I can’t be certain of where, but at some point over the last month I came across Rembrandt’s depiction of the Prodigal Son parable (pictured below). While I am sure I have seen this famous 1660’s painting before in my life, I have never actually seen it for what it is because I haven’t come across it since understanding the story that inspired it.
A couple years ago, as I was in the process of finding the Faith again, I got the news that I would soon be a father. During this time I read something that catalyzed my formation as a Catholic man and father, it said that if there’s only one thing a Catholic father must read about fatherhood, it’s the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. It pointed out the importance of understanding that a real father forgives unforgivable acts and is virtuous even when common sense begs him not to be. Not aware of this apparently famous parable, I turned to scripture to read just what this was all about.
After reading the short Gospel story, I sat in silence longer than the time it took to read. It was as if Jesus told this parable with me in mind. This story–depicted beautifully in both paintings pictured above–was the key to understanding my own past. True, many young people leave their parents in search of a selfish and “wild” lifestyle, squandering not only money entrusted to them but also the goodwill and trust of their parents; but not all children return to the open arms of unconditional forgiveness and redemption. I did. After reading the story a couple more times, I knew what kind of father I was to be.
So coming across the Rembrandt recently, the story moved me once again by being able to visualize this monumental moment in both the son’s and father’s lives in this story. This painting shows the story’s message: a real father doesn’t care about his son’s past because a real father doesn’t know how to stop loving his son. I picture the Prodigal Son making his journey back home after losing his father’s money and living gluttonously, selfishly, and sickly; he must have been terrified to face his father and tell him that he has lost everything, including his dignity. His stomach must have been in knots as his imagination probably raced with how his father would react once seeing what has become of him. And then I picture his father making eye contact while “still a long way off” in the distance after years of not knowing if he would ever see his son again, dropping whatever he was in the middle of and “running to him”. I picture the son embracing his father and not understanding how his father could be so happy with his return. I picture this being the beginning of the son’s much brighter future…all because he experienced the forgiveness and redemption of his father. Unfettered forgiveness, to me, is the most beautiful virtue a father can embrace because of its transformative power on their child’s life. True forgiveness changes lives. True redemption breathes new life into someone.
Just like our Father in heaven, fathers on earth are called to forgive and redeem. Without fathers (either heavenly or earthly), what hope do sons and daughters have in this world and beyond?
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The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild and dissolute living.After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
According to those who were there, Brian used his last breaths to say “forgive the shooter”. As reported in the Milwaukee paper:
“The family would like to make it known that Erin said Jon’s last words to her after he was shot were, ‘Forgive the shooter.’ We truly love because Christ first loved us. This was the heart of a man who walked the talk — his dying breath and last wish was only that his wife forgive the gunman.”
Would we be able to forgive like Brian did? Could we lie dying next to our wounded family and so quickly forgive the killer? How many of us could truly live out the virtue of forgiveness which, as I often quote from GK Chesterton, is only a virtue if we are able to “pardon the unpardonable“. These are the powerful questions Brian Stoffel forces us to ask ourselves, especially as Christians.
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
We hope that the suffering from this tragedy has a meaning we can’t comprehend. We pray for the souls of Brian and Olivia Stoffel. We pray for Erin, that her mind, body, spirit, and living children are able to recover. We pray for the soul of Adam Bentdahl, the third person killed who was also trying to enjoy the nice weather. And, just as Brian asked us to forgive the shooter, we pray for his soul, that he, too, is able to be judged fairly by our Lord and viewed favorably despite this horrendous sin.
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears! Turn, then, O most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. Amen
I must admit that I am fed up with the level of human brokenness we as a society seem to be okay with. I am saddened by the the levels we are willing to sink to rationalize, justify, and sometimes celebrate the brokenness and despair around us. Oh, and before anyone reading this smugly nods in agreement at those first two sentences, know that no one is perfectly innocent from adding to or enabling the damage of souls around us. Sin causes brokenness. Brokenness causes despair. Satan rejoices in the despair of humanity. He rejoices in us being divided against one another and even against our own selves. We can fight this and we must fight this before more people are harmed. Brokenness can be a variety of issues and it can be self-inflicted or inflicted by others. It can be as extreme as a person feeling constant shame from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse they endured as a child but can also be less obvious like the person who feels loneliness after a series of failed relationships. Modern society’s brokenness is commonly put on display (and sometimes embraced) in torn families, poverty, anxiety, the “hookup culture”, feelings of unwelcomeness in the Church, war, poverty, and the entire narrative of moral relativism equaling true tolerance and love. Brokenness is the damage done to our spirit and, in turn, society by the unrepentant and unchecked sins of ourselves or others. It often results in a greater desire to sin by blinding us to the weight of our own vices. Someone that grows up in a broken inner city is likely to repeat the behavior that made their neighborhoods broken. Someone who is overcome with a culture telling them babies are disposable is more likely to accept abortion as an option. Someone who sees people around them taking marriage casually is more likely to break their own vows. Someone broken by selfishness of those around him will likely commit their own sins out of selfishness. Sin breaks us and unless we fix what’s broken we will continue blindly plunging society deeper into problems. It’s no secret that Original Sin is what created the broken state of affairs we now live with. Our hardwired temptation to delegate the criteria for what is right and wrong to ourselves is what Original Sin has done to us (aka moral relativism). We all do in either small or large ways; some rationalize gossiping around the water cooler while some are able to rationalize something like stealing money. It all depends on how hardened your heart has become to despair.
