Tag Archives: shaun lambert

A brush with Vincent

If you know me or my blog, you’ll know that I have a little fascination with both van Gogh and Van Morrison. Must be something about vans. I haven’t blogged about white van drivers yet, though – maybe that’s to come…

But both Gogh and Morrison, unlike white van drivers, seem to help unlock a sense of awesome awareness of the Creator’s sweet pervasion of the world around me.

You may even know that one of the reasons for taking my family on a short break to Holland in the recent half-term was to visit the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Having been so enthralled by his life and mesmerised by his art, I wondered what a visit to the museum, which houses over 1000 of Vincent’s works, would be like. Would I be touched even more deeply by the man of myth and magic? Or would I be unmoved – would a museum’s inevitable sterility detract from the emotions normally evoked by this beautiful man?

The first van Gogh work I saw on entering the main gallery was a familiar, famous painting – The Sower.

Several things struck me all at once.

Firstly, I was blown away by the obvious fact that I was looking at an original! This was a painting actually painted by Vincent van Gogh himself!

Viewing the popular masterpiece, with its dense, swirling, brush strokes, felt like a mind-blowing encounter with greatness,

beauty,

history,

madness and sanity,

and the brilliant transcendence of the Creator in Vincent’s (and our) world.

Right from the outset, I was overcome with emotion, moved to tears once again, by this brush with Vincent. As it turned out, no cold museum sterility could dampen the reactions sparked by this intriguing character.

As well as being awestruck by the significance of being face to face with an actual van Gogh, I was startled to find it was 3D! It had never occurred to me that the flat, 2-D images we see in a book or on a computer screen could never do justice to the coarse, wild textures or contrasting shades of an oil painting’s brazen, 3-dimensional, brush strokes.

the-sower-1888

A flat, 2D image of The Sower, a 3D painting

Such a stark realisation sparked an immediate thought about my prayer life. My recent (last couple of years) journey into a more mindful and contemplative approach to prayer, inspired by the likes of Shaun Lambert, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr, feels like a transition from 2D to 3D faith.

Diving into the omnipresence of God.

Being in his being.

Not that prayer, for me, has ever been simply a religious “shopping-list” or an approach to God as a dispensing machine, but this practising of stillness, stopping to soak in the reality of who God is and of who I am, has been a welcome learning curve and a growth into the fullness that Jesus promised.

Vincent never seemed to lose his faith in Christ, but recoiled from the strict religion of his pastor father. Did Vincent ever experience the fullness of life that Jesus offered? My strong suspicion is that, despite being tormented by mental ill health, a sense of alienation from society, and even “existential dread”, as described in the blurb for one painting at the museum, Vincent did indeed drink of that spiritual life.

He seemed to be so wonderfully attuned to his surroundings and, through those surroundings and his depiction of them, to be at one with the Creator he believed in. You could say that his painting really was a form of contemplation.

Even Christians, with our genuine claims of the “joy of the Lord” and “fullness of life”, are not immune to mental illness, depression and “dark nights of the soul”. I, too, have had my moments.

Part of my contemplative learning curve has been a growing embrace of “non-dual thinking”: accepting the “both/and” of life and faith in 3D fullness, instead of the “either/or” often associated with 2D religion.

I think Vincent understood this, through his ups and downs of faith and life. As I browsed the museum, I was intrigued by his Still Life with Open Bible, in which a large family Bible, open at Isaiah 53 that speaks prophetically of Jesus as the suffering servant and “a man of sorrows”, is juxtaposed with a copy of Emile Zola’s contemporary novel of the time, La Joie de Vivre.

still-life-with-bible

Still Life with Open Bible (sorrow and joy)

I don’t think Vincent ever really rejected the Bible or Jesus but resented his father’s “blind devotion to religion and faith, forever trapped in an antiquated mindset”, and like a lot of people, found that the religion of his time satisfied neither his mind nor his soul’s need for love.

In contrast, La Joie de Vivreand so many other masterpieces paint life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell us the truth,” as Vincent put it in a letter to his brother Theo.

