Grief and Compassion in The Return of the Prodigal Son

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I have been reading Henri Nouwen’s excellent little book The Return of the Prodigal Son this summer and have found myself delighted and moved by the story of his encounter with Rembrandt’s famous painting and the parable it depicts. One of the many passages in the book that I have had stuck in my mind is this one. Here Nouwen, no stranger to deep anguish himself, speaks about the connection between grief and compassion:

It might sound strange to consider grief a way to compassion. But it is. 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. If they can’t be tears that stream from my eyes, they have to be at least tears that well up from my heart. When I consider the immense waywardness of God’s children, our lust, our greed, our violence, our anger, our resentment, and when I look at them through the eyes of God’s heart I cannot but weep and cry out in grief:

“Look, my soul, at the way one human being tries to inflict as much pain on another as possible; look at these people plotting to bring harm to their fellows; look at these parents molesting their children; look at this landowner exploiting his workers; look at the violated women, the misused men, the abandoned children. Look, my soul, at the world; see the concentration camps, the prisons, the nursing homes, the hospitals, and hear the cries of the poor”. . .

. . . I am beginning to see that much praying is grieving. This grief is so deep not just because the human sin is so great but also––and more so––because the divine love is so boundless.

This reluctance to slow down and let the weight of our own sin and the sin of the world roll over us is pervasive, with examples so readily familiar to us that they are nearly cliches. We walk quickly past the dirty man who stinks of alcohol downtown, avoiding eye contact as best we can. A doctor hurries from one hospital room to the next, never stopping long enough to just sit in silence with her patients in the midst of the bewilderment and anguish of disease. Or, on a larger scale, a colossal tragedy strikes and within minutes news anchors are arguing about whose fault it was. And, inevitably, the tragedy is soon eclipsed by coverage of the latest political forest fire, regardless of whether it was sparked by genuine controversy or is only the latest iteration of partisan banality.

Has the age of the internet done it to us or has modern technology simply revealed and magnified the urgent ugliness was lurking within us all along? Probably some unhappy synergism between the two, but I suspect the latter is more to blame. It is distressing enough to see this played out by the usual suspects alluded to above but what saddens me most is to see Christians utterly captive to the hot take zeitgeist, buying into the internet deceit that everything must be responded to. So often, even when we are trying to defend the gospel or the clarity and integrity of biblical witness, the mode of much Christian discourse, especially online, seems to be inherently at odds with the content about which we are supposedly so concerned to protect.

But of course, I’m part of the problem too––after all, here I am writing about all this on the internet. I love to talk about the need for thoughtful, charitable discourse, the importance of lamenting before responding, recognizing one’s own precariousness before anything else––blah, blah, blah. So often all of that is just a convenient facade, a screen on which I can project the appearance of (thoughtful! deep!) spiritual insight. But spiritual activity dedicated to creating the appearance of spiritual depth is a far cry from spiritual depth itself.

It’s easy for me to get busy about grief, about mourning – to read books, to drop thought provoking (somewhat contrived) comments about it into conversations with friends, to organize discussions with folks from church, or whatever. But fabricating the appearance of grief does not engender the compassion that Nouwen writes about––it only becomes one more bullet point on a long list of appearances to keep up. Feeling down in one’s bones that you are poor and needy, sitting quietly in the wreckage of all your formerly held, rosey-eyed self-conceptions, feeling what Anselm of Canterbury called ponderis peccatum (the weight of sin)––this is something else entirely. It is, as the author of Hebrews puts it, “the removal of things that are shaken––that is, things that have been made––in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” (Heb 12:27)

It is this kind of grief out of which compassion, laughter, and surprising, solid, unshaken hope bubble out. This grief is a gift, is pure miracle. It comes only when, by God’s grace, you are confronted with the sobering and painful reality of you know yourself to be at core, when you cannot escape from the final, crushing awareness “Of things ill done and done to others’ harm/Which once you took for exercise of virtue” (T.S. Eliot).

Only when we sit still in the raw quiet left behind by this unyielding truth do we begin to hear the voice of the living God, speaking these words:

When the poor and needy seek water,

and there is none,

   and their tongue is parched with thirst,

I the Lord will answer them;

   I the God of Israel will not forsake them.

I will open rivers on the bare heights,

   and fountains in the midst of the valleys.

I will make the wilderness a pool of water,

   and the dry land springs of water.

I will put in the wilderness the cedar,

   the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive.

I will set in the desert the cypress,

   the plane and the pine together,

that they may see and know,

   may consider and understand together,

that the hand of the Lord has done this,

   the Holy One of Israel has created it.

    – Isaiah 41:17-20
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