The portal

Written for Spiritual Journey Thursday.

As COVID restrictions finally began to lift, my husband and I ventured out to a nice restaurant for lunch. We practically had the place to ourselves. Afterward, as the day was bright and breezy, we decided to walk along the outdoor mall’s trendy shops and boutiques. The sidewalks, normally crowded, were empty, perfect for a promenade… I almost felt as if I should be holding a parasol and that my husband should be wearing a striped jacket, a straw hat, and carrying an ornamental cane…on and on we strolled, aimlessly, just drinking in the glorious early-summer afternoon, temperate and rare.

“Let’s cross over here,” said my husband, grasping my hand, when I looked up to see…

on an otherwise blank, unremarkable wall…

a magical door.

“Oooh! Wait!” I said, dropping my husband’s hand to take a picture: I must write about this…

A painted portal. With light fixtures on either side to illuminate it at night. Even though it isn’t really a door.

—Or is it?

It seems straight out of a fantasy novel: A door to another world, a conspicuous portkey, an enchanted painting like that of the Narnian ship Dawn Treader hanging on a bedroom wall, coming to life as Eustace, Edmund, and Lucy rushed at it and fell through into the ocean…

Standing there on the vacant sidewalk, on that bright, ethereal afternoon so strangely devoid of other people, I could almost believe the portal was real, that it led to… something beyond.

I recognized the depiction, of course—a modified version of one of the best-known works of art in the world. Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. He painted it in his asylum room. It’s the view from his window, facing east, before the sunrise. He would write to his brother that “the morning star was very large.” The scene is dark. It is blue. At the time, van Gogh’s mind was dark and blue; he was a deeply religious man who’d suffered much mental and emotional pain, who’d sacrificed for his art to his own detriment, though most others found little value in his paintings until after his suicide. The full scope of the village can’t be seen here in the portal on the wall, and it wasn’t a village that van Gogh saw as he painted the original; it was in his mind. Those are cypress trees dominating the foreground—funerary trees, symbols of mourning.

I thought: Is this a portal I’d want to pass through? A place where I really want to find myself?

But then… my husband and I had just come out of a dark place. The COVID stay-at-home order. Shadowy, uncertain days swirling with horror and mourning as the worldwide death toll spiked. Refrigerated trucks needed for storing corpses, images of caskets lined up for burial… which of us ever expected to find ourselves here? Public places closed for the sake of public health, at last re-opening, tentatively, with social distancing requirements… we were still (and still are, even now) unable to return to church where my husband pastors…

—The church. Note how large it is, there in the mysterious doorway. Much larger in proportion to the one van Gogh actually painted. He wanted to be a pastor. He failed the exams. He became a missionary, gave up his own comfort on behalf of the impoverished congregation, and slid deeper into psychosis and poverty.

This artwork hits me anew with its unique, transformative force… for that is what art does. It speaks to the spirit. Van Gogh didn’t paint what he saw; he painted his interpretation of it. The tormented man looked through the asylum window and focused on the stars. A hundred and thirty-one years later I stand on a sidewalk before a quasi-reproduction of his famous work, looking at the enlarged church, with the words of C.S. Lewis echoing in my mind: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

A spiritual portal, leading to something beyond.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (MOMA). Photo: Wouter de Bruijn, 2014. CC BY-NC-SA.

*******

Much gratitude to Margaret Simon for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday for August on her blog, Reflections on the Teche. Margaret said: “My topic is spiritual art. I often find that art speaks to me in a spiritual way, like poetry.” Sparked by this challenge. my thoughts went straight to the portal, this painting, and van Gogh. Visit Margaret’s post, “Art for the Soul,” for more odysseys.

The C.S. Lewis quote is from The Weight of Glory, a wartime sermon first published in 1941. The title is derived from 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”

17 thoughts on “The portal

  1. Fran: Thanks so much for this post. I connects a number of dots for me. I love Starry Night, but didn’t know that Van Gogh painted it while in an asylum. I must read more about him. And the quote about being on the wrong side of the world… it all ties in for me, and sort of echoes what I wrote in my blog today. Thanks again, and blessings. I hope you church will reconvene safely and soon.

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    • Thank you for this response, Karen. I saw a documentary on van Gogh recently – haunting, sad; his suffering was so great. I also read that there are eleven in stars in The Starry Night, which may be symbolic of Joseph’s dreams regarding his brothers in Genesis. How amazed van Gogh would be to know his art is now priceless. Yes… our congregation is hoping we will be able to gather together again soon. This all seems so unimaginable, yet, we are living it. Blessings to you and yours as well.

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  2. I am a huge fan of Van Gogh. My husband and I were given a trip to France for our 15th wedding anniversary. I’ll never forget the day we took the train to Auvers-sur-Oise. I learned so much about Van Gogh and his spirit attached itself to me. He was so ill and impoverished and yet his art evokes happiness and hopefulness. I love showing the Starry Night video to my students and have them respond in poetry.
    I love how you ruminate on this portal of sorts that takes you into fantasy, but with a grasp on the word of God. Thanks for sharing this experience with the spiritual and art.

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    • I would absolutely love to take that same trip, Margaret. Perhaps that portal will open for me… I can see you with your students, responding to The Starry Night with soul-stirring verse. I blended a lot of different things here (something Lewis was criticized for with Narnia – by his friend Tolkien!) so I am thankful you see the layers of connections, too. Poetry, art, writing – all are deeply spiritual, in the end.

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  3. Wow! What a fabulous post….and fabulous inspiration for it! The thought of walking hand in hand with my spouse to find such a beautiful door and to think about it in this way. Well, it’s just neat-o! I’m going to keep my eyes open for a portal…I want to find one too.

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    • It WAS such a cool thing, coming across that painted door…I’ve had the photo a good while, sort of simmering ideas for ways to write about it. This was a good outlet. I am happy to have finally written abut it. I may return again and yet again to this portal, if it should beckon… time will tell.

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  4. What a delight to read this post of you and hubby on a perfect promenade walk, imaginary parasol in hand. And the portal is so beautiful. Thanks for the insights into Van Gogh’s live. I learn so much from my blogging community. Love the C.S. Lewis quote (new for me): “…Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

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  5. Fran, what a splendid post. Your photo opens doors of wonder. I can imagine how wonderful your walk was and how delighted you must have been with your portal find. It is filled with promise and wonder on what one could find when stepping inside. I found your information on Van Gogh quite interesting. Many of the facts I was unaware of. What a master of imaginary art he was yet he was so troubled. Lewis’ thought, “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door,” is telling. Thank you for the post that allows us to ponder the mysteries of life and moving into another dimension of thought.

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    • Thank you, Carol – van Gogh is such a tragic figure. It is impossible to encounter his work and his story without the spirit being deeply stirred. Great gifts are so often accompanied by great burdens. Encountering the portal with Starry Night was a step into a surreal peace, especially considering the beauty of the day itself. Sort of a moment outside of time, or timeless … the evocative power of art.

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      • Fran, this thought of yours, “Great gifts are so often accompanied by great burdens,” is a wonderful way to start my morning. I feel blessed to wake early, see the sunshine, feel the air conditioning flowing, and knowing that even Tropical Storm Isaias cannot block our entry into a magical portal like you described. Today, I am honoring the memory of my mother who passed away 11 years ago. I know she is watching us from her other side of the portal and wishing us luck as new prospective buyers come by.

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      • My thoughts are with you as you especially remember your mother today, Carol ❤️ and – when you move to VA, you will be nearer to me! It is my home state. Here’s to the portal, loved ones who still feel near, blessings, and an expedient sale!

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