I See the Fire by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonEver since reading Elie Wiesel’s book, NIGHT, I’ve identified with Madame Schächter, one of eighty Jewish people corralled and hermetically sealed inside one of the cattle wagons on the rail journey to Auschwitz from a ghetto in Sighet. The text tells us, “Madame Schächter had gone out of her mind.” Initially she moaned, confused as to why she had been separated from her family. She soon grew hysterical. “Fire! I can see a fire! I can see a fire!” When her fellow prisoners looked out the window and saw no fire, they attempted to silence her. Nevertheless, she persisted with her cries. They soon tied her up, gagged, and hit her. As the train approached its destination (Birkenau, the reception center for Auschwitz), Madame Schächter screamed, “Jews, look! Look through the window! Flames! Look!” When the Jews looked through the window this time, they saw flames “gushing out of a tall chimney into the black sky.”

Madame Schächter, someone I call a prophetess, could “see” things the other Jews could not or would not acknowledge. In today’s political climate, there are people who DO see the fire and flames. We cry out. Some of our fellow citizens attempt to silence us. “Give him a chance.” “Let’s come together in unity.” “Stop being so negative—it will turn out all right in the end.”

We want to believe that “love trumps hate” and “good overcomes evil.” We want to “stay positive” even when “alternate facts” take the place of honesty and then passed off as “truth.” Similar to Hydra, the serpent-like sea monster with multiple heads from Greek and Roman mythology, the affronts and injustices hurled at us by the current administration are impossible to annihilate. Should one head be severed, two more grow in its place.

Madame Schächter’s fellow prisoners insisted she be silent. No doubt they were good people.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), world-famous Dutch artist, left behind close to two thousand paintings and drawings. In addition, almost one thousand letters—most of them written to his brother, Theo—survive. www.vangoghletters.org Vincent’s letters, according to Van Gogh scholar Cliff Edwards (Virginia Commonwealth University), not only shed light on Vincent’s paintings, they also reveal an intelligent, well-read, and thoughtful man struggling with what we call today the “meaning of life.”

In his book, VAN GOGH AND GOD, Edwards uses the term idiomorphism, not as a term to ascribe human attributes to God, but as a way of experiencing “God in the concreteness of…[our] own most intense and significant personal history.” A mother, for example, would experience God not “as if” God were a mother, but would experience “God’s mothering in her concrete acts of child-care.”

Vincent writes from Arles on May 26, 1888:

I feel more and more that we must not judge of God from this world, it’s just a study that didn’t come off.  What can you do with a study that has gone wrong?—if you are fond of the artist, you do not find much to criticize—you hold your tongue.  But you have a right to ask for something better.  We should have to see other works by the same hand though; this world was evidently slapped together in a hurry on one of his bad days, when the artist didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t have his wits about him. (Letter 613)

Understanding the world as “a study that didn’t come off” is a refreshing take on things. After all, did justice win in the midst of Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Idi Amin and their ilk’s death machines? Those regimes did eventually crumble only to grow new heads (like Hydra) and resurface. When we look at history over millennia, can we really say along with Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice?” Do truth and justice ultimately always triumph?

War prevails (and has for millennia), perpetuated by greed for power and resources, leaving a trail of death and misery in its wake. Today we face rampant xenophobia (Muslim ban), misogyny (But her emails!), and racism (ALL lives matter). Needless suffering abounds brought about by war, class and racial divisions, fixed gender roles, malnutrition, inadequate health care—the list could go on and on.

I am not suggesting that people take their finger out of the dike as they attempt to hold back the flow of water. They are doing what they feel is important work in the pursuit of justice. I find their efforts laudable, but at the end of the day, Sisyphus’ rock rolls down the hill and needs to be pushed up the hill all over again the next day.

Somehow, though, Vincent’s idea of the world having been “slapped together in a hurry on one of his (the artist’s) bad days, when the artist didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t have his wits about him” is oddly comforting. Vincent does not just experience God “as if” God were an artist, “he experiences God’s ‘failed sketch’ in his own failed sketches.” Since Vincent’s own sketches were imperfect, he doesn’t expect perfection from God.

Vincent’s own failures spurred him forward in his quest to simultaneously repair and create the world through acts of love, easing suffering whenever he could. “But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things. Love a friend, a wife, something—whatever you like….” (Letter 155)

We live in a “failed sketch” of a world. In our microcosm (U.S.), we see our country taken over by a con artist and his henchmen. The lunge towards an authoritarian state is well underway. I see the fire. Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” admonishes us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

As we rage, perhaps our loving acts can ease our journey into the fire and flames. Is it possible for a better world to emerge from our ashes?


