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Prodigal Son

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Page 41

Almost from the moment I had ears to hear, I heard those

voices, and they have stayed with me ever since. They have come to

me through my parents, my friends, my teachers, and my colleagues,

but, most of all, they have come and still come through the mass

media that surround me. And they say: "Show me that you are a

good boy. You had better be better than your friend! How are your

grades? Be sure you can make it through school! I sure hope you are

going to make it on your own! What are your connections? Are you

sure you want to be friends with those people? These trophies cer-

tainly show how good a player you were! Don't show your weakness,

you'll be used! Have you made all the arrangements for your old age?

When you stop being productive, people lose interest in you! When

you are dead, you are dead!"

 As long as I remain in touch with the voice that call me the

Beloved, these questions and counsels are quite harmless. Parents,

friends, and teachers, even those who speak to me through the me-

dia, are mostly very sincere in their concerns. Their warnings, and

advice are well intended. In fact, they can be limited human expres-

sions, of an unlimited divine love. But when I forget that voice of the

first unconditional love, then these innocent suggestions can easily

start dominating my life are pull me into the "distant country." It is

not very hard for me to know when this is happening. Anger, resent-

ment, jealousy, desire for revenge, lust, greed, antagonisms, and rival-

ries are the obvious signs that I have left home. And that happens

quite easily. When I pay careful attention to what goes on in my

mind from moment to moment, I come to the disconcerting discov-

ery that there are very few moments during my day when I am really

free from these dark emotions, passions, and feelings.

 Constantly falling back into an old trap, before I am even fully

aware of it, I find myself wondering why someone hurt me, rejected

me, or didn't pay attention to me. Without realizing it, I find myself

brooding about someone else's success, my own loneliness, and the

way the world abuses me. Despite my conscious intentions, I often

catch myself daydreaming about becoming rich, powerful, and very

famous. All of these mental games reveal to me the fragility of my

faith that I am the Beloved One on whom God's favor rests. I am so

afraid of being disliked, blamed, put aside, passed over, ignored. per-

secuted, and killed, that I am constantly developing strategies to de-

fend myself and thereby assure myself of the love I think I need and

deserve. And in so doing I move far away from my father's home and

choose to dwell in a "distant country."

page42

      Searching Where It Cannot Be Found

At issue here is the question: "To whom do I belong? To God or to

the world?" Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong

more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry,

and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raise my

spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me

up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean.

completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend

in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being

tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for

survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from

the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.

    As long as I keep running about asking: "Do you love me? Do

you really love me?" I give all power to the voices of the world and

put myself in bondage because the world is filled with "ifs.  "The

world says: "Yes, I love you if you are good-1ooking, intelligent, and

wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and

good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and

buy much." There are endless "ifs" hidden in the world's love.  These

"ifs" enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of

them. The world's love is and always will be conditional. As long as I

keep looking  for my true self in the world of conditional love.  I will

remain "hooked" to the world-trying, failing, and trying again.  It is

a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot !satisfy

the deepest craving of my heart.

    "Addiction" might be the best word to explain the lostness that

so deeply permeates contemporary society. Our addictions make us

cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment:

 accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admira-

 tion: lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification

 without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create

 expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long

 as we live within the world's delusions, our addictions condemn us to

 futile quests in "the distant country," leaving us to face an endless

 series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled.

 In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away

 from our Father's home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a

 life  lived in "a distant country." It is from there that our cry for

 deliverance rises up.

page 51

The choice for my own sonship, however, is not an easy one.

The dark voices of my surrounding world try to persuade me that I

am no good and that I can only become good by earning my good-

ness through "making it" up the ladder of success. These voices lead

me quickly to forget the voice that calls me "my son, the Beloved,"

 reminding me of my being loved independently of any acclaim or

accomplishment. These dark voices drown out that gentle, soft,

light giving voice that keeps calling me "my favorite one"; they drag

me to the periphery of my existence and make me doubt that there is

a loving God waiting for me at the very center of my being.

But leaving the foreign country is only the beginning. The way

home is long and arduous. What to do on the way back to the

Father?  It is very clear what the prodigal son does. He prepares a

scenario.  As he turned, remembering his sonship, he said to himself:

"I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have

sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be

called your son; treat me as one of your hired men." As I read these

words, I am keenly aware of how full my inner'life is with this kind

 of talk. In fact, I am seldom without some imaginary encounter in

my head in which I explain myself, boast or apologize, proclaim or

defend, evoke praise or pity. It seems that I am perpetually involved

in long dialogues with absent partners, anticipating their questions

and preparing my responses. I am amazed by the emotional energy

that goes into these inner ruminations and murmurings. Yes, I am

leaving the foreign country. Yes, 1 am going home . . . but why all

this preparation of speeches which will never be delivered?

