Carol A. Berry "Learning Compassion from Vincent van Gogh" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal with the Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts with your friends and family. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts, taking time to give us a review or a thumbs-up will mean a great deal to us and will help us extend our reach to more people.
My guest today is Carol Berry. Carol is an artist, art educator and lecturer at Vermont Humanities Council. Carol is also the author of Vincent van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art. Today, we’re going to talk about another important book Carol has written, called Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life. Carol has spent a lifetime studying the art of Vincent van Gogh and has retraced his steps through the towns and villages of the Netherlands, Belgium and France. But her journey began when she audited a class taught by Henri Nouwen at Yale Divinity School in 1978.
Let’s begin there. Carol, your husband, Steve was a student at YDS. You were a young family with a new baby. How did Henri Nouwen feature in your lives?
Carol Berry: Well, Henri was an important encounter for us at Yale, for sure, because we were, as you just said, arrived with a new baby, out of a time spent in rural Vermont, for three years. And all of a sudden, we found ourselves immersed at the Yale Divinity School and there, the most important encounter for us, especially for my husband, Steve, who was a student there, was Professor Henri Nouwen, at the time. Steve didn’t find himself very comfortable in the academic setting at first at Yale Divinity School, because we had just spent three years immersed in a parish life. Steve was a student pastor then, so Yale and academics were difficult for him until he entered a class that was led by Henri Nouwen. And there, he realized what Henri was talking about, which was the ministry, the real life, you know, where the-rubber-hits-the-road ministry.
Steve already had done that and been there and it made sense, what Henri was saying. And Henri made Steve realize he was not in the wrong place after all in the academic setting, but he was actually ahead of a lot of the theological students at the time. So, Henri at that time in our lives was really the most important link to what then would happen in our future ministry. So, he became a friend, too, which we are grateful for – so grateful – because our lives intersected after we left the Yale Divinity School on many occasions, often also just through letters and the manuscripts he would send us.
Karen: You had a lovely history with Henri Nouwen. That’s clear, that’s very clear. And it was out of that history that this book somehow came about. Maybe just tell me a little bit about how did this book come to be?
Carol: Well, one of those important classes that Steve did take with Henri Nouwen was called Compassion, a very un-academic title for Yale Divinity School, but it was a class – that was actually the first one Steve took – that meant so much to him. And a year later, Henri offered the same class again, but this time it was called The Compassion of Vincent van Gogh. And because Steve knew I liked art and was hoping to do art and study art, he urged me to audit the class, and I did that. It was very meaningful. I have to say, I liked Vincent, but he was not my favorite artist at the time. But, through Henri’s class and his ability to look at the artist, not from an art-historical perspective, but from a human perspective, Vincent became a whole different human being for us.
And as students, we gleaned so much about what it meant to be compassionate through the life of an artist. And Henri would say there isn’t much difference between a minister and an artist, in a sense. He was ministering through his art and he was exemplifying in his life, the stages of compassion. So that was it. I left that class very much enriched, but didn’t think anything more about it for another 20 years. And in the meantime, we had also become friends with Sue Mosteller, who was Henri Nouwen’s literary executrix. And one day, since she knew that I had taken that class years ago at Yale, a package arrived in the mail, and it was filled with Henri’s notes from that class. And since Henri never had written a book about Vincent and compassion and that whole concept, Sue just said to me, “Do something with these notes.”
And, of course she meant write a book, but it took another 20 years for that to happen. But I did immerse myself back into the lives of both these Dutchmen. Henri and Vincent just were intertwined and became a guide for me. And I did start to do lectures and workshops on compassion and art and Henri’s words. And eventually, this book emerged finally. So, that’s how it happened. Thanks to Sue and thanks to Steve who made me audit the class.
Karen: Well, I also want to say thanks to InterVarsity Press. It’s a beautiful book. It’s so attractive and it has loads of pictures in it. I was very impressed. It’s always lovely to pick up a book that you kind of go, “This is a treasure,” and it’s beautifully written, but also, wonderful choices have been made in it. And I found that so rich. Congratulations. I’m just delighted with that. It’s really good. Now, you’ve put in a unique structure to the book. Can you explain the structure of the book? Why is it – in a way, it’s very much a Henri structure; there’s three parts – but tell me why and what those parts are.
