In one particularly moving episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor and his companion, Amy Pond, meet Vincent Van Gogh, who is the subject of torment by alien monsters.
They bring the tormented artist to the modern Louvre and ask the curator where he, as an expert, would rank Van Gogh in the pantheon of art. The curator responds, “To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world's greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”
Unfortunately, most overlook the artist’s journey of faith and its influence over his artwork. Van Gogh was born to a pastor in 1853 and raised with strong influence of the Dutch Reformed Church. From his childhood, his artistic ability was evident, and he worked as an art dealer and schoolteacher before handing himself over to the religious life. Van Gogh studied theology in Amsterdam beginning in 1877, and served as a missionary in Brussels in 1879. He lived as those whom he served: simply and humbly. He recorded his experiences as drawings, and with prodding from his supportive brother, discerned his true vocation.
Van Gogh realized he was meant to serve and minister through his artwork, and he left the religious life “...to try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture.”
Despite his mental illness, romantic misfortunes and familial pressures, Van Gogh remained true to himself. He found God’s call and he endured poverty and depression to honor that call. The artist seems to be one of the best examples of an authentic life, and his genuineness is a large part of why he has been so successful. The work he produced resonates with people on an incredibly intimate level because it was the medium through which he explored the universal experience of suffering.
Descartes explains that there are two ways in which we are most like God, albeit imperfectly: in our ability to will and in our intellect. In exercising these qualities, we inevitably create. Consider the likes of artists, writers and parents, who devote their lives to creation. The result of their handiwork is a tangible means of understanding ourselves and extending our gifts to others in a ministerial way. The creative process is sacramental in and of itself, and releasing bits of ourselves—and in turn, God—into the universe through our works becomes an incredible tool with which we can reach out to and understand others.
Likewise, Van Gogh set out in earnest to create a life that gave him the freedom to pursue his passion in such a way that he honored God. Although he eventually fell victim to his mental illness, his devotion to his artwork indicates that creating anchored him in truth. The curator from Doctor Who proclaims, “He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again.”
A recent study by Georgetown University reveals that the college majors with the highest subsequent unemployment are those who study architecture, humanities and the arts. Instead of pursuing fields that deal in creation—artistic, industrial and ministerial—students are encouraged to follow the jobs or the money. David Brooks analyzed the flood of qualified and elite college graduates into the financial sector, taking jobs like investment banking, hedge fund management and consulting. He explains that these sorts of positions feel safe to recent grads: They provide a familiar sense of competition and seem to provide stepping-stones for more altruistic endeavors down the road.
The problem, though, is that “[p]eople are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.” That is, the “vocabulary of entrepreneurialism” has become widely accepted as the standard when discussing secondary vocation, and Brooks notes that it is utilitarian in nature and does not focus on enriching the whole person.
How can we create authentic lives if we are expected to put the discernment of our true vocations on hold, favoring instead the comforts of familiar environments and hopes that something greater will come along in the future? It seems as though we students are crumbling all too often under societal pressures to work more impressive jobs, make more money and only look outward once we feel we are "better equipped." There is certainly great value to be found in the work of those in the financial sector, as all work is inherently dignified. However, it is time to reevaluate our priorities.
Perhaps we should follow the example of “one of the greatest men who ever lived.” If we can step back from the mania of owning stuff and the rat race that consumes so much of daily life, we can focus our attention on constructing more genuine lives. Stripping away self-imposed limitations, societal restraints and our own selfish desires will allow us to open ourselves more fully to God and His plans. He is the true artist of our journeys, and we must trust in His vision.
As Van Gogh’s journey demonstrates, accepting and following the call is not always easy, glamorous or what we may believe we want. It takes prayer and ministry, pain and devotion. But becoming better vessels of the Holy Spirit through embracing our vocations will make us more authentic versions of ourselves, allow us to relate more genuinely to others and enter into deeper communion with the Lord.