“He came to himself.”
These words form the turning point in the story of the Prodigal Son. They are words of judgment, apocalypse, and revelation. When the younger son demanded his inheritance from his father, he was not himself. When he traveled to a far land and wasted everything in wild pleasure, he was not himself. Only when everything was lost and what was in front of him became disgusting do we hear, “He came to himself.” The unfolding of that reality took time.
Disgust is not the revelation of the self. Disgust is the reaction that makes us want to spit something out. It is tasting something horrible and wretched. As unpleasant as the sensation is, it remains a guardian and protector, a shield against poison and disease. Disgust is a discernment of something that is “not the self.” Still, knowing that something is “not the self” is not the same thing as seeing the self as it truly is. For the younger son, the revelation of the self begins when he says, “I will go to my father.” It is his recognition that he is a son, and that “who he is” can only be known in that context that constitutes “coming to himself.”
St. James writes:
“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.” (James 1:23-24)
When the younger son forgot that he was a son, when he left his father in search of pleasure, he “forgot what kind of man he was.” He no longer knew himself. When he “came to himself” and said, “I will go to my father,” he turned toward the mirror in which alone his true self could be observed.
St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “The soul is a mirror.” The proper function of the soul is to reflect the life of God (we are His image). It is striking that the emptiness and disgust of the son is met with the welcome of the father (who only sees him as son). He is welcomed, clothed, honored, and feted. He was created for this. It is the revelation of his true self.
This is the purpose of repentance – not to achieve some level of self-disgust and loathing, but to “come to ourselves,” to clear the mirror of every distraction and to see ourselves for what we truly are. St. Gregory, in The Soul and the Resurrection, describes judgment with images drawn from St. Paul: the burning of “hay, wood, and stubble,” but goes on to describe that purifying fire of judgment as something that destroys things which have no true existence. It is not the loss of self, but the recovery of self. As St. Paul says, “If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1Cor. 3:15)
Christ invokes different images of the judgment in Matthew 25. There we have sheep and goats and the encounters with the sick, the naked, the hungry, and the prisoners. In this scenario, the judgment takes place moment by moment as Christ-in-the-needy is either served or rejected. Very striking in Christ’s parable is that when the final judgment is announced, both the “sheep” and the “goats” are surprised. Neither sheep nor goat professes to being aware that it was Christ whom they had encountered in all of these situations of need.
Day by day, we are “mirrored,” to some extent, in the lives of those around us. The crucified Christ is always immediately at hand, allowing us to unite ourselves to Him whether we understand this or not. St. John has this:
“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. 1John 3:14
Our culture has taught us to see the world through a lens of the individual will. We assume people are as they are because they have, in some manner, chosen to be as they are. Our economic system presumes this to be the case (and rewards those fortunate enough to have “chosen” a winning hand). It is, I think, a very flawed lens. No doubt, our choices (as they are reflected in our actions) carry consequences with them. What we do matters. However, it may not matter in the manner we imagine. There is within it all, a secret mirror, known only to God.
Dostoevsky tells the story of an old woman who was mean and stingy. When she died she went to hell. Her guardian angel was disturbed by this and searched diligently for anything that could be brought for her salvation. He found a single, rotten onion which she had once given to a beggar. He brought the onion to hell, extended it to her, and began to pull her out. The story, unfortunately, doesn’t end well. But I have always been struck by the imagination that sees so much value in a single act of miserly kindness. It is as Christ says, “A single cup of water, given in my name, will not go unrewarded.”
The more time I have spent with people, particularly in hearing their inmost stories in confession, the more I see the complex world of desire, failure, choice, and circumstance that can never be quantified in a simple manner. Fortunately, in confession, the priest’s stole is placed over the head and God’s mercy covers everything.
Frequently I think to myself that most people imagine themselves to be worse than they are and undervalue many things within themselves. We do not see clearly. Thus both the sheep and the goats were surprised when the truth of their lives was revealed to them. However, the purpose of this life is (to mix parables) the return to the Father, the return to the truth of our existence and the flourishing of life within and around us.
“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10
O God, the world is wandering far in a land that is waste. Help us to come to ourselves.