Archive for September 12th, 2016

img_1205The Brother of the Prodigal Son

Several years ago I presided at a funeral in St. Paul, and afterward we all adjourned to a reception at the home of the lady who had passed away.  At 96 she had accumulated a lot of memories, and a ton of photos cluttered the walls and the tables to remind us of those memories.  They were fascinating, and the oldest of them were a slice out of Minnesota social history.

One photo in particular caught everyone’s eye, however, and in it the deceased lady posed with a group of young men and women dressed in black tie and gowns.  They were gathered round a sumptuous table in an elegant dining room, and we could only imagine what might have been the occasion for this grand evening.

An elderly lady at the reception was especially taken with the photo, mainly because she could remember every face in the picture.  With delight she rattled off the name of each person, but the delight vanished when she got to the last face.  These had all been her friends, and with that last face she realized she’d not been there that evening.  “I wasn’t invited,” she declared.  For the rest of the reception she was not a happy camper.

It’s tough to say what irritated her most.  A big dinner party had gone on without her, and the hurt was visible and fresh 75 years later.  Had her omission from the guest list been an oversight?  She didn’t seem to think so.  Was it deliberate? Was she a killjoy 75 years earlier, just as she became at that reception 75 years later?  Of course I had the good taste not to ask.

img_1201The writer H. L. Menken once defined Puritanism as the haunting, lingering fear that somebody, somewhere, was having a good time.  Certainly there’s an element of prudery in his definition, but it also involves envy of those who have a good time and don’t include us.  Certainly that was the case with this lady; and she managed to let envy about something that had happened 75 years earlier spoil her afternoon.

This may be an odd story with which to begin a reflection on the parable of the prodigal son, but it may give an insight into a well-explored story.  The parable involves three people — the son who wasted his inheritance;  the father who welcomed him back;  and the elder son who came home, only to discover a dinner party in progress.  And he’d not been invited.  He’s the one we often identify with.  He’s the one with whom many of us feel a natural kinship.

The brother of the prodigal son is a complicated person.  He had worked hard, or so he believed.  He had obeyed his father, and he seems not to have groused when his brother had left home with his share of the inheritance.  But patience has its limits, and finally envy held the elder brother in its grip.

Clearly he resented the easy forgiveness that his father gave to his younger brother.  Perhaps he also envied his brother for all the fun he’d had while the elder brother had stayed home and worked.  Perhaps he even envied his brother for having the nerve to do what he himself dared not do.  But most of all, he envied the love that the father showed to the wayward brother.  He assumed — incorrectly — that his father loved his brother more.

img_1186It’s small wonder that the Christian spiritual tradition puts envy on the list of the seven deadly sins.  Envy is almost silent, but it’s insidious as it eats away at our soul.  We leap to the conclusion that life is unfair because others have talents or opportunities or respect that we never seem to get.  In short, we conclude that we always seem to draw the short straw in the game of life.

Envy can crop up at any stage of life.  When we’re in high school or college we envy other people because they are attractive or athletic or popular or smart.  Sad to say, when we’re older we envy people because they are attractive or athletic or popular or smart.  In short, whether we’re young or old, envy causes us to twist reality.  We see others as they are not; and worse still, we see ourselves as we are not.  Envy makes us blind to the reality that each of us has talents.  And each of us has foibles.  And each of us must deal with them as best we can.  This is the hand that God has dealt to each of us.

Pilgrims to the ancient Oracle of Delhi were greeted with one bit of wisdom as they entered the temple precincts:  “Know thyself!”  It was good advice then, and it remains so today, for one good reason.  We all need to take stock not just of our short-comings but of our talents as well.  Each of us is blessed with more talents than we can possibly develop; but if we use none of them, then we slowly become that prodigal son who wasted much of his life before he finally came to his senses.

img_0003_2But self-awareness is only the first step to health.  We must take the second step toward an appreciation of our neighbor.  That means we can never envy other people for their talents.  They are who they are, and we should be grateful for the gifts and talents that they bring to the table.  Our lives are better because of our gifts and theirs, and wishing we were someone else is a losing game.  For this insight I am in debt to Oscar Wilde, who famously advised a friend to “be yourself, because everyone else is taken.”

This brings us back to the trio we have in the parable of the prodigal son.  If you think you may be the prodigal son, then it’s time to get a grip on yourself before you waste another day, much less the rest of your life.  If you tend to be the envious older brother, it’s time to recognize the gifts God has given you.  It’s time to realize that God invites you to use your talents to be yourself and not somebody else.

And finally, if we are going to be like anyone else at all, we would do well to become the forgiving father.  Forgiveness of his wastrel son was a sign neither of weakness nor of gullibility;  nor was it a sign that he loved his older son less.  Rather, it was a sign of the wisdom into which he had grown.  He was who he was, and he had two very different sons.  On the day he got both of his sons back, nothing else mattered.


+On September 7th I gave a talk to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta, on the feast of Our Lady of Philermo.  This was part of the spirituality series that they have put together in recent  years, and presenters deliver the talks over the phone to members who dial in to the conference call.  So this time I delivered this from the comfort of my office in Collegeville.  For the transcript see:  Our Lady of Philermos.  It can also be accessed on the homepage of the American Association.

+On September 11th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  Today’s blog post is the transcript of that sermon, and I have to say I was rather pleased with one thing about it.  Any sermon that combines the parable of the prodigal son with references to H. L. Mencken, Oscar Wilde, and the Oracle of Delphi has to have something going for it.

img_0028_2+During the past week Abbot John has been in Rome attending the Congress of Benedictine abbots from around the world.  Among other things they elected a new abbot primate to succeed Abbot Primate Notker from Germany, who retired after sixteen years in the office.  The new abbot primate of the Benedictine Confederation is Abbot Gregory Polan, who is from Conception Abbey in Missouri.  We at Saint John’s were delighted with the news of his election, since he is a good friend to our community.  He is a graduate of our School of Theology at Saint John’s, and he lived in our community for four years.

+The first three photos in today’s post are from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, while the latter three are from the Cloisters Museum in New York.  I chose them in light of the feast of the Holy Cross, which occurs on September 14th.  First in the post is a painting by Joos van Cleve, ca. 1525.  Next is a painting of Christ by Hans Memling (ca. 1481), followed by a late 12th-century fresco from Catalonia.  Below that is a late 12th-century crucifix from Castile-León, followed by the cross of Bury-St. Edmunds (11th-12th century.)  The final photo shows an Italian altarpiece by Andrea da Giona (ca. 1430.)

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