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Interiority, Memory and Return

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There is hardly anything to add to what we know about the parable of the prodigal son, I guess. The parable and its immediate context appears a number of times in the mass lectionary.. Apart from that, the whole season of Lent is arranged in such a way that the faithful would participate in the spirit of the liturgy like the son who realizes that home is where the Father is.

“Home is where the Father is.”. The younger son wanted to be at home like so many people who yearn to be free, unrestrained and “to be themselves”. And contemporary culture which builds itself on the business of keeping young and living young feeds them the jargon to desire the appearance of freedom and independence. To this culture, to be at home is to “let it all hang out”, “be true to yourself”. It seldom says that with freedom there is responsibility, uniqueness must blend with the community, youth should be transformed into the maturity of old age.

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The young son wanted to be at home and so he got his inheritance and went off to a faraway land. The physical distancing from the father seemed to be the first step towards “being at home”. But the more he went away, the more he was degraded, morally, physically, until he can no longer recognize himself. In going away from the Father, the younger son became alienated to himself. The farthest he got away from his Father is not the place where he got employment as caretaker of pigs; the farthest point is when he can no longer see himself as “son”. “I will return,” he said, “to ask that I be treated as one of the slaves.”

The younger son desired to be “at home” yet in following the dictates of his own immaturity, he soon finds himself alienated even from himself. The discovery that he was not in fact at home away from the father is summarized in the phrase “and he entered into himself.” The Greek text says eiV eauton de elqwn; this is normally translated as “And coming to his senses…” (Filipino: At siya’y natauhan). Augustine of Hippo, however, despite his knowledge of the Greek preferred to use a very literal rendering of the text allowed by the Latin translations of his time: “et introito in se ipso” “and having entered into himself“. What follows from this rendering is a spiritual principle that will benefit the Christian spiritual heritage of the west: the idea of interiority.

The younger son “entered into himself” and discovered how far he has gone away not only from the father, nor from his status as son, but also from himself. He remembers the plenty in his father’s house. Human beings are creatures between remembrance and anticipation. In fact, what we call “the present” is actually human consciousness in the act of remembering and anticipating. The “now”, for us, is not a moment in quantitative time; rather, it is a moment fraught with possibilities where the “I” emerging from the past defines himself in the light of those possibilities. The younger son decided to return to the father not because it was the only possibility but because after entering into himself and remembering, it came out as the better possibility.

The idea of interiority is never complete without the idea of “going beyond”. “To transcend oneself” “to go beyond what one has become” follows upon the act whereby one discover’s how far he has fallen. The religious and Christian meaning of “transcendence” taken out of the context of fallen man’s return to God can become a mere advertisement for excellence in sports or following a career in a particular institution. “Transcendence” is not excellence; rather it is the transition from fallenness to a return. (Augustine’s doctrine of interiority is built on the Christian conviction that Christian life is a return to God. Hence the two steps in interiority: enter into yourself (discovery of one’s fallenness); transcend yourself (return to God). Any idea of transcendence that changes this basic idea of a return to God empties Augustinian interiority of its true meaning.)

The younger son decided to return after he entered into himself and remembers the kind of life one has in the father’s household. The Christian mystical tradition has always given memory an important place. After all, it is by recalling the mirabilia Dei that these are made present. And so the liturgy has become the place where this memory is energized such that the Christian can once more taste how good God is. The monks of old (and some in the present) refreshed their memory with the lectio divina so that whether at work or in conversation with others, they will always have before them the marvels of God and see life and others in the light of such wonders.

One can argue that since the younger son was thinking of the food that he is missing as he works among hogs, he actually decided to return not to the father but to the food he has in the pantry. And for this reason, the son was interested only in being a slave.

The argument would be valid, I think, if Jesus (even Luke the writer) were thinking the way we do. The fact is, for those who first heard this gospel, the argument would never arise because everyone saw the father as one with his household. In other words, the father is his household, he is the head, and his household is the body. This is corporate thinking that characterized the thought of Jesus, Luke, St. Paul and the others. Our twentieth century bias for the singular and the individual is Western, French and Cartesian in origin. So even if the younger son was thinking of “food” (he was hungry after all), at the back of his mind, the “food” will be linked to “father” since it is food that comes from the father’s supply of good things. And finally, even if this son was interested only in being a servant, albeit in the father’s household, it is the father who will by acts of mercy and love for a son, eventually show him that he is worth more than a servant. In the young son’s return is also his restoration; he goes back to the father’s embrace and he is restored to himself.

Originally posted 2007-09-11 22:21:49. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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