The Return of the Prodigal Son

The Value of Literature

Can a work of art change the course of a person’s life? Can it mold the way a man embraces his life’s work? Henri Nouwen, an author known for his book “The Wounded Healer,” a catholic priest and professor of divinity at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard had such a life-changing experience. He shares his spiritual journey whose genesis was the viewing of a reproduction of a Rembrandt painting based on the Biblical story of the return of the Prodigal Son, in his book by the same name. The search to understand why the painting had such a deep impact on his inner being would take him to St Petersburg Russia to view the original work. Captivated with the depth of expression in the gesture and demeanor of the characters, Nouwen would also study the life of the artist for insight.

Return of the Prodigal Son
Return of the Prodigal Son
Henri Nouwen Quote
Home Coming

Over a period of three years, as he moved through the process of leaving the academic life to serve in a community for the mentally impaired, the painting would create a crisis within. At its essence, the work of art challenged his ability and willingness to deeply receive forgiveness and unconditional love. It finally moved him on to embrace others without question and freed him to deeply love. Nouwen’s journey demanded he come to terms with the character of the central figures in the painting as he saw their strengths and weaknesses in himself.

My Encounter with the Book

A close friend of mine introduced me to this book at a critical point in my life, where I too was encountering a piece of artwork that would change the course of my life. Literature matters when it speaks to me and helps me understand my life. Nouwen’s experience acted as a signpost in my own personal journey as an artist who had laid aside her art.

My catalyst would be a 20 x 16-foot stained glass window I was asked to develop a concept drawing for. The window would be installed into the sanctuary of my home church one year later. Although, I did not feel qualified to take on the work, going forward despite my doubt enabled me to discover that my unique identity had a purpose, which I needed to embrace.

Nouwen’s Encounters with the Parable in the Painting

Henri Nouwen Quote

I identified with Nouwen whose crisis centered too on accepting himself as he truly was. He found in himself a son who was lost and longing for a home and forgiveness. Nouwen also found a dutiful older brother who was burdened with resentment and unforgiveness and in as much need of release as the younger son. Finally, Nouwen’s crisis ended as he identified himself with the father who welcomes and embraces without question. Nouwen was able to enter into his new vocation knowing he was home and serving where he was supposed to serve. In closing, he says of his choice, “What greater joy can there be for me than to stretch out my own tired arms and let my hands rest in a blessing on the shoulders of my home-coming children?”

The Value of Art

A few years after I read Nouwen’s book, in 2009 I entered an art show at Park Cities Presbyterian Church. The theme of the show was the Parables of Christ. I chose the Prodigal Son. This gave me an  opportunity to encounter Jesus’ story in my own art. Having read the book, I understood how impactful these passages of scripture could be and I wanted to create a powerful piece of art.

At the time I was in the tail end of a messy divorce. I had been excommunicated from the church where the stained-glass I had helped create resides. I hadn’t given up on God, but I was hesitant in any encounters in the Church that I had. Still I was excited to attempt a piece of art about the Prodigal Son.

The Process

The Return of the Prodigal Son

First, I needed to decide on what moment in the story I would try to capture. I decide on the embrace, the moment when the father and son meet, and the son is welcomed home. Maybe it was a longing deep inside of me for reconciliation to the church, maybe it is just a longing we all have, to be welcomed by the Father.

I asked my younger son to model for me as the prodigal. And I ask my pastor at my new church to be the father. This new church had embraced both Scott and I in the midst of our family crisis and Dave was one of the many men at the church who had poured themselves into my son. They were a picture of the embrace. Dave agreed to participate, and we did a photo shoot in his kitchen and I used the photos to create a pencil drawing.

Henri Nouwen Quote

Then I further enhanced the art by scanning it and adding a background to it. I used a photo of the powerlines near our house to represent both distance and connection. It placed the story in a contemporary context. Then I had the artwork printed on watercolor paper. Sometimes in this process I will work on top of the print to enhance it. This time when I saw it, I felt the art work was finished and I left it alone.

The Embrace

I was sitting in the magnificent sanctuary at Park Cities when they called my name. I was shocked. It wasn’t how my life was going, I never expected to win.

What I saw after my name was called in a church full of people was me in a fetal position having been stricken over and over and knowing that Jesus brought me to that place of honor that night.

Return of the Prodigal Son
Return of the Prodigal Son
Henri Nouwen Quote

It wasn’t enough that I won the award, my art was used in worship at my church and at Park Cities. I think the Lord just wanted to drive home a point about being used by Him through my art and being welcomed and honored in the Church after having experienced so much rejection and pain. It was His loving embrace showing me my life’s work.

To read more about how we encounter art read my blog post Connecting to Art.

Biz News  

On November 15th I will open The Holiday Shop at Ruthieonart, an online gift shop where I will highlight some of my holiday gifts. A few of my creative friends who have online businesses will join me. So far there’s four of us and I will introduce them next week. I’m waiting to hear back from two more.  

This year the way we shop has changed and more people will be shopping online. With that in mind I wanted to make available to you one place where you can find an assortment of unique gifts. 

I hope you will Be Inspired!  

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