His simultaneous representation of both sorrow and joy in this painting seems to sum up Vincent’s experience of life and faith. Both/and.

As I admired the lavish, almost randomised, multi-directional strokes in Vincent’s paintings, I was drawn to the paint patterns’ apparent disorder, that paradoxically composed such natural order in the finished works. Isn’t life like that?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the apparent disorder of my life – especially as a parent! – and of so many aspects of our world. How do we make sense of this? How do we come to terms with our lack of control over our disordered circumstances? Our flawed characters? Our loved ones? The random nature of death and suffering? And all the other things of this world that we care about?

Is it just me, with my OCD tendencies, that experiences this struggle?

Or do we all to some extent feel the need for neat answers – for order in our world? Current contemplative Richard Rohr, describing Franciscan spirituality in his book Eager to Love, expresses it like this:

“Paul says only ‘the folly of the cross’ can deal with what poet Wallace Stevens called “our blessed rage for order!’ The ‘mystery of the cross’ is Paul’s code-breaking and fundamental resolution for the confusing mystery of life! Without it, it seems most people become cynics, depressed, bitter, or negative by the middle of life, because there is no meaning in the death of all things and the imperfection of everything. For Paul, the deepest level of meaning is ironically the deep, grace-activated acceptance of a certain meaninglessness! We are able to leave room for God to fill in the gaps, and even trust that God will!”

Life is full of paradox and, for me, the cross of Jesus and his resurrection bring meaning to the perceived meaninglessness and disorder of this universe. This faith doesn’t answer all my questions. If it did, the God I believe in would be too small.

But through faith in Jesus, I trust that the almost randomised, multi-directional strokes of this world, that we see in the apparent chaos even at a subatomic level of the universe, make up a magnificent, somehow ordered, painting too big for the eyes of our hearts and minds to comprehend.

Order/disorder. Both/and. My contemplative faith is enabling me to live with the tension between the two.

Thank you once again, Vincent, for helping me accept the breadth and depth of God, and to the van Gogh Museum for its part in expressing the messages of his life and art.

And one day, maybe even the disordered driving of white van drivers will inspire in me a sense of awe at their Creator…

—–

Previous posts I’ve published, relating to van Gogh, include: A Sense of Wonder, Sunflowers, and specifically Take Me To Church.

 

(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is?

Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger N)

—–

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

And it stoned me

You know those smugly healthy, outdoor types? Well, he was one of those – a seasoned hiker with all the outdoor gear, that I’d got chatting with.

I was staying for a night in a travellers’ hostel in Flagstaff, Arizona, before hitch-hiking over to the Grand Canyon – one of the last things I did before leaving the USA in 1987 (see My Life’s Soundtrack for the whole story).

“Fresh air’s the only high I need,” retorted the hiker in the hostel, smugly, after I revealed that I liked getting stoned in picturesque, away-from-it-all places.

I’d become a Christian (just), but it would be another two years of on-off cannabis use and at least one seriously bad mushroom trip before I finally discovered that I no longer needed any illegal substances. That there was a higher high. A purer high.

Grand Canyon 1

I sent this postcard to my Dad on Halloween 1987, after a night in the Canyon – probably my first ever written acknowledgement of God

I sent this postcard to my Dad on Halloween 1987, after a night in the Canyon – probably my first ever written acknowledgement of God

An experience of the Holy Spirit in 1989 replaced my need for THC with a fulfilment and joy in the love and forgiveness of my Father. For a time I was elated. The elation didn’t last forever, but the contentment and completeness in God did.

Now, stresses and disappointments creep in, and I struggle with the same day-to-day trials as everyone else. Prayer, reflection and expressions of creativity are some of the things that help to bring me back in touch with the Father’s love – which doesn’t change, but sometimes slips into the periphery of my vision.

‘Expressions of creativity’ include the art and poetry and music of others, the appreciation of which seems to link me back into the aesthetic heart of the Creator God, who makes all things beautiful in their time. They renew in me a sense of timeless wonder at the world, myself and God. And I’m centred back into Love’s envelopment.

