|Rembrandt ‘The Return of the prodigal Son’|
Living here is sometimes dislocating, often frustrating. I am forced more than I wish by temperament to spend time just being. Not doing – except mundane tasks which are sometimes necessary. My skills, once so carefully nurtured as a source of pride and accomplishment, are simply not necessary here. Being ‘retired’ is like driving a different vehicle on a different road where the car itself has a strangeness about it and the journeys made in it are unpredictable. There is almost a fear of looking inside to find wellsprings of familiarity and old certainties are no longer as well-anchored as they once were. At its heart, such conflict might be reduced to selfishness which is a trite and self-deceptive turn of phrase. I and I suppose many like me – how cowardly to put that bit in – are fundamentally self-serving. The snarling, growling savage in me feeds himself first and the Devil take the hindmost. The ‘others’ are less important than the ‘me’. My lack of compassion appals me sometimes. A writer in Oxford whose work I admire, spent time as an eighteen year old novice in Kalighat, Calcutta, Mother Teresa’s ‘home for the dying’, writing an award-winning piece here. She will forgive me for quoting her. “Just one drop removed from the ocean of misery but the ocean would be greater if it were not there.” A clear voice magnificent in futility and so very rich in hope.
It is not, therefore, out of condemnation, but out of the desert wanderer in me that I find myself re-reading some of Henri Nouwen’s work. Every time I pick up something of his, it’s like a silver bullet, a lighthouse whose revolving beam briefly illuminates me, trying to be inconspicuous in the shadows. He was a Catholic intellectual, a priest and pastor, who spent the final years of his life at a L’Arche community called ‘Daybreak’ in Toronto, where people with developmental disabilities live with those who care for them. In his writings, he speaks less of the physical difficulties, inconveniences and setbacks which invariably surround such a lifestyle. Instead, he speaks of hope, reconciliation and joy. After an exhausting lecture tour he discovered Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ and went to the Hermitage in (then) Leningrad to see it. I have to confess to having seen it as well, but it clearly made less of an impression on me than on him. Out of his reflections came the call to make his home at L’Arche. He wrote: “Though I am both the younger son and the elder son, I am not called to remain them, but to become the Father.” It’s interesting that he does not speak as an ‘arriviste’ – part of his deeply embedded humility is that he saw himself most often as an ‘ingénue’. He writes: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in the brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” I suppose I have a long way to go, then.