By Karen Hice Guzmán

The Prodigal Son: Visio Divina 2021

We’ve developed a tradition here at The Well where each summer we offer something a little different to our audience — something to support the work of rest, restoration, and preparation that we hope is part of the season’s different rhythms. 

Today we begin our Summer 2021 Visio Divina Series. Visio divina — divine seeing — is an ancient prayer practice inviting us to use our eyes to lead us in contemplation about God and enter into prayer with him. Each week, we’ll share a piece of art and invite you to look at it and consider it with a standard set of four basic questions. 

  • What do you see?

  • What stands out to you?

  • Is there Scripture that comes to mind?

  • What is God's invitation to you?

In addition, we’ll provide a bit of Scripture to consider, a short reflection, and a prayer.

We’ve selected pieces from a variety of artists, art periods, and styles. Not all of them are “Christian” in content, nor are they all from artists who would identify as Christian. We do, however, think that each of them has something to say to us about God, about ourselves, or about what it means to be his people.

We’ll use this practice with a piece of art, but it can easily be adapted to use whenever you observe something of beauty, whether on a trip to the art museum, a day at the beach, or a hike in the Grand Canyon.

Visio divina invites us to engage with God using our minds, our imaginations, and our hearts. Many of us “live in our heads,” so it’s helpful to be led into exercises which engage all of who we are. Whether this practice is new to you or very familiar, our prayer is that it will be life-giving. Are you ready to get started?
 

Week 1: The Return of the Prodigal Son

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 - 1669)

This piece is displayed in the Rembrandt Room at The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Visit this page for more information.

Questions for visio divina

  1. As you begin, take a few deep breaths. While we know God is always with us, invite the Holy Spirit to be present and to speak to you afresh in these moments. Spend some time looking at the image. What do you see? Similar to doing Bible study, make as many observations as you can. What do you like or dislike? Why? What questions do you have?
  2. How does the artist use color, light, style, composition, and material? What do you think the artist wanted to communicate? What stands out to you? Why do you think this is so? 
  3. Read Luke 15:11-32, the story of the prodigal son. How does this add to what you are seeing? Is there other Scripture that comes to mind?
  4. Spend some time reflecting on the Scripture passage and looking again at today’s image. What is God’s invitation to you? What might you need to see, understand, or believe? How does your current life experience intersect with what you are seeing and reflecting on? How might this image help you pray today? What do you want to say to God? Ask from him? 

Scripture passage

Luke 15:11-32

Karen's Reflection

This is a familiar parable and the subject of a considerable amount of artwork. Rembrandt takes a bit of liberty with the story (as artists often do), conflates the scenes, and places it indoors. It’s dark and shadowy, typical of his palette but probably also due, in part, to age and dirt. Our eyes are drawn to the places in the painting where light “shines,” focusing our attention on the father and his two sons. 

The kneeling prodigal buries his bald head into his father as he begs for mercy. His left shoe gone, his right heel peeks out from what remains of the other. His shoulder pokes through a tear in his ragged clothing between his father’s hands. Mostly colorless now, it hangs on his body in sharp contrast to the rich red cloak of the aging father who is all abundance and generosity and prosperity — body, soul, and spirit — as he hovers lovingly enveloping his returning son, pulling him into himself. His boy has finally come home.

As the older brother takes it all in, it is clear he is everything his younger sibling isn’t. He stands draped in a crimson cloak, a fancy turban on his head, a well groomed beard, his gaze fixed on his brother. In many ways he resembles his father, yet he remains distant, standing erect, his hands clasped and withdrawn into himself. 

The face of the older brother catches my attention. It’s as though a pause button was pushed just before he was about to respond to the scene unfolding in front of him. Will he rush in with extended arms embracing his brother who has returned home? Or will he remain set apart, watching in self-righteous judgment with hands unextended, tightly gripping one another?

Tax collectors and “sinners” loved being with Jesus. Holding strong opinions about who God favors, the religious leaders didn’t approve (cf. Luke 15:1). This parable speaks to both. Our heavenly father, with his never-ending abundance of grace, has more than enough room for us all. All of us are invited his overflowing love and mercy and welcome. 

Like the elder brother, I have a choice. When I see God at work, how will I respond — particularly if it isn’t in ways I expect (or even approve of)? Is my heart open and are my arms welcoming like his? Or have I grown hard and cold in self-righteousness? Have I pre-determined who deserves my attention, my forgiveness, my welcome? Do the things that bring God joy fill my own heart with gladness and celebration? The answers say a lot about what I actually think about God and what I really know of him.

Prayer

Heavenly Father, in these days when there is so much division, partisanship, and jockeying for position and power, help us to listen to and love those who differ from us. Give us grace to keep from writing people off. Remind us you are at work in ways we often cannot see or understand. We are grateful there is enough room in your Kingdom and in your heart for all of us. Gladden our hearts with the things that bring you joy. Amen. 

Where is God drawing your vision today? Take a photo and share your thoughts using our hashtag — #visiowell — on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook

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About the Author

Karen is the National Director of InterVarsity's Women in the Academy and Professions, and lives in Marietta, Georgia, with her husband and three boys. Except for some years taken off to raise her sons, she has spent her adult life in and around InterVarsity — originally as a student and campus staff member in Michigan and currently in Atlanta. An entrepreneur at heart, she and some student leaders started the grad fellowship at Michigan State and the MBA fellowship at Georgia Tech. She loves to use her gifts of hospitality and teaching to create a welcoming place for people to connect with God and with each other. Although she rarely has time for it, you can find Karen at her sewing machine when ministry progress gets hard to measure and she needs to see tangible results from her efforts. She loves dark chocolate, good coffee, and British television.

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