In his wonderful, sensitive little poem, The Pasture, Robert Frost offers a call to worship…an invitation to go into the deeper places of the mind and heart to clear away the accumulated debris; an invitation to go down into the depths of the soul and understand more clearly the source of love and compassion, without which life is mere existence–the love of mothers and fathers, the appreciation of those who receive their love, compassion, and forgiveness.
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long. — you come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. — you come too.
Readings: Luke 15: 11-24 Parable of the Prodigal Son:
There was a man who had two sons, and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to make merry.
Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound. But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ and he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.
Henri Nouwen, From The Return of the Prodigal Son
When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
Sermon: The World of Words
In a recent interview James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, and lots of other books, was asked if he was a Catholic writer.
I appreciated his response. He said, “…writing is central to my way of being religious. As a priest, I preached the Word, capital “W.” Once that “W” became a small “w,” as I left the priesthood, the word was what seemed sacred to me. The entire cosmos is holy, not just the church. And that’s what the church–the entire Biblical people–exists to proclaim. So while I’m not a ‘Catholic writer,’ not a religious writer as such, writing is religious for me. And it’s my way of being with the Word…the Word brings God to the Earth, somehow. And so, therefore, do words. The reason I cherish being a writer is that expression is the human response to all that presses us as human beings.”
This is a quintessential existentialist statement.
Existentialism, as I use the term, is a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual. Each of us feels a sense of isolation or separateness in a sometimes hostile or indifferent universe. Human existence, while ultimately unexplainable, involves freedom of choice and each of us must assume responsibility for the consequences of our actions.
We are, in the most real sense, what we experience; and we have a need to express the accumulation of experience.
And what do we experience? I don’t know about you, for certain, but I experience: confusion, loss, pain, anger and anxiety, and so forth. Suffering seems to be built in to this existence of ours. Of course I also experience joy, beauty, a sense of wonder and awe, and moments of clarity and peace; these are all aspects of what we might call love.
I’ve experienced a sense of dis-connection or isolation, and I often have had the experience of connecting with others, in a variety of ways, including the connection that comes with verbal communication.
Self-expression is central to my life.
“Expression,” Carroll says, “is the human response to all that presses us as human beings.” He goes on to explain, “Expression is our salvation, really… ‘Speak but the Word,” we Catholics say in Mass, ‘And I shall be healed.’ And that’s the essence of what writers do.”
If we express ourselves we break out of that sense of isolation that locks us into a small compartment.
In the most basic sense, then, religion is our sense of feeling connected, as opposed to feeling broken, cut off, isolated or alienated.
I believe that all the religions have their origin in the simple fact of our separate existence and our need to re-connect.
The word religion itself comes from the Latin verb, legare, which means ‘to bind, to connect.’ Religion, then, is a way of reconnecting after being separated at birth we were connected to mother and the belly button is there to remind us of that connection.
The various religions of the world, at their best, provide stories, poems, parables and mythologies to help us feel reconnected. At their worst, the religions of the world are a desecration to all that is sacred. Lately we’ve been reminded of the damage religion can do to the hearts and minds of the masses. We must not paint with a broad brush, however. Our task, then, is to use a fine, sensitive brush, like that used by the Chinese masters who paint the inside of small bottles with a single hair.
As we move through the days and years of our lives, experiencing the suffering that comes from loss, confusion and anxiety, we feel ‘disconnected’ and have a deep need to reconnect.
The poet Rilke, in his poem, I Am Prayer Again, says,
I am praying again Awesom One,
You hear me again as words from the depths rush toward you in wind.
I’ve been scattered in pieces in alleyways.
I sweep myself out of garbage and broken glass.
With my half-mouth I stammer you who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands in wordless beseeching that I may find again the eyes with which I once beheld you.
I am a house gutted by fire where the guilty sometimes sleep before the punishment that devours them hounds them out into the open.
I am a city by the sea, sinking into a toxic tide.
I am strange to myself as though someone unknown had poisoned my mother as she carried me.
It’s here in all the pieces of my shame that I now find myself again.
How I yearn to belong to something, to be contained in an all-embracing mind that sees me as a single thing.
And I yearn to be held in the great hands of your heart.
Oh let them take me now.
Into your hands I place these fragments, my life, and you my God spend them however you want.
The well-known story of the Prodigal Son is about this experience of being fragmented, broken, filled with shame, remorse- and then the miracle of re-connection after the separation, but re-connection on a deeper level.
