What exactly was the return of the Prodigal Son? (1)

1 March 2021

Think about the return of the prodigal son to his father’s house and the reasons behind it, which were three in number. The first was that he reflected sincerely on the wretchedness of his situation; the second was that he compared his misery with the happiness of those who were living in his father’s house; and the third was that he cherished the hope that his father would forgive him, as he had done so many times before. And so, on his return, he was granted the forgiveness he desired. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, embraced him and showered him with kisses* (Luke 15, 20). This is what you have to do, too: to come to your senses with great sincerity, as the prophet says: ‘Repent you apostates and return to the Lord with your whole heart’ (Is. 15, 20). Consider the great unhappiness  of the soul when it’s far removed from God’s grace. Don’t be like those servants who, when their skin has become calloused, don’t feel the rod of their master. And don’t get to the point of giving the name of peace to the culmination of the evils you’ve experienced. As it was written: ‘Moreover this was not enough for them, that they erred in the knowledge of God; but because they lived in the great strife of ignorance, they gave the name of peace to those such great evils’ (Wisdom 14, 22).

Don’t you know the trials suffered by the wretched sinners who are far from God? Don’t you know the difficulties they have? The worries? How much sadness and pain there is in their heart? Why have they been deprived of divine grace? Why don’t they take part in the spotless sacraments? And why don’t they enjoy help from God invisibly? And why are you indifferent to all these afflictions? Don’t you know that even one of them, particularly not taking part in sacraments, is an unbearable affliction and a true death of the soul? This is why Saint Basil the Great in his new Rule, calls exclusion from communion and excommunication ‘death’ and a ‘sword’. It’s apparent, then, that you haven’t yet come to your senses, and that you’re still not yourself. This is why the son said: ‘How many of my father’s workers have food to spare, and here I am starving to death?’ (Luke 15, 17). As Gregory, the great Archbishop of Thessaloniki [Palamas] said: ‘He was deprived, being far removed from our common Father, Provider and Lord, but once he was subjected to fierce hunger and felt his lack, he repented and returned. He sought and was given divine and undefiled provisions’ (Discourse on this parable). But you’re hungry and you don’t feel the hunger you’re suffering. This is why you’re suffering twice the affliction and, at the same time, twice the damage. You’re at the risk of dying from lack, not of bread and water, but of being starved of the word of God. As it’s written, ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘when I will send a famine through the land, not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord’ (Amos, 8, 11).

Yet what desire do you show to go and listen to the words of teachers who preach the word of God, to satisfy your hunger? According to Gregory the Theologian, ‘The word of God is the bread of angels, with which the souls of those who hunger for God are nourished’. You should listen to the word of the Lord, who commands you to study the scriptures in order to find eternal life in them. ‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life’ (Jn. 5, 39). Yet when do you pick up a book to read? When do you study God’s law in order to be brought to salvation? As Paul tells you: ‘From infancy you have known scripture, which is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3, 15). You know that the real bread and nourishment for the soul and body is the life-giving body and blood of the Lord, as he himself says: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’ (Jn. 6, 51). Yet what desire or what love do you have to prepare yourself constantly and to receive this divine bread (provided you have no impediment) so that you may be filled and live eternally? If someone who’s ill hasn’t eaten for a long time and has no appetite, they show signs of dying. Just as you are showing signs of being at risk of complete and utter spiritual death because of your lack of appetite for the metaphysical  and spiritual bread, that is, both the word of God and the body of the Lord.

So come to your senses, recover your wits. How and in what way? Let me tell you. If you always strive to concentrate the whole of your mind within your heart and don’t allow it to be distracted with your feelings about the things of the world, then you’ll come round. Then, in the spirit, you’ll see all the passions which possessed and possess you, and which you didn’t even know about before. Then you’ll see your spiritual enemies, who assail you constantly. To put it simply, you’ll see what you’ve gained and what harm has been done to you. So always entreat God in the spirit and in your heart, to have mercy on you as he had on the prodigal, saying: ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’. As the Lord said, the heart is the center and repository of all our passions and thoughts: ‘But what comes out of a person’s mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles them’ (Matth. 15, 18). And the great Makarios  says: ‘the heart dominates the whole of the body. And when grace occupies the parts of the heart, it reigns over all thinking and all members. Because that is where the nous and all the thoughts of the soul are’ (Discourse 15).

This is why Basil the Great says that when the nous isn’t distracted by the things of this world it returns to itself and through itself ascends to an understanding of God: ‘When the nous is not dispersed towards outward things and  is not dragged into the world by the senses, it comes back to itself  and through itself ascends towards an understanding of God. Then, illumined and enlightened by God’s comeliness, it forgets even its own nature’ (Letter to Gregory the Theologian). Dionysios the Areopagite calls this movement of the soul towards itself cyclical and unerring: ‘Further, there is a movement of soul, circular indeed, the entrance into itself from things outside it, and the unified convolution of its intellectual powers. This lends it, as it were, an inerrancy. In a sort of circle, it turns and collects itself, from the many things without, first to itself, then, having become single, uniting with the uniformly unified powers. It is thus conducted to the beautiful and  good being, which is above all things, the one and the same, without beginning and without end’, that is, God.

*This may seem a rather bold translation, but it’s actually what the Greek says; ‘Φιλώ’ is ‘to kiss’; ‘καταφιλώ’, as in the Gospel, is ‘to kiss repeatedly, enthusiastically’. [WJL]