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This is Henri Nouwen’s own personal favorite book, based on Nouwen’s reflections on a Rembrandt painting called Prodigal Son, which hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The Prologue and Introduction tell of Henri’s encounter with the painting itself in 1986 and his move to the L’Arche Daybreak community in the town of Richmond Hill, Ontario, 30 miles north of Toronto. He hung a print of the painting at Daybreak, and he reflected over time on how he had been the younger (prodigal) son, the elder son and the father in the Gospel story. What struck him “like a thunderbolt,” though, was a friend’s admonition:

“Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you are called to be the father”

The book is both autobiographical and a call to the sometimes lonely and challenging role of spiritual fatherhood.

An important word about masculine and inclusive language: While the three main characters in the prodigal son story are all men, Henri is careful in this book to point out how the spiritual characteristics that he describes – even the call to be a better father – are applicable to both men and women.

Reflect on the picture- Over the course of several years Henri identified in turn with each of the three main figures in Rembrandt’s painting: first the younger son, then the elder son and finally the father. How does he justify each identification? To which figure do you feel the greatest affinity? Why?


Please note- This reflection is taken from the 5 week Reading Group discussion booklet published by the Henri Nouwen society. Please click here to get a copy of this guide.



Please click here to view the details of The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J. M. Nouwen

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