At Eternity’s Gate: Artists of the Infinite

by Father John O'Brien, OFM

Reviewed by Francis Etheredge



The title of O’Brien’s book is taken from a painting by Van Gogh (p. 100). But even if I do not know if everyone written about in this book was an influence on the life of Fr. Henri Nouwen , the book is nevertheless a biography which threads through the work and influences of Fr. Henri, psychologist and theologian – Who sought a spiritual home and battled ‘against his own insecurities and failures’ and ‘spoke of these in his writings to give others courage in their struggles’ (p. 8). In other words, in a very attractive dialogue with a variety of people and their work, whether written or visual, both from the Scripture and a whole range of almost cultural icons like Pink Floyd, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, we pass through and touch innumerable moments of angst and the plight of the human heart to find a home in Love.


At the same time there is a movement through these three principal characters: Pink Floyd’s experience of anguish because of the voice that disfigures us – with the twin temptations of hiding behind a wall and turning to violence. Then, through Rembrandt’s life and work, particularly that of the prodigal son’s return to the Father – there is a return to the one who loves to welcome us: the discovering or rediscovering that we are God’s beloved. Thirdly, there is the turning of our experience of reconciliation into understanding others, through contemplating the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Thus the book is almost an illustrated process of spiritual transformation: passing from the experience of an inward, almost implosively destructive dialogue to being able to turn to others with understanding – but this transformation requires the passage, as it were, through the return of the prodigal son. In his lecture on Van Gogh Nouwen ‘would allow space for Vincent’s story to connect with his students’ stories’ p. 75). Understanding others, therefore, is inseparable from understanding ourselves that we may ‘be with’ each other (p. 77) – but that understanding, one might say, is mediated or even made possible because through our brokenness the Light of Christ has broken into our darkness.


The book as a whole opens through the question of a choice, to choose restless pursuits or to find a place of rest; and, just as the first chapter introduces us to Jesus Christ, our spiritual guide, so it ends with our guide taking us to His Mother’s house: the “home” of the Blessed Trinity. The book, then, invites us to go by way of the prayer in daily life, whether alone or with others, to the place where the beloved comes to rest in the House of the Father: the “place” of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in His angels and in His saints – Heaven: the home of the Beloved of God.


Join John O’Brien, OS<, in his journey to the Father’s house.

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