Carol: Yes, because Henri did actually structure his class in the way I ended up structuring my book. And he had this wonderful quote, and I don’t know if he would like me to read it, because this is basically the structure of the class, as well as my book. And it is three parts. Henri often did things in three parts. So, this is the quote that underlies the book. It’s by Henri: “The compassionate manifest their human solidarity by crying out with those who suffer. They manifest their consolation by feeling deeply the wounds of life. And they offer comfort by pointing beyond the human pains to glimpses of strength and hope.” And so, what Henri did in his class, we focused on the first part of Vincent’s life, which exemplified his idea of solidarity, the basic first component of compassion. And Vincent’s slides and words from his letters and Henri’s interpretation and the way it worked on us, we really got a glimpse of what it meant to be in solidarity with human beings.
And Henri said that without that solidarity, we wouldn’t be able to have a ministry that really would have meaning. And then after, we spent a lot of time in the Dutch countryside with Vincent, where he was in solidarity. Also in Belgium, we emerged to a place where Vincent exemplified consolation by living with a person, by sharing her burdens, by sharing his own pain with that person. And Henri just was able to, through the letters he chose us to read, really bring that so much into our attention, what it meant to be next to a person who suffered with our own pain. And then the third part of Henri’s quote, and into the south of France, where Vincent began to paint the images that we are familiar with and using no longer religious words, but using just his art as a language. And Henri just immersed us.
It was a beautiful experience to see the slides on the wall and hear Henri quoting letters from Vincent, because we heard Vincent not only paint, but say, “With my paintings, I want to comfort people.” So that was the structure of the class that Henri taught about Vincent. And I use that same structure for my book. But each of the parts of my book are not only divided into three, each chapter, each quote part is divided into three, because I’m using Henri’s class experience. I’m using Vincent’s biography and I’m using some examples of my own life with my husband in the ministry to exemplify solidarity, consolation and comfort.
Karen: I thought it was a delightful structure. I really enjoyed it. And I appreciated the vulnerability of bringing yourself into it as well. It’s one thing to be an art educator and to tell people about an artist or to educate them on how to be artists. That would be maybe the first two parts of that, but to bring yourself into it and say, “Here’s how this applied in our lives. Here’s where we did it well. Here’s where we didn’t do it as well as we would wish, but we hope we did it well.” You know, that kind of thing. There’s a great deal of honesty in it. I think I would go back right to the beginning of Henri. Many of us know how much Henri really absorbed the art of Rembrandt. We have that famous, you know, The Return of the Prodigal Son.
But what I love about this was Vincent became really a teacher for Henri. He really studied deeply. He brought this out to you when he finally understood what it could be. And I don’t think any of us were looking for the compassionate life in Vincent van Gogh as a model. But Henri found there, the raison d’etre, the heart of who Vincent was, and then found the way of saying, “You guys want to be preachers. You guys want to go out and serve the world. Look, here’s an example. Here’s the why, and here’s the how of it.” I find that really very moving and inspiring.
Carol: I don’t know what happened first. Henri’s immersion into Vincent then his love for Rembrandt, but for sure, the paintings and art of Vincent, which pulled Henri in so much, also taught Henri how to look at Rembrandt more. So, I think it was sort of a circular evolution, in a way, where Henri’s immersion into Vincent and Vincent’s love for Rembrandt – that was all part of it, too. Rembrandt had used a language for which there were no words, but only the image, that Vincent actually wrote in his letters. And that’s what Henri discovered, too: that Rembrandt, as well as Vincent, spoke through art. And I think that’s where Vincent was a teacher for Henri, because Vincent talks about in his letters of looking until you see, and Henri, we know, was looking at Rembrandt until he saw – until he had his revelations.
He was looking at Vincent and Henri’s way of looking, then, as we were looking at the slides in his classroom, was making us get into those paintings, too. We spent a long time looking at one slide, which normally you don’t do when you’re in a museum. You pass by, but we had to immerse. We had to let the lines and the colors eventually sink into us and reverberate and just make us feel what the artist had been trying to tell us. So, Henri had understood how to look at art, thanks to also Vincent and Rembrandt’s influence.
