James Tissot-  Prodigal Son, The Return (1882). 

If you want to get the most out of this journey with me, you'll need your Bible.

Go on, go and get it now. You'll be glad you did, because if you don't you'll just feel frustrated...No, no-- don't worry, I won't start until you come back.

OK, ready? Got your Bible? Then I'll begin.

As human beings, we exist in a web of relationships - links to nature, people and to God. These links can be traced out. Some links are strong and easy to follow. Some links are twisted or broken. As Aristotle pointed out 'Man is a social animal' and as such, cannot be happy without human love and friendship.

However, it's not all a bed of roses. There are givers and takers in this life. People who, solely concerned with the happiness of those around them, give effortlessly and with great love, who radiate joy and enthusiasm and whose happiness is infectious. And people who consider that the world revolves around themselves and their experiences; all else being relative to that. All that matters is me and no thought is ever given for the way others may react to a particular behaviour. Of course, most of us are a mixture of both sides of the coin, and share a little of both character traits. Sometimes we get fed up. Sometimes we fall out. But sometimes something happens that is really hard to come to terms with. Sometimes the fall out is too big to get over easily, the damage sends us reeling, we are shocked and stunned and don't know how to cope.

We all have our own stories of betrayal, infidelity and how we have been let down. Often the worst of these stories come from within our own families. Perhaps this is because human frailty is primarily manifest in our most intimate relationships and wounds most deeply those we are to love most fully. The child who chooses another way, the lover who betrays us, the family member who doesn't seem to care or understand how much we care. Mostly, we are hurt because someone we care about has failed to act in a way we would like or expect them to.

We commonly speak in haste and repent at leisure: spiteful words come quickly to our lips with little thought of the long-term damage they inflict. Maybe in an attempt to defend ourselves, but sometimes in an attempt to cause as much pain and hurt as possible. I don't believe in the old adage 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me'. I remember finding it confusing as a child, because names do hurt. They hurt a lot! Once someone has said something about us, we tend to hold on to it and nurture it, using it to re-kindle our bitter feelings whenever our self-righteous indignation feels threatened by reconciliation.

We perpetuate difficult situations and refuse to embrace love and forgiveness, preferring our hurt and indignation. Closing ourselves off to each other because moving on means acceptance that there are three sides to every story. Yours, theirs, and the truth. Any kind of love costs us, it involves an honest engagement in which we reveal things about ourselves to others which make us vulnerable. We show others what is important to us and how we can be hurt. When that trust is betrayed and the information is then used to hurt us, we are cut to the core.

I for one am all too familiar with these feelings and recognise all this in my own behaviour.

My problem has always been reconciliation. What to do to make it better. When to attempt it. Should I make it better? Can it be made better? I invest time wondering if I my self-righteous indignation is anything more than a way of hiding my own failings and insecurities, or if I am rightly protecting others from stuff that will hurt them? When someone acts in a selfish or hurtful way, to what extent should we keep the peace and to what extent do we have a duty to point out the hurt and damage they are causing? Of course in today's divergent society there are so many conflicting ideologies that it is difficult to even discern when someone is acting inappropriately. There is the secular media (tied to whatever the current moral whim might be); the thought police who tell us what is "P.C."; what we can and can't think. But there seems to be confusing signals from secular culture. Basically, anything goes, free speech, don't criticise me...As long as you're doing what they tell you to do and think. If you step outside that boundary you are castigated in the most severe manner. So how do we discern what actually constitutes freedom?

