To Vincent Van Gogh: your faith broke, but we remain. [In Memoriam BJP, 5/29/2014]
You believed too strongly.
You were a fanatic from the start, from your mind-wrenching conversion which you tried, in turn, to inflict upon the world. The veil of the temple separated at Christ’s death, and it tore all the way down through history until your own heart was sundered. You were a young man, a convert, an evangelical – a tinder box of neuroses. In your 20s, you gave your life to the Lord and took up a missionary habit. Fire coursed your veins and lightning shot your unpredictable nerves.
You tried to train in the seminaries, but it never would have worked. You tried to evangelize among the miners, the proletariat, the meek – but they stared at you strangely. You preached your heart out. That was the problem. No one quite understood.
People whispered and church leaders – men of God, I say – waited courteously for the right time to interrupt. “It just isn’t working out.” It isn’t working out?! Infinity and dust meet in men’s souls and you say it isn’t working out?!
I hear you, Vincent. I hear you. What could be more important? Nothing. How can the same measure be applied to spirit and matter? It cannot. If a Holy Ghost haunts this world, how can a man think of anything else? It kills me to think about it.
It killed you. It killed your belief, and you gave up.
You gripped the spiritual reality so hard, it could only be loosed by smashing your hand. It was a mortal wound, and eventually – not too much longer – your whole body broke apart, at your own broken hand. Like a man struck by lightning, you had seen the light and you had felt the power, but it broke you.
You had ten years of crippled life left in you. Words had failed. Prayer had failed. So, for no material reason, you reached for a paint brush.
Why did you see the world so differently? How did you find that beauty? People ask but they do not understand. They ask with their feet in a museum. I have other questions for you. Why did your art arise from the ruins of faith? Why did you fail to hold what you inspire in so many of us?
I know that you would never have learned to interpret with your paints if you hadn’t striven on your knees. I am grateful you held out long enough to give us your ten years of creativity, but could you have held out long enough to be healed? Could I have done anything? These are questions not for you but for God.
You sought the Most High, but the space-time continuum broke. For every Theresa of Avila, skating on the borderline of heaven and earth and managing, in the end, to come through to an ethereal spiritual vision – for every Theresa there is a Vincent. There is a Vincent whose center cannot hold. But I will be a witness.
Self-portrait with grey felt hat, winter. 1887/88. Wikimedia Commons.
Café Terrace at Night. 1888. Wikimedia Commons.
Hospital Entrance. 1889. Wikimedia Commons.
Irises. 1889. Wikimedia Commons.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.