Karen: I remember Sister Sue Mosteller telling the story of going to a gallery with Henri. I think it was up in Ottawa. There was a painting there he very much wanted to see, and they came into the gallery and sat down, and Henri was just absolutely absorbed by that painting. I believe it was one of Vincent’s, but having said that, it was interesting, because Sue watched and sat beside him and did her very best to see what he was seeing. And, you know, 15 minutes passed; 20 minutes passed. And she was like, “Okay, what are we doing here? Henri, why are you so focused?” And Henri’s response was, “Aren’t you in the picture, aren’t you there, aren’t you?” And really that sense in which Henri had learned how to enter in and receive from the painting and be a part of it. I think that’s an amazing gift to all of us, because out of that comes something of how imagery can speak to us as well as words. And I think that’s very important. If there’s a line within your book that has stuck out to me, that was that both Henri and Vincent were wounded healers. Maybe you might just open that up for us.
Carol: Yes. That has been a theme with Henri for a long time. And I think that is partly why he was drawn to Vincent. Henri certainly dealt with his own wounds and his own struggles and his own doubts. And what he found in Vincent – it’s such a multi-layered relationship, really – was also a man who struggled so much, with his wounds, his desire to be loved and to be loving, and often not being able to reach. . . Henri often said it was like working his way through an iron wall to do what he could do or want to do. And that’s what Vincent had written in one of his letters. Both of them struggled, I think, and Henri recognized that in Vincent.
But then he also said to us students, we are all wounded on a certain level, we all have our struggles. But don’t let those struggles keep us from ministering, from sharing them, from reaching out. And so, what Henri said about Vincent was that despite Vincent’s failures and his setbacks and his difficult nature, and people being turned off by him and so on, despite all those setbacks, Vincent never gave up the desire to minister, to search for God, to connect with human beings, to love them, to share his last piece of bread with them. So, what Henri said, he was a wounded man, but it never stopped him from realizing that in his woundedness, he could maybe minister more deeply, because he could understand the condition of most of us. So, both were wounded healers, but we also were made to understand that we, too, could be wounded healers.
Karen: I love the journey that you take us on, in that I learned a lot about Vincent’s life. It gives me that arc of his life, which is very meaningful. And you realize that at the beginning, he didn’t set out to be an artist. He set out to be a minister. And then he goes downward, that downward mobility that became a signature of Henri later in his life, that downward mobility to be with the poorest of the poor. And then it was, in a sense, at that point that his gift of drawing and eventually painting comes alive in that setting. It’s quite fascinating. I found that very hopeful, because all of us have journeys that we go on, and we kind of look at the various points at which, in a sense, there’s been a cross in the road and we’ve gone one way or another. And that choice is always so very important in our lives. But I found that your book helps me with that overall journey of Vincent.
Now, clearly, you must have read some of, if not all, the 900 letters that Vincent wrote. Tell us a little bit about his letters and about his writing and what you found there, what came alive to you.
Carol: Well, yes. Vincent’s letters were a part of our curriculum with Henri and he did pick out some very, very moving letters that exemplified what Vincent was teaching us and what Henri wanted us to get. But yes, after the course, and that was 20 years later, when I received that package, I did read the 900 letters. And I was even more pulled in to the life of Vincent to realize, you know, that in these personal letters to his brother, Theo, especially, he bared his soul. He did not keep anything away from Theo. Most of us don’t have such relationships, where we really are not afraid to just show what we’re going through. And so, those letters deepened my sense of Vincent’s unique desire to comfort, to paint what he learned creation was telling him.
It also deepened my understanding that Henri had discovered a human being who was really worth knowing as a human being, not just as an artist. Vincent’s letters are sometimes a bit tedious. You have to work through some of those mundane things where he asked for more money from Theo. And sometimes you’ll say, “Okay, Vincent, that’s enough.” He has these gems of his insight and his enthusiasm and his awe for nature. And I have to say, the first letters, until he really discovers his desire to become an artist, are filled with religious scriptures and hymns. And he would write down the whole sermon that he would hear and send everything to Theo. But once he realized, and was actually rejected by the institution, the missionary society, he said, “I don’t need that language anymore. My language is going to be art.”
And he drops all religious language, but his letters become much more spiritual and much more universal and deep. So, for the first part of the letters, he rests on the biblical stories, the beautiful books that he read, but they were not his words. After he dropped the religious language, the letters became just him and his words – with quotes from other artists, for example – but they were Vincent’s journey. So, I really gleaned a lot. And I really am grateful that Vincent wrote, and I’m grateful to the wife of Theo, who then translated all those letters and made them available to us. It’s a gem, it’s a gem.
Karen: I understand that in his lifetime, Vincent didn’t end up selling one painting. Is that true? And that those paintings, I mean, got collected by Theo. I mean, what a brother he was to him, what an amazing brother!
