Learning From Henri Nouwen and Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life

By Dan Clendenin

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Carol A. Berry, Learning From Henri Nouwen and Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 135pp.

After growing up in Holland and Switzerland, in 1974 the artist and educator Carol Berry emigrated to the United States. In the fall of 1976, when her husband Steve matriculated at Yale Divinity School and became the teaching assistant for Henri Nouwen, Carol audited two classes with Nouwen. One was called “Compassion,” and the other “The Compassion of Vincent van Gogh.” After Nouwen died in 1996, Sue Mosteller, his spiritual director and literary executor, asked Berry to write this book that is based upon the previously unpublished lecture material. “This book,” she writes, “is about Henri’s insights into Vincent’s life” from those two courses.

Berry has lived, breathed, contemplated, and studied these two Dutch masters for over forty years. She has read the famous 900 letters between Vincent and his brother Theo. She includes and elucidates thirty-five paintings that are included in the book. She has taught this material in workshops and retreats around the country. She tells her own stories about life as a pastor’s wife in parishes in rural Vermont and urban New York and Los Angeles. This is, in fact, her second book on the subject, after Vincent van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art (2015). One of the best things about this book is how she disabuses us of the popular caricature that Van Gogh was merely an eccentric artist plagued by madness, alcohol abuse, homelessness, prostitutes, and suicide at the age of thirty-seven.

The link between Nouwen and Van Gogh is obvious. Based upon their own life stories, both men invite us to embrace our own personal experiences of brokenness, and to enter into the sufferings of others, that we might live as people of compassion. Berry organizes her book into three movements: solidarity, consolation, and comfort. And so Mosteller has it right when she says that this little gem of a book has the “perfect subtitle.”

Dan Clendenin: dan@journeywithjesus.net

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