Pope Benedict XVI explains it like this:
"Those who understand freedom as the radically arbitrary license to do just what they want and to have their own way are living in a lie, for by his very nature man is part of a shared existence and his freedom is shared freedom. His very nature contains direction and norm, and becoming inwardly one with this direction and norm is what freedom is all about." —Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 204.
So justice is essential to our understanding of reconciliation. We have to understand that every relationship comes with a certain amount of responsibility. When we do something wrong, when we sin, we might think no one knows, but it affects all our relationships. It changes how we are to others and how they are towards us. As Pope John Paul II explains it:
"To speak of social sin means in the first place to recognize that, by virtue of human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual's sin in some way affects others. "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia n. 16.
My own wrestling with this issue no doubt comes from my personal experience of people close to me doing things which are irrevocable: life changing decisions which cannot be undone. At this stage of my life, I pretty much feel I have been dealing with such issues constantly since I was eleven or twelve years old. Since then I have experienced a litany of events under the weight of which many would not have stood, I won't bore you with the intricacies, but most people reading this will know that I lost my daughter in 2009. This was not the last huge event, there have been a couple of awful ones since. Decisions people have made that have altered my life and the lives of those closest to me in ways I could not effect, in ways over which I had no authority or power to change. In ways which have rocked me to my core and left me feeling very, very weary. Battle weary I suppose.

This degree of action not only affected me, but also many others in a massive way for the rest of their lives. They are often courses of action undertaken on the basis of 'doing something for me' and yet the implications for that web of relationships we all live in is seldom weighed in all its intricate entirety. How does one start to put this kind of broken-ness back together again? I have laboured long in the past to reconcile the irreconcilable and have concluded you can lead a horse to water, making it drink is an entirely more difficult proposition...In other words, the starting point must be a genuine desire from both parties, not to see their personal perspective vindicated, but to seek reconciliation, giving full dignity to the perspective of the other party. I have found that even if you swallow your pride and say sorry immediately, this can be used against you, taken as an admission of guilt even. You can say you're sorry a thousand times, but unless your apology is accepted and unless the issues are worked out and dealt with, all you're doing is storing up pain which will likely be fired back at you at a later date. So 'I don't want to talk about it' is not an option, frankly, even though that can be very tempting! (In fact, I think this is probably the most common way we deal with conflict: we make excuses and say 'just forget about it now'). So time and the perspective it lends to events are definitely factors.

I doubt I am the only person in the world wrestling with this constantly in some way, to a greater or lesser extent. In an attempt to honestly inform my conscience on these matters, I have embarked on a course of study. Not study in order to justify my own position, but study in order to enlighten my perspective. Study to see if I can find out why I feel the way I do and how I should deal with conflict and reconciliation in the future. What better way to do this than to turn to the great history of my people, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it's canonical texts, the anthology of arguments we call the Bible.

The Bible is frankly chock-a-block full of stories that help us understand our own feelings in this regard. Trying to come to terms with my own desire to be reconciled, in the context of quite a lot of bitterness and hurt at the damage I am still suffering the consequences from, I turn to my Bible and note how strongly this theme runs through its texts from the outset. Indeed one of the great questions it sets out to answer is why there is conflict in family life. Pope Benedict XVI says: 'The history of those chosen by God is governed by a remarkable dialectic between pairs of brothers, and it remains as an unresolved question in the Old Testament.' (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 203). That's handy.

The Yahwistic Tradition (the designation given to the author of the earliest written pentateuchal source), uses anthropomorphic terms to emphasise God's loving and merciful characteristics. The Yahwist exercises penetrating discernment in his portrayal of humanity's alienation from God as a consequence of its desire to become God's equal. Sin begins in the mind, and the Yahwist offers a graphic description both of the subtlety of sin's suggestiveness and the enormity of its consequences. Humanity lives in a state of alienation from the Lord because the power of sin has dominated people's hearts, leading people to withdraw farther and farther from the communion of life that the Lord desires. But the Lord's response to sin is not rejection, but promise.


There is a real focus on marriage and family throughout the book of Genesis. This leads to the development of a theme of brotherhood which originates with the Lord's acceptance of Abel's offering and his rejection of Cain's, which foreshadows the surprising divine preference for the younger over the elder in the families of the Patriarchs. God favours Isaac over Ishmael (Gn 21), Jacob over Esau (25:23, 27), and Joseph over his brothers (Gn 37-50).

