Tag Archives: Van Gogh

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.

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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.

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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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Take Me To Church

The Church at Auvers - Vincent van Gogh

The Church at Auvers – Vincent van Gogh

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)

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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?

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The Church at Auvers – Vincent van Gogh

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?

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 (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)

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10 things I learned during 2014

Here are some of the things I learned or re-learned during 2014 (with links to some of the year’s blog posts):

1.   The trouble with me is: I’m too introspective. See, there I go again.

2.   “Love is greater than truth”. I’ve heard two people independently of each other say this recently. But is it nonsense to compare the two?

The truth is… that truth is not a set of facts or doctrines, but reality, integrity, honesty. Jesus (I believe) is God and therefore the ultimate reality, in whom there is no falsehood but only pure, faithful love. In that sense, he is “the truth”, in the same way that he is “the light of the world”.

Love is the expression of that truth.

When truth becomes a set of doctrines that we hold on to defensively, it is no longer truth.

So in a sense, yes, love is greater than truth.

3.   Get to know where the public loos are, before going out running in an unfamiliar place.

4.   There is a need in our busy world to restore a sense of wonder, and I’m pleased to admit that a sense of wonder at the beauty in music, nature or art has made me cry.

standing alone5.   Hold on to integrity, no matter what.

Be yourself, and bless those who disagree with you.

Painful, but worth it, in terms of building character and faith.

6.   Faith = active trust in the living, loving, mysterious God, rather than holding to a belief system.

7.   Dogmatism can be a dog-eat-dog world.

8.   God can use even speed awareness courses to grab our attention.

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9.   Sunflowers are incredible, and I think I caught a glimpse this year of Van Gogh’s inspiration.

10. Just as there’s more than one way to skin a cat (sorry, cat lovers), there are many ways of reading the Bible (these days I’m enjoying a more contemplative style, ‘progressive Christian’ interpretations and Peter Enns’ approach in his book The Bible Tells Me So), yet all recognise the power of the scriptures to create and develop faith, reveal God and transform lives. Lovin’ it!

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Sunflowers

 

Talking of Van Gogh…

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…as I was recently, in A Sense of Wonder

 

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these sunflowers were standing around on our kitchen table…

just brazenly showing off their magnificence…

 

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blatantly asking – demanding – to be photographed….

 

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So, of course I did.

We did this little photo-shoot – me and the sunflowers.

And perhaps I caught a glimpse of what inspired Vincent.

And perhaps this last picture, taken from outside, through our back door, 

tells us something even more important about this world, this life…

 

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“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me completely”.

– Paul the Apostle, The Bible

(New Living Translation, 1 Corinthians 13:12)

 

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A Sense of Wonder

 

“WOW! WHAT’S THAT?”!

…was my 2½ year old daughter Hannah’s instinctive response when she saw this honeysuckle picture on my laptop screen, with its intricate display of extraterrestrial tentacles.

Honeysuckle, Hastings Country Park, July 2014

Honeysuckle, Hastings Country Park, July 2014

 

If only we could retain that childlike incredulity at the world around us! No wonder Jesus said we must become like little children to see or enter the kingdom of heaven.

And if Jesus said we need to do that, then I guess we can!

I pray that my kids never lose that sense of wonder.

And that I too – and you, dear reader – would always be astounded at this universe we’re privileged to participate in.

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“Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder

Didn’t I come to lift your fiery vision bright

Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder in the flame”

Van Morrison

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Do you look at the world around you, awestruck?

When did beauty last drive you to tears?

What sights and sounds and sensations unleash the sense of aesthetic in your soul?

Are you bewildered at the existence of existence?

Does this universe fill you with questions of eternity and purpose?

Do the discoveries of science amaze you, at the same time as leaving you convinced that there will always be more to this universe than human reasoning can fathom?

And yet, isn’t it astonishing that the human mind can fathom our world at all?

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Brimstone

One of the best and most beautiful nature photos I’ve ever taken.

A Brimstone butterfly, snapped quickly, opportunistically, a few years ago at New Wine, the Christian conference/festival in Somerset we enjoy every year.

