‘Mindful of what you feel, look at Rembrandt’s masterful depiction of the parable… Give your attention to how the light falls on the scene. Record all that you observe about the light. Stay with it… what do you hear when you listen and what is the light in the painting saying to you?’
Henri Nouwen’s invitation to meditate on this famous painting returns our thoughts to the imagery of the previous post. It comes from further reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son contained in Home Tonight, a collection of transcripts of talks and other notes published after Nouwen’s death.
Not for the first time, I have sat with this painting again. I imagined myself actually sitting in the scene. Taking a place alongside the father and his sons, and the others who are present. (You may like to do the same.)
I found myself sitting in the space at the bottom right hand corner, not far from the feet of the elder sibling. Looking at the father and the prodigal. Listening to what was being said.
The father’s love for his son being expressed simply.
The son’s head against his father’s chest.
The father’s hands resting on his son.
I wondered what each of them was saying.
Yet as I sat, I became conscious that perhaps nothing was being said.
That despite the noise of the party being prepared elsewhere, there were no words.
There were no words.
There was silence.
It struck me how words place limits on how we feel.
Words place limits on love.
That love is far greater than any words.
I was reminded of words often attributed to John of the Cross, a 16th Century mystic and developed by Thomas Keating, a 21st Century monk (whose writings significantly influenced this writer’s own journey of faith): ‘Silence is God’s first language.’
And I have often wondered what that actually means. How can silence be a language?
A phrase like that goes against much of our way of living and thinking, doesn’t it? We all need to be told we are loved. We all need to be able to tell someone else of our love for them (however that love may be defined or expressed). We all need to know that God’s love is very present and never absent. Using words helps us to understand that love. It makes it tangible.
But if silence is God’s first language (and God uses other forms of words and communication to ‘speak’ to us as well) does that mean silence is actually the true and full expression of God’s love?
That God’s love is beyond words.
That God’s love is fully experienced through silence.
‘Silence is God’s first language,’ Keating writes. ‘Everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and rest in God.’