You have probably heard of the painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), but you may not have heard of ‘the Rev.’ Vincent van Gogh. Actually, before Vincent was a painter he was a pastor. He followed in the steps of his father, going to seminary and then serving a parish when he was in his middle 20’s. But young Vincent pursued the Christian life and ministry with such zeal and intensity that he scared his superiors, and they forced him to leave the ministry. Kathleen Powers Erickson tells the story in a 1990 article in Christian Century:
“He has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor,” declared Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo, in a letter dated 1876. For the next three years van Gogh singlemindedly pursued his calling to the ministry, first as a student of theology and then as a missionary to the coal miners in the Belgian Borinage. Deeply moved by the poverty surrounding him, van Gogh gave all his possessions, including most of his clothing, to the miners. An inspector of the Evangelization Council came to the conclusion that the missionary’s excessive zeal bordered on the scandalous, and he reported van Gogh’s behavior to church authorities. Although van Gogh was successful in his ministry, the hierarchy of the Dutch Reformed Church rejected him, and at the end of 1879 he left the church, embittered and impoverished.
Van Gogh remained in the village after the church withdrew its support, and he began his artistic career by making drawings of the simple life of the Belgian peasants. He described this as a kind of conversion experience: “Even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself, in spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I had forsaken in my discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing. From that moment everything has seemed transformed for me.” Although most of van Gogh’s biographers view this transition as a rejection of religion, in fact art rather than preaching became van Gogh’s chief form of religious expression. His faith in God and eternity, as well as his respect for unadorned piety and the word of God remained firm.
One fourth of the twenty highest priced paintings ever sold were paintings by van Gogh. The total selling price of just those five paintings is over a half billion dollars in today’s value. In his lifetime, however, van Gogh made practically no money at all from the work which was his passion. It has been said that he never sold a single painting, and though that is an exaggeration, he sold very little and had to depend on his brother Theo’s good will and financial support to survive. But van Gogh believed in his work, believed in making the best use of the gifts God had given him, and he persisted with an intensity that at times drove him mad. The exact nature of his mental illness is not known, but he spent time in mental institutions and died at the age of 37 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Despite the lack of recognition in his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh became one of the most influential painters of the 20th century and his works are among the most valuable and widely recognized in the world.
“His faith was genuine and conflicted. He had eyes that knew the dark night of the soul. Still, he knew the joy of life intimately. Van Gogh fought for some kind of personal equilibrium, and lost the battle.” –from a website, author’s name not given
QUOTES FROM THE LETTERS OF VINCENT VAN GOGH
“What preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service or use in some way?”
“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”
“Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures.”
“The victory one would gain after a whole life of work and effort is better than one that is gained sooner.”
“I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.”
“Your profession is not what brings home your weekly paycheck, your profession is what you’re put here on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.”
Ecclesiastes 9:10 — Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
Proverbs 16:3 — Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.
Colossians 3:23 — Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…
A PRAYER FOR MEALTIME: We thank you, good Lord, for this food which is ours by your goodness. May the strength that comes through the food you give us enable us to do your will, serving you in such a way that we may show our gratitude. Amen.
THE PRAYER, 1882, Vincent van Gogh