Brotherhood in the Bible does not develop by natural instinct. Rather it is the fruit of reconciliation. Suspicion, jealousy, and rivalry characterise natural family relationships throughout Genesis. Cain murders Abel (4:1-8), Sarah has Ishmael driven out into the desert away from Isaac (21:8-21), Jacob deprives Esau of their father's blessing (27:1-45), and Joseph's brothers sell Joseph into slavery (37:2-36).

Reconciliation among brothers forms the climax of Genesis. We clearly see the embrace of forgiveness in two places: first, in Esau's reception of Jacob (33:1-11) and, ultimately, in the hospitality Joseph extends to his brothers (45: 1-15).

The Jacob story indicates reconciliation between brothers is practically equivalent to the revelation of God himself. The message is that we touch God by encountering our brother or sister in reconciliation.

The whole book of Genesis reaches its culmination when Joseph embraces his brothers at table and pronounces his forgiveness of the ways they had injured him (45: 1-15). At various points throughout the narrative, he makes his brothers conscious of their guilt and hopelessness (42:21-22; 44:16). When he finally gathers them together and discloses to them his real identity, he exhibits the same gestures as Esau did with Jacob, embracing them, kissing them, weeping with them, and offering them his pardon (45: 14-15; c.f. 33:4, 11). Joseph recognises in retrospect, that although he was sold into slavery by his brothers, God uses the event to position him in Egypt, where he eventually provides for his father and for the next generation. He tells his brothers, "The evil you planned to do me has by God's design been turned to good" (50:20). Even so, notice that he doesn't just forgive; he wants to make sure his brothers, especially Judah, have changed first. It is impossible for a victim to forgive whilst the crime continues to be committed, or whilst the criminal remains obdurate, convinced of their own righteousness, or unwilling to share (at least in some degree) of the blame for the situation.

Judah is not the only one who needs to change however. Note how Joseph must also change. He must re-think the entire sequence of events, choosing to see it from his current position as part of a providential plan of God's, to bring him to where he needed to be. In this way, we can gain some insight into why it often takes time, distance and perspective in order to forgive. Joseph has to come to terms with himself before he can begin to do so with his brothers. Genesis concludes on this note of fraternal reconciliation (50:15-21) as a counterpoint to the division and hostility we first see in the story of Cain and Abel (4:1-16).

Some personal perspective on this: if the damage is over a long period of time, or a big thing, we can understand that it will take time to get over it. We need to exercise patience and respect in equal measure, whilst not giving up on the object of our love, or the desired reconciliation. If reconciliation is approached with this degree of love, it can never fail. I have been on both sides of this situation and have been forgiven after a persistent and loving approach over a long period of time. This led to what has ultimately become the most trusted and fruitful relationship in my life, but it required me admitting my fault and kindling a real desire to be reconciled, as well as communicating frequently that reconciliation was what I desired. What was central to the success of my apology was it was rooted in real love for the person I was saying sorry to. I genuinely desired to be reconciled, and therefore was more interested in expunging their pain and hurt, having recognised the wrong I had done, than maintaining my own pride.

We see this taught to us in Exodus, where we learn how when we sin, we are in need of reconciliation (Ex 24:12-18; 32:1-35). The people had to understand how to become free of the sin that the light of God's presence would expose even more. They have to offer a sacrifice; a gift to God for the sake of healing or strengthening a relationship with him or another member of the community. I find there are striking similarities here with Matthew 5:23 a verse which demonstrates Jesus' priority of ethics over cult: there can be no true worship of God without justice. This is a doctrine called ethical monotheism for short and often considered the centre of the Old Testament.

