Vincent van Gogh: Christian Missionary, Evangelist, and Visionary Painter
It is difficult to comprehend the disastrous undertones of Vincent van Gogh’s lifespan and to attach the power and beauty of his work with his lethal decline into insanity and suicide. The eldest son of devout Christian parents, Van Gogh sensed a sense of familial responsibility to what he supposed were their hopes for his life.
First-time readers of Van Gogh’s letters are frequently registered by the fact that their originator possessed a keen spiritual kindliness from his earliest days— undeniably, that his initial occupational predispositions were concerning the life of missionary and evangelist.
Painting did not become his main enthusiasm until, at age 27, his discharge from the missionary society, under whose patronages he had labored, obligated him to seek another means of expression for his spiritual zeal.
In addition to his official duties at the school, Van Gogh ostensibly felt a strong responsibility to comprise himself with the local church congregations. Armed with the self-confidence that regularly comes with practice, he started to teach and to give a sermon, and the letters to his brother Theo are abounding with biblical citation and insinuation. In a heart rendering letter to Theo, Vincent wrote,
It certainly is a strange phenomenon that all artists, poets, musicians, painters, are unfortunate in material things- the happy ones as well-what you said lately about Guy de Maupassant is fresh proof of it. That brings up again the eternal question: Is the whole life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side of death we see only one hemisphere? Painters-to take them alone-dead and buried speak to the next generation or to several succeeding generations through their work. Is that all, or is there more to come? Perhaps death is not the hardest thing in a painter’s life. For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it, but looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is that we cannot get to a star while we are alive, any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, gravel, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
Vincent’s conception of an “almost smiling” death reflected his fervent faith in rebirth and immortality—an idea that found early articulation in his sermon: “there is not death and no sorrow that is not mixed with hope—no despair—there is only a constantly being born again.” Vincent sought an identification with his father, and chose the profession of his father, a profession in which he could bring God close to mankind. He just wanted to be active in the profession of his father. He went to live with his uncle in Amsterdam, with the purpose of learning Latin and Greek and to prepare for the State examination. In the intervening time, he became anti-social due to all of his piousness. He composed sermons, went to church six or seven times on Sundays, and even visited the synagogue.
Insofar as it was probable to become a missionary in a very short time at the Borinage in Brussels, he decided to go there. But now, at a time when he had tumbled deeper than ever before into the well of self-absorption, he found in it a new treasure: he began to draw again, and now with his whole soul.
- “You know that I go to the Methodist Chapel … every Monday night. Last night I spoke a few words on the subject ‘Nothing pleaseth me but in Jesus Christ, and in Him everything pleaseth me.'”
- “Last Monday I was again at Richmond, and my subject was “He has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poorest but whoever wants to preach the Gospel must carry it in his own heart first. Oh! may I find it, for it is only the word spoken in earnestness and from the fullness of the heart that can bear fruit.”
- “It is a delightful thought that in the future wherever I go, I shall preach the Gospel; to do that well, one must have the Gospel in one’s heart. May the Lord give it to me.”
- “How difficult life must be if not strengthened and comforted by faith.”
- “Theo, woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel- if I did not aim at that and possess faith and hope in Christ, it would be bad for me indeed; but now I have some courage.”
Vincent van Gogh’s First Sunday Sermon: 29-Oct-1876: “I Am a Stranger on the Earth”
Psalm 119:19: I am a stranger on the earth, hide not Thy commandments from me. It is an old belief and it is a good belief, that our life is a pilgrim’s progress—that we are strangers on the earth, but that though this be so, yet we are not alone for our Father is with us. We are pilgrims, our life is a long walk or journey from earth to Heaven.
The beginning of this life is this: there is only one who remembereth no more her sorrow and her anguish for joy that a man is horn into the world. She is our Mother. The end of our pilgrimage is the entering in Our Father’s house, where are many mansions, where He has gone before us to prepare a place for us. The end of this life is what we call death—it is an hour in which words are spoken, things are seen and felt, that are kept in the secret chambers of the hearts of those who stand by, —it is so that all of us have such things in our hearts or forebodings of such things. There is sorrow in the hour when a man is born into the world, but also joy, deep and unspeakable, thankfulness so great that it reaches the highest heavens. Yes the Angels of God, they smile, they hope and they rejoice when a man is born in the world. There is sorrow in the hour of death, but there is also joy unspeakable when it is the hour of death of one who has fought a good fight. There is one who has said: I am the resurrection and the life, if any man believe in Me though he were dead, yet shall he live. There was an apostle who heard a voice from heaven saying: Blessed are they that die in the Lord, for they rest from their labour and their works follow them. There is joy when a man is born in the world, but there is greater joy when a spirit has passed through great tribulation, when an angel is born in Heaven. Sorrow is better than joy—and even in mirth the heart is sad—and it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasts, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. Our nature is sorrowful, but for those who have learnt and are learning to look at Jesus Christ there is always reason to rejoice. It is a good word that of St. Paul: as being sorrowful yet always rejoicing. For those who believe in Jesus Christ, there is no death or sorrow that is not mixed with hope—no despair—there is only a constantly being born again, a constantly going from darkness into light. They do not mourn as those who have no hope—Christian Faith makes life to evergreen life.
