“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
On the last day of my pre-tonsure retreat, my director gave me one more assignment: to “go and review all that God had taught me during the retreat.” As I sat in the chapel and closed my eyes, I could see the image of the prodigal son and his father. At first I dismissed it because I had not prayed about this parable on the retreat, so I thought it would not be a good “review.” As hard as I tried though, I couldn’t shake the image, so I finally gave up and asked the Lord what He was trying to teach me. There were two things that struck me as I imagined the scene of the prodigal son. I noticed the father gazing at the road, waiting for a glimpse of his son, and I noticed the son turning around to return to his father. I would later realize that this story was the best review possible, since it summarized everything the Lord was teaching me about His mercy.
During the retreat I had given my life confession. I had told the priest everything I had ever done, and in response he told me that I was “innocent and pure.” I was shocked. I realized that somewhere in the back of my mind, in a place I had refused to look, I had never really believed that I had been forgiven. I felt pretty confident that I was absolved of my little weekly infidelities, but I thought that if the priest really knew everything I had ever done, that would be a different story. Yet here I had revealed everything I had ever done and I found a father who saw only innocence and purity. I had found a Father who ran to wrap me in an eternal embrace, who rejoiced at my coming, who saw my return, who saw only through the eyes of merciful love. I could suddenly see myself as the Father sees me – He doesn’t see my sin, all He sees is my return to Him. Even when I was still very far away, He saw me coming and already rejoiced and ran to embrace me.
The Sunday of the Prodigal Son is one of the preparatory Sundays for the Great Fast. Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia says, “Repentance is the door through which we enter Lent, the starting point of our journey to Pascha. And to repent signifies far more than self-pity or futile regret over things done in the past. The Greek term metanoia means ‘change of mind’…repentance implies action: ‘I will rise up and go.’” The word conversion comes from the Latin convertere, which means to turn towards. There is something significant just in that action of turning around, of rising up and going towards the Father.
Pope St. John Paul II said, “From [Christ] we must learn the loving gaze with which he reconciled men with the Father and with themselves, communicating to them that power which alone is able to heal the whole person”(Orientale Lumen). I had always longed to “feel” forgiven, as I was sure the prodigal son had felt forgiven when the father embraced him, but soon I realized that the forgiveness was not in the embrace, but long before. The forgiveness was in his gaze. That’s what made the father run. Living in the knowledge of His loving gaze brought incredible healing to my soul. In the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete we sing, “You see me weeping and You run to meet me, like the Father toward his Prodigal Son.”