Introductory Note:

Carol Berry has been studying Vincent van Gogh since she first took a course on the artist in 1979, under the instruction of Henri J.M. Nouwen. Carol’s recent book describes all that she learned from Henri about Vincent, as well as the insight into his life that she gained by retracing van Gogh’s movements through the towns and villages where he lived and worked in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. In the excerpt below, Carol recalls how Henri helped his students to see Vincent’s intentional residence in “unpopular places” and his solidarity with suffering people as a model of Christlike consolation.

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh

We were by now part­way through our course with Hen­ri, and we had yet to meet Vin­cent the artist. Hen­ri had want­ed us to spend a con­sid­er­able amount of time with Vin­cent in the cold, dark place of the Bori­nage where Vin­cent com­mit­ted to his deep sol­i­dar­i­ty with a suf­fer­ing human­i­ty. In the direct con­fronta­tions with the plight of the min­ers and hav­ing noth­ing left to give but him­self, his sol­i­dar­i­ty helped him to dis­cover his own inner spark; it trans­formed him.

Enriched with the under­stand­ing that he was an inte­gral part of a suf­fer­ing human­i­ty, he real­ized that his per­son­al call to a life of com­pas­sion would be ful­filled as an artist. And Vin­cent dis­cov­ered that what had nur­tured him since child­hood — the bib­li­cal para­bles, art, sto­ries, and the close­ness to nature — would guide him in his true vocation. 

Hen­ri stressed that to become com­pas­sion­ate peo­ple, we had to rec­og­nize and admit our inti­mate sol­i­dar­i­ty with the human con­di­tion.”1 We had to give up our desire to be dif­fer­ent, excep­tion­al, or bet­ter than the oth­ers in order to become a con­sol­ing presence. 

Con­so­la­tion demands that we be cum solus with [alone with] the lone­ly oth­er, and with him or her exact­ly there where he or she is lone­ly and where he or she hurts and nowhere else. Con­so­la­tion is … not the avoid­ance of pain, but, para­dox­i­cal­ly, the deep­en­ing of a pain to a lev­el where it can be shared.2

This was a hard con­cept to grasp and Hen­ri knew that. And here we could see why Hen­ri had cho­sen Vin­cent van Gogh as his case study. Through Vincent’s sto­ry, through the para­ble of his life, we were to come clos­er to an under­stand­ing of what it meant to be a con­sol­ing presence. 

After leav­ing the Bori­nage, Vin­cent con­scious­ly made the choice to stay close to the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers. He kept going to unpop­u­lar places to draw and paint peo­ple who most oth­ers did not con­sid­er worth pay­ing atten­tion to, remind­ing us that this was liv­ing accord­ing to the exam­ple of Jesus. 

Emerg­ing from his iso­la­tion and time of trans­for­ma­tion in the Bori­nage, Vin­cent moved back with his par­ents, who now lived in the small Bra­bant parish of Etten. Hav­ing a place to live for a while enabled Vin­cent to devote him­self entire­ly to prac­tic­ing the skills he need­ed in order to express graph­i­cal­ly what he saw and felt. He lived close to the peo­ple he drew and felt their exis­tence from with­in his own experience. 

Con­tin­u­ing on his path to unpop­u­lar places, […] he moved to a poor dis­trict of The Hague, where he invit­ed one of his mod­els, Sien, to live with him. She was a poor, worn-out pros­ti­tute who had a young child and was preg­nant with anoth­er. He cared for her and her child, and gave her a safe place to stay while she await­ed the deliv­ery of her sec­ond child.

The com­mit­ment Vin­cent made to Sien would make him share what mea­ger resources he had and there­fore sac­ri­fice his own com­fort and well-being. Vin­cent endured his own suf­fer­ing and Sien’s des­ti­tu­tion togeth­er with her, and this was, accord­ing to Hen­ri, a most mov­ing por­trait of consolation.

