Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, August 9, 2010

Leaving Home as a Prodigal

The younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country. (Lk. 15:13)

Our growth as human beings, as spiritual beings, is difficult and sometimes harsh work. It takes discipline and diligence. We don't happen upon growth and healthy life-change by accident. Our life-journey as spiritual beings is about engaging this work of becoming fully human, fully the person God created us to be.

Let's connect an image to our situation. Our starting place is something like home. This home consists of all the norms and values that are familiar to us and with which we have become very friendly. While it entails the literal family and the place in which we were raised, home is much more than that. In computer-ese, home is our operating system, the default system from which we operate. It is the life framework to which we return to make sense out of our existence.

Our home may be built upon faulty assumptions, inaccurate perceptions, and coping strategies we have developed to deal with life in all its difficulties. We live underneath the illusion that our home works for us. While it may help us make sense out of life, very rarely is the home we live in expansive enough to cover all of life's uncertainties. We think home is the way life really is. It almost never is.

Because we think our home works for us, we don't have cause to question it or to think that we might need to leave it. So generally, we only begin to question our home or to leave it when confronted with some life-crisis. At some point life begins to fall apart, the old assumptions don't work anymore, and our usual coping strategies don't make sense of life any longer. Generally some kind of crisis pushes us away from home to the far country.

Thus, growing up as a human almost always means leaving home at some point. We generally don't know where we're going, only that where we are is not working. So we leave the constriction of home for the mystery of the far country. (That may or may not mean a literal leaving of mother and/or father. And just because a person physically leaves mother and/or father does not mean that they have truly left home.)

This is the leaving, the going away that is fundamental to the spiritual journey. Many biblical stories reflect this pattern. Most obvious is the story of the young man -- the prodigal son -- who took his inheritance and left home for a far country, leaving behind his family and all that home represents.

All the sermons and lessons about the prodigal son I've heard in the Church for almost 40 years have painted his actions as rash and irresponsible. He was impulsive and reckless, we've said, as we castigate him for leaving a place of safety and comfort.

I find him, though, to be the truly courageous character in the story, the one willing to risk, the one not satisfied to buy blindly into the answers of home, who insisted on asking his own questions and coming to a sense of life for himself. If you want some idea of what home was like in that story, take a look at the elder brother.

So I love the younger son. I haven't always felt that way, but in recent years he has become the biblical character with whom I most identify. With that in mind, a couple of weeks ago I found a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke called "The Departure of the Prodigal Son." The poem begins this way:

Now to go away from all this tangleness
that is part of us and yet not ours,
that like the water in old wells
reflects us trembling and ruins the image;
from all this, which as if with thorns
still clings to us -- to go away . . .

The entire poem is full of images and language about "going away" and what happens to our seeing when we "go away." There are images for the mystery we step into when we finally "go away." The poem speaks to the new life that awaits us when we step away from what is comfortable, known, and "sure." This is how the poem ends:

To take all this upon yourself and in vain
perhaps let fall things firmly held,
in order to die alone, not knowing why --

Is this how new life begins?

Yes, it is.

["The Departure of the Prodigal Son," trans. by Edward Snow in Rainer Maria Rilke: New Poems, p. 39]

No comments: