The Prodigal Son

The story of the Prodigal Son brings back a very strong memory from my time in Kilmore Quay. Back in the late 80’s I declared from the altar that the confession box was officially obsolete and when I did everyone just burst into applause. A priest who was there before me Fr Felix Byrne used to say that before his time it was supposed to be haunted but in his six years he had never seen anyone either alive or dead in it. Personally I wouldn’t be seen dead in one and I believe that the practice of going into a dark box has done far more to damage the essence of the sacrament than any good it ever achieved. I still go to confession from time to time, probably not as often as I should, but it would always be face to face and in the context of having a deep meaningful chat about my life and where I might need to sharpen my focus. I am all for Confession and have little or no time for this notion of telling your sins to God as if He didn’t know already. However, the way most of us grew up with the practice left a lot to be desired. One of the best understandings of sin I have ever heard comes from an anacronym for the word: SIN is Self Inflicted Nonsense. We are all pretty good at inflicting what doesn’t make sense on ourselves and usually its not until we can bring it out into the open that we can make the changes that are needed.

Having made the Confession Box redundant I didn’t want to remove what was a very fine piece of furniture from the Chapel but it was necessary to do away with the old curtain and come up with a very strong symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation in its place. Having given the matter some thought the idea of putting in a copy of Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, came to mind. The question was where to come up with one that would fit the space at the back of the Confessional. The original painting is ginormous and broader than its long, surely 15 ft long by 10 ft high. What I needed was a slimline version more tall than broad about 3 ft by 2 and a half.

Christ taught his method of prayer saying, when you pray, ask and believe that you have received, and it will be done for you. So I prayed, saw what I needed, put it out there and simply believed. To manifest something like that in prayer I also knew that its important to put some energy into bringing it about. So I began to think just where might I begin to look and who just might have what I needed. In other words if I believed that providence was coming to meet me down the road I had better get on that same road.

One Saturday, shortly after, I was scheduled to give a seminar in Roscommon and knew I would be passing the Liturgical Centre in Athlone. This was a long shot because having visited the place before I had never seen any paintings for sale. While on the way I gave a ring to see if they were open. A sister answered to say Saturday was a closed day but if I rang the Convent door on my way back there would be someone there. That evening I duly called and took a tour around the shop but as expected they seemed to have everything except paintings. I then explained to the nun what had brought me there and wondered if she could put me in touch with any place I could order what was needed of Rembrandt’s Prodigal. Suddenly she burst into a big smile and said ‘come with me.’ Down we went, through a corridor that led to the main convent and there on the wall was the painting I had been looking for. Again she smiled and said, ‘This is hard to believe but only this morning we took this out of the shop since it was taking up space and two of us prayed that the Lord would send someone who needed it. This is yours and we certainly don’t want money for it.’ Without ever measuring it I brought it home and put it into place. It was an exact fit with just an inch to spare top and bottom and when a light was installed it was just the business. If ever you visit the chapel in Kilmore Quay you might like to take a look because its still there.

Strange to say there was also a sequel to the story in terms of my relationship with Rembrandt and His Return of the Prodigal. Some years later while doing chaplaincy work on a ship in the Baltic we stopped over at St Petersburg and visited the Hermitage museum where the painting is housed. I was just thrilled to get a chance to see the original that is really massive and awe inspiring. The place is so big it would take two weeks to explore it fully and that day it was packed to capacity with tourists. Part of the chaplaincy role was to accompany the local guide and keep the group of forty or so on track. This was relatively easy most times but in the packed museum it was a nightmare. One man in particular we were concerned about who seemed to be in the early stages of dementia or something similar. Just while everyone was gazing in awe at Rembrandt’s Prodigal I noticed that our friend had gone missing. There were loads of exits and he could have gone through any of them and I knew to find him was not going to be easy. I grabbed hold of a very tall lady that had a good eye and enlisted her help. We searched for ages and suddenly she spotted him so we escorted him back holding him arm in arm on either side so he wouldn’t escape. Once back the guide questioned why he had broke away from the crowd in the first place. It was difficult to make out what he was saying because his speech was slurred but we did hear that he was searching for an old painting by his great uncle who was Dutch and as a child he had seen a copy of it and heard it was in the Hermitage Museum. This was the reason why he had come on the cruise in the first place.

Seeing his condition, and knowing he wasn’t going to ever make a return visit, the guide felt sorry for the poor chap and said, ‘This is a really long shot, there are millions of paintings here and I haven’t a clue as to what you are looking for, but I do know where some paintings by Dutch artists are on display.’ She then gave the crowd instructions as to where and when she would meet them at the end of a corridor and said to the three of us to come with her. She then took us through a maze of corridors and floors until we came to this Dutch painters gallery. Just as we entered his eyes lit up and the tears began to flow as he stood in front of one painting saying. ‘This is it, this is the work of my great uncle. This is what I came for and now I have found it.’ Needless to say we were all crying with him at this stage including the guide who had taken such a chance to help him out. All of us went back to the group glowing with happiness for this man who at the last minute had fulfilled a lifelong quest.

I don’t know to what extent all that is directly related to the Gospel but it’s my experience of The Return of the Prodigal.

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