A few years ago, I spent a weekend HERE for a personal retreat.
I arrived at the retreat center emotionally exhausted. The days and weeks leading up to the retreat had left me frustrated, tired, and quite frankly, mad at myself. The week of the retreat was one of the worst in recent memory. It seemed as if I was at odds with everyone around me—my wife, kids, co-workers, board members, God and myself. My defense mechanisms that I so carefully crafted over the years to help me stay in control had burst onto the scene of my life and spilled onto everyone around me. Insecurity, anger, defensiveness and pride were flowing freely out of me and I couldn’t seem to find the shut off valve.
I felt much like Paul in Romans 7:24 when he exclaimed, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” I felt helpless. Powerless. When your nose is rubbed in the muck of your own flesh and you see how it hurts not only you but those around you, it causes you to throw up your hands and go, “I’m so screwed up! Who can possibly save me from myself???”
I felt as if I had once again hit my rock bottom self—an insecure, defensive, prideful man who only cared for himself and no one else.
Walking into the retreat center, I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed to the center’s library. As I casually scanned the books on the shelves, I spotted Henri Nowen’s, “The Return of The Prodigal Son.” Intrigued, I cracked open the musty smelling book and began to read its yellowish pages. The honesty and vulnerability in which Nowen wrote was like music to my weary soul. After scanning a few chapters, I placed the book back on the shelf and decided to hit the sack for some much needed rest.
At 1:30am, I woke wide-awake—I mean, wide-awake. Typically, it’s easy for me to fall back to sleep, but my mind was racing and lusting for stimulation. I tip-toed into the center’s library, made a fire, pulled up a lazy boy and propped my feet up on the hearth and returned to Henri’s book.
Nowan’s ability to dissect the parable of the prodigal son and masterfully relate it to Rembrandt’s painting of the story absolutely fascinated me. So much so, that for the next 6 hours, my imagination was captivated by the lavish (i.e. prodigal) love of the father for his sons—particularly the rebellious one. Rembrandt’s image of the tattered and famished boy with his shaved head (a sign of dishonor) pressed up against the breast of the father stirred something deep in my heart.
“Oh, how I long to return to that embrace!” I whispered quietly to myself.
As the light of the new day gradually filled the room, my eyes were likewise enlightened to a truth I had never seen before—a truth that in many ways changed my life. As I read, Nowan gently pointed out that the warm embrace of the father was not what the prodigal returned to, it’s where he began. The end of the story was simply a returning to (or a realizing of) what always had been. The son was always the prodigal—lavishly loved of the father. His identity never changed. When he hit rock bottom in the pigpen, he didn’t come to the conclusion that his rock bottom self (his truest identity) was a spendthrift and a male whore. No, no. When the dust settled after smacking the bottom, he finally saw himself for who he truly was—the prodigal son—lavishly loved of the father.
That was his rock bottom self.