In 2006, I went on a personal pilgrimage to Amsterdam and Paris. Art had increasingly become a source of inspiration and revelation for me, and I wanted to know more. I was not disappointed.
In the Van Gogh Museum bookstore in Amsterdam, a book caught my attention: Van Gogh and Gaugin: The Search for Sacred Art, by Deborah Silverman. I ordered a copy when I got home and found it fascinating. Silverman explores how both artists sought new ways to experience and portray the presence of the sacred. They came from different backgrounds –Van Gogh from a pious Dutch Reformed tradition, Gaugin schooled in Catholic mysticism – and both created their own style. But they shared a common purpose.
Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers is one of his many fascinating works when viewed from this perspective.
Here’s a common interpretation: “The foreground of The Church at Auvers is brightly lit by the sun, but the church itself sits in its own shadow, and ‘neither reflects nor emanates any light of its own…’” Van Gogh had become disillusioned by the “empty and unenlightened preaching” he had heard too often. Painting became a way to seek and share spiritual truth and energy found beyond the walls of any religious building — in the light and colors all around us.[i]
This painting, then, suggests the sacred is best found outside the church and its buildings – in the glory of the blue sky, in the light that illuminates ordinary paths and landscapes, and perhaps even within the private thoughts of the anonymous villager passing by.
I get the point. In modern times, religious institutions can often seem irrelevant. Fewer and fewer people participate in worshipping communities. I’ve attended my share of worship services that left me feeling more discouraged than inspired. I appreciate seeing what Van Gogh sees, and not being limited in any way in my search for the sacred.
But as I thought about The Church at Auvers this week, I realized my perspective on it has shifted. Not everything that occurs behind such walls takes place in dull shadows.
I’ve heard some terrific, life-changing sermons in my day. Many times, hymns and songs moved me in ways that words cannot. Within such walls, I’ve met many ordinary people who carry light within them, who gratefully gather with each other and form strong, vibrant communities.
And I’m not just talking about experiences in my own tradition.
I’ve attended Torah studies at my local synagogue where everyone fearlessly wrestles with ancient stories and timeless questions, uncovering fresh insights into contemporary life.
I’ve listened to and meditated with Buddhist teachers who have helped me see life in new ways.
I’ve sat in mosques in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Goleta where I felt a strong, quiet sense of reverence.
These experiences happened “inside” institutional walls, but there was nothing dull about them.
In essence, I don’t feel we have to choose being inside or outside these walls to find spiritual light.
I remember years ago attending a mass in Yakima, Washington where the priest said, “We don’t come to church to experience God. We can experience God every day of the week. We come to church to celebrate what we’ve found.”
I’m grateful for all the experiences I’ve had — inside and outside spiritual buildings — that have instructed, inspired, challenged, delighted, and nurtured me.
May we each find the light we need in this new year, wherever it may be.