Monday, 3 April 2017

Henri Nouwen's 1986 Chats with Courteous USSR (Эрмитаж) Curatorial Personnel


[I copy herewith an extract from the Prologue of a book by Fr Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (Doubleday, 1992). Since my extract is just a tiny fraction of the book, I believe I am proceeding under the "Fair Use" provisions of copyright law. I am somewhat encouraged in my belief by the discovery that everything I am quoting (and also some of its surrounding context) can be viewed at, upon putting into Google such search terms as Nouwen "the two of us felt safe". - In the quoted passage, all italics (like this) are Fr Nouwen's. I do, however, consider it in one place appropriate to draw my own special attention to a few of Fr Nouwen's words, by adding a bit of my own underlining, like this. I add also a few necessary explanations in brackets, [like this]. - My town of current residence, Richmond Hill in Ontario, deserves for two reasons to be generally known. One is the successful 1935-2008 operation at Richmond Hill of the David Dunlap Observatory.  (The main DDO telescope is still the largest on Canadian soil. It may be that in the proximate or remote future something of the DDO legacy can be recovered, with 32 hecatres lost to commercial interests, but with 45 or so hectares developed by the municipality as a remnant park.)  The other factor putting Richmond Hill onto the global cultural map is the pastoral work of Jean Vanier and Fr Henri Nouwen at Richmond Hill's l'Arche "Daybreak Community". News regarding the present Community is given at] 

/.../ I was invited by my friends Bobby Massie and his wife, Dana Robert, to join them on a trip to the Soviet Union. My immediate reaction was: "Now I can see the real painting." [Fr Nouwen had been much taken by seeing, at one of the l'Arche communities, a poster reproduction of Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son] Ever since becoming interested in this great work, I had known that the original had been acquired in 1766 by Catherine the Great for the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg /.../ and was still there. I never dreamt that I would have a chance to see it so soon. Although I was very eager to get firsthand knowledge of a country that had so strongly influenced my thoughts, emotions, and feelings during most of my life, this became almost trivial when compared with the opportunity to sit before the painting that had revealed to me the deepest yearnings of my heart. 

/.../ Somehow, I sensed that seeing this painting would allow me to enter into the mystery of homecoming in a way I never had before. 

/.../ [Fr Nouwen expands a little on the theme of homecoming, referring to his departure from academia for the world of pastoral ministry, and then adds the following key words:] meeting the people of a country which had separated itself from the rest of the world by walls and heavily guarded borders, that too, was, in its own way, a manner of going home. [Fr Nouwen further develops the theme of homecoming, in terms which are deep and illuminating. But which I will not quote his further development here, since it lies a little outside tonight's guiding purpose.] 


Being in Saint Petersburg is one thing. Having the opportunity to quietly reflect upon the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage is quite something else. When I saw the mile-long line of people waiting to enter the museum, I wondered anxiously how and for how long I would be able to see what I most wanted to see. 

My anxiety, however, was relieved. In Saint Petersburg our official tour ended, and most members of the group returned home. But Bobby's mother, Suzanne Massie, who was in the Soviet Union during our trip, invited us to stay a few days with her. Suzanne is an expert in Russian culture and art, and her book The Land of the Firebird had greatly helped me to get ready for our trip. I asked Suzanne, "How do I ever get close to the Prodigal Son?" She said, "Now, Henri, don't worry. I'll see to it that you have all the time you want and need with your favorite painting." 

During our second day in Saint Petersburg, Suzanne gave me a telephone number and said, "This is the office number of Alexei Briantsov. He is a good friend of mine. Call him, and he will help you to get to your Prodigal Son." I dialed the number immediately and was surprised to hear Alexei, in his gently accented English, promise to meet me at a side door, away from the tourist entrance.

On Saturday, July 26, 1986, at 2:30 PM, I went to the Hermitage, walked along the Neva River past the main entrance, and found the door Alexei had directed me to. I entered, and someone behind a large desk let me use the house phone to call Alexei. After a few minutes, he appeared and welcomed me with great kindness. He led me along splendid corridors and elegant staircases to an out-of-the-way place not on the tourists' itinerary. It was a long room with high ceilings and looked like an old artist's studio. Paintings were stacked everywhere. In the middle there were large tables and chairs covered with papers and objects of all sorts. As we sat down for a moment, it soon became clear to me that Andrei was the head of the Hermitage's restoration department. With great gentleness and obvious interest in my desire to spend time with Rembrandt's painting, he offered me all the help I wanted. Then he took me straight to the Prodigal Son, told the guard not to bother me, and left me there.

And so there I was, facing the painting that had been on my mind and in my heart for nearly three years. I was stunned by its majestic beauty. Its size, larger than life; its abundant reds, browns, and yellows; its shadowy recesses and bright foreground, but most of all the light-enveloped embrace of father and son, surrounded by four mysterious bystanders, all of this gripped me with an intensity far beyond my anticipation. There had been moments in which I had wondered whether the real painting might disappoint me. The opposite was true. Its grandeur and splendor made everything recede into the background and held me completely captivated. Coming here was indeed a homecoming.