I beg you to become fed up with the current state of affairs. You might think you have no brokenness in your life but we all do. Yours might be more manageable than someone else’s and yours might not have led to symptoms yet (at least for yourself), but it’s there. Try to think about where it exists in your life or in the life of someone you love. Isolate what is broken and think about who and what it’s harming around you. Sometimes you cannot repair it on your own because often there’s other people involved but you can at least do things that help avoid the despair that might infect you or your loved ones.
What can we do?
To start, we need to ignore modern relativism and stop being afraid to talk about sin. Many people think the notion of “sin” is antiquated and irrelevant in today’s ‘enlightened’ society. Unfortunately many Bible-thumping Evangelists have caused people to shudder at the mention of sin (or, SIIIIINNNNNNN! as they would say). This trans-denominational group of protestants have really done a number on Christianity in America because they are always making extravagant proclamations which are often misguided or wrong. The news cameras like to focus on them because it makes for better TV so that’s the image of Christianity many are left with. So it’s important to properly understand what sin really is before we can be more open to talking about it and understanding it.
When we purposely choose to go against the Natural Law in the universe we are making a disordered choice. Just as there are consequences for attempting to break the physical law (like what would happen if we tried to jump off a building) there are consequences for breaking the unseen Natural Law that keeps order in the universe. Natural Law is God’s Will for us and, because He loves us, He has given us the free will to choose if we would rather conform to His (perfect) Will or not (WWJD, am I right??). The consequences of breaking Natural Law might not be as immediate and obvious as the snap of your legs from attempting to break the law of gravity in the jumping-off-the-building example, but we will surely suffer somehow by turning our backs to God because it throws off the entire balance and order of nature. There are no “victim-less sins” because, if anything, we will have to answer for them somehow ourselves–whether it’s by brokenness in our life, Purgatory, or the confessional (the sin bin).
Once we know what sin is (simply: any time we turn our backs on God for what’s easy or preferable to us) we can begin attacking it at its roots. Just like if you want to get all the dandelions out of your yard (hun, I’m gonna do it this weekend, seriously), you can’t just mow over them to hide the symptoms, you need to pull them out by the root (I bet I’m the first one to use that analogy, right?).
The first step is to repent and ask for forgiveness. The graces you’ll obtain in the confessional will help you fight your battle moving forward to resist temptation again. People forget (or don’t know) that Confession is a Sacrament. The Sacraments are the quickest way to channel the Graces of God into our lives. After receiving absolution through penance, we should receive the Eucharist as soon as possible. Then we want to start our journey in changing any destructive habits. It is normal to fail–a lot. The temptations you have weaknesses for will be stubborn but, as you return to Confession and the Eucharist, the temptation will fade and your resolve will strengthen. Some people are embarrassed that they are so often confessing the same sins but I ask them, would they rather be confessing new sins every time?! We all have unique weaknesses for “pet” sins. One person might be more likely to lie to people while another might have more trouble with being open to life in their marriage. We all have different battles to fight and the Sacraments are some of the strongest weapons we have in our holsters. Since temptation and human weakness is unrelenting, we, too, must be unrelenting in our defense. Along with the Sacraments, the intercessions from the Mother of God and the angels and saints will also aide us tremendously–sometimes we just need to humble ourselves and ask for help. So once we are able to stop the brokenness of the situations surrounding us from getting worse, we can start mending the brokenness and waging a war on the any despair it might have caused. We must even fight to alleviate our enemies from despair, no matter how difficult.
