“Free the Form”

by Marilyn Collins

An excerpt from The Feast: Re-Forming Ignatian Spirituality by Joseph F. Duggan pages 3 – 5



Marilyn Collins is an award-winning artist. She has been painting for over twenty years and teaching for fifteen years. She earned her Master of Fine Arts in painting and sculpture from Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania, in 1993. She served as Assistant Professor of Art, Kent State University, East Liverpool campus, East Liverpool, Ohio. Her work has been shown at national, state and local levels. She is also a spiritual director.

“I was invited to take part in a thirty-day silent retreat. Thirty days seemed like a long time and I was hesitant to commit. I prayed as to whether or not to go. There were responsibilities to tend to, but as time passed, things fell into place. So I decided to go. Since I am an artist, I took along some canvases and acrylic paint. I hadn’t used acrylic paint for quite a while, but its advantage is it dries quickly.

My first day was a time of adjustment. My space was adequate, and it included a spot in which to paint. The second day I set up my equipment: easel, paints, 20” x 24” canvases, etc. On the third day, after Morning Prayer, I decided to begin painting.

My first painting was a struggle. I started with my usual approach of drawing organic lines and responding to the forms they create. (I do not paint realistic subjects.) My first attempt wasn’t working, so I painted over it and started again. This process took several days. My second attempt was acceptable to me. It reflected my usual style of painting — containing rich colors, unusual organic forms enclosed with black lines, chaotic, with every inch of the canvas covered.

In the meantime, I was encouraged by my spiritual guide to focus on a specific time in the life of Jesus and to understand how my life could be

interwoven into Christ’s life. I was particularly drawn to the story of Jesus coming to a village where a woman had been hemorrhaging for years. She touched the garment of Christ and was healed as a result of her faith. Jesus knew that healing power had left him and he asked who had touched him. When she admitted it was she, he welcomed her and called her daughter. I could understand the situation of this woman to a degree. She was rejected because she was considered unclean. I am assuming she was lonely and yearned to be a part of the social life of her community.

When I was growing up I felt a tremendous void. I was cared for, but emotionally I experienced very little love and acceptance. So for many years I searched everywhere for that love and acceptance from many people. The results were disastrous and painful. My heart was battered, wounded, and closed. But I kept running, searching everywhere under all the proverbial rocks. This search has continued my entire life.

During my retreat, I became aware of the image of a figure standing along the road with arms extended. I realize now the figure was Jesus offering his love. But I just ran by thinking, “This is Jesus. I know of you from childhood growing up as a Christian.” But I didn’t stop running. My addiction would not let me; I needed so much to be accepted and loved.

One day, I was still working on the first painting when these words came to me: “Search for the form and set it free.” (The words that came to me are very similar to a quote by Michelangelo, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” although I did not recognize it at the time.)

I was baffled and confused. What did this mean? How can I set the form free? A form is a form and the form is what my paintings are about. I went to my spiritual guide and told him what had happened. He said, “Maybe you are the form.” I kept these words in my heart. I finished the first painting in my usual style.

The next day I started the second painting and decided to approach it differently. No drawing of lines to begin (no form), just the applying of paint. This was frightening to me. I certainly did not know what to expect. I chose yellow to begin and it became the background. Three fragile looking red im- ages emerged as I continued. I felt they represented the love of Jesus pouring into my heart. It was a peaceful and joyful painting. It was so totally different from what I usually create. It had only two colors. There was movement but it was free and open. There were no black lines outlining the forms. It wasn’t chaotic; instead it was peaceful and without any shapes of general structure.

My third painting also lacked form. The application of paint was free and random. It was purple, blue, joyful, very flowing and free. I was amazed

at what was happening! I couldn’t believe I could paint this way. I enjoyed looking at these paintings. They were light in color, free, without form, and seemed ephemeral.

In the meantime, reading about the life of Christ in the scriptures I thought more about the figure of Christ standing along the road with his arms extended. Was that love Jesus was offering? Could it be the love that I have been looking for all my life? The most perfect love and acceptance? Am I to search for the form and set if free? Am “I” the form? Am I supposed to quit running, searching, and just stop? Am I to accept the most perfect love of Jesus as it is being offered to me?

My fourth painting was light red with deeper shades of red, again with no form, free flowing and ephemeral in appearance. I found it to be just as intriguing as the others.

My fifth painting was a lovely blue and green. The difference with this one was that a soft form was beginning to appear, somewhat in the center of the canvas. The rest of the painting was like the previous ones. The form just evolved.

I came to consider what I had done all my life and decided I must stop running and searching. I asked Jesus to heal my heart. To open it up again, to be like it was in the beginning, trusting and innocent, and to heal the wounds of rejection but to be gentle with me. I know it will take time but I am open and waiting.

My sixth painting (cover artwork of this book) is to me the most extraor- dinary. I started the same way, this time applying brown and tan paint, loosely and responding to it. In the upper portion of the canvas a figure started to evolve. I kept on painting, trying to ignore it. I thought about just painting over it, because when a recognizable image appears, it has to be considered. However, I just kept painting around it. Then I saw a second figure emerge. I studied these figures. Did I paint an image of myself on this canvas? One figure could represent Christ and the other figure could represent me. Christ is behind, with his arms wrapped around me, while I seem to be sitting and resting. I was taken aback by the images. This painting was incredible. I looked tired from running and was being comforted by Christ. The last painting I was able to complete was yellow and brown. I thought about all the rocks metaphorically that I have been looking under. Maybe these images represent them?

I was reading the scripture story about Christ after his resurrection walk- ing on the road to Emmaus. I have asked to stop running and to walk with

Christ on that road and hold on to him. I have asked him to hold me just in case I get the urge to run. Besides, when someone is walking with another, they usually have a conversation. I am praying for that, because I hope to know Jesus, not just know “of ” him. I realize now that Jesus and his love are within. I don’t have to search for it.

Because of my thirty-day retreat, I realized what I have been doing all my life and also what it has done to others. I know now that Jesus always offers his love. It is within us and it is perfect love. After Jesus left the two men he had walked with on the road to Emmaus, they realized there was fire burning within them when he was with them. The fire within me has been lit. I hope to keep it burning on my continuing journey with Jesus.”

—Marilyn Collins