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Bannocks (Loaves) of Bread

FIFTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I spent a memorable week on the tiny island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, the site to which St. Columba came from Ireland in A.D. 563, to inaugurate the Christian mission to northern Britain.

In 1938, amid the Great Depression, George MacLeod, a Scottish minister from an industrial section of Glasgow, brought together on the island a half dozen craftsmen and six or so young ministers. They labored with their hands during that summer and subsequent ones to reconstruct the ancient medieval cathedral buildings which had fallen into ruin. Their objective was to establish a common life and discipline of worship and work, of stewardship of time and money, renewing their covenant in Christ in order to return to the cities and factories of the mainland with an expanded vision of their Christian witness, where they continued the discipline.

From that rather inconspicuous beginning there emerged a global fellowship of laity and clergy who have come to be known as the Iona Community. Their pilgrimages to the island today are for the same purposes as their predecessors, and groups of them meet in other lands.

My memory of Iona has stuck with me through the years, even though I am not an official member of the community. I recall my own pilgrimage for its daily morning and evening trek over heath and fence to the beautiful greystone Abbey of St. Columba. The churchyard is graced with the thousand-year-old Cross of St. Martin and tombstones commemorating pilgrimages of saints and sinners from earlier times, including the renowned Duncan and Macbeth. Jokingly, one of our group referred to Iona as the paradise where God takes sabbaticals.

The worship that week was among the most compelling I have ever encountered. The liturgies were a blend of a timeless living tradition and a deep sensitivity to the contemporary human condition. Memory preserves even now the simple echoes of sacred sound reverberating from the balcony piano . . . hushed silences beneath the vaulted ceiling between vesper biddings . . . the liturgist’s reading of inspired words from an “ambassador in chains” to the Ephesians, with the prayer that the gospel be boldly proclaimed . . . the flux of worshippers presenting bodies and souls for consecration at the midweek service of healing . . . and the solemn thanksgiving processional of bread and wine to the holy table on the Lord’s Day.

Iona Abbey

These were not all. The koinonia of several hundred sojourners had congregated from faraway lands and diverse Christian traditions. Faces were not the same nor accents familiar. It was incumbent upon all to build bridges.

My final recollection consists of the serious nature of theological conversation, in itself a form of prayer, as George MacLeod sat in our midst to speak with us for an hour each morning. Never did the chatter of voices drift from the complex individual, social, economic, and political realities that comprise the framework of every person’s spiritual existence. There lay before us the real issues of life and death, of discipleship and spiritual formation. Iona was not for escape.

That was the summer of rioting in Watts, war in Vietnam, strife in Northern Ireland, and starvation in the Orient. All of those realities were mixed in.

Iona is a spiritual center in a whirling vortex. Geographically removed, it is planted at the heart of a groaning creation, a “thin place” in the eye of the tempest. Steady offshore gusts are reminders.

So, what was gained? Very simply, one thing. An image of the church at the crossroads: worship the centripetal event, mission the centrifugal event. Both are one service, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested.”

When visitors to Iona take holy communion, they proceed directly afterward to the cloister for tea and conversation. The concluding rubric of the liturgy states that each worshiper will be given “small bannocks of bread to flake and share” while mingling with strangers. “Thus is communion brought into the ordinary ways of life.”

It is powerful imagery. Saints, as forgiven sinners, are “bannocks of bread,” the loaves of the Christ at the crossroads of a hungry world.

Photo by Akela NDE

© 2020, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

This essay was published in Vox Populi on Christmas Day, December 25, 2020

An earlier version appeared in Christian Education Shared Approaches, Spring 1981


Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel (Abingdon Press) and the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books).

 

The Slaves of My Ancestors

DICK, STEPHEN, CHARITY, AND LUCY were their given names — these beloved “Negroes.” They were the propertied slaves owned by my fourth great grandfather at the time of his death in the year 1810. At the top of the inventory of all of Philemon Davidson’s worldly possessions, the court appraised Dick at 120 pounds sterling, Stephen at 100, Charity at 20, and Lucy at 90. Together they comprised more than half the pecuniary sum of the entire estate lumped together, down to and including five axes, a grindstone, two handsaws, a pair of spectacles, and one “woman saddle.” It does not take a microscope to discern whose fingerprints fell upon the axe, the grindstone, and the handsaw.

