Tag Archives: Thomas Merton

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…

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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)

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Is Yoga a Slippery Slope to Satan?

“I think us Christians can learn a lot from Buddhism,” I suggested in conversation with the young man I’d just met after the service at church last week. He was OK with that. He got where I was coming from.

This was in stark contrast to an online article the same week, on the relationship between Christians and Eastern practices, with a headline that read:

‘It’s a slippery slope from yoga to Satan’ – Irish priest.

Father Roland Colhoun had warned (particularly to the Catholic world) that those partaking in yoga and Indian head massages may be led into the “Kingdom of Darkness.”

I’m no expert on yoga or Eastern religion, but I know that for a lot of people the meditative, physical and ethical principles of Buddhism or yoga are not “religious” or even spiritual, but simply a healthy way of living, promoting positive ways of thinking and being. Many principles of yoga or Eastern spirituality such as Buddhism seem to be generally good for physical, emotional and relational health.

This very morning, at church again, as I was discussing this blog post, another friend revealed that she practises and enjoys the physical benefits of yoga, putting it this way: “It’s as spiritual as you want to make it”.

For the Christian, meditation or relaxation techniques such as mindfully focussing on our breathing, can be used to help us to pray, to be still and know God, to quieten our minds and listen to his still, small voice. All these practices are neutral: until we choose how we use them.

How we use that quietening of our minds will differ between, say, Christians, atheists and Buddhists. The atheist may focus on her breath, achieving a calmer state of being. The Christian may do this too, but also focus on the God who gave her that breath, by faith ‘breathing in’ God’s Spirit and grace, and ‘breathing out’ praise to God (or confession of sins).

There is huge overlap between ancient Eastern meditative practices and ancient Christian contemplation. For the Christian this should come as no surprise, believing as we do that God has made every body (not just those who believe in him), and designed us in such a way that whatever our beliefs, taking time to be still and to quieten our minds is essentially good for our bodies and minds.

A few months ago I had a fascinating conversation with a beautiful, jolly, love-filled, Catholic man, about contemplative prayer. After we discovered that we had a mutual admiration for Thomas Merton, the popular 20th Century Catholic contemplative writer, the man informed me with a wicked, tongue-in-cheek smile that Merton had been responsible for converting more Catholics to Buddhism than anyone else!

It probably isn’t true – I don’t know.

The point is that, although Merton extolled the benefits of contemplation from a distinctly Christian viewpoint, the parallels with Eastern or Buddhist meditation can hardly be lost on his readers. Some Christians recoil at the very thought of anything that may bear any similarity with another religion, holding tight to their version of ‘Christianity’ in fear that they may be negatively affected by some unhealthy spiritual influence.

I am in some sympathy with those people. (In fact, here’s a link to a very balanced BBC article on the concerns about yoga shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.)

But when Christians live in that kind of fear, they betray how small their trust in Jesus is.

The wise, mature Christian has grown out of his childish clinging to the religion of Christianity and instead entrusts everything he knows to Jesus himself.

He closely examines the example of Jesus and prays for the ability to emulate him rather than church tradition.

He observes that Jesus, living in a society ruled by the Romans, never felt the need to denounce their pagan religion, only the hypocrisy within his own (Jewish) religion. What does that say to us?

And Jesus was drawn to, and commended, people of any faith background who had genuine, hungry hearts, rather than those who believed and did “the right things”.

Likewise St. Paul, in Athens*, surrounded by statues of Greek gods, chose not to warn the Athenians about the dangers of false gods, but to find common ground with their culture, with its gods and poets, to communicate the good news of his Jesus to them. In fact, there were already hints about the God of the Universe within their polytheistic literature, perhaps divinely planted there.

Christians, like me, may see things that we think are wrong in other religions, but Christianity in its various expressions can be equally wrong: for example, when its beliefs and practices are exclusivist or prejudiced.

People will often find what they’re looking for. If they’re just looking for relaxation, then they will probably find just that, whether through yoga or churchgoing. If they’re genuinely looking for truth or wholeness, then they will find those too – though it may take a while. Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said “Seek [or keep seeking] and you will find.”

Years ago, I was searching for truth, above all else. My journey took me through Buddhism and other ideas, and led me eventually to Jesus.

Twenty-seven years later, I still believe in him; that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life’. He not only satisfied my need for truth; he turned my life around, satisfied my need for love and is continuing to make this broken man whole.

And I’m enthralled and thrilled at being part of a church that’s not trying to prove its truth, or defend Christianity or the Bible, but is simply intent on blessing the people of Hastings with all that Jesus offers.

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“And how can you say that your truth is better than ours?

Shoulder to shoulder, now brother, we carry no arms.”

(Mumford & Sons – I Gave You All)

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A few years ago, a friend of mine, a spiritualist, was searching for more, and as he was meditating, he encountered a vision of Jesus that he said was more powerful than anything he’d ever experienced. He ‘became a Christian’ and was baptised. His conversion to Christianity was sadly short-lived, but I remain hopeful for him.

I’ve also heard countless stories of Muslims who, desperately seeking the reality of a relationship with God, have encountered life-transforming dreams and visions of Jesus, and consequently put their faith in him – often in face of serious death threats, such is the strength of their conviction.

Like them, I believe that truth and wholeness are ultimately found in Jesus. I could be wrong. Either way, I have enough confidence in him not to be worried about people exploring other faiths or practices.

In other words, it’s what’s in a person’s heart, their goal, rather than the validity or spirituality of their current faith or practice, that will determine where their search will lead them.

Is yoga a slippery slope to Satan? Or could it, like Buddhism or meditation, be a slippery slope to good health, and perhaps for some, even to Jesus? Who knows?

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*The Bible: Acts 17

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