From suffering to joy– the road of compassion
“Could it not be the case that if one loves something, one sees it better and more truly than if one did not love it?” van Gogh
Van Gogh was misunderstood as a crazy man who was also a creative artist. Psychologists have deemed him unstable. Henri Nouwen considered Van Gogh as an exemplar of compassion. Carol Berry, the author of Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent Van Gogh a Portrait of the Compassionate Life, had the privilege to take a course taught by Nouwen on van Gogh and his life of compassion. She shares the grace and compassion of Henri Nouwen and Vincent Van Gogh in her book.
Compassion means to suffer with. Van Gogh “wanted to have a clearer view of how art and religion both had the power to console. And he hoped to reveal how the creative experience can lead to a greater love for creation and each other.” Henri taught about van Gogh in a new light, and to be less disturbed by his failings and unconventional life. Through the course on compassion, Henri hoped his students to know their own failings and weaknesses in order to be able to comfort and console others better. “Out of the awareness of his own suffering and deep longing for love and comfort, Vincent sought to reach out and alleviate the suffering he witnessed in those around him.”
Henri reminds us that to suffer with another brings joy. “…this solidarity in weakness, in brokenness, in woundedness, but … leads to the center of joy, which is sharing our humanity with others.” Vincent was a sensitive, melancholy soul many in our day could relate to. He was a failure in seminary, business; the church who supported his missionary work thought he was too extreme in his work and dropped him, his family rejected him, except his brother Theo. He lived with poor miners in Belgium and also lived in poverty. “…sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” was one of his favorite Bible verses that he lived by. In the mining town in Belgium, he lived in darkness that he could bring light. While living in poverty, something stirred within him, thus began his career in sketching. His purpose in sketching encouraged him and strengthened his will to endure. Through difficult things in his life, his true purpose birthed. Though Vincent was lost many times, Henri encourages us to remember the full immersion into a calling. Vincent is a good example of the compassionate life because he struggled, like Abraham, Moses, even the Apostles. As he lived with Sien a destitute woman with a child, he had a great affection for her. He lived in empathy with the woman. If he could treat her with tenderness and esteem, she might change her perception of herself, as Henri shared about Vincent in his class. This is Christ-like, but extremely difficult as Vincent admitted to his brother Theo, which eventually failed.
Vincent was a sensitive soul who cared for others first without thinking or having a plan. This led him to loneliness and disappointment. After leaving Sien he focused on painting. Henri spoke of Vincent as being a seer, “one ‘who saw and wanted us to see with him….’ In the midst of darkness he saw light. In the midst of ugliness he saw beauty. In the midst of pain and suffering he saw the nobility of the human heart. He saw it, and he burned with desire to make others see it.'” Vincent painted the sower of seeds often in a pastoral setting. Henri points out the metaphor of the broken ground and human brokenness that is ready to receive seeds of wisdom and comfort. “Comfort does not take our suffering away, nor does it minimize the dread of being. Comfort does not even dispel our basic human loneliness. But comfort gives us the strength to confront together the real conditions of life, not as an unavoidable fate, but as … new understanding,” as Nouwen shared in his class. Vincent spent his time with the dejected and cared for them. He entered their lives literally as one like them– poor and dejected. He met these people where they were and portrayed them as such in his paintings, which also revealed his soul to us, that is as one suffering, but hopeful. The light in his paintings as the divine light that brings life and hope.
He moved to Paris for a time, but missed the images of the country. So he moved to Arles, where he painted over 300 images of the countryside and the people working in the midst of beauty. Vincent needed to commune with nature where he found the divine speaking to him. It was the book which revealed God to him. He painted and drew those in sorrow and hardship while in Belgium, but in Arles, he showed God’s love and beauty through nature with vibrant color and illuminating light– the sun a prominent feature in many of the paintings. Even though a person may have a hard life, God is there shining the light of mercy and grace upon his people. This time in Arles was a time of deep joy for Vincent.
But his stay was short-lived. He had a fellow artist Gauguin stay with him at the insistence of Theo. But they did not get along, which led to Vincent’s injury to his ear and subsequent headaches and seizures that would afflict him for the rest of his life. The town saw him as unstable and petitioned for him to leave. He took refuge at Saint Remy monastery nearby. Though a troubled, sensitive soul, Vincent continued to create beautiful, light-filled art. His continuation of being sorrowful yet always rejoicing was what kept him going and, of course, his art. The monastery was a psychiatric facility and his art and nature were the remedy as well as being a comfort to the other people suffering (from seizure and other psychiatric disorders) within the walls of the monastery. Vincent was a man who suffered from what we call clinical depression. This led to volatile relationships, but also a gentle compassionate heart toward others who suffered.
Within the pages of Carol Berry’s book about Vincent van Gogh and Henri Nouwen illuminating Vincent as a person of compassion, Carol helps us see Vincent’s deep compassion for those who suffered, a love for nature and a deep rich soul who saw the world as a joy although still in the throes of a fallen state. Many times the most creative are the most wounded and broken. Yet, a hope and a light shines through that others may not see in others or in the most difficult of circumstances. Vincent van Gogh certainly continues to speak through his art that shows human sorrow and joy in nature– a light that penetrates even the darkest most broken corners of the human person and the world.
Carol Berry’s book on Vincent van Gogh through the teaching of Henri Nouwen is a great introduction to who Vincent van Gogh was. It is also a wonderful illumination of Vincent’s purpose through his art. Vincent was a complicated man and an image bearer of God. Though he was broken, he has beautiful things to say through his paintings and sketches. God works through broken people to show us His love and mercy, and certainly His compassion. A beautiful book.