We are pilgrims on the earth and strangers—we come from afar and we are going far. -The journey of our life goes from the loving breast of our Mother on earth to the arms of our Father in heaven. Everything on earth changes—we have no abiding city here—it is the experience of everybody. That it is God’s will that we should part with what is dearest on earth—we ourselves change in many respects, we are not what we once were, we shall not remain what we are now. From infancy we grow up to boys and girls—young men and women—and if God spares us and helps us, to husbands and wives, Fathers and Mothers in our turn, and then, slowly but surely the face that once had the early dew of morning, gets its wrinkles, the eyes that once beamed with youth and gladness speak of a sincere deep and earnest sadness, though they may keep the fire of Faith, Hope and Charity—though they may beam with God’s spirit. The hair turns grey or we lose it-ah-indeed we only pass through the earth, we only pass through life, we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth. The world passes and all its glory. Let our later days be nearer to Thee, and therefore better than these.
Yet we may not live on casually hour by hour—no we have a strife to strive and a fight to fight. What is it we must do: we must love God with all our strength, with all our might, with all our soul, we must love our neighbours as ourselves. These two commandments we must keep, and if we follow after these, if we are devoted to this, we are not alone, for our Father in Heaven is with us, helps us and guides us, gives us strength day by day, hour by hour, and so we can do all things through Christ who gives us might. We are strangers on the earth, hide not Thy commandments from us. Open Thou our eyes that we may behold wondrous things out of Thy law. Teach us to do Thy will and influence our hearts that the love of Christ may constrain us and that we may be brought to do what we must do to be saved.
On the road from earth to Heaven
Do Thou guide us with Thine eye;
We are weak but Thou art mighty,
Hold us with Thy powerful hand.
Our life, we might compare it with a journey, we go from the place where we were born to a far-off haven. Our earlier life might be compared to sailing on a river, but very soon the waves become higher, the wind more violent, we are at sea almost before we are aware of it—and the prayer from the heart ariseth to God: Protect me 0 God, for my bark is so small and Thy sea is so great. The heart of man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, its tides and its depths; it has its pearls too. The heart that seeks for God and for a Godly life has more storms than any other. Let us see how a Psalmist describes a storm at sea. He must have felt the storm in his heart to describe it so. We read in the io7th Psalm: They that go down to the sea in ships that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep. For He commandeth and raiseth up a stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to Heaven, they go down again to the depth, their soul melteth in them because of their trouble. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He bringeth them into their desired haven.
Do we not feel this sometimes on the sea of our lives?
Does not every one of you feel with me the storms of life or their forebodings or their recollections?
And now let us read a description of another storm at sea in the New Testament, as we find it in the VIth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John in the i7th to the 21st verse. “And the disciples entered into a ship and went over the sea towards Capernaum. And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew. So when they had rowed about five-and-twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea and drawing nigh unto the ship and they were afraid. Then they willingly received Him into the ship and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.” You who have experienced the great storms of life, you over whom all the waves and all the billows of the Lord have gone—have you not heard, when your heart failed for fear, the beloved well-known voice with something in its tone that reminded you of the voice that charmed your childhood—the voice of Him whose name is Saviour and Prince of Peace, saying as it were to you personally, mind to you personally: “It is I, be not afraid.” Fear not. Let not your heart be troubled. And we whose lives have been calm up till now, calm in comparison of what others have felt—let us not fear the storms of life, amidst the high waves of the sea and under the grey clouds of the sky we shall see Him approaching, for whom we have so often longed and watched, Him we need so—and we shall hear His voice: It is I, be not afraid. And if after an hour or season of anguish or distress or great difficulty or pain or sorrow we hear Him ask us: “Dost thou love me?” Then let us say: Lord Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee. And let us keep that heart full of the love of Christ and may from thence issue a life which the love of Christ constraineth, Lord Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee; when we look back on our past we feel sometimes as if we did love Thee, for whatsoever we have loved, we loved in Thy name.
Have we not often felt as a widow and an orphan—in joy and prosperity as well and even more than under grief—because of the thought of Thee.
Truly our soul waiteth for Thee more than they that watch for the morning, our eyes are up unto Thee, 0 Thou who dwellest in Heaven. In our days too there can be such a thing as seeking the Lord.
