The Art Work of the Soul

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Several events over the past couple of days have coalesced into a recurring theme that seems noteworthy: Taking time to listen to the gentle voice at the heart of one’s life and discovering and cultivating environments that promote deep listening and human flourishing – especially in the practice of medicine and nursing.

• Thursday, I received the heartbreaking news from one of my courage and renewal colleagues of the tragic death of yet another medical resident at her medical institution.
• Friday, I read the article from the New England Journal of Medicine, Out of the Straightjacket,  depicting the moving story of a trauma surgeons’ journey through the threshold of severe depression and potential suicide.
• This weekend, I watched the movie, Loving Vincent, a beautiful portrayal of the life of Vincent van Gogh, an amazing artist and prolific painter who created over 800 paintings in eight years amidst unrelenting mental torment and some would say only became recognized for his work, after his death.

As I reflect on each of these experiences, Vincent van Gogh’s words continue to stir within me: “Who am I in the eyes of most people? A nobody, a non-entity, an unpleasant person. Someone who has not, and never will have any position in society. In short, the lowest of the low. Well then even if that were all absolutely true, then one day I will have to show by my work what this nobody, this non-entity has in his heart”.

As I recall times in my life when I have been inconsolable and viewed in the world’s eyes as a “nobody”, I draw comfort and courage in revisiting these words of John O’Donohue and letting them sink down deep into the marrow of my bones. Like van Gogh’s exquisite masterpiece, Starry Night, these words speak to me of a timeless and universal beauty that no external force can erase.

When you take the time to draw on your listening-imagination, you will begin to hear this gentle voice at the heart of your life. It is deeper and surer than all the other voices of disappointment, unease, self-criticism and bleakness. All holiness is about learning to hear the voice of your own soul. It is always there and the more deeply you learn to listen, the greater surprises and discoveries that will unfold. To enter into the gentleness of your own soul changes the tone and quality of your life. Your life is no longer consumed by hunger for the next event, experience or achievement. You learn to come down from the treadmill and walk on the earth. You gain a new respect for yourself and others and you learn to see how wonderfully precious this one life is. You begin to see through the enchanting veils of illusion that you had taken for reality. You no longer squander yourself on things and situations that deplete your essence. You know now that your true source is not outside you. Your soul is your true source and a new energy and passion awakens in you. (Beauty by John O’Donohue: The Voice of Your Own Soul)

When is the last time you took the time “to draw on your listening-imagination”?
What do you hold in your heart that you long to share with the world, “soothed beneath the artist loving hand”?
If, like van Gogh, you were to paint a timeless and universal masterpiece, what would it look like? What name would you give your masterpiece?