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Activism, General

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19 replies

  1. Love the quote: “But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things. Love a friend, a wife, something—whatever you like….” (Letter 155)

    The idea that God created this world on one of his bad days is one way to solve the problem of evil. I like that it comes from Vincent’s own experience and struggles. However the image still assumes that there is a single omnipotent creator of the world. I find it more satisfying to recognize that the world is co-created with input from every individual down to the smallest particles of atoms. God is not the only artist. God is not to blame for everything that is bad and also not solely responsible for everything that is good. Perhaps Vincent was inching his way to understanding that God is not omnipotent when he imagined God having bad days?


    • Yes, thanks, Carol. I do think Vincent was gradually re-forming his worldview throughout his brief, but full, lifetime. (He was the son of a Dutch Reformed Calvinistic pastor and died before his 40th birthday.) Vincent eventually eschewed the Bible as the only (and best) literature for sustenance, becoming more and convinced that the Bible may have been “cutting edge” at one time, but no longer. He thought the literature of his day should be our focus. When he wrote that the world was perhaps slapped together on one of God’s “bad days,” he’s, no doubt, reflecting catechetical instruction from his youth–instruction (a perfect God created a perfect world) that he had absorbed. I suppose the thing that I find comforting is his peaceful acceptance of things as they are–imperfect to be sure, yet he did not wallow in despair. He did what he could to alleviate suffering wherever he was.


  2. I like Carol’s perspective of a co-created world “with input from every individual down to the smallest particles of atoms.” Wow. And Vincent Van Gogh is one of the all-time great masters of painting for sure, I truly love his work.

    But I also feel like I need to read more women authors speaking out today. So I recently ordered these two books at Amazon and look forward to reading what’s in the hearts of these feisty women —

    Elizabeth Warren – THIS FIGHT IS OUR FIGHT (April, 2017)
    Ruth Bader Ginsberg – MY OWN WORDS (October, 2016)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Esther, for giving voice to what I’ve been feeling and thinking, too, as no doubt many of us have. I see the fire, too, and have the same questions about the past and present. Recently I saw the first snowdrops, and for the first time my heart was too heavy to leap for joy. But I raked the garden bed anyway. That seems important in some obscure way.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Love this post, Esther. So thoughtful and deep and helpful.


  5. I still remember the day when it dawned on me that God isn’t “all powerful” and what that meant about responsibility for our/my actions and how we set up systems of oppression. No, it’s not all in “God’s Hands” as many say. I like to imagine Elizabeth raking the garden bed anyway and it gives me energy. I’m also “raking up” extra kindness, donations to resisting organizations, and self care. Damned if I’ll let the “big orange” ruin my health with his insanity.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thank you for this, Esther. Lately, I feel as if I’m mourning the loss of my own innocence. I’ve led a privileged life, without much awareness of the suffering of others and not paying much attention to world affairs and politics. Now I’m forced to pay attention, and my awareness of the imminent threat to our country – maybe the whole planet – has almost paralyzed me. There are so many problems to be addressed, and more negative news to deal with every day – it is just overwhelming. In addition, almost everyone I talk to feels the same way. It is very difficult to “take a break” from this, since it is so omnipresent. It feels like grief. I wonder that cars and trucks still rumble down the streets and the food stores and gas stations are still open. Everything feels tenuous – as if the world is dying, but while I read about it and hear its death throes, I can’t quite see it yet. Things still look pretty “normal” around me. My hope is that the voices of resistance will make a difference. I, along with many others, have been “woke.” We need more than prayer now. We need a miracle. Hopefully, that miracle will come from women, who, coming together, may finally realize a goal greater than their differences. I, too, find comfort in “raking my garden.” Connecting with nature is a way of “filling our tanks” for the work we must do to save our world.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. All of the town meetings being attended by many more people than normal; all the continuing demonstrations; all the letters to the editor; all the petitions signed; the difficulty even getting through to our congresspeople, because there are so many calls — it isn’t normall; there is a fire; and a lot of people are responding., I don’t despair.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Last night, by “accident” I turned on a CD that someone had inadvertently left in the place I am renting. Who do I hear? Bob Dylan singing ” A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall.” This prophet turned Nobel Prize winner for Literature this year understood what was coming down on us, like it or not.

    I remember as an adolescent getting chills listening to the lyrics… his words felt (my body) like truth. I wanted to dismiss him and couldn’t… why?

    Many years later I recognized Bob Dylan in me, as someone who just knew things she didn’t want to know.

    Now we are living his words.

    However, Dylan also makes it clear in the last part of the song that he will not go down without a fight. And either will I.

    Thank you for this truthful post. It may help to keep some of us to keep our sanity.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks, Sara, for your wonderful reply. I can certainly relate to your statement, “Many years later I recognized Bob Dylan in me, as someone who just knew things she didn’t want to know.”


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