Given the irrecoverable distance of the ancestral past from which these sons and daughters of Africa had come into an unforeseen and splintered destiny in America, they and their fellow slaves passed through a myriad of predictable and unpredictable daily dangers to life and limb, including torture and lynching, as they trudged their beleaguered path toward the Promised Land. From the vantage point of the auction block as slavery’s narrow vista and constricted view of the future — “I’m here today and gone tomorrow” — these children of God were promised nothing remotely akin to a realized eschatology. Short of stumbling through the gates of heaven, theirs was a stumbling block into repeated disaster.

Shamefully and disgracefully, by legal decree if not divine dictate, due to the theological falsehoods of many preachers and the economic egotism of numerous slaveholders, the likes of Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy were deemed, if not ultimately doomed, to the lot of mere mortal chattel. In an ethos of white supremacy wedded to the wealth of landed aristocracy and entitled gentry, this human “capital” was numbered among any “moveable…article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to the land.”

Official_medallion_of_the_British_Anti-Slavery_Society_(1795)
Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society by Josiah Wedgwood, 1795

In truth, every slave in the Old Dominion was affixed to an entire system of which the appurtenances included blistering hot rows of tobacco leaf baking beneath the scorching sun, outbuildings consisting of one-room shanties that housed and slept an entire family, and the bricks and mortar mixed with the sweat of the brow that built and sustained the Big House. Therein the white master and missus partook of daily morsels of dough kneaded by black mammies whose bruised feet stood atop packed earth while their gnarled fingers baked the loaves of the white man’s freedom upon the iron griddles of oppression.

In that respect and with regard to the fate of the black man, I lament the awful truth about one of my not so greatly esteemed ancestors. Opposite the branch of the family tree bearing my surname there is a line that gave me my middle name, Nuckols. Philemon Davidson’s great-great-grandson, my grandfather Clarence, married a dear and sweet woman, my grandmother Susie Nuckols. Her paternal grandfather, Joseph Nuckols, being large of stature but small of heart, bore his strength in such a way that with his one hand high in the air he lifted his slave-man upside down by the feet, and with the knuckles of his other hand beat his slave-man’s rump into stinging raw meat.

Thus, when the hopes and dreams of slaves sprang up like lilies in a scorched field, theirs were the songs and dances of a faith-vision that fashioned a cry: “O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!” Nothing else, not anyone else, sufficed to assuage the morning dread and to curb the evening hunger. The underground rail to freedom for those who made it through thickets of woods to safe harbors hidden behind plaster walls and beneath knotty pine floors was as tumultuous and turbulent as the waters of the Red Sea. Only Jesus as Living Water could quench the thirst of souls whose bodies lay wilted in the heat of the noonday pestilence and whose spirits grew weary and faint from the hunt of the midnight rider.

Dreams and visions, not of an actualized fulfillment but of imaginings with the scope of an unflinching mind’s eye and pining heart’s desire peering over the horizon, propelled these wayfarers to see beyond the brutal and bitter plague of their captivity. In a land flowing with milk and honey, the only true, wise, just, righteous and loving Master of All would someday, on the far side of the Jordan, blessedly grant a better way of life than the crack of the whip and the curse of the hoe.

Slave_sale_poster

Think of it this way. Since none can see far down the line of vision, we can only trust past the point at which we do see. Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy, plus countless others who endured the horrors of slavery in this unfair and unjust land, bequeathed us a gift of faith that defies the sight of everyday comprehension and ignites the power of astonishing hope. To dream dreams and see visions, in life and death, is to dare to believe the impossible beyond the familiar. It is to picture that what has happened thus far along the way, some of it lovely and too much of it dreadful, simply cannot add up to the culmination of what life is about. To our world-fatigued eyes there is yet more to enter our line of vision than what has narrowed our vista and constricted our view. There is even far more of goodness itself still to come than, caged in the darkness, we can possibly imagine being true.

