The Healing Journey of Vincent Van Gogh

Monk’s Journal Winter 2019

As I prepare for Pilgrimage to the South of France in May, I have been immersed in the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. My search raised many questions: How does genius and mental illness live in the same mind? How does any man or woman find their true self through a mind distorted by visions and images? What is real and what is not? Why does the world so admire and want to know more about this man? In particular, how did he learn to heal himself for long periods of time?

Van Gogh came to the small town of Arles, in the South of France, fleeing a world that was much too much for him. With wild red hair, erratic manners, and a record of failure, he arrived an unknown and tormented man. He would have only a few people who liked him, and one true friend in his fellow artist Paul Gauguin. His younger brother, Theo, living in far away Paris, would love him to the end. Nearly everyone else would completely misunderstand him.

But, there in the heart of Provence, amidst the purple lavender and vivid yellow mustard fields he discovered something that shocked him. His often turgid mind was calmed by the blue hills and green trees of the bucolic countryside. His mind became focused intensely on his painting. He felt serene in the solitude. He realized that he was in the presence of God and that a deep sense of peace could abide in him for hours, if not days. He wrote in his journal, “I experience a period of frightening clarity in these moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself … and the paintings appear as in a dream.” And then later, “I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream.”

This kind of encounter and healing outside in the natural world is known to all who are “nature mystics.” Many of us sense this unspeakable peace, for example, in gardens, forests and at the sea. The feeling is both of going down into the depths of soil and earth and sensing the streaming of God’s divine energy coursing through ground, trees, flowers, plants, and animals. One has the feeling of total connection to the Divine Source.

In France, we will walk in the gardens and fields that were the living landscapes of Van Gogh’s world. There, we will learn how he struggled to create a new kind of painting using such wild color that people were stunned. In his healing moments he felt creative power, insight, and love. Still, so many found him odd, strange, and mad. “I put my heart and soul in my work,” he wrote, “and lost my mind in the process.” He noted sadly, “I wish they would take me as I am.”

In the deep South of France, he found his answer. He turned less to people and more to nature and God where he found his peace. Which is to say, he found his true self.  He strapped his easel and paints on his back, tramped the countryside in rain and sun, and painted in a state of rapture. “If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now. For wheat is wheat, even if people think it is a grass in the beginning.” He would never know fame or financial success in his life; only after his death would the world come to revere his struggle and his genius.

Don McLean’s haunting and beautiful song, Vincent, eloquently pays tribute to Van Gogh’s struggle for healing. I invite you to listen to it here.

(Please turn the volume up and use a headset for the best quality and richest experience.)

Pilgrimage to the South of France: A Journey of Healing will take place on May 19-31, 2019.

Learn more here →

Registration Deadline: January 31, 2019