(Part of my series Letters to Dead People)
I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. It’s not surprising, really, since you’re my favorite painter. Your works are on four walls in my apartment (hopefully more soon). I have several books of your paintings and sketches. I have a small figurine of you with an easel. I have even, forgive me, read the letters you wrote to Theo, your brother. You might say I know you quite well for someone who was born a century too late to have met you.
But you’ve been on my mind lately because of a sermon I heard a few Sundays ago. Oh, I know you and the Church didn’t end up having the best of relationships, but bear with me. It actually has to do with that. You see, my pastor’s sermon focused on the inclusiveness of Jesus: how he hung out with tax collectors and sinners, much to the chagrin of the religious establishment. He didn’t expect people to better themselves before he welcomed them in. My pastor bridged the gap, saying we should be a church where the hurting and marginalized of society feel welcome.
I remember how painful it was for you when you were a pastor trying to reach this little coal mining community. All you wanted to do is live like the hurting, poor people you were ministering to – the way Jesus himself lived – and yet your own religious establishment didn’t understand. The missionary society’s leadership breathed down your neck that it was improper for a pastor to live like a poor person and that you needed a respectable house and respectable clothing. They would have cast Jesus himself out of their churches like they did you. Maybe they did.
I remember how bitter this made you. You never really had a relationship with the Church after that. “When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion, then I go out and paint the stars,” you said in your later years. And how you painted them! Bursts of golden yellow in the midst of swirling royal blues, colors you often used to convey the love and presence of God. Everyone nowadays knows your Starry Night, but few know how much joy and pain are intermingled in it. The windows of the houses in the village below glow with the same golden warmth coursing through your heavens. But in the middle of the village, in the church, the windows are a stark, empty, godless black.
What a powerful expression of the pain you were still reeling from, even years after losing your pastorate. And, of course, by this time you were suffering additional traumas. You painted Starry Night during your stay in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, where you committed yourself not long after cutting your left ear off in a fit of psychosis causing your friend Paul Gauguin to abandon you in fear for his life. What we would now call bipolar disorder had thoroughly disordered your life, though your artistic expression had reached its pinnacle. Perhaps the greatest art does come through the greatest suffering.
I wish you had found the Church a more welcoming place. It doesn’t seem you entirely lost your love for Jesus. You entertained the theological ideas of those as diverse as the evangelical Charles Spurgeon and the liberal Ernst Renan. You apparently even developed an affection for Catholic mystics, as well. But the Church could have been a better friend to you and those you cared about, and the prolonged separation did nothing for your fragile mental state nor your lifestyle.
These days, not a lot has changed, sadly. I recently officiated a funeral of a cousin who always felt, because of past lifestyle choices, just a bit too marginalized for the Church’s tastes. Overall, we still do a poor job living up to being a “hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” We all too often forget that Jesus died because of our brokenness and the brokenness of the world, and his life and message don’t make a lot of sense outside of that. After all, as a preacher you would have liked, Brennan Manning, once observed,
Jesus spent a disproportionate amount of time with people described as: the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the hungry, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, the persecuted, the downtrodden, the captives, those possessed by unclean spirits, all who labor and are heavy burdened, the rabble who know nothing of the law, the crowds, the little ones, the least, the last, and the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
There would have been a place for you at Jesus’ table, even though you didn’t find one at the table of the Church in your time.
But for all of your suffering and broken life, Vincent, I want you to know something: you continually point me back to God. In my darkest moments, I look at your paintings and see all the vibrancy of creation on full display. Your bold, swirling, luminous colors cut through the haze of everyday apathy and cause me to feel not just the pain but the joy of your short existence, and shine the light of Christ into my darkest nights. Your art conveys the truth of your very thoughts:
“Sorrow is better than joy–and even in mirth the heart is sad–and it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasts, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. Our nature is sorrowful, but for those who have learned and are learning to look at Jesus Christ, there is always reason to rejoice.”
Pray for us, patron saint of the brokenhearted artist. We here on earth still struggle to be reconciled to each other and even, like you, to ourselves. We also often fail to see the very divinity coursing through the world around us, and our lives are all the poorer for it. I pray that, in this way, the Lord might grant us your eyes.
(Cover image: Vincent van Gogh, detail from Self Portrait)