Colm Lavelle is a Jesuit and lives as a hermit for six months of the year. He works with people using art therapy. He also runs retreats. Here he talks to Anne Ryan about his life and work.
Leading up to the months of solitude can be difficult. I find myself weeping at the prospect of the loneliness involved. I can also find myself weeping at the prospect of leaving my solitude. It’s not easy to stay for long periods without any company. Such experiences fit with the traditional teachings of the mystics, for example John of the Cross who maintained that there is a benefit to being wholly in the desert. I find I always want to get out of it. Sometimes I have a radio there but I find I am better off without one. I can visit neighbours, or sometimes they want to see me. It’s very much an experience of emptiness and searching. After all, God is ultimately beyond everything, so one has to let go of a great deal to live by faith without clinging to making an idol of this or that.
I find the first week of solitude is normally a relief. Overall I find it difficult but not unbearable, and I know that something very good is distilled from it. During my time of solitude I keep in contact with my brethren and occasionally come back to visit them. I also do the usual day-to-day housekeeping chores which include shopping, so I’m not your typical hermit devoid of human contact. Contact with people can bring its own difficulty as I must change my focus from ‘inner to outer’ and vice versa. I believe that God is present throughout the universe and in the reality of spirit. The more closely we bond with that Presence the more it impacts on the world and that can only be positive. I have approximately three periods of meditation lasting about one hour each. I need a structure to the day, otherwise I can be in ‘no man’s land’ and depression is a possibility. Some people think that the solitude is very isolating but I have a sense of belonging, a sense of “me in Christ with the rest”, that I’m part of the body of Christ.
The Spiritual in Abstract Art
I became interested in art when I was in college. Having suffered from epilepsy which affected my memory, I needed something that wasn’t too cerebral as an alternative to theology. My rector encouraged me to follow my nose and take up painting. This I did in my early thirties. When I was in Germany studying catechetics I got very interested in Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract modern art. He was a Russian emigre working in Munich. He wrote a couple of very interesting books: one was on the spiritual in art and the other was on point, line and surface.
While I had always been interested in abstract art there was a lot of prejudice from people I knew towards it. But when I read Kandinsky’s theories I became convinced that it was a totally valid form of art. Later when I came back to Ireland I exhibited some of my work in Cork and contributed to yearly shows.
Later I moved to Clongowes where I taught full-time. I met Sister Jo Kennedy who was working in the Mater Child Guidance Clinic. She put me on to Rita Simons who was running a short course in art therapy which I joined. Arising out of that I got a little group together. We used to meet monthly to do art therapy, or prayer and art therapy combined. From that I got an offer of part-time work in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Fairview – about twelve hours a week – which I kept up for two years until I moved to a retreat house down the country.
I have always been interested in the charismatic movement and in the whole concept of praying in tongues which to me makes sense of my abstract art. I feel it is like a painting in tongues where the deepest movements of one’s insides are coming to expression in non-conceptual terms and so relating oneself to life and ultimately to the Lord.
The therapeutic side of my work showed up for me primarily in working with my own painting. From quite early on, shortly after I had moved to Limerick I noticed, especially when I worked with gouache or watercolour, that there was imagery coming up in the painting which was always completely unconscious (it was always a principle with me that I wasn’t going to programme what I was doing). I could see that there were a lot of embryonic or foetal and cellular shapes coming up. As I had no particular interest in biology or knowledge of the processes of early life, this really puzzled me but I felt “well, if it’s coming out, then let’s see what it’s all about”.
Later I became interested in Primal Therapy. I wanted to see what, if anything, was back there. The more I got into it the more I was convinced there was something. What used to come up for me, apart from the embryonic shapes, were a lot of ‘fence structures’ in my abstract paintings, a partly permeable barrier that you could see through but you couldn’t get through. Initially I thought it was to do with the Transcendent which was there but not quite accessible.
When I was invited to do some days in the Dublin Counselling and Therapy Centre and elsewhere, my interest was to see if I could provide a number of exercises where you could give certain instruments to people which they could use if they really wanted to search out their hinterground. The mystical life has a part to play in it too. As part of my journey I always had an interest in the contemplative life, particularly that of the Cistercians. Eventually, with my brethren, we agreed that I could spend half the year in solitude in more or less a hermetical life, which I began ten or twelve years ago. In the context of that, I wrote a lot of poetry with a fantastic amount of Primal imagery coming through. It’s extraordinary how vivid it is. That pull between solitude and relationship is always very strong for me. I can’t do without either of them.
Another theme that came up for me in the poetry more than the painting – I can’t seem to express it in the paint without being representational – is a “nobody wants me” feeling. In Primal Therapy the possibility emerged that I was a breach birth and that I might have passed out in the course of delivery.
When I’ve been in my solitary phase I find that in my prayer I get to a stage where I don’t know where I’m going. I’m completely blocked. I don’t seem able to pray, or think. From experience I find that is often a signal to take out the paints and “let rip” for a couple of days. Then I’m able to flow again. Maybe I’d keep that up for two or three weeks and then I’d want to write some poetry. I feel that the art starts it off, the painting lets it flow and the poetry ties it in a package.
