The other day, a woman I know told me that her young daughter had recently learned some devastating news. This little girl has a collection of dolls that are absolutely precious to her. She plays with them, talks to them, and treats them almost as if they were people. But she recently learned that when she dies, she won’t be able to take the dolls to heaven with her.
This was a terrible realization for a child too young to truly grasp the meaning of mortality. She was so full of vivacious, youthful energy that she could give life to inanimate objects. In her mind, it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t live forever and her beloved dolls with her.
There is a Japanese aesthetic concept called wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi refers to something that brings about in us “a sense of serene melancholy and spiritual longing.” It acknowledges that “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
My friend’s daughter had discovered the first of these three tenets: nothing lasts. This is something we learn again and again throughout our lives, something that may come as a great relief or as a huge loss. When facing trials, we take comfort in the notion that nothing lasts; but when life is good, when love is new and work is fulfilling and beauty is abundant, we might resent the speaking of this truth.
Impermanence, incompletion, and imperfection. All of these are hallmarks of the human experience, which is constantly suspended between life and death. They may give us comfort or anxiety, maybe even both at once. We may struggle to reconcile all the extremes of what it means to be human—sadness and joy, comfort and grief, anger and peace, healing and pain.
Vincent Van Gogh embodied these extremes in his life and in his work. Now considered one of the greatest artists who ever lived, in his time Van Gogh was virtually unknown, his talent unappreciated and largely ignored. His mind was tortured with anxiety and depression but also illuminated by a vision of the beauty in ordinary things and people.
Author Glennon Doyle Melton says that life is beautiful and brutal—life is “brutiful.” Van Gogh’s work depicts beauty not in spite of brutality but through it. His bold colors, piercing self-portraits, and portrayals of sunflowers in every stage of life and death capture moments as they pass, bearing witness to life’s impermanence, incompletion, and imperfection, as well as to the fleeting but very real truth and beauty of this world.
We have sunflowers on the altar tonight because one of Van Gogh’s recurring subjects is a vase of sunflowers. These flowers captured him with their complexity, with the way they so vibrantly display every stage of their living and dying.
In the BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who, the main characters travel back in time to pay a visit to Vincent Van Gogh. The time-traveling alien known as the Doctor and his companion Amy find Van Gogh impoverished and disliked by most of the villagers, prolific in painting but never satisfied with the end result.
The Doctor and Amy discover that, at least in this fictionalized account, sunflowers are not Van Gogh’s favorite flower. He says that sunflowers are “always somewhere between living and dying,” and because of that, they are “a little disgusting.”
Every living thing carries both life and death in its body, but sunflowers put it all on display. These flowers began as a tiny fist of greenery, slowly opening their yellow petals and turning toward the sun. As they go through their life cycle, the petals will wither and brown, the centers bulge and droop with the weight of their seeds and pollen, and finally they will bow their heads and die.
These sunflowers will not last. The sunflowers I grew in the ground in front of my house this past summer lasted longer than they will, but they, too, bent back to the earth from which they came in time. They are impermanent, and if there is a single moment when they are complete and perfect in their beauty, it is hard to pinpoint and easy to miss.
This is where that melancholy and longing that wabi-sabi refers to comes in. We long for permanence, for completion, for perfection. But whatever glimpses of that we find here are fleeting. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “What can be seen is temporary.”
The temporary nature of earthly life is the primary cause of grief for us. The things that bring us beauty and happiness, the stages of human life, the youth of our children, the lives of our loved ones and even ourselves—all of these things are temporary. We know this. It is only natural that a season of happiness would be followed by one of regret, that our friends and family would not live forever but at some point pass on, that our children will grow up and move on and that beauty will fade. We know this, and yet it grieves us still.
Too often, when faced with these realities, we rush in to fix them, to smooth over the sadness, to shut out the grief and focus only on the good. And we are called to gratitude, to hope, and to perseverance. But the passage we heard from 2 Corinthians calls us to something harder: to holding life and death in our bodies, to bearing the tension of wasting away and being renewed simultaneously, to acknowledging the reality of affliction and grief while never losing sight of the hope of glory to come.
