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Flickering Minds

Description

In this message, Jill Carattini evaluates the parable of the prodigal son.

Gallery statistics report that the average time a person spends looking at a particular work of art is three seconds. To those who spend their lives caring for the great art museums of the world, I imagine this is a disheartening sight to behold day after day. It would have been interesting to hear the thoughts of the St. Petersburg curators who watched as Henri Nouwen sat before Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son for more than four hours.

I suppose most of us are more often like the three-second viewer than the captivated Nouwen, moving through our days with our eyes barely open. How often are we surrounded by creative mastery but unaware and unseeing—missing, in our absence, the bigger picture? One of my favorite poems begins with the lines, “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent.”(1) In a culture filled with tools and media whose very aim seems to be keeping us from being where we are, it is a brave and fitting admission for whomever you can manage to confess it.

The parable of the prodigal son is typically understood as a story that speaks to those who have wandered away in belief or obedience, content, at least for a time, in being absent. It is a phrase used in religious and secular settings to denote the black sheep and wayward souls of our communities. Others claim the title more personally to explain a specific time in our lives—a time of testing the waters, turning away from home or upbringing, experimenting with life or faith or philosophy. It is a parable that at one time or another describes many of us. Perhaps it is also a parable that describes us daily. In the daily struggle to see, in the constant battles for our attention and distraction, it is a daily effort to be present and conscious in this place. We come and go like prodigals.

The story as Jesus tells it explains that the wayward child had a plan for returning to his father’s house: he would confess his sin against heaven and against his father, and then he would ask to be treated as one of the hired servants. He would work his way back into his father’s life. But the father in the story doesn’t even give him a chance to fully present the offer. Upon seeing his son, he says to his slaves, “‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.”(2) With every symbol of restoration, the father who was waiting embraces the prodigal child.

Gripped by the intensity of the massive painting before him, Henri Nouwen found himself becoming “more and more part of the story that Jesus once told and Rembrandt once painted.” Yet in Rembrandt’s painting we do not find the father eagerly rushing out to greet his wayward son as it is described in the Gospel of Luke. Rather, we find stillness; we find the parable’s characters at rest. Rembrandt slows flickering minds to a scene that captures a thousand words for our daily situation: “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent.” In this scene, the son has returned, and he is kneeling before his father in his ragged shoes and torn clothes exactly as he is: the one who insisted upon defining himself apart from his father, the one who was absent. But in pursuit of life beyond his father, the child lost sight of life itself.

In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus invites a distracted world to slow down, wherever you are in faith or absence of faith, to taste and see, to be still and to be present. In this culture of absence, the Father is near; waiting, though we put off him off, keeping vigil over wandering lives and attention-spans, and running in grace toward those who even half-heartedly attempt to be present.
 

(1) Denise Levertov, “Flickering Mind,” The Stream and the Sapphire (New York: New Directions, 1997), 15.
(2) Luke 15:22-25.

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RZIM
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