Reading the Bible with van Gogh–a fresh look at lectio divina

van Gogh

“The Raising of Lazarus”

Vincent van Gogh

(1853-1890)

          Look closely. Can you see that wispy red beard on Lazarus?

            Vincent van Gogh was in a hospital when he painted this picture in the last year of his life. Years earlier he had virtually given up his Christian faith. He had tried, but unsuccessfully, to be a student of theology. He had tried to be a missionary pastor to a community of impoverished Belgian miners, and he had lived in poverty so as to better identify with them.   But he had been dismissed by church authorities because they felt his life of poverty demeaned the office of a pastor.

           Enough! Van Gogh decided to let go his faith and pursue instead his love of art. His life was not a happy one. He suffered from mental instability, and he led a dissolute and lonely life. A final breakdown at the age of 36 led him to the hospital in St.-Remy, Provence. While he was there, his brother sent him a sketch by Rembrandt of the raising of Lazarus. VanGogh then painted his “copy” of a portion of this sketch. And he painted himself right into the picture, wispy red beard and all! Not all art critics agree, but many believe that in spite of his earlier turning away from faith, van Gogh seems to have found some profound personal meaning in this story from the gospel of John. He seems to have seen himself in Lazarus, gaunt and disoriented, yet hearing from beyond a call to return to life.

          VanGogh’s painting serves as an illustration of a very ancient practice of reading the Bible, a practice known as lectio divina, or “holy reading.” It’s a practice that invites the reader to place him/herself right into the biblical narrative and then to listen for what God may be saying to him/her in a particular story. Like van Gogh, the reader may become one of the characters in the story. Or the reader may simply be standing by, watching the story unfold, seeing and hearing all the details as if right on the scene. 

          Lectio divina has been used by Christians for many centuries as a way of helping the biblical story become more truly alive in their lives, and as a way of experiencing a closer presence of God through a careful reading of God’s Word. St. Benedict established lectio divina as a monastic practice in the 6th century. Then, in the 12th century, a French Carthusian monk named Guigo II formalized lectio as a four-step process: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.

           I have found this approach to reading the Bible so very helpful, and over time, I’ve tried to spell out for myself just what is involved in each of the four steps. I share these thoughts here, and I hope that, especially during these Lenten days, others will find lectio divina a helpful way of experiencing God more deeply in their lives. Will find themselves, like van Gogh, very much a part of God’s ongoing story and work in our lives and in our world.

Lectio

First reading: Let your imagination come alive! See the scene, smell the smells, feel the feelings of the people.  Be there–like van Gogh, put yourself into the picture.

Second reading: Listen for how the passage touches your life. It may be a simple word or phrase. It may be the passage as a whole.

Meditatio

This is a time to reflect on your experience of the text. You may want to ask one or more of the following questions:

  • what feelings does this passage arouse in me: joy? anger? sadness?
  • what questions about God or about my life does this text prompt?
  • what do I wish the text said…or wish it didn’t say?
  • does the text give me comfort?
  • does the text challenge me?
  • what memories does this text bring to mind?
  • does the text invite me to experience God, myself, others in a new way?

Oratio

Take a few minutes to talk with God about your experience of this text. Tell God your hopes, fears, angers, questions, whatever. Come to God “just as you are” with this text.

Contemplatio

Now spend a few minutes letting yourself be conscious of God’s presence and love in your life.

Imagine God saying to you, “(your name), I am with you. You are beloved.”

***

Hope this might be helpful.  Blessings for all our reading in these Lenten days and in the days beyond.

6 thoughts on “Reading the Bible with van Gogh–a fresh look at lectio divina

  1. A couple of things: first, I was unfamiliar with this painting by Van Gogh and love knowing about it now — and how he painted himself into the picture. Second, the lovely segue to the lectio divina. Did you know that I have, within reach, in my small writing room, this one-page overview of the lectio that you gave me more than two decades ago? Every once in a while I try to practice it, but it requires more thoughtfulness than I can muster most of the time. Still, I’m grateful to be reminded of the practice this Ash Wednesday.

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