Today, beloved children of Africa, you ache with the torment of fire in your bones, miserably attached to your shackles, hopelessly bound to your chains. Tomorrow — surprise! — in defiance of all that appears inexorable, you spring loose into the cool, fresh air of freedom. Your bruised feet and jagged toes leap from the soil with elation. Your scarred hands and crippled fingers touch the tips of the clouds in ecstasy. Your dry lungs and parched lips burst forth upon the firmament with praise. Halleluiah!

SlaveDanceand_Music
Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation, John Rose, ca. 1785-95

Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy — this outlandish event called Resurrection is yours not by chance but by Providence. Hooray for you as the last become first while the first become last! Seen through the eyes of your long-suffering faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” this marvelous turnabout through God’s everlasting mercy is the one thing, the only saving thing, for a saint to believe in. To trust courageously against entire odds the line of vision your hearts most desire, like the craving of sight by a blind person whose glass eyes eclipse the sun, in the end is not so preposterous after all in the new Jerusalem.

“O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!”

Ω

The featured photo (top) is of “Slaves Waiting for Sale” by Eyre Crowe, Richmond, Virginia, 1853
© Copyright 2018 Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved
This essay was published April 29, 2018, on Vox Populi at voxpopulisphere.com

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel (Abingdon Press), and the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

Grace Given As Grace Received

THERE ARE STORIES PASSED DOWN about my grandfather Clarence, who died several years before I was born, to the effect that he could take quickly to the stern edge of his character and at times be brusque, impatient and demanding. While he was an industrious and productive Virginia farmer who certainly knew the meaning of hard work, with prosperous farmlands and fruit orchards to show for it, he now and again failed to notice that others worked equally as hard as he, and for far lower wages. One such person was a long-time faithful farmhand by the name of Elijah, who by this time had become an old man, as had my grandfather.

Sharecropper_plowing_loc
Sharecropper Ploughing Montgomery, Alabama, 1944. Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection

As always, the toil fell to Elijah to till the ground. With his hand faithfully to the plow one sultry summer afternoon, he struggled to keep his usual pace behind the mule as from a distance my grandfather assumed the inherited posture of one whose job it was to oversee. It was not uncommon that Papa, as his children affectionately called him, might unconsciously overlook the fact that the sweltering humidity had drawn beads of perspiration down Elijah’s dark brown cheeks. For a split instant as the mule turned in its path, the two old men stood side by side at the corner of the field.

“Mr. Davisson, would y’ mine takin’ holt of the plow whilst I go relieve myself?”

“Gladly, Elijah.”

It not only had been ages since Clarence had taken hold of anyone’s plow including his own, but for many years Elijah had accumulated a debt of more than just a few greenbacks that he still owed my grandfather. Circumstances being what they were during the Depression, coupled to the customary social, economic and political arrangement, such debt hung overhead like an iron cleaver. It precluded the chance that a poor and aged black man would ever have hours enough in a lifetime, much less in a matter of months, to earn what it took to erase a debt that was part of a system of duties and obligations that kept one particular class of people subservient to another. Elijah, a descendant of slaves, had spoken nothing of such obligations on this particular day; nor had my grandfather, a descendant of slave owners.

Having obliged himself to do Elijah a small favor as the afternoon sun bore down upon the sweaty back of Elijah’s trusty old mule, Grandfather took hold of the reins and plow handles as beneath the pummeling heat he jostled with the soil up one row and down the other. When Elijah eventually returned from his errand, Grandfather spoke the first word.

“You know, Elijah, it’s been a long time since I’ve walked behind a plow. Mighty hard work, I’d forgotten just how!”

“Yessuh, Missuh Davisson.”

“Elijah, you know that $5,000 you currently owe?”

“Yessuh, Missuh Davisson.”

“It’s forgiven. You don’t owe it anymore.”

Elijah stood in sheer dumbfounded amazement, exclaiming, “Oh, thanks you, Missuh Davisson! Thanks you! Thanks you!”

