I first read this book many years ago in seminary. My seminary years are now so long ago that they're beginning to feel like a distant memory. Trying to remember specifics of what I learned gets harder, but the general contours are still with me. And the thing seminary taught me most was to be a better reader.
I learned that lesson in two ways: first, I was taught (by two professors in particular) how to read theology and history in ways that helped me mine, respect, and otherwise engage what was being said. I call this informational reading. Secondly, I was taught the importance of reading that is formational rather than informational. Some call it lectio divina (divine reading). It's the art of sitting with -- meditating on, ruminating, praying through -- what you read. Both kinds of reading are important in different places and seasons, and both are things I knew how to do in some measure before I went to seminary, but it was there that I learned to think about how I approached a text and what I was trying to get out of it (or receive from it, or let it do with me).
I liken meditative reading to sipping rather than gulping. It's a metaphor that works for me, and makes me smile, because I am the "sipper" in my family -- the one who can take a glass of iced tea and make it last for a couple of hours, while my husband, for instance, tends to gulp down one glass and order another. While I am a sipper of tea, I have always tended, by temperament and inclination, to be a gulper of words. That may be a by-product of how early in life I read and how much of my life I've spent doing it, but I do have the tendency to read fast and furiously. It's not always a bad way to read, especially when falling into a story you love (and know you can go back to read more slowly later) but it's not the kind of reading that tends to serve me best when I am approaching spiritual reading.
With the Scriptures and with other spiritual books, I have tried to consciously slow down my reading. I tell myself that learning to sit with a small portion of text is more important than racing through. I have learned to be a sipper of words when it comes to books that feed my spiritual thirst.
I mention all this because I have spent a lot of months reading Nouwen's relatively small book, and it has blown me away on this second reading. I remember enjoying it and getting a lot from it when I read it in seminary, but I am sure I tended to gulp it then because I was in the midst of two-years of fire-hose kinds of reading (ironically the sheer weight of academic reading in seminary almost assured that, despite learning a lot about reading formationally, I spent most of my time reading informationally). I don't think the book was assigned. I think I chose to read it as part of a project I did for a course on Christianity and the Arts, in which I surveyed different ways artists had engaged the story of the prodigal son.
This time through, I've been able to linger in passages, go back and revisit lines, paragraphs, and pages that spoke to me the first time through, and sometimes journal my engagement with the words. The Return of the Prodigal is, essentially, a book about reading: Nouwen spends its roughly 150 pages "reading" Rembrandt's famous painting of the same name, reflecting on what he has learned as he contemplated it, and reflecting on how the painting has helped him to read himself (and find himself in the painting and in the story from the gospels that it depicts). That's a lot of reading layers, and it's just a joy to add to the layers when you come to the book and add your own layers of engagement -- with Nouwen's words, with the painting, and with the gospel story.
Since my memory of the first time I read this book is rather dim, I found myself smiling at how many times, as I sipped at the book this summer, I would think to myself "whoa, that was powerful," or "oh, that's truly a beautiful insight I needed to hear," thoughts that would be quickly chased by the thought "that's probably why I loved this book so much the first time." After awhile, I started to chuckle whenever I had the thought. It's a book full of rich places to linger, and I can't honestly pinpoint which part is the part that might have spoken the most to my 30 year old self. But I can engage how it speaks to me at 47 -- and of course, part of the wonder of reading is that the book itself, sitting all these years with no changes to it text, becomes a different book because I am a different person than I was when last I read it. It has floated into a different place in the river of my life, and oh, I'm thankful it has.
Just one tiny, tiny example of how I find myself sipping at its riches came in a passage I read a few days ago. In the book's penultimate chapter: "The Father Calls for a Celebration," Nouwen reflects on how God invites us into joy. He writes:
"The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to 'steal' all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see. Yes, I know that not everybody has been converted yet, that there is not yet peace everywhere, that all pain has not yet been taken away, but still, I see people turning and returning home; I hear voices that pray; I notice moments of forgiveness, and I witness many signs of hope. I don't have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand.
This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing the truth even when I am surrounded by lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself."
He goes on later to say:
"People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness...Jesus lived this joy of the Father's house to the full. In him we can see his Father's joy. 'Everything the Father has is mine,' he says, including God's boundless joy. That divine joy does not obliterate the divine sorrow. In our world, joy and sorrow exclude each other. Here below, joy means the absence of sorrow and sorrow the absence of joy. But such distinctions do not exist in God. Jesus, the Son of God, is the man of sorrows, but also the man of complete joy...Jesus wants me to have the same joy he enjoys: 'I have loved you, just as my Father has loved me. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this, so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.'"
Let those last words of Jesus sink down deep into your heart. "I have loved you, just as my Father has loved me. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this, so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete."
Is it not astonishing to realize, really and truly realize, that we are so loved? That Jesus himself wants our joy to be complete? Those were the astonishing words I found myself penning in my journal as I reflected on this passage the other day: "Jesus wants my joy to be complete." I wrote them down large. I underlined them. They were my takeaway, my ribbon to carry with me from this passage, and I am walking with them still. Jesus desires our joy. He is longing for our joy. He is working for our joy. He invites us into the joy he has known with his Father from before the time the world began. He offers us the pathway into joy: abiding in his love, obeying his commandments. In another place, he tells us that his commandment is that we love one another so that our joy may be full. He shows us that true joy lies in our loving as the Father has loved. Our love for others then isn't something we do just because it's our duty or even because we are grateful that we are so loved (though those are all bound up in why we love). Our love for others, through the power of the Holy Spirit, becomes the way we are caught up in the divine life of Jesus and the Father and invited to inhabit their joy which is deep and wide and real and which encompasses everything we know and experience, including real sorrow.
Wow. Just wow. (No doubt, this was the passage that made me love this book so many years ago!) Yes, I'm chuckling again. And I'm so glad I've had a chance to sip at Nouwen's beautiful book once more.