“The only whole heart is a broken heart.”
I finally finished The Father’s Tale, all 1072 pages. At the beginning of Lent I decided to once again live within the story we call “the prodigal son,” though more truthfully it is the story of two lost sons.
For many years I have read and reread versions of this story during the days of Lenten meditation. There are good books written about it, like Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal, and wise reflections on it from people like Helmut Thielicke in The Waiting Father. But there are other stories too, perhaps the most wonderful of all stories, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Several times I have slowly read the first book of the long novel that it is, the story of the bishop’s life, “A Just Man.” The magnificent play tells this in five minutes; the novel offers us most of a hundred pages. And more recently Susan Howatch has given us Glittering Images, which is its own imaginative account of a man stumbling along, longing for grace.
But this year it was Michael O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale. If there is one image that runs its way through, it is this: the only whole heart is a broken heart. A hard truth, but a Lenten truth, a truth worth pondering in the days and weeks between Christmas and Easter, and truth be told, in every season of every year.
O’Brien sets this story in the very contemporary world of a 21st-century Canadian, a bookseller whose wife has died who is also the father of two sons, prodigal in their different ways. As must be, they weigh on his heart, because they are his heart, flesh of his flesh that they are. I won’t say much about the book here, as it may be that you will want to read it too.
So perhaps only this. While the father becomes consumed with the health, body and soul, of one of his sons, lost in unimaginable ways, following after him to Oxford, to London, to Helsinki, to St. Petersburg, to Moscow, and finally to the outer regions of Russia, the wilds of Siberia, the story is mostly, and not surprisingly, a story of the father’s own heart. Broken as it is, for many reasons in many ways, his journey is a pilgrimage towards a whole heart.
There is nothing cheap here. The very best and the very worst are offered, the hopes and fears of every one of us, with great satisfactions and horrible sorrows. They ring true to the world that is ours– we know this story, because it is our story.
How do we find our way to whole hearts? I have yet to discover a good map, a way set out that connects the dots, one by one, with three easy steps. There is in me, quite deeply, a resistance to being broken, and more and more broken. I want to be well; in the deepest possible way, I want to be well. I long for the hurts and the wounds to be finally and fully healed. There is nothing I want more than that. The strains that are ours as individuals, the sorrows that each family knows, the burdens born by communities, the distorted desires of nations; in ways we know and don’t know the brokenness is everywhere, from our most personal relationships to our most public responsibilities.
I do know that at certain points I wept, reading O’Brien’s novel. The longing of every heart, and of my heart, is so intense. We want the tears to be gone, the aches to be over. While it is still mysterious to me, through a glass darkly as it is, I think I understand a bit more of the relationship between a whole heart and a broken heart– and I sigh, torn as I am between what I am and what I want to be.