Of Rembrandt and Wolfe: Leaving Home & Returning Again

My favourite painting hangs on the wall of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Measuring nearly 7′ x 9′ it is a fairly simple composition.  An old man, wearing red, has his hands on the shoulders of a young man.  The young man’s head is shorn.  His clothing is dirty, tattered, coarse and somewhere along his journey, he has lost a shoe.  He is kneeling in front of his father, his hands clasped; his body language says he has run out of options.  He is a beggar, poverty-stricken, not privileged.  He cannot look into his father’s face.  To the right another son, an older one, watches the reunion.  He is not pleased.  His hands are hidden within the folds of his robe and he will not incline his head towards his father and certainly not towards his brother.  He is stiff and distanced by more than just space.  Others, less distinct, look on.  How do they feel about the tableau before them?  Rembrandt does not show us.  The spotlight is on the father and his son.  His younger son.  The prodigal.

Even if I knew nothing about the story that inspired the painting, I would wonder:  What did the younger son do that he should be found in this state: impoverished, pleading, bereft?  How long has he been gone?  Was he feared dead?  Or hoped so?  Is that why the older son looks so bitter?  Because while his younger brother was gone he had to comfort their father?  Or did he even try?  Did he try to bully their father into writing off the younger son as irresponsible, a runaway they would never see again, as an under-achieving bum who would only disappoint them again and again and again?  The father is trying to see his boy’s face, but his son is too ashamed.  He hides his face from his father and so the father does the only thing he can: He puts his hands on his son’s shoulders and holds his child as close to him as he can.

I don’t pretend to understand all the theological and cultural implications of the story of the prodigal.  I know that the younger son had basically told his father he wished he were dead so that he could get his hands on his inheritance while he was still young enough to enjoy it.  That he wasted his inheritance on good food, good wine and suspect company.  That when the money ran out and the food and wine was gone, the company left as quickly as it had arrived.  That he had been reduced to taking care of pigs.  All I know is that this image and the story behind it resonates within me so strongly that it almost leaves me breathless

The father had been looking for his son from the moment he left the house.  Every day, for as long as he had been gone, the father had watched the road, looking for the familiar swagger of his boy coming home.  But his son hadn’t come home swaggering.  He came home limping.  He shuffled.  He was bent over from the trials of life away from the safety and comfort of family.  He came home with nothing.  He expected nothing, but where else could he go?  He didn’t even have the clothes he’d left home with. The Bible scholars say that the father recognized him anyway and that as soon as he saw his son trudging back up the garden path, he hiked up his robe and ran to him.

Can you picture it? The old man, scanning the road as he has for countless other days, sees his younger son suddenly appear on the horizon.  Life has dealt harshly with his son and he is at the end of his limits physically and financially.  He’s miserable – it shows in every uncertain step he takes, in the sag to his shoulders and the way he’s hunched over.  He is thin – it’s been weeks since he last had a good meal – and filthy.  Hanging around the pig sty will do that to you.  But the father doesn’t care: Dignity and decorum be damned – his boy has come home at last!  He runs fast as his arthritic legs will carry him, risking falling, risking ridicule.

The younger son so obviously expected the words of Thomas Wolfe to be factual: “You can’t go back home to your family. . . ” Instead, his father falls on him, hugging him and kissing him and then dresses him like the son he was born to be, not the pauper that he had become; calls for celebration not censure.

The younger son has always been referred to as the prodigal.  Even the name of the painting says that it’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” but I wonder, as is so often the case with the truly important things, if we haven’t missed the point?  As an adjective, prodigal means lavish, profuse, extravagant.  What if it is the father who is lavish and extravagant, pouring out honour and blessing onto someone who didn’t deserve either?  Welcome instead of rejection; warmth instead of disdain; celebration instead of hostility.

What if . . . .

What if I could learn to be just as extravagant with my friends and family ?  Or with the people in my life in general?  And what if I started with the person I am the most likely to judge harshly and to write off?  What if I start with me?

I left my cave in July 2011.  With a light heart and a great deal of swagger, I began to explore this bright world where I wanted to belong, even if it meant stumbling towards whatever it was I thought I was called to.  But I returned to the cave in mid-December.  I don’t even know why.  Just to visit the old stomping grounds?  To remind myself of where I had been?  I don’t know. More than likely, I had simply forgotten that I didn’t belong there anymore.  I got used to the dark and the damp, and it didn’t really matter that it didn’t fit anymore.  I just accepted that I was supposed to be there.  It took me a long while to remember where I do belong, to remember who I am.

I don’t belong in the dark places.  I was born for the light.

I am a storyteller.  I am a musician.

And I am coming home.


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