Not many months thereafter, early on a cold, blustery Sunday morn in January 1941, for causes I have never fully known nor fully understood, concerning the extent of all that burdened him and made him a prisoner within himself, my grandfather Clarence went to the basement of his house and put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.

The irony of what otherwise appeared to be a largely successful life, despite the share of human foible and failure to which all are entitled, was that Grandfather Clarence at age sixty-five, having forgiven the $5,000 owed him by Elijah, could not for whatever personal reason forgive the “debt” he owed himself. Perhaps that, too, was debt in the form of a deficit long ago transmitted. My guess is that it had already begun to accumulate when at an early age he lost his mother to death’s dark door. Being told that he was somewhat unmanageable, he was soon shuffled off by his father to live with a relative. The rage that more than once manifested itself outwardly eventually turned its way inwardly upon the self.

Davidson Family Bible
Davidson Family Bible, Buckingham, Virginia – To Vitula Monroe Sandridge Davidson by her son, Thomas Archer Davidson

Sometimes it is necessary to invert Jesus’ maxim, “As you wish that people would do to you, do so to them,” in order to say, “As people wish that you would do to them, do so to yourself.”

Of all the besetting sins of an increasingly narcissistic age of emptiness and brokenness, the failure to love oneself may be a root sin that is perpetuated down the cycles of the generations. In keeping with the Christ-like virtue of losing oneself in order to love another, not to love oneself at all makes it virtually impossible to love someone else. Yes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For, only as grace is received can grace be given.

Grandfather in a brief moment of grace walked in Elijah’s shoes. I do not know, nor can I know, precisely what that meant. Perhaps there dawned upon Grandfather the extent of sacrifice Elijah for so many years had made for him, which in turn made it possible in a system that had wounded them both for the one man to extend grace and the other to receive it.

Whatever may have been the case then, or soon thereafter upon that cold, blustery January morn, I believe by the eternal mercies of Christ that Papa Clarence has come at last, with Elijah, as shall we all, to receive the full measure of grace that shows itself upon the ever loving face of God.

“Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

© Copyright, Charles Davidson — All Rights Reserved — Originally Published in The Presbyterian Outlook, October 21, 2002

Charles DaivdsonCharles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel, and the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

A World Of Surprises

BEING MOTHER OR FATHER TO YOUR OWN LIFE’S WORK is like the stone-deaf Beethoven birthing the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy. The craft of creativity is far more formidable than comprehensible. We become infinitely more dependent upon what we do not know than upon what we know.

Who knows for sure whether this score will ever make sense or sound? — as Beethoven most certainly must have plagued himself in fruitful self-doubt while laboring over a multitude of musical phrases.

We, intensely and deeply stirred by the sound and sense of Beethoven’s muse, must ask a question. Are we the sole proprietors of our works? Unlike clocks ticking in a hushed universe, are we swept along by something far more compelling than the ill-fated motions of hands and faces gradually winding down? How do we, being at times so mortally hard of hearing, like Beethoven, become at other times acutely attuned to the sounds of silence that strangely disrupt our imperviousness to grace?

Ludwig van Beethoven Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

What comedy amid tragedy! Here is Beethoven arranging the musical harmony of one of the most sublime moments of his life—an entire symphony. Yet he’s composing the riches of a majestic melody to the dread, awful contradiction of absolute, mute silence.

Henry van Dyke sought words for the Ode: “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love.” And Beethoven, it is ascribed, also composed seven measures of a chant for an offertory response. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.”

Enter upon the scene. You, music lover, take a deliberate glance at the deeply entranced Beethoven. By fits and starts he is sitting with his muse. His “time” has caught up with him. The years immediately preceding have been overwhelmed with anxiety and grief, his output brief. But now comes one of those “given” instants, some would say, of brilliance. The master musician is composing his Joy in eerily deafened silence, yet the moon and the tides are waxing eloquently. Is unbridled faith able to muffle the world’s screaming dissonance long enough for anyone to listen and know that it is none other than God who speaks? Ludwig, alone but not alone, “hears” the music of the spheres as the presence of None Other. Are we surprised?