There is a word in the Welsh language that I love, in part because it has no direct English translation. The word is hiraeth. It refers to a particular kind of homesickness that is tinged with grief or sadness over loss.
I think of the word hiraeth in a spiritual sense because it holds within in the tension between grief and hope. It gives us permission to mourn what is gone while fostering the promise of a return home. And the hope of that promise comes not in spite of but through the grief and loss.
Glennon Doyle Melton says, “Grief is not something to be fixed. It’s something to be borne, together. And when the time is right, there is always something that is born from it.” A prayer attributed to Saint Francis says this:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
If we look closely, these things are already present, one where the other may be found. In our doubt is a seed of faith; in despair is the echo of hope; no darkness can banish even the smallest of lights, and within sadness is the joy whose loss we are mourning.
In the Doctor Who episode about Vincent Van Gogh, the Doctor and Amy decide to try something. They see Van Gogh’s despair over his inability to succeed as an artist and think they can help. So they bring him forward in time with him to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in the 21st century.
There, a whole room is dedicated to Van Gogh’s work, and a museum curator states that he believes Vincent Van Gogh was the greatest painter who ever lived. It is a deeply moving scene, and Van Gogh is overwhelmed with happiness. When they take Van Gogh back home, he declares that he is a new man, ready to face the world head on.
The Doctor and Amy rush back to the future to see what might be different because of their actions. Amy feels sure that they prevented Van Gogh’s premature death by suicide, that the vision they offered him could inspire him to overcome his personal demons and leave an even more staggering artistic legacy. She races to the museum, anticipating the hundreds of new paintings they will find after the long life of Vincent Van Gogh.
Instead, she finds the exhibition exactly as it was. There are no new paintings. Van Gogh still took his own life at age 37. Amy is grieved and discouraged, feeling that they made no difference at all. The Doctor, having anticipated this unhappy outcome, comforts her with these words:
“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
As it turns out, they did make a tiny difference in the life of Vincent Van Gogh: there, on one of his famous paintings of sunflowers, is the subtle inscription: “For Amy.”
The good and the bad, the perfect and imperfect, the complete and unfinished, the eternal and the impermanent, all of it matters and all of it is held in the promise that life comes out of death. None of it cancels each other out, for good or for bad. We can respect the integrity of our grief even as we honor the truth of our hope.
When a sunflower dies, it drops its seed and the cycle begins again. As the flower rises out of the earth, follows the sun through its life, and then kneels back to the dirt to give its life for a new one, so we come up out of the clay and walk suspended between life and death, bearing in our bodies the beauty and brutality of this brutiful human experience.
Remember the little girl who was upset to learn she couldn’t take her dolls to heaven with her? My favorite part of the story is what she decided to do with that realization. This little girl has asked her mother to help her find another child who doesn’t have dolls. She wants to give them away to someone who needs them more than she does.
Though the knowledge of her dolls’ impermanence caused her grief, it also gave her hope that the joy she found in these toys might mean something to someone else as well. These dolls, already so important to her, came to matter in a different way, in a way that was broader and more compassionate than her own desire to have and to keep them.
The philosophy of wabi-sabi, despite its emphasis on impermanence, incompletion, and imperfection, is one not of despair but of authenticity. It teaches us to treat everything we have as treasure held in fragile clay jars. It teaches us to release the things most important to us into the care and keeping of a God who is eternal, complete, and perfect.
We sometimes think that if something is temporary, it is meaningless, but this is a mistake. The temporary nature of our experiences our relationships, and our very lives makes them all the more precious. It makes every spark of life in our bodies of death a foreshadowing of the eternal life to come.
And it teaches us to lean not on what can be seen but on what cannot be seen: faith, hope, and love. For these things are eternal, and in them, in God, our impermanence, our incompleteness, our imperfection finds its rest, its fullness, and its restoration. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell