"Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate."
As Henri Nouwen studied and reflected on Rembrandt's painting "The Return of the Prodigal Son", he progressed in his understanding as his reflected on how he was like the Younger Brother (The Prodigal) and the Elder Brother and came to understanding the compassion of the Father towards both of his sons. As he continued down this path and with the reflections of others, he suddenly realized one final thing; that he, and that all of us, are eventually called to be the father.
Children grow up, says Nouwen. And while the Father went to both sons to bring them into his joy, he also went to them to be an example of how they should be, what they should grow into. It happens to us in life of course: as adults, we have to embrace the responsibilities of adulthood, as parents we come to act not as children relying on the guidance of others but providing guidance to others.
Becoming the father is difficult, suggests Nouwen:
"Do I want to be like the father? Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receive compassion but the one who offers it as well?
Isn't there a subtle pressure in both Church and society to remain a dependent child? Hasn't the Church in the past stressed obedience in a fashion that made it hard to claim spiritual fatherhood, and hasn't our consumer society encouraged us to indulge in childish self-gratification? Who has truly challenged us to liberate ourselves from immature dependencies and to accept the burden of responsible adults? And aren't we ourselves constantly trying to evade the fearful task of fatherhood?"
Nouwen posits that one of Jesus' most radical statements is "Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate": "If the only meaning of the story was that people sin but God forgives, I could easily begin to think of my sins as a fine occasion for God to show me his forgiveness. There would be no real challenge in such an interpretation. I would resign myself to my weaknesses and keep hoping that God would close his eyes to him and let me come home, whatever I did. Such sentimental romanticism is not the message of the Gospels."
Instead, we are called to remember that as we are in the Father's house, we "make the Father's life my own and become transformed into his image.": If God forgives sinners, we should do the same. If God welcomes sinners home, we should do the same. If God is compassionate, we should be the same. And God himself in Christ is the model for this, we should be like Him. Nouwen argues that in fact this becoming like God - not in power or essence or authority but in nature and love - is the point of what Christ taught. We need to love not based on comparison or competition - "God loves them more than me" but with the selfless, outgoing love that Rembrandt portrays in the painting and Jesus speaks of in his parable. Christ, he says is the model of what we as children of God should be: "He was the younger son without being rebellious. He was the elder son without being resentful. He hears everything the Father says and does everything the Father askes him to do, yet remains completely free. He gives everything and receives everything."
Spiritual fatherhood, says Nouwen, has nothing to do with power or control. It is about giving without wanting, loving without conditions of love. But how does he propose we get there?
Grief - "Grief asks me to allow the sins of the world - my own included - to pierce my heart and make me shed tears, many tears, for them. There is no compassion without many tears...grief is the discipline of the heart that sees the sin of the world, and knows itself to be the sorrowful price of freedom without which love cannot bloom. I am beginning to see much of praying as grieving...To become like the Father whose only authority is compassion, I have to shed countless tears and so prepare my hear to receive anyone, whatever their journey has been, and forgive them from that heart."
Forgiveness - "It is through constant forgiveness that we become like the Father. Forgiveness from the heart is very difficult...But God's forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that does not demand anything for itself, a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking...It calls me to keep stepping over all my arguments that says forgiveness is unwise, unhealthy, and impractical. It challenges me to step over all my needs for gratitude and compliments. Finally, it demands of me that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged and that wants to stay in control a put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive."
Generosity - "(The father) does not simply offer more than can be reasonably expected from someone who has been offended; no, he completely gives himself away without reserve...In order to become like the Father, I must be generous as the Father is generous. Just as the Father gives his very self to his children, so must I give my very self to my brothers and sisters. Jesus makes it very clear that it is precisely this giving of self that is the mark of the true disciple. 'No-one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friend'....Every time I take a step in the direction of generosity, I am moving I know that I am moving from fear to love.
Finally, notes Nouwen, the Father is no longer called to come home as the sons were; instead he is called to be there when they return home:
"It is very hard to just be home and wait. It is a waiting in grief for those who have left and a waiting with hope to offer forgiveness and new life to those to return.
As the Father, I have to believe that all the human heart desires can be found at home. As the Father, I have to be free from the need to wander around curiously and catch up with what I might otherwise perceive as missed childhood opportunities. As the Father, I have to know that, indeed, my youth is over and that playing youthful games is nothing but a ridiculous attempt to cover up the truth that I am old and close to death. As the Father, I have to dare to carry the responsibility of a spiritually adult person and dare to trust that real joy and real fulfillment can only come from welcoming home those who have been hurt and wounded on their life's journey, and loving them with a love that neither asks for nor expects anything in return.
There is a dreadful emptiness in this spiritual fatherhood. No power, no success, no popularity, no easy satisfaction. But that dreadful emptiness is also the place of true freedom. It is the place where there is 'nothing left to lose', where love has no strings attached, and where real spiritual strength...Each time we touch the sacred emptiness of spiritual non-demanding love, heaven and earth tremble and there is great 'rejoicing among the angels of God.' It is the joy of the returning sons and daughters. It is the joy of spiritual fatherhood.
Living out this spiritual fatherhood requires the radical self discipline of being home. As a self-rejecting person always in search of affirmation and affection, I find it impossible to love consistently without asking for something in return. But the discipline is precisely to give wanting to accomplish this myself as a heroic feat."
It does not surprise him, concludes Nouwen, that few claim spiritual fatherhood for themselves. The pain is too apparently obvious, the joys too well hidden. And yet this is what we are all called to.
For if we will not do it, who will?