Mundane explanations aside, is it not forever true that “of thine own have we given Thee”? Did Beethoven love God all the more for not being able to hear the chanting cardinals and warbling snowbirds awaken him in the morning? Did their sound waves inaudibly split the air of his silent universe, mysteriously entering the marrow of his bones that he might declare in song, “O God!”?

The rest of us, being uninspired mimics of the world’s misfortunes, are less than attentive. We possess all our faculties, save one. We in the digital age, perhaps permanently, have lost the quiet composure of staying still long enough first to dream and imagine, then to sing the joyous melody close in for one solitary split second. The world of immediate bellow and clamor has dulled our inner senses. Our spirits have sprung loose like frayed violin strings. If only our lost souls were to commit the art of our living to the deaf side of our being, we might be surprised at what we hear when silenced like stone.

One day, early on, before his ears were hardened to the vibrations of audible melody, the young Ludwig was handed the task of learning to play the piano. What if there had been no piano? Would an “enthused” Ludwig have had the presence of heart, like an oyster, to take up pearl making? Mark Twain once quipped, “It is a world of surprises. They fall, too, where one is least expecting them.”

Wolfgang Amadeum Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Consider the child Mozart. Full of gift, full of surprise, his “lyrics” were like pure “liquid sunshine,” as Karl Barth exclaimed. Yet Mozart’s ordinary life remained tumultuous. What, then, explained his music? In the midst of Wolfgang’s gathering storm, how on Earth was he able to compose such implausible reverberations of grace? Was it by lunacy that he achieved ethereal heights? To what end? Only so that he could be cast into an unmarked pauper’s grave, his lot thrown in with the rest of us? O “liquid sunshine,” like that yellow ball of fire in the sky, how quickly you fade to the west, wearing out your heart in the fever of darkness!

Mozart exhausted his song. His song exhausted Mozart. In his thirty-fifth year the virtuoso perished, not having completed his life’s last measure of mirth. Had he lived yet a few more, then what? Maybe not nearly so much. For what is life when measured by years? Among the last words that Amadeus, “lover of God,” penned to his unfinished Requiem were these: “Make them pass from death to life.”

Truth is, each day is a divine-human “passage.” In “a world of surprises” belonging first to God before being found of us in ways we least expect, each day is passage “from death to life.” Come, close your eyes and see. Come, close your ears and hear. Like chanting cardinal and warbling snowbird, come open your heart and sing — with whatever song you are given grace to say thanks. Ω

 

 

 

 

 

This essay was published in vox populi on december 25, 2019
Bird Photography by Charles Davidson
© 2019 Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

 

“Follow Me When I Try to Explain Something”

VINCENT VAN GOGH ONCE WROTE OF HIS FATHER with whom he had more than one verbal altercation while living under the same roof, “I seem to detect in Father proofs . . . of his really being unable to follow me when I try to explain something to him. He clings to a part of what I say, which becomes incorrect when one tears it from its context. This may have more than one cause, but assuredly it is largely the fault of old age” (CL 347).

Father, Theodorus van Gogh (1822-1885) – Version 2
Vincent’s Father, the Rev. Theodorus van Gogh

Old age aside, rather than decrying his father’s inability to follow what Vincent attempted to explain to him, suppose Vincent instead had inquired of his father: “What is it like for you when I’m conversing with you, and you with me?”

Had Vincent posed such a question without accusation or rejoinder, his father might have taken pause, even pleasure, in reflecting with Vincent about his son’s wish to be better understood. By entering his father’s frame of reference, Vincent may have learned something important about his father as well as about himself.

Vincent’s retorts were often if not always rigid, forceful, and argumentative, thus hard to bear, especially when his precipitous outbursts of rage interrupted the flow of communication, as happened in relation to his father, his brother Theo, and others who kept his company.

The devilish truth was that neither father nor son knew how best to attune emotionally to the other’s presence and thereby offer sufficient mutual affirmation and validation to avoid struggling so intensely with each other’s spirit. It was less demanding yet far less productive for them to remain outwardly defensive by shadowboxing rather than moving inwardly with empathy and sensitivity toward each other’s experienced reality. But, then, how to begin?