The psychological and the prayerful overlap a lot. When I try using art as a form of prayer it is not done consciously. I feel, however, that it is going on just the same.
I remember once making a retreat and, with the rector’s approval, I spent two or three hours painting. First I found I got so intense and ecstatic I told the rector: “I’m going home, I can’t go on like this, for if I do, I’ll blow”, so I spent the rest of the day in the mountains. I think one has to be aware, if one has that kind of temperament, not to get addicted to a high because it’s so tragic when people do go over the top. Sometimes painting can be exhausting. At other times it can be euphoric. The euphoria is the dangerous time.
Being in Relationship
There was a time when I would have used a certain amount of line in art therapy but now my primary interest is in surfaces and colour and clay. You can work with clay. It can be easier to bring prayer and emotions together when working with line, because a line is dynamic. A surface is not dynamic. It’s relational and colour is likewise. It may have a feeling in it but it’s not going anywhere. I think it’s useful to distinguish in working with art material between using the materials for the sake of the process and using products. I think they have quite a different dynamic. You can sit in front of a painting by Rothko of great rectangular shapes and colour and be absorbed in it. The whole thing is very contemplative. I’m on a journey, it’s the doing that matters and that’s a different experience. Or, again, if I’m working with rough texture paint I think, as you’re applying it, and seeing the application, you have the feeling of stroking or relating with something. I think the texture is fundamentally to do with relationship. From a psychological point of view, if you consider texture, whether you take the hair on my head, or two people having sexual intercourse, there’s a penetration of one surface by another surface. The hair on the head goes into the air. It’s me and yet it’s the air in a sense. It’s both the space around it, and it at the same time; it’s both you and the space around you at the same time. I want to relate that to St. John, Chapter 17 where “we may be one as he is in the Father”.
I found, when I was working with the mentally ill, that play would have been the most useful work with people with schizophrenic tendencies, but I found it was the last thing you could induce them to do. Paintings by schizophrenics seem to have a peculiar characteristic that there is no principal of integration in their composition. You just don’t feel that all the parts belong together, that they’re going in tangential directions.
From my limited experience of schizophrenics, it seemed to me that their life was like that. One part doesn’t connect with another part. I thought that if you could get them to exercise in the smallest way towards forming relationship by integrating composition, that it would be a move in the right direction. Of course if you take schizophrenia as having a genetic base that psychotherapy isn’t quite the thing for them. I have always found that for people with a depressive tendency, their compositions tended to end up a grey mess. I could be treading on dangerous ground here as I’m not a trained psychologist, but I feel that it would help them somehow to articulate the grey mess, that they need to fragment a bit more. Nothing is separate. Life is in utter chaos because it has no direction.
A benefit of art therapy is to get people in touch with their own pain. It certainly has done that for me. With the clay and with art therapy generally what you’re actually doing is creating a small model of situations. It’s not threatening because it’s so small, and you’re not completely involved because you’re outside it, but it is nonetheless you. You can work towards a kind of solution in it without being crushed. Therefore it may not be as volcanic as normal Primal Therapy but I think it can have much the same kind of dynamic. It gives us a map to work towards some resolution.
Therapy and Play
There is the fun and play element as well, and the emotional freeing for oneself to be more in touch with one’s feelings. My paintings give me an indicator as to how things are for me. By using art therapy in agnostic terms I’m appealing to the dynamic life force of the individual. In Christian terms I’m trying to help them to articulate the spirit within them and to be more in touch with that. So that art in that sense can be a form of prayer. I go back to St. Paul, Chapter 8 where he talks about the spirit being at work in the depth of creation, groaning. I feel that the Lord is at work in each of us trying to bring something to fruition and that by helping people to unfold and to “free the traffic” you are helping to bring that to fruition. Whether a person would see that in religious or psychological terms would depend on their own background. It doesn’t necessarily interfere with the actual process.
I feel we are all too conceptualised and that we lose the sense of mystery, particularly in urban society. My approach to art is very much concerned with giving people a non-conceptual language of expression. Abstract art can do this, and it can also give an easier access to mystery, a sense of the transcendent. It’s harder to have that sense if you have not got a vocabulary in which to express it. These more non-representational forms of art can give you a non-conceptual vocabulary. In the process of coming to consciousness the concept is the end product, imagery and intuition are much earlier in the process, therefore you may be closer to the original experience in using abstract form.
I’ve always had an interest in the whole concept of play. I feel that in modern society we’re all play-deprived, especially the clergy. Some can break through that successfully, but I felt that I was very play-deprived even as a child. I would distinguish sharply between games and play. Games are to do with winning, play is enjoying. There is a lot in common between prayer and play because prayer should ideally be about being with the Lord for the joy of it, knowing that He is delighted that you are there as well. I feel that play can bring people back to an earlier stage of life with which they may have lost touch: the fun of being who they are. For example, a group who are blindfolded, searching for a balloon in order to touch a certain wall with it, get down to a much more basic level in themselves which is the inner core of their being, a place from where they start. If I don’t have that inner contact in my life, then I’m only a shell.
Anne Ryan is a psychotherapist. She works in the Dublin Counselling and Therapy Centre.