Resource: Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh

Carol A. Berry’s book, “Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life,” stems from Berry taking classes with the Dutch theologian Nouwen at Yale Divinity School. Nouwen focused on the spiritual life of the van Gogh in his course on compassion, and Berry has continued that study since 1979.

I thought I knew a lot about Van Gogh, but I had no idea that he was a minister and missionary before he was an artist. He immersed himself with the poorest of the poor to the point that many, including his parents, thought he was becoming insane.

And indeed that may have been true. The one issue I have with this book is its tendency to gloss over van Gogh’s mental illness. As an advocate for people with mental illness, I find this inappropriate. People with mental illness are some of the most compassionate people that I have ever met.

Nonetheless, people who love Nouwen’s work and people who love van Gogh’s work both should read this book for the insights it provides. Another big aha for me from the art side of the equation: Impressionism in Europe really developed from Japan opening itself to the world in the mid-1800s so Europeans saw its artwork for the first time.

It’s a quick read, well illustrated with pictures of van Gogh’s work as he became an artist after his experiences as a missionary to the poor.

Facing Your Accuser

The critical voice in your head may be more than just your inner critic. A mindfulness exercise to help deal with that problem begins here:

  • Write down all the accusing thoughts that you are having.
  • Review them.
  • If you see anything that reflects a need to change, repent of the sin.
  • Compare the thoughts with God’s true opinion of you. A Bible promise book can help with this.
  • Reject the thoughts that are lies of Satan.

Here is what God really thinks of you:

“The Lord your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness. He will quiet you with His love. He will rejoice over you with singing.”

Zephaniah 3:17

Resource: “In Praise of the Useless Life”

What would it be like to have Thomas Merton as your boss? Can anyone really find freedom and happiness in a monastery today?

In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir” answers both questions. Its author, Brother Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., has spent about 50 years living as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethemani in Kentucky. I’ve taken a retreat there and fell in love with the place.

Thomas Merton was Quenon’s novice master, and Quenon knew him well. This book contains Quenon’s memories of the beloved monk, as well as insight into both men’s daily lives at the abbey.

The book won two 2019 Catholic Press Association Awards: Memoir (first place) and Cover Design (second place).

The Practice of Deep Listening

Can you hear me now? Ah, the cry of the modern age.

Today we will strive to go beyond the ability to hear to gain the ability to listen … truly listen.

I have struggled with this over time: Often I am thinking of the next thing I want to say rather than listening to the person in front of me. I also have a bad habit of finishing the sentences of people I know well when I want them to hurry it up a little.

Working on deep listening is hard. Rather than reacting to a person’s words with the intent to fix their problem … or worse, fix them, we are listening to understand.

One tip I recently received from a class I am taking on family dynamics is interesting: Ask three good questions to the person before you make a statement.

I haven’t been able to make it past one semi-good question yet. But I am going to spend at least the week working on it. I know that trying to fix people … particularly family members … is one of my least charming character traits. And it’s exhausting and unappreciated. So I will work on my three questions and just listening to understand.

What was that you said?

Choose Hope

God is not out to get us. Is that sometimes hard to believe?

When one thing after another goes “wrong.” When the workload ahead looks overwhelming. When there are dozens of questions and very few answers, it can be hard to hope.

The goal is to make a choice to believe, a choice to decide to hope against hope. It is not easy. The first step is to focus on this moment, just as it is. Mindfulness also narrows our perspective and makes it easier to hope.

Offering Your Gold, Myrrh and Frankincense

Today, as much of the church celebrates Epiphany, it is wonderful day to consider what gifts we want to offer to God in the coming year.

I did a meditation in the book “A Quiet Place Apart: Guided Meditations for Advent, Christmas, New Year and Epiphany” by Jane E. Ayer. Here are Ms. Ayer’s books on Amazon. Most seem out of print and quite expensive.

However, I do find her work just wonderful to do in a group or by yourself. Her meditation for New Year is a very effective way to go before the Lord to consider this year’s goals. Since it’s so hard to find, I’ll summarize it so you can try it yourself.

She places the meditation in the context of Joseph and Mary going to present the baby Jesus at the Temple. You do a Lectio Divina in the words of Luke:2:21-40. As you savor these words, you visualize yourself standing with Joseph, Mary and Jesus as the baby is redeemed and then visited by Simeon and Anna. Then you find yourself before the altar in Jerusalem offering your gifts. This requires a period of quiet prayer, listening to God and your innermost self.

Ms. Ayer asks you to give God the gift of yourself, your authentic self. She asks you to think about how you want to focus your efforts in 2020 in these life areas:

  • Spirituality and prayer
  • Health
  • Family, friends, community and church
  • Education
  • Work or career
  • Recreation and relaxation
  • Stress reduction
  • Relationships: the unhealthy, new ones, past ones
  • Habit, character flaws and attitudes
  • Services

IF you haven’t thought about the coming year and what you would like to change, this is an excellent spiritual exercise.

God’s Joy in Us

God created us in joy and created us for joy, and, in the long run, not all the darkness there is in the world and in ourselves can separate us finally from that job, because whatever else it means to say that God created us in His image, I think it means that even when we cannot believe in Him, even when we feel most spiritually bankrupt and deserted by Him, His mark is deep within us. We have God’s joy in our blood.

Frederick Buechner

If you are surrounded by darkness, you should read “Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough” by Kay Warren. The cofounder of Saddleback Church and advocate for the least, the last and the lost wrote this beautiful book before she experienced a terrible tragedy: the death of a son lost to mental illness. I know from attending a retreat with her that she still chooses joy every day.

Reading the book is like listening to a wise friend who understands that joy has very little to do with happiness. And that it’s even better.

I particularly love a passage in which she talks about Isaiah 45:3: “I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.”

I have also surrendered to God in the darkness and have found treasure there. This book can help you get on the path to this decision.

You can order the book here.

The Dawn From On High

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet in the way of peace.

Happy New Year 2020! It’s a time for fresh starts, and I’m going to focus on trying to guide my mouth into the way of peace.

The mindfulness exercise for today: Count to three before you speak. This may give you enough time to think about speaking the truth, speaking with kindness and even not speaking at all.