If someone asked me to describe one of my earliest spiritual experiences, I would imagine The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. When I was in grade 2, I recreated the painting using pastels in art class. As my teacher laid out a copy of the original on my desk, I began to openly marvel at that famous pulsating, swirly sky. In contrast, I was overawed by the magnitude of the dark, wispy cypress tree before such quiet houses. I started to draw the village’s church steeple and thought, “Wow… I would love to live here.” What’s more is that I entered a meditative state of excitement where I felt this sensation of “being one with.” I was around seven at the time, so obviously, I didn’t know that. I just knew I had been touched deeply by the wild yet placid nature of the image.
A couple of weeks ago, some of the convent folk and I attended an event called Walking with the Artist: A Spiritual Journey, where Katharine Lochnan, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Senior Curator of International Exhibitions, discussed her most recent project, Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, Van Gogh, and more. For those of you who are familiar with the exhibition, did you know that it was born out Katharine’s part-time study of “Integration for Ministry” at Regis College? I thought that was interesting. Mystical Landscapes largely focused on the spiritual backdrop of some of the most globally-celebrated paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She shared photos of artworks featured in the show, along with stories of the mystical experiences that inspired them. I learned that when Van Gogh felt a tremendous need for religion, he would go outside and paint the stars. I’m fascinated by people who experience euphoric flashes of freedom and creativity when communing with nature, because although I can agree with the breathtaking beauty of the natural world, it doesn’t necessarily move me to such heights. Anyhow, he also tried to become a minister like his father but to no avail. His paintings, he said, are his sermons. I now have a better understanding of my connection to Van Gogh’s 1889 narrative landscape.
Mystical Landscapes was apparently so widely received that its closing date was extended by two weeks. So, I checked it out. It was quite a trek to get down to the AGO – I went on that icy, wet, miserable day at the beginning of this month – but it was totally worth it. My experience of the exhibition was elevating and unworldly. It was enough for me to glean the vicarious pleasures of contemplating with natural scenery through those rare masterpieces. They lifted me up to the presence of God at a time when I’m usually bereft of religious fervour. Everyone in attendance was respectful of each other’s space. The sober and pensive atmosphere was inebriating. Seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhône was special. Cultivating a spirit of peace and wonder in me, it conveyed an experience like the one I remember from childhood. The stars looked like they were glowing on the canvas.
It’s a comforting thought knowing that the divine mystery rolled around in the hearts of all those artists – From the likes of Gaugin to Emily Carr. I feel blessed by their spiritual insights because they have encouraged me to continue discerning the way forward as a Companion to the SSJD. It’s no coincidence that Mystical Landscapes came at this point in my life. I think God was treating me with this one.
A. Samuel, SSJD Companion