This is part of my Word for 2014 “Release Series.”
This week I have received a very unexpected gift. A parish in our community was having a Lenten mission and though I had no plans to attend it, I did attend all three nights. The mission was held at our former priest, Fr. J’s, new parish. New parish, that is funny because he’s been there almost three years but to me it will always be his “new parish.” Anyway, one of his priest “buddies” was going to be leading the mission, Fr. T from Rhode Island. I thought we’d just go to Mass Sunday evening and hear his homily but not stay for the mission later in the evening. However, when we walked into Mass, there was a HUGE print of this painting by Dutch painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn:
It was and is utterly captivating. As an aside, I believe that if either university I attended had offered an Art History degree, I would have studied that instead of History. I spent 18 months at a college near Philadelphia, and on Sunday afternoons, when I could afford the train fare, I would take the train into Philly and spend the afternoon at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was free on Sundays for students and I would spend hours walking through the galleries of Renaissance art pondering Flemish, Dutch, French, and Italian paintings. Such good memories, but I digress.
Fr. T. gave a promo “pitch” during his homily that enticed me to buy the kids junk food for dinner, drop them at home with my oldest as a babysitter, and head back for the one hour mission talk. It.Blew.Me.Away. Wrecked, I tell, you, utterly wrecked is how I left the church each of these three nights. Not only did Fr. T give a beautiful reflection on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, focusing on the younger son the first night, and the elder son the second night, but the whole talk the first two nights took place within the context of a holy hour. There is this huge beautiful painting and then in the middle of the altar is a more gorgeous Jesus in the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Fr. T shared an equally beautiful stories at the end of his talk each night which left me in tears. One of the points that Fr. T made is that most of us do not have a hard time seeing ourselves in the younger son, rather it’s the elder son in whom we struggle to see ourselves. He has a gift for storytelling that leaves me wondering if he is truly French Canadian as he claims but is instead Irish.
Now, we Catholics are credited with being really great at guilt. Jokes are made about “Catholic Guilt” all the time, and it’s true most faithful Catholics are pretty quick to recognize their sinfulness. However, I was raised Protestant, and I came into the Catholic Church in 1998 already an expert in guilt. The difference is that I think Catholics understand forgiveness a bit better than Protestants and more readily accept they are forgiven, probably because they grow up with the Sacrament of Penance. I think they really get that once forgiven, it’s done. Me, I grew up being told that God hates sin and can’t be around it. I was also told that we are all sinful at our core, so that’s why you have to follow all of the rules. Of course, in Protestantism, the rules change. They are more fluid, and they tend to be different depending on the denomination you are a part of, and if you have an upbringing like me where we changed denominations fairly regularly, it can be difficult to follow the rules. But, I am a rules gal. Give me the rules and I am going to follow them. Except for when I don’t. Then, once I come out of my little acts of rebellion, I fall into the mire of believing “I am the most wretched human being on the face of the earth and God could not possibly love me.” You see? I can’t see myself as the younger son because he at least had the smarts and the courage to go back to his father, not just to repent, but to accept the forgiveness offered. Because you know that’s what the younger son did. I think he knew in his heart the nature of his father and he knew if he went back that it would be safe and everything would be OK. I think he knew this in the very depths of his being because he did know the father. Just look at the way Rembrandt painted his interaction with his father. On his knees, face buried in his fathers chest, and accepting his fathers embrace. You don’t do that if you don’t really know how someone is going to react to your sinfulness. Doesn’t it make you want to cry how beautiful that moment is that Rembrandt captured? It brought to my memory a moment I will never, ever forget. It’s no secret that I struggled with my youngest son’s adoption, and that I still struggle with mothering him because he’s a tough kid to parent. His early childhood trauma has left him with scars that make it nearly impossible for him to trust, to relax, to tell the truth, etc. He feels the whole world is always out to get him. So this moment I remember happened maybe six months after his adoption, maybe a little longer. He was upstairs on the landing, he was raging at the other children and had nearly pushed one of his siblings down the stairs. I couldn’t control him and I was so very angry because he had frequent violent outbursts back then. As I stood at the bottom of the stairs vowing once again that either that child goes or I go, My Love came out of his office. He scooped up our raging son in those huge, strong arms of his, and he held him close, not letting our son go. He was talking gently to him. I watched as my husband put his forehead to my son’s forehead, letting his glasses slip down a bit so that they were looking eyeball to eyeball, and he whispered words of love to him, words I couldn’t hear but love just oozed out of the scene. It’s a moment seared in my memory because I knew I had glimpsed a depth of love that could only be a mirror of the Father’s love for us. My husband later confessed to me that he didn’t find my youngest son very likable when he was like that but he loved him because he could see the wounds of his heart. My husband understood the love of the Father.
