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Paradoxes, Part I: An audience of one?

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

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Picture a political activist crusading against an unjust war.  Or a brilliant academic having coffee with his Ivy League students.  Or a world-renown author on a book tour.  Or a priest who gets as much respect from Protestants as he does from Catholics.  Or a housemate sitting across the dinner table from his mentally disabled friends.   Or a middle-aged man trying to come to terms with the demands of a distant and critical father.

Now imagine such a person on a red velvet armchair with gold-painted legs, sitting for hours in a majestic Russian museum, staring endlessly at a painting.  What’s he doing there?  Why does he look for so long?  What could he be possibly thinking about?

That man is Henri Nouwen, and that painting is Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.  You will discover a lot about them both (and yourself) if you read Nouwen’s classic spiritual memoir of the same name and its posthumously published companion, Home Tonight.  Nouwen’s strong identification with the younger son takes a surprising turn when a friend suggests he might really be more like the elder one.  Later, when another friend prompts him to consider whether his true calling might be to become the father, Nouwen begins to recognize in the parable the arc of his own earthly life.  It is this that he contemplates as he gazes on Rembrandt’s masterwork of some 300 years earlier based on a Jesus story of more than 1600 years before that.

Here was a worthy trail for us to follow as we sought to bring this parable to musical life.

Not only will Nouwen’s book inspire you, as it did us, to look at the story and the painting in a deeper and very personal way, but you’ll also find a most remarkable example of an art consumer and audience member in Nouwen.   At once a learned man and a curious child, Nouwen savors all he reads in the parable and all he sees in the painting.  He hangs on the details.  He doesn’t drink them in so much as he marinates in them – for years.  And thanks to his intimate dialogue with the art, he also discovers truths about himself.  The art even informs the choices he makes about what to do next with his life.

Here’s a thought:  how about you join us as we follow and imitate Nouwen?  Take another look at the story.  Absorb the painting.  Read his books.  Listen to our music.  Get lost for hours.  Find yourself in startling ways.  Talk about it with your friends.

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