Carol: Yes. Well, as I always say when I do talk about Vincent, there would not have been Vincent without Theo and also without Theo’s wife. And Vincent did realize that. He was demanding. He needed the money to be able to paint. But he also said, in a beautiful quote, which I don’t completely remember, but he said, “Once I have acclaim, once my paintings do reach the outer world and become well-known, it is not just I who have painted it. It is you and I,” he writes to Theo. So, I find that beautiful. He did realize, and Theo was the recipient of every single painting of Vincent sent. Vincent hoped that Theo would sell them, because he was in the art dealer business in Paris, a perfect place to be selling, but the world wasn’t ready yet for Vincent’s work. It was just on the cusp. So, he did sell one painting in his lifetime. And that painting was sold to somebody who knew Vincent and Theo. But it didn’t take long after Vincent died and Theo died and Theo’s wife started to make the paintings available, that all of a sudden, the world was ready and the paintings came to the world like flashes of passion and color.
Karen: I always find it fascinating when they say what’s the latest, highest price for a painting. And it’s usually a Van Gogh. It’s really something, isn’t it? It’s amazing. Back to your book: The first chapter is on solidarity. How is that an element toward compassion?
Carol: Well, as Henri said and as Vincent exemplified in many of his writings and his sketches, is that unless you are with other people where they live, where they work, where they eat, where they transact their lives, you don’t understand them. And there’s that saying: You don’t know another person unless you walk in their moccasins.
This is basically what solidarity is. You walk in their moccasins; you walk in those wooden shoes of the miners. You walk next to the farmers. He could not have painted The Potato Eaters had he not spent time with them in their hovel, in their hut and talking with them or drawing them. The act of drawing those portraits was such an intimate encounter. He had to look at their faces. He had to see their expressions. He had to hear them talk. He had to taste the potatoes. He had to live amongst the miners, breathing the coal dust, you know, live in their homes, go to their homes, because how could he preach to them? How could he be a pastor to them if he didn’t know what their struggles were? So, solidarity was, as Henri said, the foundation of leading a compassionate life.
Karen: I love the fact that he didn’t look down. He looked across; he became one of them. You really sense he loves the people. There is this love that comes across, as you’ve written about it, that was in him for what he was seeing. And he was telling that story with such respect, with such a sense of embrace and wanting the world to embrace them, wanting the world to see their value. And it adds to our seeing Vincent’s paintings from that period, very much so. What does it mean to console?
Carol: Well, it’s a very similar place. You have to be with that person. And again, as Vincent exemplified, you have to be with a person and understand them in order to share their struggles. So, consoling is when you sit next to a person, you are there with them. You maybe understand their life surrounding, but you are there where they hurt. As Henri said, we often come to people with a solution mentality. And I know I have done that. I come to a person who is very sad, struggling, crying, and I will tell them, “Oh, it’ll be all right. It will go by. You will find your way through this.” Henri said, “That’s not what consolation is.”
And Vincent exemplified that when he lived with the prostitute called Sien. He was there, when it hurt. He shared the time with her. He did not say, “It will get better,” but hoping through his presence, he would give a little bit of strength and encouragement to the person.
So, that’s what Henri’s trying to say. It wasn’t always easy, you know, to understand. And when you’re in a real-life setting, consolation isn’t always easy to do. But it is the place where you hold the other person’s hand and you both struggle and suffer together, you with your pain, they with their pain. And the person in pain recognizes you understand pain, because you are sharing your own pain with them.
Karen: You wrote, too, from Vincent’s letters. He writes, “I want to create drawings that will touch some people, whether it is in figures or in landscapes. I don’t want to express some sentimental melancholy, but serious sorrow. In short, I want to progress so far in my work that people will say, ‘That man feels deeply. And that man feels tenderly.’” And later it says, “This is my ambition, which is based less on resentment than love in spite of everything, based more on the feeling of serenity than on passion.” So, love, at the core of who Vincent was, was clearly there and led in that direction. Didn’t it?
Carol: It did. And I think with Vincent, because he had felt comforted and consoled by other people’s art, like Rembrandt and others, he knew that art could do that for other people. He knew that he could use that language to express his love and his compassion.
