Heidi, the Prodigal Son, and Patience

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The precious book that Heidi receives in Frankfurt contains a story which she returns to time and again: the story of the Prodigal Son. Why should this story, in particular, matter so much to her?

On the face of it, the prodigal son’s experience is utterly different from Heidi’s. He turns away from his father: she is utterly innocent. He spends his money recklessly: she lives in happy poverty. He returns home only when he is brought to his knees: she is desperate to get home as soon as she can.

There are two answers to the question, I think. The first is that Heidi takes on a teaching role when she returns to the mountains. She teaches her grandfather – who clearly represents the prodigal son – how to love once more. Through her words and actions, his hardened heart is softened and he begins to love both God and his neighbour. She also teaches the doctor and Peter in different ways, a point I’ll return to later.

But the story of the prodigal son also matters to her because her she sees it through the lens of her own experience. She does not choose to leave grandfather but she is – quite literally – easily led. When Dete comes to collect her, she goes. She does not lust after money but she does live a privileged existence in Frankfurt that brings her little pleasure. And she does return to the loving arms of her father in heaven, as well as her (grand)father on earth when she goes back to Switzerland. In other words, she re-lives the prodigal’s experience in a milder way.

The parable of the prodigal son is the pivot on which the whole novel turns. Heidi clearly takes a religious turn from the moment Heidi receives her book. One good example of this is when she learns, and then teaches, the virtue of patience. We can see this in a fascinating passage which has many biblical echoes – the doctor, whose own daughter has died, becomes like a little child, and Heidi teaches him on a mountain – Heidi heals the doctor’s broken heart (another highly significant biblical word). I can only quote part of the chapter but the whole thing is certainly worth reading:

Heidi looked about her first at one thing and then at another. The waving flowers, the blue sky, the bright sunshine, the happy bird – everything was so beautiful! so beautiful! Her eyes were alight with joy. And now she turned to her friend to see if he too were enjoying the beauty. The doctor had been sitting thoughtfully gazing around him. As he met her glad bright eyes, ‘Yes, Heidi,’ he responded, ‘I can see how lovely it all is, but tell me – if one brings a sad heart up here, how may it be healed so that it can rejoice in all this beauty?’

‘Oh, but,’ exclaimed Heidi, ‘no one is sad up here, only in Frankfurt.’

The doctor smiled, and then growing serious again he continued, ‘But supposing one is not able to leave all the sadness behind at Frankfurt; can you tell me anything that will help then?’

‘When you do not know what more to do you must go and tell everything to God,’ answered Heidi with decision.

‘Ah, that is a good thought of yours, Heidi,’ said the doctor. ‘But if it is God Himself who has sent the trouble, what can we say to Him then?’

Heidi sat pondering for a while; she was sure in her heart that God could help out of every trouble. She thought over her own experiences and then found her answer.

‘Then you must wait,’ she said, ‘and keep on saying to yourself: God certainly knows of some happiness for us which he is going to bring out of the trouble, only we must have patience and not run away. And then all at once something happens and we see clearly ourselves that God has had some good thought in his mind all along; but because we cannot see things beforehand, and only know how dreadfully miserable we are, we think it is always going to be so.’

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