My pilgrimage continued on to St. Petersburg, Russia. We would have three days in port in the Venice of the North. Founded by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg is a series of linked islands replete with rivers and canals. The extravagance and opulence of the numerous huge palaces, even winter and summer palaces, is a bit daunting. Even more daunting is the large number of Russian Orthodox churches which now serve mainly as museums. The gold plated domes are overwhelming! The initial reaction is, “No wonder there was a revolution!” A second after thought is, “Why did it take so long after the French Revolution for the Russian serfs to awake and arise?” Maybe some of the tsars and tsarinas improved the lot of the common folk living on the fringes of society.
Politics and sociology aside for the moment, the highlight of my pilgrimage in St. Petersburg was a visit to the extensive Hermitage Museum on the third day. Catherine the Great began the process of accumulating the masterpieces which fill the halls of the museum. The Da Vinci’s were wonderful but I longed to stand just for a prayerful moment before Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” Fortunately, we had an early tour time and there was time to stand reverently in awe of this acclaimed masterpiece.
Years ago I had read Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. An almost blind father runs out and welcomes a wayward son who had caused him so much pain and grief. Just imagine the father languishing and wondering where his son was and what was going on in his life. Did he see him groveling to eat the food he was feeding to the swine? Did he ever imagine that the son walking in tattered robes with only one sandal would ever come through his front door again? The father did not berate. Instead he let him cling to his breast as his hands gripped the son’s shoulder. One hand is strong and masculine providing the order and guidance the prodigal so needed. The other, the right hand (right brain) is slender and feminine representing mercy, compassion and wisdom—welcoming him home. The older brother scowls in the shadows of the background. All these years he had been faithful to his father. He had buoyed up his father in his grief over the wayward son. Now the prodigal is getting the banquet with the fatted calf and fine wine. What gives? The onlookers seemed a bit puzzled by the whole thing. Only a Rembrandt who suffered from some type of blindness and who had experienced profound suffering in his personal life could have painted this compelling masterpiece. Rembrandt had lost his wife and all children but his son who also died later.
Anyone who had read Henri Nouwen knows that he lived a holy but tortured life of seeking love and intimacy. Though loved by his parents, Nouwen realized his mother and father were wounded and had passed their woundedness unto him. His mother was scrupulous and his father stern—no wonder he longed throughout his life for the warm embrace accorded to the prodigal. Nouwen journeyed to St. Petersburg and sat for days before the painting. He often prayed with the paintng as if it were an orthodox icon. Sitting with the painting often gave him succor in his loneliness and suffering. It was on a stopover in the Netherlands on his way to St. Petersburg to do a documentary on the painting that Henri died alone in a hotel room—alone but home at last. Ironically enough, the other great American spiritual writer of the 20th century, Thomas Merton, also died alone in a hotel room after giving what would have been his final talk—Monasticism and Marxism.
Returning home, the moment of grateful solitude before the painting had piqued my interest in revisiting Henri Nouwen and his life and works. Like Merton and all the rest of us, he was on the lifelong pilgrimage of coming into deeper communion with the Creator. I am reading Genius Born from Anguish: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen. I would have to say that Nouwen led a tortured life but that, in his pain and suffering, became the wounded healer to many. Though prone occasionally to fits of jealously and possessiveness, Henri was known to be a gentle, kind, and compassionate soul. Once when I was visiting with Dom Basil Pennington at the abbey of St. Joseph in Spencer, Massachusetts, we were talking about Nouwen. Dom Basil lamented, “If only Henri could have gotten beyond his homosexuality.” Note that he was a celibate homosexual who was a priest.
I got a copy of Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As I read and studied Henri’s mature thoughts, I realized that I needed an icon of the Prodigal Son. In orthodox theology the icon makes the reality it represents present in its fullness. Icons are doors to the eternal and so is this painting. Icons are meant to be seen. The contemplative mode with an icon is gazing in silent solitude and letting the reality of the icon speak. Pray not to the icon. Rather listen and let it speak to you in the very depths of your being. Trappist Thomas Keating says that centering prayer puts us in the presence of the divine healer. It seems to me that praying with icons is balm for the wounded spirit.
Nouwen was painfully aware of our wondedness. If we are going to be healed, we need to live with our woundedness in deep lamentation.
I take Nouwen’s lead. I find it to be a powerful experience to gaze upon The Return of the Prodigal Son. With its dramatic patterns of light and dark. I look at the father, the prodigal, the older brother and the two onlookers. I try to put myself in each character. I can feel the pain of the father as he worries about and longs for his wayward child. I can feel the anger of the older brother as he takes second seat to his little brother who for a while had lived it up. I can feel the relief of the prodigal as he realizes he is at home as he rests on his father’s breast. I can feel the puzzlement of the onlookers as they wonder how the father can be so forgiving.
What do you see in the painting? Spending time in solitude with the painting will make the road rise to meet your feet as you continue your pilgrimage.
[A note on the photograph. I had to take the picture on an angle because of the lighting in the room. I was able to straighten the perspective somewhat on Photoshop.]