“Why don’t you throw out that raggedy t-shirt?” my wife prodded as I pulled on my 1999 River Bank Run 20K shirt. “It has so many holes in it.”
“I can’t do that.” I smoothed the prized shirt over my shoulders and chest. “I got it when I ran my first 20K road race. It’s part of me.”
As I thought further, however, I realized my unwillingness to discard that rag-tag t-shirt was not about letting go of a worn-out garment. My resistance had something to teach me.
I was reading Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. In it, Nouwen describes his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting inspired by the parable of the prodigal son. Meditating on the painting for hours on end catapulted Nouwen onto a long spiritual journey of inner growth.
He discovered the father, elder son, and prodigal son depicted in the painting represent the trinity of personality traits found within each of us. It also contained an important message about the goal of our spiritual journey.
The Wandering Son/Daughter
A part of us is the wandering son/daughter. We want it our way. We seek gratification through fortune, fame, and adventure. We resist letting anyone tell us how to live our lives because we think we know how to do it. We have to touch, taste, and feel life’s experiences, and doubt we need a guide.
We leave our physical home trying to determine who we are and where we belong in the world. We look outside ourselves, hoping some person, thing, or event will help us uncover our purpose and attain wholeness and inner peace.
In doing so, we deny the spiritual reality that every part of our being belongs to God, that the Creator holds us safe in an eternal embrace, and that we are carved in the palm of Divine Love.
Eventually, however, we’ve had enough. Our dissatisfaction with ourselves and disappointment with life invite our souls to lead us back home to the center of our being where we know we’re loved unconditionally by the One who formed us. This spiritual “home” is where we hear the voice that says, “You are my Beloved; on you my favor rests.”
The Elder Son/Daughter
We’re also bits of the elder son/daughter. Smug. Self-righteous. Manipulative. Always doing the “right thing” with the wrong motives. We judge others and ourselves because we and they can’t seem to “get it right.”
We want others to affirm us, notice how much we do, and observe how we sacrifice and give—and when we don’t get equal treatment or sufficient acknowledgement, we pout.
As the elder son/daughter, we are the “good sibling.” We stayed home to tend the family and the farm. But deep inside we feel we never measure up. Our good works don’t produce the love we keep looking for from others.
At some point, we accept ourselves as we are. We embrace the original goodness that comes from the Father. We let go of our resentments, and open our hearts to the unconditional love offered by the Divine. We know everything we need comes from the Creator. We return to the house of joy.
The Compassionate Father/Mother
Like the t-shirt I resisted letting go of, Nouwen says he grappled with his prodigal and elder son personalities. He clung to his broken self, wallowed in his inability to oust his fears and insecurities, and searched for human love endlessly. Nouwen used anger and rebellion to keep his distance from God.
His ego clutched his accomplishments, letting what he did define who he thought he was. As a result, he became arrogant, self-righteous, and unforgiving.
He was stuck in his broken son mode. He continued to feel he’d messed up and hadn’t “earned” his place as a real son. So, he ran from the Creator, not realizing he was running from himself.
One day, a trusted friend told Nouwen, “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize you are called to become the father.”
The words struck Nouwen like a thunderbolt. In all the years he’d pondered the father embracing the son in Rembrandt’s painting, it never occurred to him that becoming the compassionate father/mother is our vocation. It’s the ultimate goal of the spiritual life.
Nouwen’s friend spoke further. “Look at the father in the painting and you will know who you are called to be. People around here don’t need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother. We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.”
In that moment, Nouwen said he grew up. He dropped his broken son images and welcomed the Father’s unconditional love. He opened his heart, claimed the truth that he was God’s Beloved, and let the Spirit begin the life-long work of forming him into the Compassionate Father/Mother.
We’re Wrapped in Divine Love
God is waiting, nudging each of us to accept and grow into who we are: the Beloved. The Ones upon whom God’s Divine Favor rests.
When we embrace the Creator’s unconditional love, we take off our worn-out t-shirts. We drape our Spirits with the garment of Divine Love.
In doing so, we become the compassionate Father/Mother and grow up on the inside. We accept the unfinished parts of our personalities, but don’t let them overshadow the truth of who we are and who we are becoming.
The pathway to transformation begins when we accept the Creator’s Infinite Unconditional Love. It’s too good to be true, but yet it is true. We are wrapped in the garment of God’s all-embracing love.
We are home. We are One with the Father/Mother who formed us in the womb and rests inside our hearts holding us, guiding us every step of the way.
One with God
Before his death, Jesus’ final prayer was that we would know we are One with God, just as Jesus realized he was One with the Father. He asked the Father to help us understand we are loved unconditionally by the Maker—so agape love would be written on our hearts and lived out through our lives. (John 17:20-23).
When we embrace God’s Infinite love for us, we become the Father/Mother. We bless others. Grieve with them. Forgive them. Bestow abundant compassion upon them.
Claiming our True Self
As I pondered Nouwen’s words, I wrote this in my journal, “I am home. I’m the Beloved—One with the Father.”
The words scared me. They opened a vulnerable space in my heart. For years, I was fearful I’d use those words to become self-righteous and smug like I’d done so often before. I also didn’t feel worthy of being God’s son because of my many failures. So, I resisted the invitation to grow into my true self.
But instead of getting stuck in my ragged son-like shortcomings, I’ve now begun to ask God for the grace of acceptance and humility to live into the truth of who I am. And slowly, I feel a shift within me.
I recognize more often when I’m clinging to my prodigal and elder son. I notice their traits when they get a grip on me. And instead of running from myself and God, I open my heart with compassion and ask the Father to love into wholeness those unfinished parts of me.
Growing Up on the Inside
Scripture says it’s time to put aside our childish ways. By holding fast to my prodigal and elder sons, I neglected to let the Spirit invite me to become who I already am and who I am becoming: a compassionate father. Like Nouwen, I must put away my childish ways and grow up on the inside.
Each of us are called to become the Compassionate Father/Mother. It’s the goal of our spiritual journeys.
When we claim our spiritual fatherhood/motherhood as God’s Beloved, our lives bless others. We love without conditions. We forgive endlessly. We put on the garment of Divine Fatherhood/Motherhood and carry out our vocation: to be the human image and likeness of Divine Love in the world.
As I continue to move through this inner unfolding, I’ve found it helpful to find a photograph of myself that depicts the Spirit of the Father/Mother I want to be. I’ve placed that photo on my cell phone and lap top as a screen saver. It reminds me of who I am and who I’m becoming.
This week, find a photograph of yourself, one that invites you to claim your inner truth—you are God’s Beloved, called to be and become the Compassionate Father/Mother. Then get rid of that ragged t-shirt and wrap yourself in the garment of Divine Love.
—brian j plachta