Karen: Here’s another quote from your book that I liked very much: “Henri also spoke about Vincent as being a seer – one who saw and wanted us to see with him as he progressed in his life and art, his sun-covered landscapes and glowing wheat fields, olive orchards, cypresses, radiant people, sowers and reapers, all spoke their own wordless language and the images he created. In the midst of darkness, he saw light. In the midst of ugliness, he saw beauty. In the midst of pain and suffering, he saw the nobility of the human heart.” I think that is a challenge that Henri wanted to give all of you who are about to go out to be ministers. How has that challenge impacted your work?
Carol: One of the things that was important is that Steve and I both had experienced ministry. We were in a rural setting. We could identify with Vincent’s place of loneliness and darkness in the Borinage, in the Belgian mining district.
So, when Vincent’s life was unfolded, I was able to identify with those moments where Vincent struggled and tried to reach people. So, the whole class that Henri taught on compassion, made us as we left Yale – and we have been in the ministry now for 40 years – made us realize more those moments of grace, I guess you could say, where the compassion of other human beings mingled around our desire to be compassionate. We just were more aware of the fact that we needed to be in solidarity. We needed to be consoling and comforting. In the early days, we did it out of however we could manage, but with Henri’s and Vincent’s wisdom, I think we could deepen those times more, of solidarity, consolation and comfort. Those elements have always been a part of our thinking, you know, and it’s definitely influenced us.
Karen: Well, in my knowing of you, I would say yes to that, too. I do know you to be rich with those ingredients that you bring into relationships, and I’m very grateful for your friendship and Steve’s. And certainly, we at the Henri Nouwen Society are very grateful for what you created with this wonderful book. It took a while for it to come from being a pile of papers to a very wonderful book. I really want to encourage our listeners to get the book. Once again, I’ll just give you the title because it’s so lovely: Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life, by Carol A. Berry. And again, I would say my compliments to InterVarsity; they have created a very beautiful book. It’s definitely worth having.
There are a couple little quotes in here that I thought, before we part, I’d love to run by you. The first one comes here and it struck me. Many of us know the beautiful pictures of the irises that Vincent painted. And it says here, “He celebrated their distinct beauty, not by rendering them in a realistic manner, but by expressing their essence, their iris-ness.” I loved that. And I think that comes from an artist like yourself. What is the difference between rendering something in its exactness and rendering it in its essence? Tell us about that.
Carol: That is about – and I think Henri opened our eyes to look at Vincent’s art – that it was the essence that we should be feeling and seeing in the work. And then again, Vincent and Henri made us look enough so that going outside, you end up looking more and deeper. And I’ve often heard from people who saw slides from Vincent’s art that after the lecture, they would go outside and everything just sparkled a little bit more or spoke a little bit more to them. So, that’s what art can do.
Karen: It’s funny, Paul Tillich, you’ve quoted him in your book and I love his quote about the arts: “All arts create symbols for a level of reality which cannot be reached in any other way. A picture and a poem reveal elements of reality which cannot be approached scientifically. In the creative work of art, we encounter reality in a dimension which is closed to us without such works.” What a good argument for the arts!
Carol: It is. Yes.
Karen: Well, I have loved this chat. I’m curious. Are you, yourself also an artist?
Carol: Well, I used to paint and I still hope to, but I have been writing more and lecturing and learning. And so, in one way, I should say, “Yes, I’m an artist, but not producing much at the moment.”
Karen: Yes. That’s fair. I would say the same of myself: Once an artist always an artist. And that was where my roots came from. I came out of the arts, and I think that’s why the book felt so alive to me. And so delicious, really. I’m so grateful you wrote it. I’m grateful that Sue Mosteller said, “You’re the one.”
I know from experience so many have said, “I wish I could have been in those courses. I wish I could have sat and heard Henri teach on this.” And what you’ve done is you’ve given us a gift. You take us into that classroom and you give us the essence of the irises. You give us the essence of compassion, the way Henri wanted to communicate it and the way he wanted us, as followers of Christ, to understand how we can be this resource to the world around us.
Thank you so much, Carol. This was just a treat to talk with you today, and I do love your book and I do encourage all of our listeners to take a look. Go to our website and check it out. And, I know you’ll be well rewarded if you get the book. Thanks so much, Carol.
I hope you come away from this interview with Carol Berry eager to understand the compassionate life that both Vincent van Gogh and Henri Nouwen felt was central to their life of faith. If you’d like to know more about Carol Berry and the books we discussed today, please go to our website, where you’ll find links to any content, resources or things discussed in this episode. Check out the link Books to get you started, in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. And if you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give it a stellar review or a thumbs-up. Please share it with your friends and family. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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