The Prodigal Father

Author: Michael J. Daley

Thirteen years is a long time to go without seeing someone, especially if it’s your father. Save for a quick visit before I went off to graduate school, bumping into each other for a few minutes at a family wedding and a short lunch so he could meet his newborn granddaughter, we had not spent any extended time together for more than a decade. Yet here I was on a Friday afternoon, picking up my father at the airport to spend the weekend with us.

As I awaited his visit, two stories competed for space in my memory. The first one took place right before Christmas break my freshman year of college. My mom had come to take me back home for the holidays. I knew things were strained between my parents, but I was unprepared to hear what she would say. After a few minutes catching up with one another, she said simply, “Your father’s having an affair. He’s moved in with another woman.” I was stunned. A man I had looked up to had left me speechless. Not from any act of courage on his part mind you, but from a decision that I now know was based upon his own sense of frustration and anger. From that day forward, however, he had left not only my mother’s life, but mine as well.

The second story took place much earlier, probably the summer before my seventh grade year. I was out with friends in the neighborhood, bored and looking for things to do. We decided to climb some trees a few blocks from our houses. About 30 to 35 feet up in one of them I leaned over a branch — and heard it crack. The next thing I knew I was in a hospital bed with several bruises on my body, thanks to two tree limbs that broke my fall. I remember talking with one of my friends several weeks later, and he described how he ran to my house to get help. As he told my dad what happened, he said, my dad was already flying out the door to come get me. No one could catch up with him as he raced to see if I was all right.

The Whole Story

Over the course of the weekend I held these two stories in tension with each other, stories that alternately reflected abandonment and deep concern, selfishness and selflessness, loss and love.

As he was spending his first real, quality time with his granddaughter, I witnessed from a distance their interactions. Our daughter smiled and laughed as he read aloud from her books, pushed her in her car down the street, shook her hand at Mass and played with several of the toys he had bought for her. As I watched, the thought often crossed my mind to say to her, “If you only knew the full story.”

Returning to work the following Monday, I described to a friend what had happened that weekend. I told him how I watched with mixed blessings as our daughter played and interacted with my dad with a love that I know from firsthand experience is unconditional. She displayed a trust and vulnerability with him that for me had long been lost. After I told him what I thought was my rather insightful remark of how things would have changed between my dad and his granddaughter if I had told her the whole story, he said something far more penetrating and valuable. “Well, Mike, maybe she does know the whole story.” My daughter, though unable to put it into words herself, had been saying the same thing all along. Shortly after that, I recalled a story that shed light on my daughter’s trust.

During the Middle Ages, a certain nun began to acquire a reputation as a mystic. People began to come from near and far to speak with her. Skeptical of her purported visions and frustrated by her increasing following, the bishop demanded that she present herself and give an account of her visions to him.

In an effort to prove the groundlessness of her visions, the bishop thought he had a foolproof plan. “Sister,” the bishop said at their meeting, “it has come to my attention that you are receiving visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In order to protect my flock I must determine whether these visions are authentic or not.”

“As you wish, your excellency,” the sister said.

“A long time ago, before my conversion to Christianity and ordination, I committed an act so sinful, embarrassing and shameful, it is known only to God and my confessor. At your next vision, you must ask Jesus to reveal this past action of mine to you. If Jesus tells you, I will have no other choice but to believe you.” The bishop, thinking he had solved his problem, bid the sister to return the following week.

When the sister returned, the bishop asked if she had a reply for him. “I do,” the sister said. “Before my vision ended, I asked Jesus the question which you commanded of me.”

“And,” the bishop anxiously said, “what was the answer?”

Looking the bishop straight in the eyes, the sister responded, “He said that he didn’t remember.” At that the bishop got out of the chair from behind his desk, embraced the sister and asked for her blessing.

The Prodigal in All of Us

Since my father’s weekend visit, the parable of the Prodigal Son has been on my mind.

I’ve heard that parable often enough through the years and know it inside and out. As I’m coming to realize though, I don’t fully understand it. “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them” (Luke 15:11-32). The simplicity of the narrative masks the utter offensiveness of the request. In asking for his inheritance while his father is still living, the son basically wishes his father dead. With me, however, the roles were reversed. My father, through an act of irresponsibility and misjudgment, asked for his inheritance while leaving my brothers, mother and me adrift, wondering when he was returning home.

As I imagine the scene, my thoughts turn to the elder son — judgmental, jealous, juvenile. Outwardly I projected the image of a saint, but inwardly I was a sinner, consumed with envy and bitterness at the joyous reception that accompanied my father’s return to a relationship with others — brothers, sons, friends and even, to some extent, the church. How could anyone, if they knew who he truly was, spend any time with him? For 13 long years I have dutifully chosen to honor his inexcusable act and hold him accountable. I’ve reminded myself time and time again — with that story of betrayal remaining predominant in my memory — that he fled responsibility and relationships, leaving in his wake a home and hearts that were broken. I didn’t burn his proverbial bridge behind him, he did. My dad’s search for the truth took him from the illusory glitter of Main Street to the gutter of the mud pond. Yet, in the midst of my rejection, over the years I saw hints of his desire to repair our relationship as best he could. Having minimal carpentry skills at the time, I didn’t see it as my task to help rebuild it.

During the past two years, through the birth of my daughter, I’ve come to realize that the end is not to be found in identifying with the younger or elder son. In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, Henri Nouwen, one of the great spiritual writers of our time, recounts a visit from a friend during which they discussed Rembrandt’s painting of the parable. In the course of the conversation Nouwen’s friend said to him: “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.”

Uncomfortably, I put myself in the shoes of the father. “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” At first glance, our natural response is to side again with the elder brother who says, “Father, wait. Be wary. Don’t forget what he did to us so long ago. What you’re doing is reckless and wasteful. You’re only setting yourself up again for a letdown.” Yet, as the story goes, the father, as we are all called to do, loves only one way — totally, unconditionally, wholeheartedly. What we see as impossible the father makes possible.

Unfortunately, after 13 years my memory is still vivid. Thankfully, since the birth of my daughter nearly two years ago, I’m starting to tell a different story.

Michael J. Daley teaches at Saint Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. His has written for Saint Anthony Messenger, Momentum and other publications.