While many tourists groups with their guides came and left in rapid succession, I sat on one of the red velvet chairs in front of the painting and just looked. Now I was seeing the real thing! Not only the father embracing his child-come-home, but also the elder son and the three other figures. It is a huge work in oil on canvas, eight feet high by six feet wide. It took me a while to simply be there, simply absorbing that I was truly in the presence of what I had so long hoped to see, simply enjoying the fact that I was all by myself sitting in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg looking at the Prodigal Son for as long as I wanted.

The painting was exposed in the most favorable way, on a wall that received plenty of natural light through a large nearby window at an eighty-degree angle. Sitting there, I realized that the light become fuller and more intense as the afternoon progressed. At four o'clock the sun covered the painting with a new brightness, and the background figures - which had seemed quite vague in the early hours - seemed to step out of their dark corners. As the evening drew near, the sunlight grew more crisp and tingling. The embrace of the father and son became stronger and deeper, and the bystanders participated more directly in this mysterious event of reconciliation, forgiveness, and inner healing. Gradually I realized that there were as many paintings of the Prodigal Son as there were changes in the light, and, for a long time, I was held spellbound by this gracious dance of nature and art.

Without my realizing it, more than two hours had gone by when Alexei reappeared. With a compassionate smile and a supportive gesture, he suggested that I needed a break and invited me for coffee. He led me through the majestic halls of the museum - the larger part of which was the old winter palace of the tsars - back to the work space where we had been before. Alexei and his colleague had set out a large spread of breads, cheeses, and sweets, and encouraged me to enjoy it all. Having afternoon coffee with the art restorers of the Hermitage was certainly not what I had dreamt about when I was hoping to spend some quiet time with the Prodigal Son. Both Alexei and his colleague shared with me all they knew about Rembrandt's painting and were very eager to know why I was so taken by it. They seemed surprised and even a little perplexed by my spiritual observations and reflections. They listened attentively and urged me to tell more.

After coffee, I returned to the painting for another hour until the guard and the cleaning lady let me know, in no uncertain terms, that the museum was closing and that I had been there long enough.

Four days later, I returned for another visit to the painting. During that session, something amusing happened, something that I should not leave untold. Because of the angle from which the morning sun hit the painting, the varnish gave off a distracting glare. So I took one of the red velvet chairs and moved it to a place from which the glare was cut and I could once again see clearly the figures in the painting. As soon as the guard - a serious young man with cap and military-type uniform - saw what I was doing, he became very upset at my audacity in picking up the chair and putting it somewhere else. Walking up to me, he ordered me, with an outpouring of Russian words and universal gestures, to put the chair back in its place. In response, I pointed to the sun and the canvas, trying to explain to him why I had moved the chair. My efforts had absolutely no success. So I returned the chair to its place and sat on the floor instead. But that only disturbed the guard even more. After some further animated attempts to win the sympathy of the guard for my problem, he told me to sit on the radiator below the window, from where I could have a good view. However, the first Intourist guide passing by with a large group marched up to me and told me sternly to get off the radiator and sit on one of the velvet chairs. At that, the guard became very angry with the guide and told her with a profusion of words and gestures that it was he who had let me sit on the radiator. The guide did not seem satisfied but decided to return her attention to the tourists, who were looking at the Rembrandt and wondering about the size of the figures. A few minutes later, Alexei came to see how I was doing. Immediately, the guard walked up to him and both of them entered into a long conversation. The guard was obviously trying to explain what had happened, but the discussion lasted so long that I wondered somewhat anxiously where it would all lead. Then, quite suddenly, Alexei left. For a moment, I felt quite guilty at having caused such a stir and thought that I had made Alexei angry with me. Ten minutes later, however, Alexei returned carrying a large comfortable armchair with red velvet upholstery and gold-painted legs. All for me! With a big grin, he put the chair in front of the painting and bade me sit in it. Alexei, the guard, and I all smiled. I had my own chair, and nobody objected any longer. Suddenly it all seemed very comical Three empty chairs that could not be touched and a luxurious armchair brought in from some other room in the winter palace, offered to me to be freely moved around. Elegant bureaucracy! I wondered if any of the figures in the painting, who had been witnesses to the whole scene, were smiling along with us. I will never know.

Altogether, I spent more than four hours with the Prodigal Son, making notes about what I heard the guides and the tourists say, about what I saw as the sun grew stronger and faded away, and about what I experienced in my innermost being as I became more and more part of the story that Jesus once told and that Rembrandt once painted. I wondered whether and how these precious hours in the Hermitage would ever bear fruit.

When I left the painting, I walked up to the young guard and tried to express my gratitude for his putting up with me for so long. As I looked into his eyes under the large Russian cap, I saw a man like myself: afraid, but with a great desire to be forgiven. From his beardless young face came a very gentle smile. I smiled too, and the two of us felt safe.

[This is the end of the present blog posting. Longer, more substantive postings, including postings on a topic in the analytical philosophy of perception and agency, are anticipated from 2017-05-01 onward, as I complete my move to new living accommodations.] 

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