Is it a coincidence that this moment of nature’s beauty was captured at an event where all eyes, all focus, is on the Creator and Saviour of all, where God is worshipped and adored? Maybe. Maybe not.

Perhaps there’s greater significance in the exact location it was taken: right at the edge of a car park, on the very outskirts of the event.

The wonder of God’s presence may be found at the centre of the festival celebration, in the midst of united worship…and yet also here on the outskirts, in the translucent wings of a butterfly.

In our society splendour is often associated with those who seem to be at the centre of everything. The celebrities. The limelight.

Yet another kind of magnificence is to be found on the outlying places of society, in the souls and faces of ordinary people.

Are you just as awed by the wise and wicked humour of that wizened lady in the queue at Tesco?

Do you spot the transcendence in people like the ragged guy I spoke to a few minutes ago in the street, who asked me if I could spare a pound?

Do they, too, fill you with wonder?

Do you see a reflection of the divine in their eyes?

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“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Your works are wonderful, I know that full well”.

Psalm 139

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“The basic intuition of the psalms of praise, as one Old Testament scholar points out, is a sense of wonder, awe and admiration, characteristic of every authentic spiritual life. It is translated into an enthusiasm for Yahweh, his power, goodness and love.

These psalms are pure adoration, the Amen of the community in response to God’s revelation”.

Brennan Manning

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Hannah, on her first day in this world

Hannah, on her first day in this world

 

My Dad, in his agnostic/atheist days, would question his faithlessness at the sight of a newborn baby. How could he not believe in God when faced with such a mind-blowing miracle?

Sadly, he died a few years before Hannah was born. But he enjoyed his other grandchildren, who no doubt helped to re-awaken his faith in his Creator.

How easy it is, though, to marvel at the phenomenon of a small child and go all gooey at its cuteness. And how easy it is, sometimes, to see the beauty in others, but to miss it in ourselves!

You are a perfect miracle, a bespoke gift from the Creator to himself and to those who love you.

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When did you last stand in wonder of yourself?

Take a look in the mirror. Forget society’s expectations and your own insecurities, and behold the divine designer construction that you are. Your body (yes, yours!), your own particular personality and dreams.

Stand in awe of yourself!

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And how about the divine becoming human? How about the self-giving sacrifice of God’s son for us, again demonstrating how awesome we are to him – in spite of everything horrible about humanity?

No wonder Christians have such a sense of self-worth. No wonder we have such a sense of wonder.

OK, maybe you don’t feel this way or believe what I do. I respect that. But for me….I stand awestruck time after time at the changes he’s brought about in my life since the time I started to believe that Jesus really is the Way.

 

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My heart beats to the same rhythm as countless others who live and breathe in awe of the one whose forgiveness and transformative power have shaped our lives.

And when I’m singing, whether at home, at church or in the car (yes, that’s me you’ve seen crooning away as I’ve been driving down the road), my voice joins with millions of others throughout the ages in adoration of our Saviour.

 

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IMG_1861aWhat have you stopped to take notice of recently?

What have you taken time to admire?

Have you paused recently to appreciate a colleague’s dedication to her work?

Or stopped to feel the breath ebb and flow in and out of your lungs?

Doing these things is good for our mental and emotional health. God has made it this way. Those who follow a reflective or meditative faith have known this for countless millennia.  Now NHS bodies have incorporated this idea into their evidence-based Five Ways to Wellbeing. (Go on, Google it – it’s actually very good).

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In recent years Van Gogh, Brennan Manning and Van Morrison have all played a part in unlocking my own internal sense of wonder; have helped me to appreciate the aesthetic, to stand in awe of my Creator and, I’m not ashamed to say, to cry in the presence of beauty.

In my busy, goal-oriented, task-centred life, it’s been a much-needed, revitalising awakening of my inner being.

Like a re-balancing of my soul.

Let me finish by leaving you with a masterpiece by Van the Man (Morrison, not Gogh). If, like me, you appreciate the poetry, music and spirituality of Van Morrison, then you’ll probably love this. I think it’s pretty wonder-full.

 

(The photos in this post are all mine, but not the video).

 

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