Returning home has become a bit of a mission for me over the past six months. With a three-bus, three-hour or more commute into work in the wilds of South East London, getting home takes up a not insignificant portion of my day. And, although I am slowly adapting, since City Mapper (other travel apps are available), despite its claim, refuses to recognize my home, the journeys have nonetheless, given me the chance to reflect. This week, I have reflected on exactly what it is to get home each night. These musings have been coupled with the disintegration over the past year, of the place that I once would call home: my parents’ home. Indeed, this time last year, I was clearing that house of my residual belongings. Facing a period of unemployment last year, there was no safe, parental home to which I could return: my flat in Kidlington is nominally, at least, “my home”.
Yet, it is not somewhere, even now, I readily associate with a sense of being at home, of peace, of belonging. Rather it is often a place where I find myself utterly exhausted. Where chores abound. Instead, the sense of “home” has been with me at other times. Plunging into a pool, after a hard day’s work, the coolness of the water can feel like home. And, as my family home has faded, I have learnt to associate other places with that sense of security and unconditional acceptance, I know as “being at home”. Most people whom I have spoken to here will know something of my love for Taize; a neo-monastic order in the hills of Burgundy. There is nowhere on Earth I have found more accepting, more welcoming, than that community. It is at the church there, named by Brother Roger as “the church of reconciliation” where I may go to feel at home. That place, where Brother Roger wishes for God to speak into the silence to each one of us, where we can be reconciled to God and to each other. We sing, Il signore ti ristora. Dio non allon ta na. Il signore vienead in contrati, vienead in contrati. In English: God restores you. God does not push you away. He comes to meet you.
Having been brought up in a so-called Christian home, I know of God’s all-consuming, ever-present love and forgiveness. But, as I battle severe mental illness, there is a disconnect between what I know to be true, and what I can feel and experience to be true. At Taize, I feel that forgiveness. I wonder: which places are “home” for you?
It was at Taize that I first saw Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. I only saw half the painting, in poster form, and didn’t know what it was, being in the girls’ silent house, without internet (an experience I highly recommend). But I liked it, its warmth. And it is the homecoming of the younger son in our story that is the focal event of this reflection. Consider for a moment, what happened before that reconciliation; his predicament. He has left home, and spent all his father’s money. Destitute, he knows that he could have a better life at home than he does at present, living among the pigs. He does not expect his father’s forgiveness; he simply wants to become a farmhand. It is almost as if he has rejected himself, as if he is nothing more than his sin. That he feels he cannot be restored. I know that at times, I too, have felt that my darkness is too much for God. ThatI’ve gone too far. And yet. Yet – if we look again at the story of the Prodigal Son, we see no trace of judgement or anger in the father. In fact, if we look closely, the father’s home is not actually the place of reconciliation. We are told that the father ran out to greet his son on the road, arms akimbo; it is before the house has been entered that healing and reconciliation are offered. It is offered even before the younger son has asked for it. So perhaps it is with us. That God allows us out, and waits for us to return. That wanting to turn back, before we have had time to consider repentance, He is running to meet us, to help us return home. Maybe it is that home is not so much a place, but a state of communion between God’s heart and ours.
But there is someone else watching this homecoming. The older brother, is out working in the fieldswhen he hears the commotion of his brother’s return. He wants to know what is happening, and is warmly invited inside by his father. His reaction suggests that he is none too pleased, that he wouldrather reject the offer; that he feels unappreciated, perhaps. For Mark Townsend, writing in The Gospel of Falling Down, the elder son symbolises a state of affairs where from the outside we can appear to be “doing everything right”. However, on the inside we are nurturing a jealousy, resentment, and anger that is tearing us apart from God. An example. Serving others might be considered as a good thing to do. And when I glanced through the rotas this week, I noticed that I haven’t been at church and off-rota any Sunday this calendar year. In doing so, one might imagine that I feel close to Christ. But, it seems, God is not to be found in church rotas. Being entangled in the church rotas is all very well, on the outside, but it does not work – from the inside.
One year, my Lenten discipline was not to appear on a rota for six weeks. I was not allowed to have Sunday as a “rest day”. It is an experience I would rather not repeat: I find it incredibly hard not to serve. Serving distracts me from my need to return to God. Both the brothers in the story, Townsend argues, need their father’s forgiveness. He responds to both, from the point of their very different needs. The challenge, for them, and for us, is to come back, to be open to that invitation to intimacy. To feel that we are loved beyond compare and beyond measure.
The third figure in the story is the father. Here, Nouwen in his meditation on Rembrandt’s painting, made an interesting observation, concerning the father’s hands. These, he highlights, are painted very differently. The right, masculine, strong, holding the son safely. The left, a more feminine hand that caresses the son, as his head lies, almost nascently in the father’s lap. God’s love is that of both father and mother. Nouwen, also says that, as we may see ourselves in each of the characters in the story in turn, so too must we see ourselves in the father: the challenge – to offer unconditional love, forgiveness and reconciliation to others. To reflect the love of the father; to be “home” for those around us. It is this reflection, Brother Roger said, that is the illuminance of Christ’s church.
The Return of the Prodigal Son reminds us of just how much we are loved and held by God, in our uniqueness, and in our brokenness. In spite of our brokenness. The challenge: to let ourselves be found by God, to let him hold us, and love us back into wholeness. To reflect that love to others. I invite you now, if you wish, to spend the time of silence, looking upon the face of the Father in Rembrandt’s painting. I invite you to look on it, and to see God’s longing for intimacy with you.
Imagine the eyes of the father turn to you, invite you to kneel at his feet. Let the mother’s hands caress you, as the father’s hold you. Listen to God’s words of love for you. Be at home.