On a starry, starry night in 1970 Don McLean paid tribute to Vincent Van Gogh in song, honoring his magnificent painting of a similar title. He created the art piece after his ear-cutting meltdown, while given residence in a local insane asylum nearly a hundred years before McLean took notice. While in captivity, Vincent liked to watch the sun “in all its glory” rise to dispel the dark night sky. After producing twenty-one versions of “The Starry Night”, he decided it was a failure—much like himself who, reputedly, sold only one painting during his lifetime. For some mystical reason, he was attracted to the celestial nights that connected him to the infinite mystery beyond his disillusionment. Some think the reason is that he viewed the starry night as a disguise worn by God, religion, and faith, which simultaneously eluded and engulfed him.
Many people I meet through my life as a priest also feel disillusioned by the world, or by the church, but they hold on to hope in God, even if He disguises Himself through a billion lights enveloped in darkness. Maybe McLean can help them understand. His song, Vincent, reflects upon Van Gogh’s suicidal ideations and how he suffered for his sanity, how he longed to be set free from anxiety, and how his loving hands told an artistic story that people couldn’t grasp. He concludes: “I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
As a church official, I seek to empathize with people’s struggles because a constant complaint I hear is that the church is out of touch with humanity: more concerned with liturgical matters, levels of piety, or pharisaical principles than with individual suffering or those yearning to discover God beyond the disguises or ecclesial structures. Every child is a unique, special, and talented gift of God—most of us not as talented as Van Gogh—but there are many talented people who suffer for their sanity, who contemplate, attempt, or commit suicide. They are also kind, generous, loving, compassionate, and good. I just hope that we, as a church and as Christians, help them to connect to God and one another beyond the disguises, much as Michelangelo’s God reaches out to touch Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
That’s what we’re attempting to do through our Saint Charles Retreat House. We help the church become more relevant in the lives of those who reach back to the hand of God. Let me know if you’d like to visit for a mini-retreat this summer to take a step closer into the mystery: firstname.lastname@example.org.