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The Prodigal’s Mother

by Natalie Ashanin

A wise son makes a glad father But a foolish son is the grief of his mother. (Proverbs 10:1)

I love to dip into the book of Proverbs now and then because it confirms the fact that human nature in Biblical times was not so different from what it is today. We can see this in the first verse of chapter ten, which says: “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother”. Does this sound familiar to any of you, especially parents of teenagers? When my eldest daughter reached the rebellious teen-age stage of life, her father would say to me, “YOUR daughter came in late last night” or “tell YOUR daughter not to wear such short skirts!” but he would tell other people that “MY daughter won a creative writing award, or MY daughter was selected for the IU honors Program!” I took him to task for this, but he just chuckled and kept on doing it! 

This observation in Proverbs reminds me not only of my own experience but also of the parable of the prodigal son, which is one that we can all relate to, especially those of us who have children. We know how desperately we love them and how we agonize over their mistakes, even as we realize that we must give them the freedom to make them. Why do we do this? Why not say, “O.K., you’re on your own, don’t bother me, I’ve done my duty and I’m finished with you”. We can’t do this because God made us in His image and He never says, “That’s it, I’m done with you!” He gives us our freedom, knowing that we will make some mistakes, but He, like the father in the story Jesus told, waits for our return and runs to meet us, greeting us with great joy when we repent and return to His house. So can we humans do less?

We have all heard the story many times, the wastrel son, the forgiving father, the jealous brother. But there is another element to the story that I have never heard discussed. Where was the mother of the prodigal son? Did she have a role in this family drama?

I have a pretty good idea where she was, or at least, of what she was doing. She was praying! I am certain that all the time that her son was gone, she was beseeching God to keep him safe, to touch his heart, to bring him home. And who is to say that it was not her prayers that reached him in some way and reminded the son of his father’s house? I do not mean to imply that the father was not concerned about what might happen to this son who was so determined to go his own way. He had hopes, no doubt, that his son would do well, but he must have had some fears as well, else why would he have been looking for him, so that he saw him from afar, just as soon as he came within eyesight range?

All of us who are parents have a sense of responsibility about how our children turn out. Even though we know they are separate individuals and, as adults, answer for their own lives, we still wonder, especially when they don’t do exactly what we think they should, “Where did we go wrong? Should we have done this? Or perhaps we should not have done that?” I think that mothers are especially prone to feel this way since it is they who have borne the major responsibility for child rearing throughout history. Whatever else he may be, a foolish son (and that of course includes daughters) is, indeed, the grief of his mother. And so mothers pray. We pray a lot. We pray especially hard when our children are teenagers and taking their first steps into adulthood, and we never stop praying for our children, no matter how old we or they get. And we keep on praying for them, no matter what they do. I was impressed by a story I read in a magazine about a mother who traveled 500 miles, each week for a half hour visit with her son who was incarcerated in a state prison. And she did this not in the relative comfort of a car, but by subway, bus and train. When someone asked her why she did it, she replied. “He’s my son. That’s what mothers do.” If that young man ever manages to turn his life around, it will be due to in large part to his mother, who never gave up on him.

St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine is a prime example of this maternal perseverance. Augustine may not have been in prison, but he was anything but saintly in his youth, causing Monica much anguish, but she persisted with her prayers and ultimately prayed her son into Sainthood. And that is the goal of every Christian mother – to pray her children into sainthood, or as close to it as she can!

In this parable of the Prodigal son which we are asked to contemplate as we prepare for Great Lent, we can see ourselves as willful children who have left our Father’s house to go our own way and we need to remember that, no matter what the blandishments of our secular, often godless world, they are as dry husks compared to what is prepared for us in Our Father’s house.

I asked earlier where was the mother of the Prodigal son? I should have asked, Who was the mother of the Prodigal son? For if we see ourselves as the Prodigal Son, and God is our father who runs to meet us with outstretched arms, then the Church is our mother, who guides and nurtures us and whose prayers are constantly with us, even when we wander off on paths of our own self-will.

So, as we approach the beginning of our Lenten Journey, let us, like the Prodigal Son, take the road of repentance. Our Father is waiting to receive us and our mother, the Church, is ready to nurture us with her prayers. One of the most beautiful ways in which the Church prepares us for this Lenten journey is with the Vespers of Repentance on the Sunday evening before the beginning of Lent.

I know, you are thinking, No, that’s not for me, all that bobbing up and down and embracing everyone! I can just forgive everyone from my easy chair and it will be just as good. No, my friends, it will not be just as good. Our faith involves our whole body and we need to make the physical effort to embrace our brothers and sisters, and yes, even our enemies, to ask their forgiveness and bow down before them. The Prodigal Son did not just say, “ Hi Dad, I’m back, can I have a job?” No, he fell on his knees and asked for forgiveness. And the Father ran to meet him and embraced him. And there is something in that embrace of forgiveness which truly cleanses and heals us.

I hope that in the weeks remaining before the beginning of Lent we will all prepare ourselves, like the prodigal son, to heed the prayers of our Mother, the Church, and return to our Father’s house. He is waiting for us and preparing the glorious feast of Pascha for us at the end of the Lenten journey.