You remember the story: the younger of the two sons asked for his inheritance and his father gave it to him.
At first glance one might say that the father made a mistake; didn’t he know that his younger son would take the money and squander it?
Remember: this story, like all the myths and parables in the Bible and other sacred writings, is about the inner and inward, spiritual journey. This is the journey of our lives.
The father, as Father, must be seen as wise, loving and strong. He knew that his younger son needed to leave home in order to reach into his own psyche; he must leave the confines of his father’s home, of what he had ‘inherited’ through the generations.
He must leave that home, get rid of the encumbrance of the inherited ideas, values, beliefs, religion, family history and so forth, so he could experience himself as a separate person- without that experience he would never have been able to find his own soul, never find that precious thing we call self-respect.
Once he got rid of the inherited stuff, as the story says, he could plunge the depths, including a sense of despair- he could feel the freedom he longed for, including the pain which comes, inevitably, with that sense of freedom.
Then, and only then, can he return. Then he could reach a depth of understanding available to him in no other way.
If he didn’t leave home he could never truly reach the depths- the source of his spiritual life. So he left home and returned with appreciation, the cornerstone of what we call ‘spirituality.’
By leaving home and plunging into those depths he discovered who he is and what home really is- the unconditional love of his father, and the truth about forgiveness- and a theology emerges from those depths; no one has to tell him what God is. He knows enough about God to last the rest of his life.
He could have stayed home. His older brother stayed home. He resented the years that he obeyed his father and he complained, and he pouted. He didn’t risk it; he took the safe way, the easy way. Now he doesn’t get it. He sits pouting, jealous and angry, like Jonah. He never goes in to the banquet of life! He remains spiritually starved.
I like to imagine the prodigal son, the morning after; after the banquet, after the dancing and drinking. What would that first full day home be like for him?
I see him getting up real early and taking walk, watching the sun come up, and seeing the world in a whole new way; seeing Life as if he had been re-born. I can see his tears of appreciation, and I can hear him reciting Cummings’ words:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Those of us who are consciously trying to deepen our lives, to discover what there is down there in the depths ‘where the spirit meets the bone,’ ask ourselves and one another, “How much of God can we know?”
An answer comes through to me in the story of the Prodigal Son: God is discovered in the depths. To feel a deep, genuine sense of appreciation is as much of God as we need to know. As the Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you know are the two words ‘thank you,’ that’s enough.” And Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify!”
The Prodigal Son went on a spree: tasting, touching, seeing, hearing; he squandered his inheritance in reckless, wasteful, extravagant living; a prodigal son.
By leaving home he discovered something money cannot buy, something he couldn’t get from lectures and sermons; he experienced a deep sense of separation from everyone, and a biting sense of alienation from himself. He turned himself inside out. He was out of relationship- separated, like an infant whose umbilical chord has been cut, and he cried out from the depths of his Being.
He was hungry, and no one gave him food; he was homeless and no one took him in. For the rest of his life he will appreciate the basics: he won’t take food and shelter for granted.
More importantly, from a spiritual point of view, he understands the meaning of love and the essential ingredient we see as forgiveness- he won’t take love for granted, ever again.
When his father saw his son approaching, his heart leaped. He didn’t hesitate- he went to his son and embraced him.
He didn’t give him a lecture. The son was amazed, and in that moment he was “lifted from the no of all nothing, human merely being…”
A miraculous transition occurred in that precious moment; the prodigal son was lifted from humiliation to humility: “Who humbles himself shall be exalted.” A transition occurred for the father, too. His son was lost to him-his son was ‘dead,’ to him. He had ‘let go.’ Then the miracle happened-compassion burst out of him like a volcano.
The father experienced ‘a most amazing day.’ Those who watched were astonished at this spontaneous outpouring of forgiveness. It’s a moment like that experienced by the Three Wise Men as they looked into that manger- they understood what love is, as if for the first time. This is what the inner, spiritual journey is about, whether it’s a story of following a star, or opening your arms to one with whom you’ve been alienated, separated, cut off.
We can imagine the son the morning after his return, taking a walk, noticing ‘the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue, true dream of sky.’ He doesn’t feel alone any more, so he can say to the trees and the sky and to that deepest part of himself-his soul: “i who have died am alive again today.”
He can’t get the words out–he’s sobbing and letting the new day sink into the depths of his spirit. He has moved beyond the confines of the ‘world of words.’ He has experienced salvation.
