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Finding (and Losing) Ourselves in Art
October, 2022

Dear Friends,

Some of you, I'm sure, have seen one of the Van Gogh 360 exhibitions that are touring the world. These are multi-media, immersive experiences during which hundreds of Van Gogh's paintings are projected on 360-degree screens. I got the chance to see one of these exhibitions in August and am still thinking about it, in part because it relates to an idea I'm kicking around for a book on art and spirituality (and travel, of course).

When I told my son about the exhibition, he said it sounded sort of gimmicky. And in one sense he's right. The technology changes the experience of viewing Van Gogh's works into something much different than seeing them on the wall of a museum. It's almost dream-like, making you feel like you're inside the paintings. For thirty minutes the images created by one of history's greatest artists swirled around me, shifting from one painting to the next in a sinuous mix of color, all accompanied by soaring classical music. Though the room was full of people, the atmosphere was hushed and reverent. People were responding to the art as if it were sacred--as of course it is.

Van Gogh's life was permeated by a sense of the holy. The son of a minister, he turned to art after being rejected as a theology student and failing as a missionary in the coal fields of Belgium. During an artistic career that lasted just ten years, he created more than 2,000 paintings and drawings. Too poor to hire models, he often painted scenes in nature, flowers, and his own self-portrait. 

Van Gogh suffered from mental illness for much of his life. His most famous painting, The Starry Night, was created when he was in a psychiatric hospital. At the age of 37 he took his own life, poor and virtually unknown. During his lifetime, he sold just one painting.

I loved the chance to immerse myself in Van Gogh's world in part because of the increasing fascination I have for the visual arts. More than ever before, I have a sense for the power of art to heal and inspire. I've even taken up painting myself, and as paltry as my efforts are, they help me see the world in new ways. I feel as if I've been given another key to unlock mystery---or at least to pull back the curtain on it a bit. 

And now I have a question for you. Are there works of art that have inspired you spiritually? Ones that have transfixed you, moved you, or made you see the world in an entirely new way? They could be visual, theatrical, or musical, high art or folk art, explicitly religious or seemingly secular. 

Let me give you an example. Not long ago I was visiting with someone I don't know well, and when I told her what I do for a living she told me a story. She'd had bad experiences with churches as a child and as an adult had no interest in any form of religion. Then about ten years ago she visited Notre Dame Cathedral while touring Paris with her husband. As soon as she stepped inside the building, she started to cry, and kept crying the entire time she was there. It was entirely unexpected and inexplicable. 

"I went back a couple of days later, trying to figure out my reaction, and the same thing happened again," she said. "Something about that space---I don't know how to describe it." 

The yearning on her face has stayed with me---and it makes me think there's a larger phenomenon here worth exploring. In the words of Thomas Merton: "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."

If you have a story to share, or a work of art to recommend, send me a note by replying to this message. And do try to see the Van Gogh 360 if it comes to your area. Vincent Van Gogh, who was in one sense a failed missionary, was a missionary of light and beauty in all the ways that mattered.

All good wishes,


(photos from the Van Gogh 360 exhibition in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, taken by Lori Erickson)

Recommended Reading:

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith is regarded as the definitive biography of the artist.

In The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence, art critic Martin Gayford brings fresh insights into the life and work of Van Gogh by describing his stormy relationship with fellow artist and polar opposite Gauguin.

Vincent & Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman is a fictionalized account of the artist's relationship with his beloved brother Theo, who supported him emotionally and financially throughout his life.

And though it's not a book, Don McLean's Vincent (Starry Starry Night) evokes the brilliance and the tragedy of Van Gogh's life through song.


News About My Newest Book:

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I'm the author of the new book The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit. See my website for a full list of reviews and media, including my NPR interviews with Rick Steves (part one; part two). 

Interested in doing The Soul of the Family Tree in a book group? You can find discussion questions here

If you've read and enjoyed any of my books, I hope you'll post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites. Your review will help other readers discover my work.

My Previous Books:

Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. 

“This book’s journey to spiritual places near and far is worth taking.” Library Journal (starred review)

Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world.  

“Whether describing mystical visions or the rhythms of everyday life, Erickson turns the spiritual journey into a series of exciting transformations.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Upcoming Events:

Along with author Jennifer Ohman-Rodriguez, I'll be speaking at the Iowa City Book Festival on October 10 at 6:30 pm at the Coralville Public Library. Our topic will be The Art, Craft, and Call to be a Spiritual Writer.

I'll lead a Day of the Dead Walk at Harvest Preserve in Iowa City, Iowa, at 4:30 pm on November 1. Join me for a meditative walk in honor of loved ones. 



Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world. 

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