Thursday, December 8, 2016

Van Gogh's Advent

By the summer of 1875, Paris was in an uproar. The art world was under siege by a rebellious band of young painters who challenged the academicism of Renaissance art. They splashed the canvas with bright colors and loose brushwork in an attempt to “paint light” and capture the “little fragments of the mirror of universal life.”[1] Their critics howled with outrage, calling these new works “absurdities,” even crimes, accusing young radicals like Claude Monet of conducting a veritable “war on beauty.”[2]

The young Vincent van Gogh was there that riotous summer. As an aspiring artist himself, one would think that his personal correspondence (he wrote over 800 letters, most to his brother Theo) would be filled with the daily spectacle of Renoir, Degas and other Impressionists painting passers-by on the street and the horrified art community writhing with hostility. Yet not a word. Vincent’s prodigious letter writing mentioned nothing of this cataclysmic clash at the center of the art world.

Why? In short, van Gogh had found God.

Captured by the ascetic spirituality of Thomas à Kempis, van Gogh simply eschewed the worldly trappings and glittering lights of his day. In a sense, Vincent turned dramatically inward. He followed the example of Christ as Kempis saw him, “Withdraw your heart from the love of things visible, and turn yourself to things invisible.”[3]

On this solemn Advent day in December, the Church likewise turns inward as we celebrate the Immaculate Conception. “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary. “Hail, full of grace!” he said, “the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:26-28). Though the turbulence of the world swirled around her and the murderous mania of Herod threatened her very life, nothing could disrupt the eternal truth. All the grace and righteousness of God was growing inside her. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus . . . and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (Lk 1:31, 33).

Van Gogh, though assailed throughout his life by mental illness and social alienation, kept the Advent hope alive that God was indeed making his presence known through him. He articulated it this way:

There may be a great fire in our soul,
yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it,
and the passers-by only see a wisp of smoke
coming through the chimney, and go along their way.

Look here, now, what must be done?
One must tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself,
Wait patiently yet with much impatience
For the hour when somebody will come
And sit down near it – maybe to stay?

Let him who believes in God
Wait for the hour that will come.

Though the world clamors with cymbals and gongs, though our eyes may not be honed enough to see it, God’s kingdom is growing among us. In Christ, God’s grace has been conceived in us and it is our task, in this blessed Advent season, to “tend that inner fire”. May we wait patiently, as the Blessed Virgin Mary did, for that hour to come when that seed of grace will be born in us. And maybe, just maybe, somebody will come, sit down near the fire of our love, and receive its warmth and light.

[1] Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (NY: Random House, 1012), 102.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Thomas à Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ (Charlotte, NC: Commission Press).