Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

July 20, 2008


A thirty-dollar book saved me the expense of a trip to Russia


          I rarely pay thirty dollars for a book. Most books now cost me about a dollar plus postage. I order them online from They always find what I want – a used book in good condition. The company claims they can put their hands on 110 million books. Evidently that is not an empty boast.

          A few years ago I did pay thirty bucks for a book I had to have from the minute I saw it. It is a book by Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest quoted by preachers the world over. The book is The Return of the Prodigal Son.

          What grabbed me was the book jacket on which there is a reproduction of Rembrandt’s famous painting by the same name, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” The book is about Nouwen’s encounter with the painting and how this experience changed his life.

          Devastating loneliness had engulfed Nouwen after an exhausting lecturing trip. Weary and restless, he saw the painting on a poster in a friend’s office. His attention was riveted on the painting that depicts the prodigal son on his knees and in the arms of his forgiving father.

          Nouwen said he felt drawn “by the intimacy between the two figures, the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both.” But most of all, he added, “It was the hands – the old man’s hands – as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before.”

          The painting profoundly affected the priest. He kept thinking about it. He realized that the longing of his own soul was exactly what the painting depicted – an exhausted son being embraced upon finding a home where he could feel safe. He said, “The son-come-home was all I was and all that I wanted to be. . . . Now I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel a sense of belonging, a place where I could feel at home.”

          Two years after seeing the Rembrandt poster, Nouwen resigned his teaching position at Harvard University. He moved to Trosly, France, where he spent a year trying to decide if he should accept the opportunity to live with mentally handicapped people in one of the ninety L’Arche communities spread throughout the world.

          He jumped at the chance to join friends on a trip to the Soviet Union. There he would be able to see Rembrandt’s original painting which hangs in the Hermitage at Saint Petersburg. Nouwen spent hours gazing at the huge painting; it is eight feet high by six feet wide.

          His book is about what he felt as he studied and meditated upon the painting. He explores the deep truth that Rembrandt portrays on the oil canvas, truth that opens up new meaning into the most famous of Christ’s marvelous parables.

          Nouwen spent his final years sharing life with people with mental disabilities at the Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. The painting of the Prodigal Son caused him “to live what he saw.” He explained it in these words: “I stand in awe at the place where Rembrandt brought me. He led me from the kneeling, disheveled young son to the standing, bent-over father, from the place of being blessed to the place of blessing.”

          Given my own age I was deeply touched by Nouwen’s conclusion: “As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”

          I treasure my thirty-dollar book. It has saved me from having to travel to the Hermitage to see Rembrandt’s painting. I go there whenever I read Nouwen’s book. And, like Nouwen, I am blessed, repeatedly.  + + +