Now he understands. He understands why his father gave him the inheritance–the father knew that he could not hold on to his son in the old way; the little boy needed his coming of age adventure. He had to let him explore the world, to discover the depths which no one could travel for him. The son wonders, “How did he know what I needed?”
The father, we must assume, had rich experience to draw on. The story doesn’t say.
Maybe, in his youth, the father had been where his son had gone! Maybe the son could learn something from his paternal grandfather!
Here’s the conversation I could imagine. The prodigal son goes to his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, I came home yesterday and I expected to be met with scorn…to humble myself and beg to be fed, clothed, and housed. I didn’t expect to be received the way I was. I thought I had forfeited that. I was amazed-stunned, really.
I’m very appreciative, and I will be, for the rest of my life. But I’m confused, and I hope you can help. What I want to know is this: how did my father know? Where did that love come from in him?”
Grandfather responds: “Your father was once a young man. You have seen him only as your father, to whom you have been obliged to give obedience…on whom you have been dependent.”
“Now, think about it. You’ve seen the relationship between your uncle and your father–his older brother–as it is now…you have seen them embrace and you have listened to them recount stories of their youth. You’ve heard them laugh about the early competitiveness that brought them to blows. They laugh about it now…but it was not always so.
“When you were gone we were worried about you.
“Your father had come to me before he gave you your share of the inheritance…and I listened, and he asked my advice…and I told him that I could not tell him what to do, that he must go deep into his own experience and try to remember what it was like, so he could understand what you needed.
“Someday he may tell you about his youth- it is not for me to say. But you are here, now. You came home a changed person, and now it is up to you to decide what you will do what your life.
“You were lost to your father, but now you are found, as he said; you were dead but now you are alive again…and it is as if yesterday was your birthday…a new birth, free from what drove you…free from the bondage of those urges in you…now you must find ways to give something back; to give yourself.
“You do not need to tell us the details of the time you were away; you do not need to know the details of your father’s youth. You simply need to hold on to the precious insights that you gained…never forget those days when you were feeding the swine…when you were hungry…when you were afraid…when you believed you had cut yourself off from your home…from your family…from the love and compassion that was there, inside you all the time…never forget…
And one more thing- about your brother. Do not try to tell him anything with words. You will make the matter worse. Simply know that he, too, must go into the depths of his anger and his jealousy so that he can rid himself of those impediments. Someday he will embrace you in a new way. If you have learned your lesson then you will be patient. ‘Love is patient and kind, love is not arrogant.’
“You have acquired humility…the hard way! And it may be the only way. But however it is acquired, you have it. It is a gift. Be careful; even humility can be seen as a kind of superiority lorded over another.”
In his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen reflects on Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son, which is the artist’s visual depiction of his own experience of separation, alienation and forgiveness. Nouwen spent several days with the painting, which shows the son kneeling before the father, and the father’s hands holding the son from behind. It includes two other men who stand in awe, like the Three Wise Men who know that they have discovered something sacred. It shows and the elder son, barely visible in the shadow, dumbfounded.
Nouwen noticed the father’s hands. He writes,
The two hands are quite different. The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular…that hand seems not only to touch but, with its strength, also to holdwith a firm grip.
How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand.
As soon as I recognized the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds and she caresses.
Christians generally interpret the story of the Prodigal Son as God the Father, offering His Divine forgiveness. Nouwen’s observation of Rembrandt’s famous painting suggests what Carl Jung later referred to as the anima and animus- the male and female energy in each person, and, by extension, a notion of God as having both male and female characteristics. Jung talked about our shadow side, and the elder brother in Rembrandt’s painting portrays that, too.
The story of the Prodigal Son can stand on its own, without predetermined theological notions. God is compassion, wherever it is found. Forgiveness is God at work in our psyche, in our mind and spirit… wherever it is found. God is alive in that ‘most amazing’ moment when the father goes out to embrace his son- he doesn’t stand waiting, he does his part in the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness requires two- the one ready to receive, the other able to give.
Our task in life is to see the sacred ingredient that is planted in every aspect of life…to dig in, and to understand in new and deeper ways. We do not need to find sacred words- we need to make our day-to-day, down-to-earth words move from the small w to the capital W.
Then we can say, with the Prodigal Son, “I thank You God for most this amazing day…how could tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, breathing any, lifted from the no of all nothing, human merely being, doubt unimaginable You!”