Vincent van Gogh’s Rembrandt, Nouwen’s van Gogh and Carol Berry’s Gift

Twenty or so years ago I read Leonard Sweet’s soulTsunami. Tucked away in that long description of the to-come for the church and religious life was a reference to Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, The Church at Auvers. A framed print greets me every morning as I come to the Office/Study. I could not afford the real deal. And, had van Gogh been able to get his due for his art, he would not have had to rely on others in his life to get along. Maybe that is a good thing.

The Church at Auvers by Vincent van Gogh, 11 November 2016

Sweet used vivid imagery and a link to look up the the painting to draw out an assessment of the perception of the church heading toward the Twenty-first Century. A studied look at the painting reveals that in relationship to the would-be-traveler the windows are high and no doors are to be found. Had the Church, in van Gogh’s experience, become inaccessible? Was it the language? Or, was it the lack of compassion. Art does not provide its own answer. Van Gogh did not leave a Cliff Notes version for the piece that I am aware. Ever since that day I have been haunted by the prospect that in our regular habits we have made the church too hard to understand and much too hard to enter and find refuge.

Some weeks back I received an opportunity to request books for review from IVP. They are always good to oblige my selections. Thumbing through the catalog I spotted this title, Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life. If you remember the remark Renee Zellweger made to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire the title “had me at, Hello.”

Dr. Doug Dickens taught the Christian Ministry, read Pastoral Ministry, course I took in Seminary. To say he was unconventional would be an understatement. Don’t let that convey he was not good. He was great. Despite preface to the course, that he had tired of students who ran to Trustees and Administrators regarding the content of the course, a fact which endeared him to me all the more, Doug entreated us to dispense with the facade of ministry and to embrace the messiness of human experience. Likely his course helped me to navigate ministry experiences that I could not have anticipated. Stop telling people what or how to feel about their experience. Listen. Don’t talk. These and other important humanizing instructions have been indispensable. 

Years later, after serving as pastor for some while, I ran on to Henri Nouwen’s, In the Name of Jesus. It fast became my favorite little book for pastoral ministry. I have collected a few others over more than thirty years. And until I saw Carol Berry’s little book in the IVP catalog, I suspected it would be my all-time favorite. But that changed. It is not that I won’t read or give away Nouwen’s little book. I will. But, I am tempted to say that Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent Van Gogh is now the best little book for pastoral ministry I have read. All of our staff have read In the Name of Jesus. I will now ask them all to read Berry’s little book.

I shared this with a small group of pastor friends and one of them tossed out how much they liked In the Name of Jesus. My reply, “This may well be better.” Upon further reflection, I probably should say they are different. Likely my visceral response is related to our cultural milieu where compassion seems evasive. We live in a world that champions me getting mine and measures my value based upon my accumulations. Pastoral ministry is often farmed out to other than pastors. Now we have Speakers and Teaching Pastors. Don’t misunderstand. I enjoy preaching. I still think that somehow God uses words, human words, to declare Good News in Jesus Christ that re-describes the world different. As such, it actually undermines the current ethos. But I have learned that people have better BS meters than we think. They see right through us to our desire for bigger and better under the rubric of reaching people. 

Enter van Gogh’s Rembrandt. It is clear Carol Berry learned from both Nouwen and through Nouwen, the compassion of Vincent van Gogh. That is really the point, learning. My two older grandsons already know all they need to know. Just ask them. 

Me to Max, “We need to learn more math. You love to make things and more math will come in handy one day.” 

Max to me: “I already know all the math I need.” He is seven.

How many of us think we know everything?

LIttle did I know that when van Gogh experienced his down times, was melancholy, he would sketch Rembrandt pieces. Consider it an exercise for those less than creative moments. Once a particular period came to an end and he painted with abandon, he painted his own version of Rembrandt’s, The Raising of Lazarus. What a great compliment to one of his favorite artists! Berry points out that upon closer inspection, in van Gogh’s rendition, he himself is the Lazarus figure. Berry writes,

Vincent replaced the figure of Christ with the bright orb of the sun. Lazarus’s two sisters are painted in the semblance of Vincent’s friends, Madame Rollins of La Berceuse and Madame Ginoux, the Arlesienne (a woman of Arles). Both of these women had not only been Vincent’s models bud had cared for him while he lived in Arles. In the face of Lazarus we see the likeness of Vincent. Thus in this copy Vincent painted his personal experience of feeling vulnerable and ill and of being restored through the compassionate kinds of his friends – who became his modern-day saints and holy women from life.

Van Gogh suffered the weight of others whom he sought to help at risk to his own health. For a period of time he had a pregnant prostitute live with him, Siene. He went without to make sure she and her two children had what they needed. Surely his training as a young minister brought to mind, “He eats with tax collectors and prostitutes.” He received later in life what he had sown early, compassionate friends.

Berry traces van Gogh’s life and art with a view to the way he was haunted by the stories Jesus told, the Scriptures that he had studied, and arrived at the place where he would as soon do without as to see another do so. Henri Nouwen taught a course on the compassionate life Berry audited in 1978. One of the great assets of this book is how she brings to life the famous painter through her research combined with the teaching notes of a famous priest and how it influenced a pastor’s family in Vermont and L.A. to learn and exhibit compassion. Each section comes with a reflection on parish life and the way she and her husband’s lives intersected others as they learned the compassionate life in service and serving others.

Pastors, lay leaders, and folks interested in a world different – pick up your own copy of Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent Van Gogh:  Portrait of a Compassionate Life.

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

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