxically and inexplicably, is it possible that God is also like a weary wanderer who is wanting to find a home, a resting place within us?
I have quoted St Augustine before when he writes: O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you. Is it possible that God’s heart is also restless until God finds God’s rest, or God’s home, in us. What could it mean to come home to God? Not later we die in the sky by and by, but here and now, in this world of crisis and conflict, today? And what could it mean to make our hearts a place where God can find a home?
Over the next few weeks I would like to invite you to join me as we explore the Parable of the Prodigal Son in greater detail, and with insights from Henri Nouwen, Rembrandt and the US Presbyterian minister, Timothy Keller, to explore more deeply how this parable is inviting us to more deeply to find a home in God, and in turn to allow God more deeply to find a home in us. Amen.