Obadiah also provides a meditation on brotherhood which provides a lesson essential to relationships in the Christian community. The real tragedy at the heart of Edom's destruction is the betrayal of brother by brother. Edom betrayed Israel by being an accomplice to Jerusalem's destruction (Ob vv. 10-14). The wounds of past rivalry never actually healed (again, we see the need for time and perspective, as well as a proper treatment of old arguments). Reading Obadiah should convince us that entire nations of the world need to receive the grace of reconciliation that Jesus Christ communicates most fully in the power of his cross (2 Cor 6:16-21). This is actually a common correlation in the Old Testament; what happens between brothers is the same as what happens between nations. If we cannot make peace in our families, how can we make peace between nations? By describing the destructiveness of broken relationships, Obadiah impresses on us the urgency of responding to Jesus' demand that we be reconciled with one another, heal relationships, and live in community as brothers and sisters of one another (see Mt 5: 21-26; 18: 15-35).

I guess what scares me the most is that it seems clear that if we cannot forgive, we cannot resolve conflict. Yet unless we are willing to change, unless we are willing to admit responsibility in some measure, unless we allow justice to be a part of the process, how can we be truly reconciled? All we do is form a sham, a pretence that fails to address the real sources of conflict. Equally, and part of this is the question 'are all conflicts resolvable?' If the fundamental problem is irresolvable, a point of character, or a stance that won't be compromised, what do we do? What can we do but hold? To express a desire to be reconciled but refuse to compromise on justice? We come back to the essential bi-partisan nature of reconciliation.

In the New Testament, probably the most striking example of Jesus' teaching on reconciliation is the parable of the Good Father, also known as the Prodigal Son, or the Two Brothers (Luke 15: 11-32). But there are, of course, many other references. I've already mentioned Matthew 5, but there is also the powerful parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18: 23-35) where Jesus demonstrates the folly of mercilessness. One forgiven an eternal debt of sin should readily forgive others of much smaller debts. In other words, mercy triumphs; our conduct in this life sets the terms for our judgement in the next (c.f. James 2:13). We are exhorted to make every effort to achieve reconciliation (2 Cor 5:20).

In The Pastoral Constitution on The Church in The Modern World: Gaudiem et Spes (meaning joy & hope), the Magisterium teaches us that in order to enter into dialogue with those who think and act differently to us in social, political and religious matters, we must take time and effort to understand their ways of thinking more deeply, through kindness and love. (n. 28). This does not mean we should be blind to the truth, but that the person, even in error, never loses their dignity, we are not to judge others inner guilt, or to pass judgement on them, but to forgive even those who persecute and calumniate you (ibid).

Pope John Paul II looks at the the issues through his encyclical Dives in Misericordia and the Apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.

In Reconciliatio et Paenitentia JPII recognises the desire for reconciliation is a fundamental driving force in our society, as long as reconciliation is sincere and consistent. He considers it as strong as the factors of division, exposing a fundamental human paradox. Interestingly, he emphasises that this reconciliation must not be any less profound that the division itself. It can only be effective if it reaches out in a profound way, to the root of the original wound (n. 3).

The Church emphasises the need for us to do penance: a change of heart translated into a physical action: ‘a conversion that passes from the heart to deed and then to the Christian’s whole life.’ (ibid, no. 4). Penance is closely connected with reconciliation, which implies in and of itself overcoming that radical break which is sin. This ‘is achieved only through the interior transformation or conversion which bears fruit in a person’s life through acts of penance’ (ibid).

The Holy Father turns to the parable of the Prodigal Son to further probe what God is saying to us about reconciliation. He explains how the parable shows that reconciliation is principally a gift of our heavenly Father (ibid, n. 5), but the elder brother refuses to see the the father’s goodness. He is too sure of himself and his own good qualities, jealous and haughty, full of bitterness and anger. The elder brother is not converted and is not reconciled with his father and brother (ibid, n. 6). The scary thing is, the elder brother is the character in the parable I identify with the most. And this really is one of the main points of this parable.

