At Eternity’s Gate: Artists of the Infinite

by John O’Brien, OFM

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



I just finished a beautiful book called Art & Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God by Father Timothy Verdon, I read it for an hour after lunch for two weeks. I still go back for words and pictures. It is a magnificent book!


This book has the same wonderful qualities O’Brien states “Only the wounded healer heals (Jung). Henri J.M.Nouwen explored this idea in his writings. He was in touch with his own wounds and fragility. By writing he helped others accept themselves in their brokenness.


He was inspired by the art of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and the icons of Russia. We follow him in contemplating these works and this forms a healing space in which we come to know, love and accept ourselves as God does. The author goes on to ponder Soren Kierkegaard who sought to make Christianity in his native Denmark more authentic.


He saw the words of Scripture as being addressed to us personally. They contained a call for each individual. They were love letters from God.


In more recent times Henri Nouwen sought to find spirituality in our world. He trained as a psychologist as well as a theologian. He had to battle against his own insecurities and failures. He spoke of these in his writings to give others courage in their struggles. He had to learn self-compassion and then compassion for others.


Through his life and writings he enables us to find our ‘home’ in the love God has for us and allow that love to heal us. This is the journey we are on in this book. O’Brien dealt with ‘the Wall’ by Pink Floyd. This shows us how we can get locked in on ourselves. It is love that breaks down the wall and we learn ‘we are the Beloved of God’. In Chapter three the author looks at Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ and Henri’s reflections on this painting. Then the author looks at Vincent Van Gogh and Henri’s teaching based on Van Gogh’s painting to teach us compassion. The final chapter is based on Henri’s shared meditations on four icons.


Imagine for the parables of Jesus, with their correlation of birth and rebirth as centered in Vincent’s works. The Sower (1888), painted in Arles, as well as Wheatfield with a Reaper (1889) and Crows over the Wheatfield (1890).In the Sower the sun is a symbol for the divine. He painted the saun as golden yellow orbs flooding the skies with brilliant rays. It enlivened everything before it .


This was the light helped to bring to the dark places where people suffered. For Vincent, the image of the sun was the image of the divine, the source that empowers creation. It shows us the work of the Spirit in creation and giving life. Vincent believed there was an inexhaustible source of love and light – a light and love that can enter all the darkness of our lives.


The inner beauty, the inner light, the capacity to love inherent in all people springs from that same source, the Spirit of Love. Writing to his sister to germinate is in a grain of wheat, which is love in us. In the Sower we see the whole cycle of life, the sorrowful yet always rejoicing at new birth, death and rebirth under the golden orb of the sun. This brings comfort and hope. One of his gentle pictures was of almond blossoms. These represented anew beginning and new hope. An Gogh expressed his hope while at the same time battling with depression.


In the years from 1875-1880 Van Gogh identified with Jesus in the Agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha. His struggles were about to get worse. There are many painting described by the author that help us to understand both statues, paintings and icons. They are fascinating as they tie the artist to the Scriptures and other forms of beauty.


In the conclusion, the author describes his unfinished business: The Return of the Prodigal Son we feel the ending is unfinished and so it is. When we look at the icon of the Holy Spirit we see another unfinished story. In the one in the darkness released? We are called to the community of the Holy Spirit and yet we do not see this meaningful community. We are called to end the story in our own lives.


In the Prodigal Son we can find ourselves in the different characters. How we respond is up to ourselves. In this sense the ending is in us. The icon of the Holy Spirit teaches us that we often experience the opposite of the peace in the icon. We do not experience the community the icons speak of. There is no light in the darkness, yet we are not called to despair but to hope. We need to place ourselves in the group and allow ourselves to be open to God’s spirit. When we find God in ourselves we can reach out to others. We write the ending…”God-in-us” is where we start. We are called, each in our own way, to fin