[COLUMN] On Van Gogh and the Ministry of Compassion —

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

He sent me to proclaim freedom to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim a year pleasing to the Lord.

These are the words of Jesus in the Gospel of this Sunday (January 23) as he opened the Scriptures at the beginning of his ministry on earth.

Jesus’ words were not just pious statements like those of a political candidate. They are words of sincere commitment to privilege the poor and the oppressed, the alone and the oppressed in his ministry. And that meant not just preaching to them, but living with them and entering into their pain and struggles. It was to suffer with them while giving them hope. Indeed, it meant serving with compassion.

For Jesus, serving with compassion does not just mean meeting people’s material needs. It is also entering into their lives and supporting them in their fears and anxieties.

This ministry of compassion is what I remembered and reflected deeply on in recent days as I went on retreat and read the book, Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life of Carol A. Berry.

The book, a Christmas present from a parishioner, came at just the right time when I had planned to see the immersive exhibit of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings here in Los Angeles. It gave me a newer and deeper appreciation of Gogh’s life and works in light of the teachings and writings of Henri Nouwen.

Carol A. Berry, the author, argues that while art world experts portrayed Vincent van Gogh as a psychologically deranged, mentally unbalanced, and insane artist, Henri Nouwen found him primarily a compassionate man who was an artist with a mission. This mission would be “to make the marginalized in society the subject and the center of his work to give them respect and recognition”.

Berry further explains that Gogh’s art “would be an art that drew above all from his personal experiences and his faith, from his relationships with the poor in spirit, with those who mourned, with the meek, with those who were hungry and thirsty for justice”. , with pure hearts, with peacemakers and with the persecuted.

For those of us unfamiliar with the life of Vincent van Gogh, Berry’s book features Gogh’s early life and work as a missionary and preacher who lived with the poorest miners of the Borinage in northern La Belgium. It also shows how his paintings depicted the poor men and women of the almshouses and soup kitchen in The Hague, on the North Sea coast in the west of the Netherlands, where Gogh honed and enriched his talent.

I hope you can also see the exhibition of Gogh paintings and be moved by them, knowing more about the artist’s intentions and mission. Like Gogh, may we not forget to bring comfort, healing and dignity to the poor, lonely and weak members of our society, using the gifts and talents God has given to each of us!

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The opinions, beliefs and views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and views of Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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Prof. Rodel “Odey” Balagtas is the pastor of Incarnation Church in Glendale, California.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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