We are all the elder brother. Selfishness makes us jealous and hardens our hearts, blinds us and shuts us off from other people and from God. Loving kindness and mercy, like that shown by the good father in the parable, only serve to irritate and enrage us. It expresses the our human frailty and how we are divided from each other by forms of selfishness. It throws light on the difficulty involved in satisfying the desire and longing for one reconciled and united family. It therefore reminds us of the need for a profound transformation of hearts through the rediscovery of the Father’s mercy and through victory over misunderstanding and over hostility among brothers and sisters. From this perspective, it is us who need to be converted in order to be reconciled. We need to pray for a conversion of heart, for this is ultimately a gift from God. (ibid, n. 7).

St. John the apostle teaches us that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” 1 John 1:8-9 and recognising our basic inclination to sin is the essential first step toward reconciliation. (Ibid n. 13). It is significant that Jesus Himself puts these words on the lips and in the heart of the prodigal son: “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you.” (Lk 15: 18-21). There can be no conversion without the acknowledgement of the sin.

To Conclude, there are a number of important points for us to reflect on further.

1. We are drawn to be reconciled. No matter how deep the hurt, or how bad, in our hearts, we need to put things right. Discord is damaging for us and is the product of sin, but just 'forgetting about it' constitutes failure to really deal with the issue.

2. Reconciliation may take time, perhaps because one or other party needs to gain perspective, or find a way to come to terms with how things work out in the end. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we need to take a step back.

3. For healing to take place, there needs to be justice. Reconciliation comes from understanding the other person's position and penance: a conversion/ change of heart. Recognising how you have caused pain and being willing to do something practical in order to put that right. The more you understand, the more you will want to put it right, the more you want to put it right, the more you will be willing to undertake practical steps to ensure a proper reconciliation.

4. Always be ready to be reconciled, always have humility, but don't be frightened to stand in the right. Keep your side of the pavement clean, act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

Perhaps each one of us should start by carefully examining our consciences? Take the opportunity now to think about those who we want to be reconciled with.

A prayer to end (one of my favourites) which I think speaks to this topic:

Lord, I believe in you: increase my faith.
I trust in you: strengthen my trust.
I love you: let me love you more and more.
I am sorry for my sins: deepen my sorrow.
I worship you as my first beginning,
I long for you as my last end,
I praise you as my constant helper,
And call on you as my loving protector.
Guide me by your wisdom,
Correct me with your justice,
Comfort me with your mercy,
Protect me with your power.
I offer you, Lord, my thoughts: to be fixed on you;
My words: to have you for their theme;
My actions: to reflect my love for you;
My sufferings: to be endured for your greater glory.
I want to do what you ask of me:
In the way you ask,
For as long as you ask,
Because you ask it.
Lord, enlighten my understanding,
Strengthen my will,
Purify my heart,
and make me holy.

Help me to repent of my past sins
And to resist temptation in the future.
Help me to rise above my human weaknesses
And to grow stronger as a Christian.

Let me love you, my Lord and my God,
And see myself as I really am:
A pilgrim in this world,
A Christian called to respect and love
All whose lives I touch,
Those under my authority,
My friends and my enemies.

Help me to conquer anger with gentleness,
Greed by generosity,
Apathy by fervour.
Help me to forget myself
And reach out toward others.

Make me prudent in planning,
Courageous in taking risks.
Make me patient in suffering,
unassuming in prosperity.

Keep me, Lord, attentive at prayer,
Temperate in food and drink,
Diligent in my work,
Firm in my good intentions.

Let my conscience be clear,
My conduct without fault,
My speech blameless,
My life well-ordered.

Put me on guard against my human weaknesses.
Let me cherish your love for me,
Keep your law,
And come at last to your salvation.

Teach me to realise that this world is passing,
That my true future is the happiness of heaven,
That life on earth is short,
And the life to come eternal.

Help me to prepare for death
With a proper fear of judgment,
But a greater trust in your goodness.
Lead me safely through death
To the endless joy of heaven.

Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Return of the Prodigal Son by Lionello Spada

There's another lovely little healing prayer you can find here.

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