Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (The Gospel of Luke 15:11-24)
Most Christians I know read this Parable of the Prodigal Son from the perspective of the faithful son, whose verses I didn’t include. He worked hard for his father “all these years” and stomps off, resentful that his narcissistic punk brother is about to enjoy some “fatted calf.”
I understand the faithful son, but more often I feel sympathy for the Prodigal son. Now let’s be clear: for the first part of the parable, he is—to employ a theological term—an asshole. Imagine proposing to your folks that they hand over your inheritance before they die. It’s amazing that the father doesn’t simply have his son flogged or thrown off a cliff. But he doesn’t, and off the kid goes to get sozzled and satisfied.
Having missed any early-adult period of drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, I don’t relate to that side of the Prodigal son. Instead, I find myself standing with the hungry kid and the pigs at that moment “when he came to himself.” What gorgeous phrasing! The New International Version of the Bible says, “when he came to his senses,” but “came to himself” more accurately describes a universal human experience. At least it resonates with me.
Here’s my prodigal process. In the parable, the son, wanting to party and get horizontal, leaves behind his best self, the self he comes to recognize only by getting his face rubbed in pig sludge. He also happens to travel to a different country. My story works differently, but ends the same. I stay right where I am and come to understanding not dallying with prostitutes—I do drink some wine—but frittering away my inheritance by succumbing to stressors that seem perfectly matched to my weaknesses.
I don’t know what the Prodigal’s household was like. (Yes, it’s a parable, so there’s no real background, but work with me here.) Maybe he was pampered. Maybe he got away with everything. His big brother probably hated him from the start. And since nothing was ever good enough for the Prodigal, the second he passed puberty a hedonistic frenzy was inevitable.
The Coleman household for me, the youngest of four children, was full of love, but like so many families of my generation, we panicked at any rocking of the boat. Many people my age know exactly what I’m talking about, and whole disciplines and vocabularies have evolved to explicate and heal family systems and all the frazzled, wounded boomers they’ve produced.
Don’t rock the boat: the colloquial mantra of 2225 Wagner Avenue. Of course, I didn’t have the maturity to realize it at the time, but being outwardly upset or angry was not acceptable. When it happened, everyone’s guts turned to water. A top priority, then, wasn’t to be happy and well-adjusted (who knew what that meant back then?). Just let the waters be calm! As long as we were acting okay, then everything was okay. Yeah, sure.
I can’t speak for my siblings, but this fallacy has followed me into adulthood and climbed the walls of my psyche like ivy. Over the last thirty years, this plant has been ferocious. Whereas the Prodigal got lost in harlots, booze, and hunger, I’ve found myself lost dozens of times over the years when people don’t act okay. Nothing different than back home. When someone isn’t being normal, then do something to get ‘em normal again! Don’t fix the problem, mind you, but get ‘em normal. (Let me state, again, my home when I was growing up had much to praise. Everyday wasn’t a dysentery epidemic. And on a different subject, I’ll also toss out, if you’re going to get lost in something bad, reckless sex and drunkenness might be more fun than crippling anxiety and paralysis, but I can only speculate here.)
So the Prodigal “comes to himself” standing in a field with pigs and staring longingly at what one blogger says are carob pods. Hunger has granted him an epiphany: “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!” I envision him taking those first steps back toward himself. The parable teaches that the young man is going back to his father (God), but I choose to hang onto those words, “when he came to himself,” and let God and the son marry. The long walk toward God is the walk toward himself.
A few twilights ago at 4:10 a.m., my walk began, not away from squandering inherited wealth, but from squandering myself. I awoke content. For the most part, this isn’t how things have been going over the last couple of years. I’ve been feeling the crack, sting, and ache of ivy digging into my brick and mortar. So what do you do when you’ve been hurting lately, and contentment shows up a couple hours before the alarm goes off?
Pee. That was my first decision. My second was to prop myself up in bed next to sleeping Kathy and pray. And breathe. And enjoy. Then, like the Prodigal, I came to myself. I have no clue why. All I know is that I somehow saw clearly the fallacy I’ve been living under for far too long. Weakened by the pull and weight of my personal ivy, I’ve gotten lost. Prayer, running, and dietary sanity—outward signs of the inner John—have shrunk or ceased altogether. I used to get up before dawn to pray and write, then jump into company time. Most days included four or five miles on the track. Meals weren’t perfect, but they were generally mindful.
Well, in recent months you can forget all that shit. So why, as I sat straight up with the cool, dark air touching my arms, did I come to myself? “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!”
I guess the timing of my Prodigal moment doesn’t matter. Nor do I need a reason that I felt welcomed and embraced, as if I had left myself for a distant country and returned. An embrace. My body received it, as when your chest meets another chest and you rest your cheek on a beloved shoulder and know you’re not lost anymore.
In the parable, the father sees his son in the distance and runs out to hug and kiss him. Then they finish the walk home. I got hugged and kissed, too. Maybe it didn’t come from God, but it sure seemed like a greater “Welcome home, son!” than I could have given myself.
This home isn’t on Wagner Avenue or Shenley Drive. It’s the home I believe we all have to find for ourselves over and over again. For me, it’s about “coming to myself”: held close by One who rejoices that I’m found, sitting next to my sleeping wife, putting my soul’s arms around all those I love, and believing that Mystery has ways of making weak brick and mortar strong again.