Chris McDonnell: Christian Life as Collage
By Chris McDonnell – A popular hymn of the early 70s and one that remains in use today, is known by its first line ‘Colours of day’, a hymn from the folk genre of the time. It is worth reflecting on some of its words these fifty years on.
Colours of day dawn into the mind,
The sun has come up, the night is behind,
Go down in the city, into the street,
And let’s give the message to the people we meet.
There is almost something post-COVID in that opening verse; the sun has come up, the night is behind. Colour, in contrast to its grey-toned absence, returning to brighten our days, the arrival of expectant hope. Later in the hymn, we are encouraged to
Go through the park, on into the town,
The sun still shines on, it never goes down,
The Light of the world is risen again,
The people of darkness are needing a friend.
So light up the fire…
After a journey through darkness the light of the world has risen again.
Our lives resemble in many ways a jigsaw or the art form known as collage. Many small pieces that are arranged together to form a whole.
Back in the early 90s I spent some time working on paper collages, one of which is reproduced with this article. They were constructed from coloured paper taken from magazine illustrations, cut and arranged in abstract patterns. Some shapes were torn from the original image, leaving a rough, ragged edge before re-assembly.
In a similar fashion the fragments that form our lives are sometimes shaped by clean-cut lines, at others roughly torn from our experience of the day to day bustle of living. The pieces don’t always fit together like a neat jigsaw, each carefully interlocking with another.
No, the rough edges jostle for space, each anxious to assume dominance. The consequent discomfort is one that we have all experienced as we learn to take the good times and the not so good times in equal part. Life comes to us multi-shaped, great joys and small pleasures, enormous hurts and aggravating niggles. All hit us one time or another just as the materials of a collage come together to form one whole design.
Many great artists have used the collage technique in their work, creating memorable statements through a simple, tactile form. The extensive use of this technique by Henri Matisse comes to mind, His spiral arrangement of irregular polygons of colour, entitled The Snail is well known. His blue-coloured nudes and the rich tones of The Dancers brilliantly demonstrate the skill of the artist in this medium. I had reproductions of both hanging on the wall of my room in school.
The use of found materials, rearranged in a creative manner can be transformed into something of great simplicity and beauty.
In many ways, we can view the Church as collage, a whole edifice constructed from many fragments, some with neat clean edges carefully arranged, each in its place. Others, with roughly torn edges jostling with their neighbour, are anxious for space that their voice might also be heard.
It is often suggested that one of the great difficulties experienced by religious communities is the very fact that a disparate group of men or women live together week by week, putting up with each other’s foibles and forgiving each other, time and again.
I suggested in my article at the end of January that the Parish was formed from a number of small groups. In fact the parish can also be seen as a collage, small pieces of colour assembled to form a great whole, each alongside the other, rough and smooth edges alike.
How about our times of prayer? Surely there is another example of an aspect of life as collage?
Our times of prayer are never the same. Sometimes the edges are smooth and everything seems to fall in to place. On other occasions, the rough edges make for an uncomfortable ride. We do not choose the time or place, it just happens and we have to cope with the consequences. It is just another aspect of life that has to be managed, one step at a time. If we are sensitive to change, then we can learn from the experience.
In making a collage not every cut or tear or choice of colour is right first time. The rejected pile of materials that grows on the floor round the artist’s feet tells the story.
So too does the litter pile from our broken attempts at prayer accumulate throughout our lives. The important thing is that we do not become dispirited, that each attempt at prayer is seen as a step on our journey rather than an occasion of failure.
Many books have been written on prayer, offering new insights into well-worn paths. All well and good, but reading about prayer is no substitute for prayer itself. In a journal entry in December 1964, Thomas Merton tells us “In the hermitage one must pray or go to seed. The pretence of prayer will not suffice. Just sitting will not suffice. It has to be real. Yet what can one do? Solitude puts you with your back to the wall, or your face to it, and this is good. So you pray to learn how to pray!”
Honest, direct, no frills. Merton makes no attempt to cover the hardship with well-fashioned phrases or sentiments. He says it as it is and concludes that we might pray to learn how to pray.
Building the collage of prayer is to set out on an arduous journey, one with many points of failure and darkness, lit occasionally with the light of the presence of God to encourage our effort. There is a nakedness in our effort as we struggle to live a life in prayer, as each tentative step brings with it the risk of joy or perceived failure.
And there lies the nub of our problem; what we speak of as failure may not be failure at all, just as a small stumble is not always followed by a serious fall. So although our steps falter, the pilgrimage of prayer continues as we return again and again to pick up the pieces, the torn and ragged fragments of the Collage we are trying to form.
Returning to the collage image that accompanies these few words, it is formed from many different coloured shapes. Moving across the image, there is change and we respond differently to the dance of its organisation and detail.
Dance of prayer
Taken to the edge
we face the emptiness of words
that once had meaning.
There we face the loss of surety
where in the cold stillness
of each dawn hour,
in the breaking light
the echo of words remains
and the dance continues.
Sr Wendy Beckett wrote in her book ‘Simple Prayer’ that “The essential act of prayer is to stand unprotected before God. What will God do? He will take possession of us.”
To conclude where we started, the people of darkness are needing a friend. It is through the prayer collage of our lives that darkness finds light.