Almost instinctively I did it again. While waiting in the dentist’s office, I picked up the shiny Capital Magazine, featuring “innovative houses and people” in the capital of British Columbia where I live. I skipped the people and looked directly at the charming character home, as they call houses from another era here in Victoria. It was steps from the ocean and one of this city’s most beautiful public parks. The owner was an artist who had filled the house with treasures that made it his own and held my coveting gaze.
I have already lived most of my life. I even live in a rented character home. Yet, I keep looking for a sense of home that seems elusive. Maybe I’m a little afraid that like Moses, I will only greet it from afar. However, I’m thinking that isn’t exactly the truth.
In The Return of the Prodigal, Henri Nouwen opens up a new way of thinking about homecoming. In his deep reflection, Nouwen moves between Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32), his own close study of Rembrandt’s painting of the story, and his own lived experience with the understanding that we are all longing for home—of some sort. I joined a study group that spent several weeks using all three perspectives to engage more intentionally in this story for our own lives.
I know that I experience a bit of envy when I encounter people who have established themselves in a place. When I hear, “we’ve lived in this house for 25 years” and hear the stories connected with that life of seeming stability, I long for that sense of belonging. In my own reflecting, I wrote that Jesus’ parable of the return of a prodigal son offers me another opportunity to hope that those words from Deuteronomy 33:27 that “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” is Jesus’ true idea of homecoming. Those words from the Old Testament framed my impending and unexpected relocation not quite a year ago.
At the time that Nouwen became invested in Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal, he was giving up (my words) a prestigious and productive life as a teacher at Harvard Divinity School and moving toward a communal life of ministry with mentally challenged people in an L’Arche community founded by Jean Vanier. Nouwen intimates his own risk to make this leap that upended the familiarity and the control that teaching and writing afforded him. He surmises:
I had never before given much attention to people with a mental handicap. Much to the contrary, I had focused increasingly on university students and their problems. I learned how to give lectures and write books, how to explain things systematically… I had little idea as to how to communicate with men and women who hardly speak and are not interested in logical arguments or well-reasoned opinions. I knew even less about announcing the Gospel of Jesus to people who listened more with their hearts than with their minds and who were far more sensitive to what I lived than to what I said.
For years I had instructed students on the different aspects of the spiritual life… But had I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center… and let myself be held by a forgiving God?
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities is a spiritual giant in Canada where I now live. Vanier’s father was Canada’s most beloved 19th Governor General and his family revered even to this day. Jean Vanier died recently and I found myself drawn even more into his life story and with my own understanding of Henri Nouwen’s transition to the L’Arche Daybreak community. I could learn from both men’s experience of homecoming at a pivotal time in their adult lives. I wondered how their leap of faith intersects with my own longing.
In a news article in The Globe and Mail, Ian Brown, whom I know personally as a Christian contemplative, wrote about Vanier’s life in quite a different light than the traditional obituary of accomplishment. Confronted with his recognition of the “cry for friendship” of men he met when he visited a psychiatric hospital in France, Vanier’s leap of faith transformed his initial fear of the disabled into the future mission of L’Arche that established the unique value of every person through communities of communal living.
Similar to Nouwen’s life trajectory influenced by his encounter with this mentor, Jean Vanier left his work as a popular professor at St. Michaels College at the University of Toronto to live in a small house with two men who were patients at the psychiatric hospital he had once visited. Vanier recalled that the men didn’t care about his knowledge or ability to do things, but simply desired his heart and presence as they shared everyday living. Brown states that unlike his parents, Jean Vanier was “shedding status.” L’Arche history records that Vanier “has been very intentional about going down the ladder of success. He believed that is what Christ asked of him.”
Maybe I’m fortunate to have my idea of “settled-ness” upended. Maybe my life is blessed because I have been forced to “give up” ways that were known but increasingly filled with unrest. In that life, I thought I had some control. I was familiar with what I thought was possible; I had decided the kind of life that I wanted but didn’t actually live that life of abundance. I had… but…
I’ve written before about using the right tools of life for the wrong reasons. Maybe that is what is compelling about both Henri Nouwen’s and Jean Vanier’s stories. Their trajectories speak of moving beyond accomplishments like education and profession and even family expectations. They both were welcomed home in the heart of God. Have I really ever dared to step into the center… and let myself be held by a forgiving God?
In the last place we lived, I spent a great deal of energy getting my physical house in order to welcome other people and even Mitch and I home. Even though our recent move has been miraculous, I haven’t “felt” that settled-ness or security. Even though I may not have overtly recognized God’s presence, deep inside me, I know that Jesus recognizes me. Jesus has looked for me and walked a little way along this road to welcome me. Just like the welcoming prayer I’ve been attempting to mean, The Welcome Practice invites me to notice and let go of that sense of security that I attach to home. I simply need to be open—open to the divine presence and action in my life.
I have been wishing and maybe am still for a physical place to belong. Yet, over and over, I keep running into another possibility for home, a place I can’t actually sit down in—or can I?
Have I missed God’s welcome? I’ve been very reluctant to settle in here, imagining I have to be the one to find my place. Maybe, instead, Jesus is searching for me.