[COLUMN] On Van Gogh and the ministry of compassion

“THE Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

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

Jesus’ words were not merely pious pronouncements like that of a political candidate. They were words of genuine commitment to privileging the poor and the downtrodden, the lonely 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 meant suffering with them while giving them hope. Indeed, it meant ministering with compassion.

For Jesus, ministering with compassion does not only mean giving people their material needs. It also means entering their lives and accompanying them in their fears and anxieties.

This ministry of compassion is what I recalled and reflected on these past few days deeply as I went on retreat and read the book, Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life by Carol A. Berry.

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

Carol A. Berry, the author, contends that while the experts in the art world portrayed Vincent van Gogh as a psychologically disturbed, mentally imbalanced, and crazy artist, Henri Nouwen found him above all to be a compassionate man who was an artist with a mission. That mission would be “to make marginalized in society the subject and the focus of his work to give them respect and recognition.”

Berry further explains that Gogh’s art “would be an art that first of all was inspired by his personal experiences and his faith, his relationships with the poor in spirit, with those who mourned, with the meek, with those who hungered and thirsted for justice, with the pure in heart, with the peacemakers, and with the persecuted.”

For those of us who know little about Vincent van Gogh’s life, Berry’s book presents Gogh’s early life and works as a missionary and preacher who lived with the utterly poor miners of Borinage in northern Belgium. It also shows how his paintings portrayed the impoverished men and women of the almshouses and soup kitchen in The Hague on the North Sea coast of the western Netherlands, where Gogh honed and enriched his talent.

I hope you also get to see Gogh’s paintings exhibit 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 gave each of us!

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

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


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