Likewise, my own attempts at creativity, whether photography or writing, help to unlock those hidden expressions of my unique identity – who I essentially am – embraced within the tender acceptance of the one who is – Yahweh (‘I Am’) – and who made me in his image. They bring me back to me, to the joy of being my Father’s beloved child.

God speaks to us in many different kinds of ways,” writes Shaun Lambert, the “Benedictine Baptist”, in A Book of Sparks: A Study in Christian MindFullness (in a chapter titled A real relationship with our creativity). “He is the creative Creator and utilises our creativity in His dialogue with us.”

That’s certainly been my experience.

And nature, nature….that supreme expression of creativity…

This time of year….the aesthetic hand of the ageless Ancient of Days, still sloshing annual explosions of colour across our streets and woodlands; wondrous shades of autumn warming the cooler days, virtually ignited by the deep, low sun of our evenings and mornings.

Autumn leaves, 2015, Yorkshire, where I visited recently

Autumn leaves, 2015, Yorkshire, where I visited recently

 

No Spring, nor Summer Beauty hath such grace,

As I have seen in one Autumnall face

(John Donne)

And I…sometimes, when I stop…and stop….and stop, and absorb the golden sights and sounds (and silence) and smells of autumn…

…or of some other amazing time and place of nature, bathing in the Creator’s brushstrokes, my soul gets re-awakened to his presence, and a smirk sometimes spreads across my face… a smile even, and occasionally a laugh springs up from those wells of the Spirit deep within, and I feel a little high in the Love that created these wonders around me, and my spirit is refreshed once again.

And now perhaps I understand a bit of what Van Morrison meant when he wrote:

And it stoned me

And it stoned me to my soul

Oh, the water

Let it run all over me

Please have a listen…

I know, I’m always banging on about Van Morrison – in fact, this is my second blog post using one of his song titles. I’m sure you don’t mind.

The song And it stoned me describes a time in Van’s childhood when an everyday experience of drinking fresh water from a mountain stream near Ballystockart in Ireland took on an extraordinary, even mystical, quality, a bit like….being stoned.

How wonderful to experience that as a 12-year-old child! No wonder Van Morrison expresses in his songs a nostalgic yearning for the enchanting simplicity of the rural Irish life he remembers so fondly.

For many of us adults, that kind of experience develops when we willingly allow ourselves to be embraced by the Father’s love. Not striving to be religious or even spiritual, but being still, trusting, resting in Yahweh (I Am), who is Love.

Perhaps in childhood innocence, we experienced that without even realising it. Jesus certainly suggested (in fact, definitively asserted!) that we must become like little children to perceive the spiritual dimension of God.

Jesus also claimed to be the only way to this kind of relationship with God. Not religion or Christianity, but him – Jesus. That leaves all kinds of questions and quandaries because it means it’s no longer about following the right religion but about following all that Jesus embodies.

I digress a little, because I know (or hope) that not everyone reading this would call themselves a Christian, and yet may have enjoyed similar revelations of God through their encounters with nature or stillness – of course, it’s not up to me to either dismiss or explain these; I would simply affirm that God (Yahweh) is bigger than any religion or faith, infusing nature and our own souls with his life and breath.

For me, though, my faith in Jesus opened the way to elating encounters with nature. And then again, it was partly encounters with awe-inspiring nature that opened my heart to God in the first place.

In my present journey through faith and life, I’m beginning to find that a more contemplative, reflective approach opens my spirit to be more receptive to His Spirit in the context of creativity and creation.

So it’s now been 26 years since I last tried cannabis or any other illicit substance, and I’m enjoying getting a little high on the incredible gifts of nature and the outdoors that we’ve been given – or, rather, on the Holy Spirit, via nature.

Hope that may be true for you, too, and that I haven’t become one of those smugly healthy, outdoors types…

———–

(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page.

Thanks! Roger N)

———–

Tagged , , , ,