Hen­ri elaborated,

When we say to a suf­fer­ing per­son, don’t cry” or things will be bet­ter tomor­row” or don’t wor­ry,” we real­ly try to move that per­son to a place where he or she is not. But to con­sole means first of all to be with some­one where it hurts. And that’s not very easy because how can you be with some­one who hurts if you don’t want to be here with your own pain. And there­fore we run away from the pain instead of deep­en­ing it. We want to avoid it and cov­er it up.3

Hen­ri urged against the avoid­ance of pain. He was rather warn­ing peo­ple to be more human, and pain is part of that, just as is joy. Hen­ri emphat­i­cal­ly added, To say that I too am in pain, that I too am part of that human con­di­tion, that’s a very hard thing to say and to feel. And still that’s what I think con­so­la­tion is.”4

Vin­cent installed him­self in a stu­dio that became, as he saw it, a shel­ter for the poor who came to mod­el for him. Being as poor as they were, he iden­ti­fied with their wounds of life and would rather go with­out a meal him­self than not pay them a mod­est few coins for their modeling. 

One of the images Hen­ri want­ed us to spend a con­sid­er­able amount of time with was a draw­ing of Sien called Sor­row. Vin­cent, as expressed to Theo in one of his let­ters, could not have cre­at­ed this expres­sive image if he hadn’t felt this kind of sor­row him­self. He had spent time cum solus with Sien and her chil­dren and with­out pre­tense entered into their pain. By feel­ing the wounds of her life, he under­stood her predica­ment and became a con­sol­ing presence. 

Accept­ing and even wel­com­ing the risk of his own dis­com­fort and alien­ation from his fam­i­ly, he wrote to Theo: If for a moment I may feel ris­ing with­in me the desire for a care-free life, for suc­cess — each time I go fond­ly back to the trou­ble, the cares, to a dif­fi­cult life — and think, it is bet­ter this way, I learn more from it; it does not debase me. It is not on this road one per­ish­es.”5

Hen­ri con­clud­ed his talks about con­so­la­tion with these words,

No one wants to increase his or her own pain, but rather invite the hurt­ing per­son to come to a place, our own place, where the pain is less. For going down into the deep pain of anoth­er is like jump­ing into a bot­tom­less abyss — not know­ing if or where one will land. To grasp another’s pain means let­ting go of our own safe­ty limb and falling down to an unknown place. In this place we maybe won’t have the answers that will help or alle­vi­ate the pain or explain it. We have to be will­ing to admit, then and there, down in the pit, that we too are help­less and weak and pow­er­less. And who wants to do that, or be there?6

Vin­cent did that and was there with Sien and the peo­ple of the almshous­es and soup kitchens. 

Vin­cent did not have the answers for Sien. But by treat­ing her with ten­der­ness and esteem, he believed he could change her own per­cep­tion of herself. 

We began to under­stand. Not only would we not have the answers, but also it was pre­cise­ly when we stopped look­ing for answers that we could become an un­conditional con­sol­ing pres­ence. The para­dox of not offer­ing advice in a sit­u­a­tion where the need of it was per­ceived was almost unfath­omable, but Hen­ri kept reas­suring us that this was get­ting clos­er to the dynam­ics of com­pas­sion. When we were will­ing, through a shared vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, to admit that we were not com­ing to the hurt­ing per­son from a place of supe­ri­or­i­ty but were on equal foot­ing, then we could begin to console.

Related Podcast

  1. Hen­ri J. M. Nouwen, Com­pas­sion: Sol­i­dar­i­ty, Con­so­la­tion and Com­fort,” Amer­i­ca, March 131976. ↩︎
  2. Nouwen, Com­pas­sion.” ↩︎
  3. Hen­ri Nouwen, The Com­pas­sion of Vin­cent van Gogh” (lec­ture, Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, New Haven, CT, 1978), audiotape. ↩︎
  4. Nouwen, The Com­pas­sion of Vin­cent van Gogh.” ↩︎
  5. Let­ter to Theo, The Hague, May 12 or 131882. ↩︎
  6. Nouwen, Com­pas­sion.” ↩︎

Adapt­ed from Learn­ing from Hen­ri Nouwen and Vin­cent van Gogh by Car­ol Berry. Copy­right © 2019 by Car­ol Berry. Pub­lished by Inter­Var­si­ty Press, Down­ers Grove, IL. www​.ivpress​.com

Art: Vin­cent van Gogh. Women car­ry­ing coal sacks in the snow, Novem­ber 1882. Brush and ink. 32.1×50.1 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum. 

Text First Published May 2019 · Last Featured on Renovare.org January 2022

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