To Theo van Gogh. Isleworth, between about Saturday, 2 and Friday, 8 September 1876.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for your letter of this morning. There are hours and days and times in life when God hides His face, as it were, but for those who love God even those times, those sorrowful times, are not entirely without God, but as though full of prophecies for the future and full of voices from the past: ‘hitherto hath the Lord brought you’, ‘foster again the faith of old’.
If things should sometimes happen to you that you hadn’t counted on, strengthen within yourself the godly sorrow and the voice: ‘Abba, Father’. It was an autumn day and I stood on the front steps of Mr Provily’s school, watching the carriage drive away that Pa and Ma rode home in.
One could see that yellow carriage in the distance on the long road – wet after the rain, with thin trees on either side – running through the meadows. The grey sky above it all was reflected in the puddles. And around a fortnight later I was standing one evening in a corner of the playground when they came to tell me that someone was asking after me, and I knew who it was and a moment later I flung my arms round Father’s neck. What I felt, wouldn’t it have been ‘because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying in us, “Abba, Father”’? It was a moment in which we both felt that we have a Father in heaven; because my Father, too, looked up and in his heart there was an even bigger voice than mine crying ‘Abba, Father’.
Between that moment and today are years of pilgrimage. There are words that accompany us and grow up with us, as it were – which are, ‘sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing’. There is the prayer of a Mother for her children which is very powerful, for the prayer of a righteous person availeth much.
Father, I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil.
There is the hand of a faithful Father that blessed us when we left the family home.
And then, old boy, as I said earlier, there is a strong yearning for the day when He will no longer remember the iniquities of our youth. Who rejoices in grey hair? As far as the east is from the west, so far do I remove your transgressions from you. Though your sins be as scarlet, I shall make them white as snow. He who hate not his own life, he cannot be Christ’s disciple. Pa once sent me this:
A longing for sanctification
Who shall free us fully and for ever
From the body of this death, bent beneath the yoke?
How long must I still combat my nature
Ere this heart from sinful service be revoked?
That God my God would be, I pledged my troth
With singleness of mind Him would I follow
But I was tried – forgotten was my oath
I was tempted – and my foot did falter.
No, with my own strength I shan’t learn to conquer
Soul, confess your weakness, self-deceit, take flight!
A child’s heart must be shaped by the Father
The Master be the pupil’s guiding light.
Well then, Father, let your love be my teacher
My Master, take my hand, and show your standard
I stood alone – and fell: now we’re together
I succumbed, but win behind your vanguard.
Only now do I feel strong, when with weakness stricken
Powerless in myself, but in the Lord, almighty!
Sin may tempt, the evil passions quicken,
Thou castest down all foes, O God in me!
I am grieved, but it’s a godly sadness
A night-cloud – tinged all round with dawn’s bright crimson
I weep, Lord, though my heart is full of gladness
I bow my head – but, Father, in thy bosom.
Who rejoices in grey hair? Who sees behind it as Felix Holt saw behind the word ‘failure’?
Who sees, when the first life, the life of childhood and adolescence, that life of joy in the world and vanity reluctantly withers, and it will wither, even as the blossom falls from the trees, that then another life shoots up vigorously, the life of the love of Christ that constraineth18 and godly sorrow not to be repented of; how then, in our profound dependence on God, and in the clear and forceful feeling of this, we find more favour in His eyes, which are too pure to behold evil, and how He will entrust to us more safely, in our weakness, His Holy Spirit which giveth life and constraineth unto good works. Who rejoices in the life ahead? Who rejoices in grey hair, who rejoices in sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing, chastened, but not killed until ‘dying, and, behold, we live’? Who rejoices in falling down, and standing up again with longsuffering and meekness? Who rejoices in the green of the pine trees and cedar and ivy and holly and moss in the winter? Dry wood gives more heat, bright fire and light when it is lit than green wood does. There is no fear in Love, but perfect love shutteth out fear.
Father in my great affliction,
Father, who punishes and saves,
Father, e’en in death’s own kingdom,
Father, too, in the silent grave.
Where’er I see inconstancy,
God, Thou takest a firm stand.
My dust, too, rests in Thy loyalty
And slumbers in Thy fatherly hand.
Years, go quickly, fly by swiftly
With your gladness and travail
Whatever evil I bewail
God, my God, He changeth not.
Though we sit in mournful darkness
That eternal light will blaze
All its glory and resplendence
Worthy of all laud and praise.
I know in Whom my faith is founded,
Though day and night change constantly,
I know the rock on which I’m grounded,
My Saviour waits, unfailingly.
When once life’s evening overcomes me,
Worn down by ills and strife always,
For every day Thou hast allowed me,
I’ll bring Thee higher, purer praise.
Why art thou cast down, my soul,
Disquieted in me, oh why?
Foster again the faith of old,
Rejoice in praising Him most high.
Oft hath He taken your distress
And turned it into happiness.
Hope in Him, eyes heavenward raised,
For to my God I still give praise.
And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.
The good Lord blesses love’s dwelling-place,
He dwelleth there, there one obtains His grace,
and life everlasting.