What is it we ask of God—is it a great thing? Yes, it is a great thing, peace for the ground of our heart, rest for our soul—give us that one thing and then we want not much more, then we can do without many things, then can we suffer great things for Thy name’s sake. We want to know that we are Thine and that Thou art ours, we want to be Thine—to be Christians—we want a Father, a Father’s love and a Father’s approval. May the experience of life make our eye single and fix it on Thee. May we grow better as we go on in life. We have spoken of the storms on the journey of life, but now let us speak of the calms and joys of Christian life. And yet, my dear friends, let us rather cling to the seasons of difficulty and work and sorrow, for the calms are often treacherous. The heart has its storms, has its seasons of drooping but also its calms and even its times of exaltation. There is a time of sighing and of praying, but there is also a time of answer to prayer. Weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.
The heart that is fainting
May grow full to overflowing
And they that behold it
Shall wonder and know not
That God at its fountains
Far off has been raining.
My peace I leave with you—we saw how there is peace even in the storm. Thanks be to God, who has given us to be born and to live in a Christian country. Has any one of us forgotten the golden hours of our early days at home, and since we left that home—for many of us have had to leave that home and to earn their living and to make their way in the world. Has He not brought us thus far, have we lacked anything, Lord we believe help Thou our unbelief. I still feel the rapture, the thrill of joy I felt when for the first time I cast a deep look in the lives of my Parents, when I felt by instinct how much they were Christians. And I still feel that feeling of eternal youth and enthusiasm wherewith I went to God, saying: “I will be a Christian too.” Are we what we dreamt we should be? No, but still the sorrows of life, the multitude of things of daily life and of daily duties, so much more numerous than we expected, the tossing to and fro in the world, they have covered it over, but it is not dead, it sleepeth. The old eternal faith and love of Christ, it may sleep in us but it is not dead and God can revive it in us. But though to be born again to eternal life, to the life of Faith, Hope and Charity, —and to an evergreen life—to the life of a Christian and a Christian workman, be a gift of God, a work of God—and of God alone, yet let us put the hand to the plough on the field of our heart, let us cast out our net once more—let us try once more. God knows the intention of the spirit. God knows us better than we know ourselves, for He made us and not we ourselves. He knows of what things we have need. He knows what is good for us. May He give us His blessing on the seed of His word, that He has sown in our hearts. God helping us, we shall get through life. With every temptation he will give a way to escape.
Father we pray Thee not that Thou shouldest take us out of the world, but we pray Thee to keep us from evil. Give us neither poverty nor riches, feed us with bread convenient for us. And let Thy songs be our delight in the houses of our pilgrimage. God of our Fathers be our God: may their people be our people, their faith our faith. We are strangers on the earth, hide not Thy commandments from us, but may the love of Christ constrain us. Entreat us not to leave Thee or refrain from following after Thee. Thy people shall be our people. Thou shalt be our God.
Our life is a pilgrim’s progress. I once saw a very beautiful picture: it was a landscape at evening. In the distance on the right-hand side a row of hills appeared blue in the evening mist. Above those hills the splendour of the sunset, the grey clouds with their linings of silver and gold and purple. The landscape is a plain or heath covered with grass and its yellow leaves, for it was in autumn. Through the landscape a road leads to a high mountain far, far away, on the top of that mountain is a city wherein the setting sun casts a glory. On the road walks a pilgrim, staff in hand. He has been walking for a good long while already and he is very tired. And now he meets a woman, or figure in black, that makes one think of St. Paul’s word: As being sorrowful yet always rejoicing. That Angel of God has been placed there to encourage the pilgrims and to answer their questions and the pilgrim asks her: Does the road go uphill then all the way?”
And the answer is: “Yes to the very end.”
And he asks again: “And will the journey take all day long?”
And the answer is: “From morn till night my friend.”
And the pilgrim goes on sorrowful yet always rejoicing—sorrowful because it is so far off and the road so long. Hopeful as he looks up to the eternal city far away, resplendent in the evening glow and he thinks of two old sayings that he heard long ago—the one is:
“Much strife must be striven
Much suffering must be suffered
Much prayer must be prayed
And then the end will be peace.”
And the other is
“The water comes up to the lips
But higher comes it not.”
And he says: I shall be more and more tired but also nearer and nearer to Thee. Has not man a strife on earth? But there is a consolation from God in this life. An Angel of God comforting man—that is the Angel of Charity. Let us not forget her. And when each of us goes back to the daily things and daily duties let us not forget that things are not what they seem, that God by the things of daily life teacheth us higher things, that our life is a pilgrim’s progress, and that we are strangers on the earth, but that we have a God and father who preserveth strangers, —and that we are all brethren.
And now the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us forever more.
Reading: Psalm XCI.