Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
(from Vincent by Don McLean)
Vincent, Vincent, you had so much to say to us. You still do.
About how we interpret the world, and people, around us. About beauty in ordinary things and ordinary people.
About aesthetics, acceptance and appreciation.
You epitomised the paradoxical inspiration, distress and stigma of what we think of as mental illness, and its overlap with genius.
Your life and your work spoke of love, and life – and of those times when life seems too hard to bear.
And also of church, and of love for God…
You had a passion to serve Christ and present him to the world, through ministry, and then through nature and art.
You resolutely followed Jesus and, like the rest of us, you stumbled.
You were rejected by the church, became disillusioned with religion, but never lost your love for God.
“I wish they would only take me as I am,” you said in a letter to Theo, your brother.
I wonder what you had in mind when you painted The Church at Auvers just weeks before your premature death, aged just 37?
Two paths diverging from one – perhaps you were contemplating a choice between life and death? As you poignantly commented, “Dying is hard, but living is harder still.”
What a shocking statement on a life of such grace and genius, which today gives so much joy and inspiration to people the world over.
If you’d had the benefit of foresight, if you’d been able to predict the love and adulation awarded you posthumously, would it have made any difference to your decision to take your life? I don’t know. But we can learn from your suicide, to show our love, acceptance and appreciation of others who today might be living with mental distress.
A veiled image of your face blended into the walls of the church – did you still recognise the inevitable, inseparable union of your life not only with Christ but also with that of the church, despite its rejection of you?
(For more information, see: Every Painter Paints Himself)
Some of us, too, who have been drawn to Jesus and have a strong sense of indivduality, have sometimes wondered where we fit into the church, yet have come to know that our home is always somewhere in God’s family and that we find Christ there, even amongst the imperfections of his people, whose fallibility we of course share.
When you decided to re-interpret the Auvers Church with those wavy, curvy lines, depicting the building as an organic, living being – were you perhaps expressing your inner longing for a vibrant church with stretchy borders? An organic body flexible enough to accept every kind of person, instead of the harsh institution that you’d encountered with its rigid borderlines?
“Let them talk, those cold theologians,” you wrote.
And the woman whom you painted walking on the path – was she heading for the church’s entrance? Did she represent your inner desire to return to church, which sadly by now had become for you a place of cold foreboding instead of warm welcome?
Did you perhaps, like me, tussle between your keen individualism and your need to be part of the church that represented the God whom you loved and served? Did the church insist on a conformity, even uniformity, that Jesus never even suggested to his fisherman and sex worker friends, and which threatened to crush your God-given identity?
I wonder if you discovered that, despite all of that, you still needed the church, and that it needed you, whether the church knew it or not?
It seems that you never got over the church’s inflexibility that you’d experienced. Perhaps you were never given the opportunity to. For that I’m truly sad.
As for me – well, like you, Vincent, I’m learning to be myself, and to express my faith according to the unique, individual person that God’s made me to be.
I’m also very grateful for the flexible, inclusive church that I’m part of and which gives me hope for those people represented by Hozier, for people like me, and even for someone as beautiful as you, Vincent.
“They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now.”
(from Vincent by Don McLean)