Knowing God through The Potato Eaters

When friends of mine go to the Netherlands I tell them they have to experience three things. They have to order a loempia (Indonesian meat and vegetable roll) and eat it outdoors at a market; they must ride a bike through the dunes, and they must spend hours at the Van Gogh Museum drinking in his view of the world. Of the three, Van Gogh is the most important. And I’ve been reintroduced to his brilliance recently because I have been reading Henri Nouwen.

Vincent Van Gogh was a Dutch painter in the late 1800s. He started life believing that he was called to the formal ministry, but when he served poor people in the coal mines he was criticized by the church. Van Gogh gave most of his possessions to the poor and church leaders found him to be of “excessive zeal.” He was denied a position as a minister.

This vocational crisis caused Van Gogh to return to art, arguing that godliness was best reflected in the lives of the poor. In his famous painting The Potato Eaters he depicts the poor in way that at first seems ugly. When we look more closely, however, though we may see despair we also see community and beauty in shared labour and food. Van Gogh saw the presence of God in those struggling with poverty, and this changed his view of God. In one of his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh said in art he could find and express God’s demand that we love with irresistible force.

God’s love in a fallen world
Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest born in the Netherlands in 1932, about 40 years after Van Gogh’s too early death. Nouwen admired Van Gogh and was deeply influenced by Van Gogh’s willingness to express love in his portrayal of a fallen world. Nouwen was a successful academic and man of the church. He wrote dozens of books translated into over 30 languages. He taught at Yale University and Harvard Divinity School; he traveled the world and befriended Cardinals. But in the midst of all this success, he admitted to deep loneliness and depression. Eventually, he found an antidote to these feelings in his work with people of mental and intellectual disability.

Nouwen was a friend of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche – communities around the world where people with developmental disabilities live as independently as possible with those who care for them. L’Arche communities assume that everyone has dignity and can make a contribution to society. The goal is to develop mutual, interdependent relationships between and among everyone who lives there, no matter what his or her level of ability.

In 1986 Nouwen visited Ontario L’Arche Daybreak and provided pastoral care when one of its members was hit by a car. The community was impacted by Nouwen’s work and asked him to be their pastor. Nouwen spent the last 10 years of his life with this Canadian group, and while he lived there he was connected with a man named Adam. In his book Adam: God’s Beloved we see Nouwen’s growing belief that the Gospel story is best seen in our friendship with and care for those who struggle.

Van Gogh and Nouwen help the rest of us know God in a new way. Their wisdom has been important to me lately because I’ve been working more fully on the question of what it means to do justice to the gay community. This issue used to be an academic one for me. I have written about the rights of gay people because I believe in public legal justice for all citizens. But recently it’s more personal because I’ve come to know many gay Christians. Ten years ago I wrote about gay people; today I know gay Christians. It makes a difference. Listening to their stories and coming to know both their pain and the beauty of their lives has changed the way I see God’s love.

I don’t know why I was surprised by this. Van Gogh, Nouwen and Jesus taught me that we know God at least in part by knowing those that have been ostracized from society. As I enter the last third of my life I’m learning about God in a new way. I hope Christian Courier readers will join me on this journey.

  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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