To Theo van Gogh. Amsterdam, Tuesday, 4 September 1877.
My dear Theo,
Herewith a note for Anna and for Lies, do write something on it and send it when Ma’s birthday is approaching. (I must tell you that the reason I’m sending it to you is that I’m afraid I won’t have any more stamps by then, except to write home. If you don’t write until later, just let this wait.)
Uncle Jan went to Helvoirt last Saturday, he intends to stay away until 10 September, so it’s quiet in the house these days and yet the days fly by, as I have lessons daily and have to study for them, and would even so much like the days to be a little longer in order to get more done, because it’s not always easy work, and even if one has been at it for some time, it gives but little satisfaction, enfin, what is difficult is good, I feel convinced of that even if one sees no results.
Am also busy copying out the whole of L’imitation de Jésus Christ from a French edition I’ve borrowed from Uncle Cor, that book is sublime, and he who wrote it must have been a man after God’s heart; had such an irresistible yearning for that book a few days ago, perhaps because I look at that lithograph after Ruipérez so often, and asked Uncle Cor if I could borrow it. Now I sit here in the evenings writing it out, it’s a lot of work but a good part of it is done, and I know no better way of getting some of it into my head. I also bought Bossuet, Oraisons funèbres5 again (I got it for 40 cents), I feel compelled to seize hold of the task forcefully, I occasionally think of those words ‘the days are evil’, and one must arm oneself and try as much as possible to have something good in oneself in order to be able to withstand and be prepared. It is, as you well know, no small undertaking, and we don’t know the outcome, and so in any case I want to try and fight a good fight.
It’s a curious book, that one by Thomas a Kempis, there are words so deep and serious that one cannot read them without emotion and almost fear, at least if one reads them with a sincere desire for light and truth, that language is indeed the eloquence that wins hearts because it comes from the heart. You have it, surely. Pa wrote to me about an unfortunate incident that occurred at Uncle Vincent’s. You no doubt know about it already, namely that the wife of the Rev. Richard fell down the stairs one evening and is in a very distressing condition. And so one hears daily now one thing then another, everywhere and on all sides, which is why I have at least the impression that ‘the days are evil’. Because even if it doesn’t happen to us, one feels nonetheless that perhaps it isn’t far from us either, and that we are in the same ordeal, as it were. The fashion of this world passeth away – yet would I have thee without carefulness.
‘Yet would I have thee without carefulness’, doesn’t that say, as far as you’re concerned, feel all these things, ‘feel thy sorrows’, and keep them in thine heart with the others, but go your way, ‘return on thy way’, remain the same as you were in the beginning, when you sought good and thought to have found something of it – for God, too, is the same as He was in the beginning, and with Him is no variableness, neither shadow of turning – thou, too, have a right spirit within you and have faith in God, for those who trust in Him will not be ashamed. We see that in our father, who feels all the suffering, all the misery and also all the sin around him, who also shares in it and helps as much as he possibly can, and yet goes his own steady way, doing good and not looking back. Yes, it is certainly true, he has the spirit Jesus had, that spirit of which He said: Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit. And so many have the same – although not in such great measure – that it isn’t a hopeless task for us to strive for it also.
‘Be zealous in amending your whole life’ is written in Thomas a Kempis, and that is what one must do and not give up, not even if one is frightened by the wrong that is in us and that rightly causes us to say, I alone have caused all this misery to myself and others – he who feels that, for him it is time, that is ‘the very man’. For such people it is written ‘Ye must be born again’. For such people the word of the Lord shall be a lamp and He himself through those words a Friend and Comforter, and godly sorrow shall worketh that which it shall worketh if one does not fear it.
There is something that I feel compelled to tell you, you from whom I have no secrets. In the life of Uncle Jan, of Uncle Cor, of Uncle Vincent, there is much, much good and purity, and yet something is missing. Wouldn’t you think that when the two first-mentioned are sitting here, as often happens, talking in the evening in that beautiful, sober room familiar to you, that it’s a sight that does the heart good, especially if one looks at them with love as I do? And yet – the Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt is even more beautiful, and it could have been that and now it’s almost that but not altogether. Pa has what they lack – it is good to be a Christian, almost and also altogether, for that is life eternal – and now I’ll go even further and say what is missing in them, missing in their homes and in their families, and then you will say or at least think of the man who beheld a mote in his brother’s eye but did not consider the beam in his own eye – and then I shall answer, there is possibly something of that, but these at least are true words, ‘it is good to be a Christian, almost and also altogether’.
A few days ago I spent an evening in the study of the Rev. Jeremie Meijjes, not the old minister but that very man who had moved me so much in church. It was a pleasant evening, he asked a thing or two about London, about which I could tell quite a lot, and he told me about his work and the blessings he had apparently experienced. Hanging in the room was a very good charcoal drawing of a religious service which he was accustomed to keep with him at home on winter evenings, very good, Israëls would have liked it, the congregation was made up of workers and their wives, there are similar subjects in Doré’s book about London. Went himself to London for a fortnight. Has a large family, 6 or 7 children, his wife has something indescribable – something of Ma – or of the wife of the Rev. Jones, for example. In a word, it’s a Christian family there in all its strength and bloom, there is sometimes an expression of very great happiness on the tired face of that man, and when one is in that house one feels something of ‘put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground’.
Also spent an evening at the Strickers’ and heard Uncle preach last Sunday on I Cor. III:14, If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. It often seems as though I already feel something of blessing and of change in my life. How I’d like to show you all kinds of things here. I think of Degroux so often in the Jewish quarter and also in other places; there are interiors there with woodcutters, carpenters, grocers’ shops, chemist’s shops, smithies and so on and so forth that would have delighted him. For example, this morning I saw a large, dark wine cellar and warehouse standing open, a spectre momentarily appeared to me – you know what – men were running back and forth with lights in the dark vault – now that is something one can see daily, but there are moments when ordinary daily things make an extraordinary impression and seem to have a deep meaning in another setting. Degroux managed to show that so well in his paintings, and especially in his lithographs.
Your letter just arrived as I write this. Thank you. Pa already wrote that he had visited you, but what really surprised me was that Gladwell is in The Hague. Give him my warm regards, and oh, how I’d like him to come here sometime, just wrote him a postcard to ask him to do his best to come to Amsterdam as well, you try and persuade him too. You know yourself how interesting it is for foreigners to see the city, also the dockyard and the area around here, and how I’d like to show him around as much as is in my power. And I’m longing to see his brown eyes, which could sparkle so when we saw the paintings of Michel and others or talked of ‘many things’. Yes, it wouldn’t be bad if he were to come, and even stayed as long as possible, and I believe that we’d certainly feel that there was something genuinely sincere in our earlier friendship and that it was no small thing, with the passing of time one does not always feel it strongly, but it is not dead but it sleepeth, and to make it awake and alive again it is good to see each other again.
Herewith a word for him, it seems to me that he mustn’t leave Holland without having seen the Trippenhuis and Van der Hoop, do your best to make him do it, at least if it can happen in this way and he doesn’t do it against his will. Have to stay up this evening as long as I can keep my eyes open and so end this; if I have time, I’ll finish this page.
If your acquaintance with Gladwell is strong and leaves something good behind, I would think it wonderful, it has been a long time since I last saw him.
Adieu, accept a handshake in thought and hearty congratulations on Ma’s birthday, but perhaps I’ll write again on the day itself. Now I’ve simply talked on and on in this letter and I don’t know if it’s good and am simply sending it the way it is. I wish you well, shake Gladwell’s hand for me, and believe me ever
Your most loving brother,