Henri Nouwen, Vincent van Gogh and Compassion.
When Henri Nouwen proposed a course on “The Life and Ministry of Vincent van Gogh” at Yale Divinity School for the spring semester of 1977, his fellow academics were stymied, expressing concern: “But he was an artist.” “Wasn’t he crazy?” “Didn’t he kill himself?”
I took that seminar and it was my last formal course with Henri, though our friendship would continue throughout the rest of his life. We viewed photos and prints of van Gogh’s paintings, read his voluminous Letters to Theo and biographical materials. Limited to a dozen or so students allowed an intimate, conversational format.
Many parallels drew Henri to Vincent. They both preferred using only their first names. They both were from Holland. They shared a compassion for the poor, the outcast, and the underprivileged. They exercised unconventional ministries. Both were problematic as well as prophetic for the church. Either could be intense. And each was extremely lonely.
I had not known that Vincent had begun as a conventional Calvinist minister to the coal miners of the Borinage, and that his ministry scandalized the church because he did not keep a “professional” distance—but descended into the mines with them, chatted with them at their kitchen tables, gave them his possessions, including his own bed to a sick woman.
This led to his dismissal from his pulpit and a long idle period trying to discern, “What next?” He decided to take up painting, hoping that his work would offer the same consolation that the Christian faith once did, even as Henri’s books about our very human challenges consoled his readers.
Unlike Vincent, who only sold two paintings in his lifetime, Henri’s books touched millions, either directly or indirectly through their influence on Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant pastors and lay leaders throughout the world.
Henri’s classes helped countless students discern their true vocations, not just in ministry, but determining what kind of minister they were called to be. For the van Gogh course I wrote a fictional story about a woman in transition, ministered by two versions of van Gogh’s Madame Roulin and Her Baby, which I spent time contemplating, first in Philadelphia and then in New York City.
Writing that story was the most fulfilling paper I produced in all three years of seminary, because it brought together compassion (my required muse) and creativity, as well as my callings as a writer and minister.
I am grateful to Henri and Vincent for their spiritual guidance. Henri loved the paper!
Rev. Chris Glaser is the author of Henri’s Mantle, 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy. He writes a free weekly blog, Progressive Christian Reflections, at http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com.
[Here is the link for the book title on Amazon:]