Henri giving Chris a cross from El Salvador
In celebration of this month’s fifth anniversary of my blog, the last entry of January and every Wednesday of February I’ve provided the most visited post of each year. For 2015, that would be Progressive vs. “Biblical” Christianity.
My friend, Nouwen biographer Michael Ford, invited me to write this piece about Henri Nouwen for a retreat he is leading on the spiritual writer this week. It so happens that details of my own spiritual formation course on Nouwen September 22-25, 2016 were posted last week. It tends to fill up, so register early!
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 through the rest of his life. We viewed photos and prints of van Gogh’s paintings, read his voluminous Letters to Theo (his patron brother), and biographical materials. A limit of a dozen or so students allowed an intimate, conversational format.
Many parallels drew Henri to Vincent. They preferred using only their first names. They were from Holland. Both were prolific. They shared compassion for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, and the underprivileged. They each exercised unconventional ministries. Both were problematic as well as prophetic for the church. Either could be intense. And both were extremely lonely.
I did not know 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—descending into the mines with them, chatting with them at their kitchen tables, giving them his possessions, including his own bed to a sick woman.
This led to his dismissal from his pulpit by the church hierarchy 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 soon touched millions, either directly or indirectly through their influence on 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. As the final paper for that 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. Vincent once wrote that Jesus was an artist whose medium was human flesh. Both Henri and Vincent followed in his footsteps as soul artists.
A reading for this week of Lent:
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Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.