Let us have Love toward one another, so that God may increase and strengthen our Love, and let us have love toward those around us, and if sometimes there are no people whom you can love enough, love the town you live in, as you certainly do, don’t I love Paris and London even though I’m a child of the pine-woods and of that beach at Ramsgate? And seek to please the poor, and to find favour in their eyes.
‘Stablish your heart’. ‘Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying in us, “Abba, Father”’. He that hath not loved knoweth not God; for God is Love. And this is life eternal, to know God, and Christ, Whom He hath sent. There is no fear in love. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. And yet I am not alone, but the Father is with me. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to fall into the hand of the Lord than into the hand of man. Let Christ be the centre of your longing, the Comforter of a troubled mind. ‘Stablish your heart’ in this sense, too: eat your bread with singleness of heart, I do so at least, I cannot do otherwise, God help me, if there be any danger in doing it; ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my heart’, eat your bread but live simply, and smoke your pipe, I do it too, whenever I have some tobacco and take a walk, I do it too whenever I get the chance to break loose. ‘And commit thy way unto the Lord; He shall bring it to pass’.
‘Stablish your Love’. What exactly is the Love of which Paul speaks? What exactly are those wonderful words which you also know, 1 Cor. XIII. That Love is the life in Christ, that love is our Mother, all the goodness of the earth belongs to her, for everything is good if enjoyed with thanksgiving, but she extends much further than that goodness of the earth. To her belongs a drink from the brook during a walk or from a fountain in the hot streets of London and Paris, to her also belongs ‘I shall make your bed in sickness’, ‘as one whom his Mother comforteth, so will I comfort you’, to her also belongs faithfulness until death in Christ who gives us the strength to do all things. There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.
‘Stablish your hope’, for there is much that is good in life, for him who loves Christ the world is what it is, and all things shall be added unto him, as it were. It is indeed true that much joy already lies behind us, and also much that we used to look forward to, and although much joy may lie in store for us, we have already seen that ‘the world passeth away, and all the glory thereof’. And if it be true that:
I’ve found a joy in sorrow, a secret balm for pain,
A beautiful tomorrow of sunshine after rain;
I’ve found a branch of healing near every bitter spring,
A whispered promise stealing o’er every broken string.
then it’s also true that there is no joy without insufficiency.
Sorrow is better than joy, and it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasts, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.
Even in mirth the heart is sad. For myself I shall endeavour to strive to love Christ and to work for Him in my life, even if it fails and even if I fall, there will always remain a standing aloof and a longing for above from the misery below. But I want to seek faith and Love and to continue asking for God’s spirit under all circumstances.
Now this is my vow to the Lord my God, my rock. If I am forsaken, then I am forsaken, but He is faithful and loves with an eternal Love and grants us our heart’s desire of being Evergreen.
Read the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Isa. 9, 11, 35; Isa. 40, 42, 43, 44, 45:2 and the following verses, 49, 53, 55, 58, 61, 63, 65; Jer. 3, 17, 30, 31.
The Lord is thy keeper, The Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. Unto Him belong the issues from death, with Him is everlasting life.
My boy, days will come when we’ll no longer believe because we heard it said but when we’ll know, feel and love it. Then we’ll be moved to hear the name of God spoken, just as we’re moved to see our father again after a long time away from home.
And we’ll be brothers and sisters and children of the parsonage, as though made new, and in manifold ways.
Let us continue in life as long as our legs will carry us, even though our feet grow tired, and the oppression great, and even if our ears buzz with the sound of the world that they have been hearing for so many years, and even if our whole head is tired, and the going is difficult, let us continue in life because our Father and our Mother tell us to ‘go forth and don’t look back’, and if we can do good along the way, let us not neglect to do so; and yet it is more our heart than our work that God desires. Pa and Ma say ‘go forth’ and they love us, didn’t Pa say: my boy, surely you know that I would give my last shirt for you. Let us continue as long as our legs will carry us (and you will find that God giveth power to the faint; and increaseth strength to him that has no might, that God supports) for there is greater Love in store, that is why we rejoice and have faith in that life ahead.
A handshake in thought, it’s already late, adieu.
Your most loving brother,
Now, Brother, these are the fruits of my pen and the fruits of my heart.
My eyes, O weep no more, but hold back your tears
My soul, grieve no more, but pray, but pray,
Do you ever go to the Lord’s Supper? They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. (Try and send that page from Michelet.)Don’t be afraid, when you’re out walking in the evening and there’s no one near by, to sing a psalm: ‘The panting hart, the hunt escapèd’, or ‘O why art thou cast down, my soul?’ or ‘Centre of our longing’ or ‘I know in Whom my faith is founded’.
The years between 20 and 30 are full of all sorts of dangers, full of great danger, yea, the danger of sin and death, but also full of light and God’s comfort. Wrestling, you will emerge victorious, and when they’re over you’ll think back on them with nostalgia and say, it was a good time after all.
Regards to everyone at the Rooses’, Haanebeeks’, Tersteegs’, Borchers’, Caroline and Mauve.
If you can, send a Carte de visite to Ma on her birthday, No. 669, The prodigal son by Scheffer.