Forgiveness and Mercy
Striving to end our sinful dispositions isn’t enough. Even though we might no longer contribute to or enable brokenness around us, we must now be vigilant in helping those hurt by past circumstances–even for those we have or want nothing to do with. Because of our selfishness, so many people live lives of anger, fear, anxiety, indifference, and distrust. People have been hurt by the actions of others in fights, lies, divorces, scandals, and more. People build up walls around themselves or around other people thinking that ignoring the problem will suffice. Some people refuse to forgive people for painful wounds from the past. The problem is, withholding forgiveness from those who have deeply hurt us is often more damaging to us than it is to them. When we internalize our wounds, they corrupt and infest other parts of our lives just as a cut on our finger, left untreated, would eventually infect our whole body. The infection of wounds can manifest in different ways: We may say disparaging things about the person to others. We might show an indifference to anyone that reminds us of them. We might take opportunities to boast that we were, in fact, the righteous one in the past situation in backhanded or passive-aggressive ways. Or maybe our internalized pain blocks us from granting others second chances.
“Blessed is the man who fears the Lord always; but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity”
When we don’t forgive people (even those who don’t ask for forgiveness), we are “hardening our hearts”. Hardened hearts are incapable of mercy. As one becomes more convicted in seeking the truth in Christianity, one’s heart becomes softened to the needs of those around us. Far more touched and moved is the man who understands the deep dignity bestowed on each human being from a Father whose love is perfect. I think it’s important to point out that having a “conversion of intellect” is far different than having a conversion of the will to the Catholic faith (as Thomas Merton points out in his monumental autobiography of conversion, The Seven Storey Mountain. More on that book another time).
Indeed, first we must be intellectually converted to Christ’s Church–this lays the groundwork from which full conversion can build. Once our intellect understands Catholicism wholly contains the truth of life, we must then build off this conversion of our mind to a conversion of our actions by striving to submit to the Will of our Father in heaven. Once the latter conversion takes place, the heart softens to the despair plaguing our world; at the same time, the heart is also softened to the often-unrecognized goodness and beauty in the world. So, a softened heart is necessary to feel true compassion and, in turn, show true mercy. Just in case having the ability to be more merciful isn’t benefit enough, you will also undoubtedly revel in life’s joys far more–a selfishness I’m okay with enjoying. Even with a full conversion of faith, our actions will not always match up to what God wants from us (mine almost never do), but we at least will be on the right path to fixing the world because we grasp what is right and what is wrong. We are only able to progress if we are on solid spiritual footing and not on the quicksand of relativism.
“Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being”
-Catechism of the Catholic Church 2392
Because love is the vocation of all human beings, we must actually practice love. Since true love is selfless sacrifice for others, we need to resist urges to only love the people who haven’t personally hurt us because, by definition, it’s not about us (selfless). Now, the skeptic will worry that this is akin to being a pushover, that we will not be able to properly defend ourselves from those who seek to do us harm. I’d submit to them that “love” does not mean tolerance of wrongful acts, lifestyles, or offenses. We “love the sinner, hate the sin”. Unfortunately many people have a completely twisted view of what “love”, in fact, is (just like we do about “sin”). Love can be as simple as understanding that every person has wounds, troubles, and despair in need of mercy. Love can be acknowledging that even though this person might bear offensive passions and is difficult to embrace, they were still created in our Father’s image and deserve dignity. Love can be recognizing we don’t always know the spiritual battles others are fighting internally or the circumstances they come from before we seek to judge who they are. Love can also be warning someone they are living a destructive life just as a loving sibling would have no qualms over telling their brother or sister they are doing something that is damaging to themselves or others. Of course, this does not mean we have no obligation to defend ourselves from any physical, emotional, or spiritual advances from foes. We have a responsibility to preserve the mind, body, and soul of ourselves and those around us from anyone or anything seeking to do us harm. The true Christian is not a pushover because they stand up for what is right and just according to God.
“To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.”
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
The skeptic will next claim the notion of loving all is irrational. IT IS! But what virtues are love or forgiveness lest we are able to “love the unlovable” or “pardon the unpardonable”? If we only accept the righteous, how cowardly we are! Aside from that being exactly the opposite of Jesus’ teachings, where would that get us in society? That, too, is a form of moral relativism, as if we are bestowed with the power to decide who is worthy of love and forgiveness. We are not gatekeepers of these virtues, virtues which are only given to us as a gift from The Lord. Love and forgiveness are not ours to withhold because we are instruments of God through which we must allow His Will to flow. Quoting the popular morning prayer, “Jesus, I give you my hands to do your work, my feet to go your way, my eyes to see as you do, my tongue to speak your words, my mind that you may think in me, my heart that you may love in me, your Father, and all mankind…”
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
We are the branches and Jesus is the vine. The fruit we bear are His fulfilled virtues. The Church is Christ’s Body on Earth which we make up. We ponder this too little…we are representatives of Him! Are we proud of how we’re acting as the Body of Christ, or are we profaning His Body through selfish sin?
