Reflections on Confession and Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” 20

By Fr Jason Smith

A few weeks back I was hearing confessions in an old, cold, and rather uncomfortable confessional, the kind that our forefathers once used with a screen and two wooden doors, one on either side, so that the priest can slide them closed and the person on the right can’t hear what the person on the left is saying, or vice versa.

Yes, the artist in me couldn’t resist snapping this picture while I was waiting.

At one point a young lady entered on the other side and I slid the door shut, hoping she wouldn’t be offended, and when it was her turn, I slid the door open again, and, to my surprise, nobody was there. Now, the church is not well lit, but my eye site is still 20/20, and so I thought, “She’s got to be still in there somewhere.”

I stood up and peered down, and sure enough, there she was sitting on the kneeler Indian style. She looked up at me with a huge smile and said, “Hello!” At which point I offered a hello of my own, followed with the question if she was Catholic. From there I learned she was not but had wanted to be for a long time, ever since her parents had brought her once to visit a Catholic church when she was very young. She was walking by the church and felt a calling to come in. We ended up having a delightful conversation, her sitting down and me awkwardly standing up, and today she is enrolled in the RCIA class.

That story jumped to my mind as I sat down to pen this little reflection on the prodigal son, a parable we are all familiar with. It strikes me how every day the father would go out to look for his son, hoping for his return, and when that day finally arrived, he noticed him coming from a far way off, rushed out to meet him, and filled with compassion, embraced him with great joy.

We are sometimes the prodigal son, having squandered our dignity in a land far away from our Father’s home. Yet He waits and watches for our return, full of compassion and mercy.

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son

I have found this parable, Rembrandt’s masterful depiction of it, and Henri Nouwen’s reflection on both, to be very helpful for my own spiritual life. Whenever I go to confession, or when I ask for God’s mercy, I picture myself in the painting, kneeling in the place of the prodigal son and in the Father’s gentle yet firm embrace.

One thing that is striking about the painting, which Henri Nouwen points out, is that Rembrandt paints the Father as blind. This is curious as St. Luke writes that the Father saw the son returning from a long way off.

I have found it helpful to reflect on the Father’s blindness. When I return home in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and have received forgiveness, God is blind to my sin. What is in the past now belongs to his mercy; God looks upon me with a different vision than I see myself; my value and worth is not predicated on how others view me, or how I view myself, or even by the mistakes and sins of my past, but by the blind and loving and joyful gaze of the Father.

Fr Jason Smith

Fr Jason Smith

It is a wonderful practice to make a good confession during Lent. I’d like to extend a warm invitation to all of Biltrix’s Catholic readers to go, even if it has been many years or it is the first time or you were just there. The Father is ready to run out and meet you, full of mercy and compassion.

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20 comments

  1. Reading in Isaiah this am and came across this…Isa 38:17 Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.
    I felt a connection to the statement in your post…I have found it helpful to reflect on the Father’s blindness. When I return home in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and have received forgiveness, God is blind to my sin. What is in the past now belongs to his mercy; God looks upon me with a different vision than I see myself; my value and worth is not predicated on how others view me, or how I view myself, or even by the mistakes and sins of my past, but by the blind and loving and joyful gaze of the Father.
    And I rejoice in the forgiveness we find in our Lord. God bless.

  2. Nouwen’s book is one of my all-time favorites. I pick it out of my bookshelf and re-read it every other year. Wonderful reflections and reminders, Father. Thank you for sharing them.

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