Carol BERRY, Vincent van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015. 186 pages. $22.00 paperback. ISBN 978-1-62698-152-2. Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, RI.
I read Carol Berry’s fine book during a divisive election cycle noted for bluster and bombast and resulting in the election of a wealthy populist mired in racism, mysogyny and overall distance from the real needs of the poor and vulnerable. On the other hand, time spent with Vincent van Gogh brought not comfort but an immersion into the real world of brokenness and suffering, a world filled with amazing form and color calling us to look deeply into that wounded world for repentance and healing. The words that kept coming to mind were “wounded healer.” It is this understanding of Van Gogh that stands at the heart of Berry’s book, “a wounded healer who articulates through his language of art the authenticity of the human condition.” It is a vision of reality based on compassion and mercy, inviting us to enter into an understanding of the “Something on High” at the heart of this reality.
Berry’s serious interest in Vincent van Gogh began in 1979 with a course taught by Henri Nouwen at Yale Divinity School, “The Compassion of Vincent van Gogh,” and with the notes from that course sent to her after Nouwen’s death in 1996. Nouwen, too, saw his fellow Dutchman as a wounded healer with a deeply spiritual vision of the world. (Readers may recall that Nouwen’s book on ministry in contemporary society, The Wounded Healer, was published in 1979.) Berry, echoing Nouwen, offers us a way into this spirituality of woundedness and healing, a way of seeing. Her primary sources for this exploration are Van Gogh’s life itself, his paintings, and especially his more than 900 letters. The emphasis here is on Van Gogh’s letters, primarily those to his younger brother Theo (more than 650 letters).
The omnipresence of Van Gogh’s art in our twenty-first century world speaks to our post-modern hunger for a spirituality rooted in the soil of everyday life. Reproductions of his self-portraits and paintings on coffee mugs, posters, note cards can be found just about everywhere−splashes of color and beauty even in the darkest corners. “Starry Night,” bright sunflowers, brooding self-portraits offer us an immediate source for a spirituality that reaches beyond the sometimes confining boundaries of religion and religious language. While his early years were immersed in a deeply religious life−his father was a Calvinst pastor and he himself trained as a missionary−his entire life was in reality a spiritual quest. In Berry’s words: “Once he began to paint he dropped all religious language and abandoned institutionalized religion. But he remained deeply spiritual.” She does not enter into the “spiritual but not religious” discussion, but offers us an example in Van Gogh. Ultimately each of us, linked with institutional religion or not, must follow Van Gogh in seeking the “something from on high” and “something that wells up from within.”
Berry offers us Van Gogh’s life story, his paintings, and his letters as resources for understanding this very human spiritual quest. Born in 1853 in the Brabant area of the Netherlands, he originally trained as an art dealer first in the Hague, then in London and Paris until he finally rejected this as a career path. From 1876 to 1879 Vincent focused his spiritual quest on a religious/missionary life, working for a while as a Methodist minister’s assistant, becoming increasingly pious and monastic, preparing for a theology exam (which he failed), and eventually taking a post as a Protestant missionary in Belgium (from which he was dismissed). During his mission work in Belgium he chose to embrace fully the poverty and suffering of the miners among whom he lived and worked, to live in solidarity with them. Here his was indeed a spirituality of accompaniment: “one should do like the good God; from time to time one should go and live among his own.” His dismissal from the missionary society led him more deeply into drawing and painting, and for the next ten years he produced more than 2,000 art works until his death in Auvers-sur-Oise in July of 1890.
Carol Berry has given us a spiritual biography of Vincent van Gogh, a valuable resource for understanding a life whose motto might be “sorrowful, but always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). We find here a wounded healer urging us to look closely at our world, see deeply the suffering and beauty there, and locate a source of compassion and mercy. This is a welcome addition to Orbis Books‘ “Modern Spiritual Masters Series.” It is certainly a book to be treasured in these troubled times.