    The reason is clear. Although claiming my true identity as a

child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning

demands an explanation. I still think about his love as conditional and

about home as a place I am not yet fully sure of. While walking

home, I keep entertaining doubts about whether I will be truly wel-

come when I get there. As I look at my spiritual journey, my long

and fatiguing trip home, I see how full it is of guilt about the past and

worries about the future. I realize my failures and know that I have

lost the dignity of my sonship, but I am not yet able to fully believe

that where my failings are great, "grace is always greater." Still cling-

ing to my sense of worthlessness, I project for myself a place far

below that which belongs to the son. Belief in total, absolute forgive-

ness does not come readily. My human experience tells me that

forgiveness boils down to the willingness of the other to forgo re-

venge and to show me some measure of charity.

around me. I did all the proper things, mostly complying with the

agendas set by the many parental figures in my life-teachers, spiri-

tual directors, bishops, and popes but at the same time I often

wondered why I didn't have the courage to "run away" as the

younger son did.

    It is strange to say this, but, deep in my heart, I have known the

feeling of envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises

when I see my friends having a good time doing all sorts of things

that I condemn. I called their behavior reprehensible or even im-

moral, but at the same time I often wondered why I didn't have the

nerve to do some of it or all of it myself.

    The obedient and dutiful life of which I am proud or for which

I am praised feels, sometimes, like a burden that was laid on my

shoulders and continues to oppress me, even when I have accepted it

to such a degree that I cannot throw it off. I have no difficulty

identifying with the elder son of the parable who complained: " All

these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders

of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to

celebrate with my friends." In this complaint, obedience and duty

have become a burden, and service has become slavery.

     All of this became very ;real for me when a friend who had

recently become a Christian criticized me for not being very prayer-

ful. His criticism made me very angry. I said to myself, "How dare

he teach me a lesson about prayer! For years he has lived a carefree

and undisciplined life, while I since childhood have scrupulously

lived the life of faith. Now he is converted and starts telling me how

to behave!" This inner resentment reveals to me my own "lostness."

I had stayed home and didn't wander off, but I had not yet lived a

free life in my father's house. My anger and envy showed me my

own bondage.

     This is not something unique to me. There are many elder sons

and elder daughters who are lost while still at home. And it is this

lostness-characterized by judgment and condemnation, anger and

resentment, bitterness and jealousy-that is so pernicious and so

damaging to the human heart. Often we think about lostness in

terms of actions that are quite visible, even spectacular. The younger

 son sinned in a way we can easily identify. His lostness is quite

 obvious. He misused his money, his time, his friends, his own body.

 What he did was wrong; not only his family and friends knew it, but

 he himself as well. He rebelled against morality and allowed himself

 to be swept away by his own lust and greed. There is something very

 clear-cut about his misbehavior. Then, having seen that all his way-

 ward behavior led to nothing but misery, the younger son came to

 his senses, turned around, and asked for forgiveness. We have here a

 classical human failure, with a straightforward resolution. Quite easy

 to understand and sympathize with.

     The lostness of the elder son, however, is much harder to iden-

tify.  After all, he did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful,

law-abiding, and hardworking. People respected him, admired him,

praised him, and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly, the

elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father's joy at the

return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils

to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful,

proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden,

even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over

the years.

     Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of

other people, I wonder which does more damage, lust or resent-

ment?" There is so much resentment among the "just" and the "righ-

teous."  There is so much judgment, condemnation, and prejudice

among the saints. " There is so much frozen anger among the peo-

ple who are so concerned about avoiding "sin."

     The lostness of the resentful "saint" is so hard to reach precisely

because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous.

I know from my own life, how diligently I have tried to be good,

acceptable,  likable, and a worthy example for others. There was al-

ways the conscious effort to avoid the pitfalls of sin and the constant

fear of giving in to temptation. But with all of that there came a

seriousness, a moralistic intensity and even a touch of fanaticism-

that made it increasingly difficult to feel at home in my Father's

house.  I became less free, less spontaneous, less playful, and others came to see me more and more as a somewhat "heavy " person.

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