I, as it turns out, don’t know The Father very well. It was a little epiphany I had right at the beginning of Lent. I know about him, I know of him, I don’t really know Him. “RW,” you ask, “how is this possible that you get along this many years in your life as a Christian and you don’t know the Father intimately?” Well, let me tell you, it’s because I am the elder son. I’ve known that for while now. I didn’t really need Fr. T to provide that little revelation to me (sorry Fr. beat you to it.) Remember? I am a rules gal. I follow the rules. I do what the Church tells me to do. I do what God tells me to do. I do it but not always with the right heart. Sometimes, I am pinching my nose because the idea of complying is a bit repugnant to me but I must do it because, you know, it’s a rule that I have to follow. I “knew” that if I followed the rules, I was bullet-proof, nothing truly bad could happen to me. Imagine my disbelief as I am watching My Love’s heart, the heart that loved so largely, the heart that loved like the Father, the heart that I loved, stop. I kept thinking was: “This.Can.Not.Be.Happening. Pinch me, wake me up, this is my worst nightmare.” Imagine the subsequent conversations I have had with God: “I did everything you asked of me. I adopted four children. I didn’t even want to adopt the last two but You said they were our children. I didn’t think I could parent two more but I said OK because you promised me you would be with me. And then you don’t even answer my prayers for my husband’s healing. You don’t even care that I have to raise these four children, all of whom YOU told us to adopt because you said they were our sons and daughter. How am I supposed to do this alone!?!” Oh, yes, and then there were the times I slung a few cuss words his way because I had followed the rules and yet, a bad thing happened. All you have to do is read the parable of the Prodigal Son and you can see I am the elder son. He was all up in his father’s face too about all the good things he did for him and how he didn’t break the rules. The elder son did not know his father at all. He didn’t know his father’s nature or he wouldn’t have been surprised by his father’s reaction. He would have trusted his father. Not only that, I think if he knew his father, he would have been with his father looking, waiting, hoping, praying his younger brother would come home. Instead he stands outside the house, looking like he’s eaten something sour, and refusing to enter into the joy of the father because he just didn’t get how his father could forgive so readily. Fr. T talks about the placement of the elder brother in the painting as having a chasm between he, his younger brother, and his father. A chasm the size of the Grand Canyon is how he put it. That’s pretty much how I feel about God, the Father, most of the time. I feel he’s so very far away, I can’t get near Him and frankly, why would He even bother to come near to me? Because, you know, I am a sinner, and God hates sin.
Fr. J has shared with me about Lectio Divina, an ancient form of prayer. He recommended a book because he knows I am a book nerd. He also encouraged me to participate in a teaching retreat, which I am signed up to do in June. I have been a little unsure about Lectio Divina as a form of prayer because I am such a rules follower. I don’t tend to trust my own instincts because when you have faith that changes as quickly as the tide at the Jersey Shore, it’s a little hard to trust. I wasn’t sure I could “find” my passage of scripture or my “thing” that I would pray upon. However, as I left Mass tonight, I knew as I have never known before, I would be spending the next few weeks, months, maybe years, praying over the Parable of the Prodigal Son and this painting while asking the Father to help me in my unbelief.
Thanks Rembrandt. And, thank you Fr. T for a really beautiful gift.
~ The Reluctant Widow