Vincent van Gogh grew up in a parsonage. It was a genteel home. His father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and his mother, a lover of nature, watercolours and letter writing, all attributes which Vincent inherited. Over his short life he wrote over 900 letters to his younger brother, Theo, who became his staunchest supporter. Twenty four years after his death, his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, published Vincent’s letters, revealing not the mad man who cut off his ear as so many people think of him, but a compassionate, deep thinking, well-read and insightful man … “the uncommon genius that was Vincent Van Gogh”.
Hard work, and compassion above all else, were the hallmarks of the Van Gogh family. Vincent’s father was a clergyman with a heart for the destitute. Vincent would go with his father into the most desolate areas of town taking food, clothing and blankets to those in greatest need, irrespective of their beliefs or unbelief. But this heart of compassion, coupled with his Christian faith would be sorely tried and tested in the next chapter of his life.
Accepted as a missionary to miners in the bleak Borinage region of Belgium, Vincent set out with all of a young man’s passion and enthusiasm, keen to preach the gospel to the miners and their families but his dreams and aspirations were quickly crushed.
The conditions in the mines were horrific; firedamp explosions, water seepage, poisonous air and cave-ins. Disease was rampant. The miners were victims of greed and indifference, children were abused in the unsupervised cavernous underground and the miner’s rights were ignored. Women and children struggled with abject poverty and malnutrition. These people were not interested in preaching and teaching; they were in dire need of food, water, clothing and medical care.
Vincent’s compassion for them overflowed. He gave away all he had, including his clothing. He tore up bed sheets for bandages and even gave away his bed and slept on a pile of straw on the ground. He nursed the sick and became one with them in their suffering.
In one of his letters to Theo he writes, “I believe that the more one loves, the more one will act; for love that is only a feeling I will never recognise as love”. He took quite literally Christ’s command to love others as you love yourself and the miners responded to his being-one-with-them and many came to faith through the outpouring of Christ’s love. Once he spent 40 days nursing a miner who had been severely burnt and disfigured in a gas explosion and been left for dead. Wonderfully the man recovered and eventually was able to return to work and support his family.
But his acts of mercy and compassion were rejected by the very people he firmly believed would value them most … those who had accepted him as a missionary in the first place … the organised church. He was fired because he did not dress appropriately in a manner befitting his position and because he was not producing the anticipated results of an evangelist. They seemed unmoved and indifferent to the plight of the miner’s, concerned only about the reputation of the clergy.
Vincent returned to his childhood home a broken man, exhausted, sick, disillusioned and angry, his reputation in tatters. He suffered a nervous breakdown. Some say he lost his faith in God, but his letters tell a different story. He lost his faith in the church and its hierarchy, the trappings of religion and rule keeping, but not his love for God.
But as so often happens in the purposes of God, the man who came into his life to encourage and help him was a pastor and a painter … Reverend Pietersen. He took a fatherly interest in Vincent and shared his studio with him, so impressed was he with Vincent’s sketches. It would be more than a year before Vincent began the next chapter of his life but Rev Pietersen had sown a seed that would grow out of the heartbreaking days in the Borinage.
Quote: William Havlicek, Van Gogh's Untold Story,
Image: Getty Images from the Smithsonian - Public domain