*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.
Carol A. Berry first met Henri Nouwen in the bookstore at Yale Divinity School back in the 1970’s. As she recounts in her moving (and brief) book, Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent van Gogh, he initially appeared like “a man dressed in a well-worn, baggy, moth-eaten sweater with a woolen scarf around his neck” (4). Though Nouwen may have looked like a disheveled, older student, he was actually teaching at Yale at the time, and Berry was deeply moved while sitting in on Nouwen’s lecture on Vincent van Gogh and the nature of the compassionate life. Nouwen is known by many as a deeply kind Catholic spiritual writer, and for me, his writings—and especially letters—have been a real gift. Nouwen felt a deep connection with van Gogh as a fellow wounded healer who desired to connect with other and provide them with comfort, and he worked hard to share this connection with his students (8). As Berry puts it, the hope was that, “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” (52). Her book aims for a similar purpose.
It is true that Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent van Gogh grew out of Berry’s engagement with Nouwen over the years, but it was specifically made possible by her access to the lecture notes on van Gogh and compassion that Nouwen left behind (11). For this, I think it’s safe to say that we all are fortunate. In each of the book’s sections, the chapters are divided up into extended explorations of van Gogh’s life and work, reflections on Nouwen’s connection to van Gogh and to his students, and some of the ways in which all these things took root in the lives of Berry and her husband throughout their years of life and ministry.
Though it is true that this book is about both van Gogh and Nouwen, van Gogh, who lived a life that was inspiring, tumultuous, and also sad, forms its real center. Through the extended historical vignettes that Berry shares, Van Gogh comes across as a wandering and at times troubled soul. However, Berry skillfully also shows the beauty present in van Gogh’s understanding of the world, especially by sharing excerpts of his letters. During his life, van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters to his brother Theo, and these letters give a valuable glimpse into his interior life, and indeed on his spiritual yearnings (8-9). Nouwen was also a searching soul, which is part of what led him to find fulfillment in becoming part of the L’Arche Daybreak community. Nouwen could identify with van Gogh. Berry shares that Nouwen told his students that “Vincent had touched him deeply from within just as Thomas Merton had—by putting him in touch with parts of himself that he hadn’t been able to reach” (7). This book includes a generous number of sketches and paintings by van Gogh. By doing so, readers are given the chance to be grasped by van Gogh’s visual language themselves.
One of the themes that repeatedly surfaces in this book’s pages is the importance of identifying with the sufferings of others. “When you realize that you share the basic human traits with all humanity,” Berry writes, echoing Nouwen’s perspective, “you have reached a place of commonality, a place where the burdens of life can be shared” (21). This is a challenging lesson, but the ways in which van Gogh and Nouwen each embraced it in their respective ways come across forcefully in Berry’s portraits of their lives. This is one of the dimensions of the book that benefits most from Berry’s personal connection with Nouwen in her life.
This book is a thin little volume, but it bears quite a bit of pondering, especially for those of us who have been spurred on spiritually by Henri Nouwen’s own writings. The vivid and tender way of viewing life and embracing the burdens of the human condition evidenced by van Gogh shines light on a familiar theme in Nouwen’s work from a new direction. I was especially moved by these words from one of van Gogh’s letters to Theo, “Everything that is truly good and beautiful, of an inner, moral, spiritual, and sublime beauty, in human beings, I think that that comes from God” (59). Such words make me want to live in the world with eyes more attentive to God’s graceful presence in ordinary things. It’s a horizon-widening gesture that is deeply appealing, and while Van Gogh and Nouwen are far from the only ones to express such a way of seeing the world, they still serve as inspiring examples for readers.
Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent van Gogh really introduced me to van Gogh as an artist with a spiritual life for the first time, and it helped me understand Nouwen a little more deeply. These things make it a worthwhile read in itself for me. The book also pushed me to go back to my shelves and turn through some of Nouwen’s other writings, including Life of the Beloved and the letters collected together in Love, Henri. Berry has succeeded in giving readers something both deeply personal and widely relatable. And both the prose and imagery put together in the book’s pages are vivid. This is a beautiful book that I will most likely return to before long, and I recommend it for anyone who wants to follow Jesus and look at the rest of the world with a more tender eye.
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided by Intervarsity Press for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.