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LAST SUNDAY I attended a performance at the Cathedral of the Madeleine - along with about half of Salt Lake County. It wasn't just standing room only; it was standing, crouching, leaning room only.

Most folks were there because the idea of Benjamin Britten's short opera "The Prodigal Son" - sung in Japanese-style "Noh" masks amid the gold-and-glass splendor of the cathedral - sounded irresistible.I sat on the floor, against the wall, in a far corner.

The performance was irresistible.

To begin with, Britten's music will never qualify as "hummable." Much of it smacks of Copland's eerie "12-note" scale. But when linked with the words from the libretto, the songs took flight. William Plomer's sentences are charmers. Who wouldn't be moved by a prodigal kid who laments "I have drunk and I have diced, gold pieces I gave to harlots with eyes the darkness of night," a kid who ends up having to "be a swineheard, consort with the swine."

It was an evening of first-rate creativity and performance art.

And though the comments afterward were mostly about the costumes, the acoustics, the "timbre" and "tessitura" of the voices, I doubt a soul present was able to sit in the cathedral on a Sunday watching a lost soul make his way back to God without reflecting on some personal wanderings and wayward treks.

I did that.

And I thought of a book of poems called "The Gospels in Our Image" that my editor passed along to me. The book has eight poems alone about the Prodigal Son - and each poet saw himself in the wrong-headed young son.

And then there's C.S. Lewis, who - after his conversion - claimed the Prodigal Son was able to walk home on his own two feet while Lewis himself was brought home kicking and struggling, "darting my eyes in every direction for a chance to escape."

But the piece of writing that came to mind first was a little book by Henri J. M. Nouwen - the Catholic humanitarian. In "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers and Sons" (Doubleday 1992) Nouwen tells of spending days gazing at the famous Prodigal Son painting by Rembrandt. And as he meditated on the colors and shades, the angelic and brooding faces, he came to realize that he'd played all the roles in the little drama at one time or another. He'd been the confused young man, the jealous brother, and now - with his community for disabled children in Toronto - he was trying to become the wise, generous father.

"I stand with awe at the place where Rembrandt brought me," writes Nouwen. "He led me from the kneeling, disheveled young son to the standing, bent-over old father, from the place of being blessed to the place of blessing. As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God's love."

As I left the cathedral, I thought of Nouwen. People actually did assume various "characters" from the parable as they aged. But more than that, I knew that I personally moved in and out of those roles with each passing day.

That Sunday, for instance, I'd been a rebellious soul by dodging an obligation (can't make the meeting, sorry); I'd felt slighted and unappreciated like the elder brother (Why did so many people at the cathedral have the best seats saved for them?). When I'd called my own son that afternoon to help arrange his return from college, I'd been the dutiful patriarch.

In fact, it occurred to me we're likely all those "people" simultaeously in our hearts. Human beings are simply splintered pieces of personality.

And the lesson of The Prodigal Son is a lesson meant to hit Christian believers right between the eyes. If you surrender, grace will melt you down and re-form you into a smooth, seamless whole.