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Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Seeking meaningful engagement with a wounded soul who is in pain and suffering warrants close observation of the sufferer’s face, eyes, and voice. For in the visage one can “follow” the contours of distress or, conversely, the expressions of relief that emerge from within.

Affect is key. By analogy, affect is to speech as music is to the lyrics of a song, either concordant or discordant with the content of the words. In human relationships “empathic attunement”* is essential for discerning in the moment of encounter the other person’s state of mind, heart, and soul.

When a ray of light suddenly breaks forth from a person’s prison of gloom, darkness, or distress, thanks to feeling profoundly understood, that ray appears in the face, the eyes and the tone of voice. What frequently occasions it is the very thing that Vincent craved most of all for himself yet found inordinately difficult to grant to his father. In Vincent’s own words: “to follow me when I try to explain something.” That is, to offer powers of undivided attention, of careful observation and deep listening.

The face, the eyes, and the tone of voice comprise the canvas upon which the soul paints its pictures of what is essential for a personal acknowledgment to result in the feeling of being genuinely understood.

Especially is this true, as it was between Vincent and his father, when things heated up to the point where Vincent summarily declared to his father: “Pa, here I am faced by your self-righteousness, which was and is fatal, for you as well as for me.” Whereupon his father instantly retorted: “Do you expect me to kneel before you?”

That was clearly a point at which the train of empathy — “follow me when I try to explain something” — had fallen off the track.

—Which serves to underscore the fact that one of the profoundest gifts a person can give another is to attend with undivided attention, careful observation, and deep listening for the sake of reaching the moment of real understanding.

*A concept employed by the late psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut

© Copyright, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

“From Warriors to Saints, Saints to Lovers, Lovers to Tigers, Tigers to Flowers”

VINCENT VAN GOGH LEARNED VOLUMES from his fellow artists by the study of countless numbers of their drawings and paintings, some old, some new. Not only did he visit many museums and exhibitions. He also lined the walls of his room with copies of others’ works, including the great masters who preceded him.

Vincent once wrote to his brother Theo: “I must ask you something: Are there any cheap Daumier prints to be had, and, if so, which ones? I always found him very clever, but it is only recently that I have begun to have the impression that he is more important than I thought. If you know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I remember we spoke about it last year on the road to Prinsenhage, and you said then that you like Daumier better than Gavarni, and I took Gavarni’s part, and told you about the book I had read about Gavarni which you have now. But I must say that since then, though I have not come to like Gavarni less, I begin to suspect that I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know” (CL 239).

Are there any parallels to us?

All learning takes place at the intersection of what we already know and what we do not yet know. An artist can interpret only what the artist presently sees. The same is true for the therapist conducting therapy, the surgeon performing surgery, or the politician crafting legislation. To that end, personal and professional consultation offers fresh eyes with which to see and novel ears with which to hear.

Vincent’s Perspective Frame, The Hague, August 5 or 6, 1882

A patient and a therapist, just the two of them, working collaboratively may generate what is called an “analytic third”*—an additional and potentially transformative reality emerging from the juxtaposition of their two separate realities. Or again, the patient has one perspective, the therapist a second, and the consultant or supervisor a third, which coming together potentially produces yet a fourth perspective with elements of all three, and more.

Imagine what growth might not have taken place for Vincent as an artist if, among other endeavors, he had not studied Japanese art and French Impressionist paintings. What if he had never made his way to Paris and subsequently the south of France where the sun shone brighter than it did back home in the Netherlands?

One of the most dramatic transformations of Vincent’s artistic style and subject matter came about with his turn to the use of vivid colors as a consequence of his modified geographic perspective. Likewise, when he studied the art of those with whom he was unfamiliar, he further opened himself to the possibility for substantive change. It is just so with persons who become absorbed in Vincent’s art. They stand to encounter an “artistic third” bearing an altered perception—not only of Vincent’s reality but more so of their own.