We need to break down the walls we use to separate us from others. We need to fight despair by forgiving our enemies–either by telling them or forgiving them through prayer to God (if we cannot easily talk to them). Let us not stand a second more for any rottenness around us…and boy can it be hard.
All this sounds so good on paper (or computer screen), doesn’t it? We all know we need to practice mercy but how well do we do it? We all have difficult and painful situations with certain people that we rationalize by thinking “well this is a bit different for me and my situation”. Think of the last person you’d ever want to think about, see, talk to, or help. Maybe that person is someone you work with, maybe they are an old friend, maybe they are a family member you had a falling out with, they could be anyone. Now ask yourself what would it take to truly forgive them? Assuming this person is no longer seeking to do you or loved ones harm, are you able to forgive this person at least in prayer? Would you be able to tell that person that you forgive them if they asked? Would you be able to let the virtue of forgiveness come to fruition in how you act towards them in the future?
A lot of times someone isn’t even seeking forgiveness from us. Perhaps they were not aware of wounds they caused or they want to prove they are justified in the situation, perhaps they are still holding a grudge. None of that matters. Life is indeed too short to be harmed by harboring resentment. Life is too short to let your family members and those who look up to you to be affected by the resentment you hold for someone else. Like we discussed above, just because we do not see the consequences of our sinful behavior (such as the inability to forgive), that doesn’t mean there’s no consequences. Maybe your children can feel the tension when you’re in the room with someone they love, the person you cannot forgive; maybe your spouse feels like they can never live down a mistake they made because you never let them know you forgive them; maybe your coworkers have to plan events and meetings differently knowing that you are incompatible with someone at the office, or maybe you’re just making your Blessed Mother weep as she watches her children live with resentment towards one another.
The One Who Divides
“We can see how much the Devil fears those who pray, since there’s not a moment of the day when he tempts us more than when we’re at prayer. He does everything possible to prevent us from praying. When the Devil wants to make someone lose his soul, he starts out by inspiring a profound distaste for prayer.”
-St. John Vianney
I know, this is all much easier said than done. Loving the unlovable and pardoning the unpardonable is one of the most difficult things we can do…but we must. It might help to understand who Satan is. Just like our misconceptions about “sin” and “love”, there’s many misconceptions about who “Satan” is and there’s also an embarrassment to talk about him since the idea of Satan has become so sensationalized and fictionalized over the years. Satan has been personified, cartoonified, and humorized to the point where we just see him as a silly figment of of human creativity. That’s all fine as long as it doesn’t allow us lose our understanding of who he is and what he seeks. Satan isn’t literally some red creature with horns that sits on our shoulders. Just like God isn’t a physical being with human-like features, Satan isn’t a physical creature either. Satan is a fallen angel and, like all angels, has no bodily form–they are immaterial and purely spiritual. Satan is a dark force that seeks to undermine God’s Will for us by trying to tempt our free wills. Satan, or “The Devil” comes from the Greek word “diábolos” which means “slanderer” or “accuser”…also meaning “the one who divides“. When something is “diabolical” it seeks to divide. The division sought is often humans from one another or humanity and God. Wherever we see unity, as in a family or a Church, we know that is a work of God. God brings things together, he makes things whole (which is what “holy” comes from). Satan relishes the times we are divided among ourselves because it’s not what God wills.
We must fight the chaos and ruin we have contributed to and enabled. Every moment we are withholding the virtues our heavenly Father has blessed us with, we are harming the souls of ourselves and of others. Along with the Sacraments, we should turn to prayer for help. Ask Jesus for the ability to better understand your wrongdoings if you have trouble understanding the harm. Ask the Blessed Mother to intercede for your spiritual strength and virtuous fortitude; pray the Rosary often. Find your patron saint and pray to them. As Catholics, we must understand we are part of a “universal” family. Your brothers and sisters are your fellow Christians on Earth and those who have gone before us into eternal life. The saints are our brothers and sisters in heaven that have been fully transfigured in Christ and we must ask our big siblings for their help and prayers with God, our Father, to help us defeat our own vices. We mustn’t make excuses because we have more tools, weapons, and helpers than we can count…we just need to humble ourselves and begin looking.
Why are we waiting to make life better? Why are we waiting to become better Christians? If more Catholics would become more fully converted to a life of Christ, the entire world as we know it would begin to change. Hopelessness, pain, and sorrow would retreat. So, I ask again, what are you waiting for?