Honoré_Daumier_c1850_-_crop copy
Honoré Daumier, c. 1850

Consider again what Vincent said about the French painter Honoré Daumier while Vincent was still living and painting in the Netherlands in 1882.

“If you [Theo] know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know.”

Whether we are therapists or surgeons or politicians, or anything else by virtue of our craft or trade—whether we are the ones seeking “counsel” or the ones rendering it—what if we were to receive each new encounter as the creative and promising juxtaposition of what we already know with what we do not yet know? What might happen?

Vincent mentioned Daumier in sixty-two of his letters. Three years after having asked Theo to tell him more about Daumier, Vincent wrote his friend Emile Bernard to say of yet another artist, in the words of the French writer, Théophile Silvestre: “’Thus died—almost smiling—Eugène Delacroix, a painter of high breeding—who had a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart—who went from warriors to saints—from saints to lovers—from lovers to tigers—and from tigers to flowers.’” Then Vincent added: “Daumier is also a great genius” (CL B13).

What if Vincent had failed to ask Theo to tell him more about Daumier? On the other hand, what if we, like Vincent, were to ask those around us to help us gain a new perspective upon our present reality so that we might move beyond it to something more significant?

the-starry-night-over-the-rhone copy
Starry Night over the Rhone Vincent van Gogh 1888

What if we were to attain that “artistic” or “analytic third” offering us the potential to paint life differently?

What if the person with whom we are currently engaged in conversation says to us: “Have you considered this? Have you considered that?

What if, thereby, we are no longer limited to “the world according to Gavarni” or the world according to “Gutenough,” as good as those worlds may be?

What if we were to see the world and paint it as did, say, Jesus of Nazareth? or the Buddha? or Mahatma Gandhi? or Mohammed? or Julian of Norwich? or Mother Teresa? or Martin Luther King, Jr.? or Rosa Parks? or Vincent van Gogh?

One can confidently conclude in the case of Van Gogh that his psychotic “breakdown,” which took place within the presence of Paul Gauguin just before Christmas 1888, bore elements of an “artistic third.” Such an experience, painful and debilitating though it was, eventually precipitated a “breakthrough” of such stellar proportion that in the final year of his life, with searing new eyes, he was able to depict on canvas his vision of the new Heaven and new Earth he had contemplated as a young man during frequent and studious encounters with the Jesus of the Gospels.

Whom, then, did Vincent have reason to thank for the epiphany? Theo? Gavarni? Daumier? Delacroix? Gauguin? All of the above and many others besides? Yet, what if he had never so much as once encountered Jesus—or worse—in doing so failed to take the Nazarene seriously?

What if, from the perspective of the persons seated next to us, with whom we have momentarily cast our lot, we unexpectedly discover brand new takes on reality? Might we then no longer be exactly the same persons today we were yesterday?

Can you imagine an artist painting canvas after canvas without ever changing visual perspective? What kind of art would such constraint produce? Yet, when we look around, and all too often when we look within, we realize just how stuck we are in the same old hardened perspectives and patterns, time and again. It’s true of therapists, patients, surgeons, and politicians.

On the contrary—can you imagine shifting “from warrior to saint, from saint to lover, from lover to tiger, from tiger to flower,” with each transmutation bearing the novel perspective of “a sun in the head, and a thunderstorm in the heart”?

The Sower, Vincent van Gogh, Auvers, 1888

And to what end? That our darkened and crazed souls might be awakened to a radically new way of perceiving, being, and acting in the world.

Yes, even to the extent that at the hour of our death, with the curtain pulled back from the face of death itself and with our mortal remains reposing in astonishment like those of Delacroix, we might jolly well appear “almost smiling”!

Therefore—when imprisoned within those calcified perspectives that impede warriors from becoming saints, saints lovers, lovers tigers, and tigers flowers—for Heaven’s sake why would we not welcome unfamiliar vistas that we do not yet know?

∗ The “analytic third” is a concept employed by psychoanalyst Thomas H. Ogden, M.D.
© Copyright, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).