The National Catholic Review

I like to tell folks that I have a little black nun inside of me. She’s my muse, my spiritual guru, my inspiration. She’s a patron saint who leads me and guides me when I call on her to lend me a hand. She’s the late Sister Thea Bowman (1937-90). Now I never met Thea in the flesh, never even heard of her until after her death, but she’s my friend nonetheless. In truth, she’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I suppose some would find us an odd pair—a middle-aged white man and a black nun who has gone to glory—but she’s been a loyal friend from day one of our relationship.

It was a Sunday afternoon when I first heard of her. I’d gone home to spend the day with my father, who was dying of colon cancer. While he napped in the big hospital bed that filled the living room of our family home, I paged through an assortment of magazines on the coffee table, among them U.S. Catholic. It was her face that got to me first, a beautiful face with soulful eyes beneath a turban of African design. Then I read the accompanying text. (As an artist, this is how I prioritize things: Words are just there to provide verbal filler for the pictures!) It was Thea’s last interview, in which she spoke frankly about her life and impending death. Using the artful language of her slave ancestors, she said she was just "going home" and preferred that term to "dying." I kept that magazine and reread her inspiring words when my father died not long afterward. And in my heart’s eyes, I retained the image of her beautiful face—the face of an angel.

A year and a half goes by. I’m struggling with being a 35-year-old orphan. My mother had died several years before my father, so I’m without the two most important people in my life—a dark night of the soul that makes John of the Cross look like Captain Kangaroo. After nine years of teaching art and art history at a small college, I’ve also had it with trying to convince 20-year-olds who play with their hair that pyramids and cathedrals are really neat, tired of essays that have da Vinci cutting off his ear, and sick of students complaining that their precious drawing—which was completed while being carried across the quad in the rain—received only a C-minus. My favorite students at this point were the "nontraditional" ones, middle-aged women with their own histories who saw art as a spiritual adventure and helped me to do the same. They taught me it was time for a new thrill in life to match the changed person I’d become after helping my parents "go home" in peace.

So with my superior’s blessings, I quit that old job, ready to set the world on fire with my art, a postmodern Fra Angelico. To kick things off, I go to the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland, because I hope it will inspire me to become the great landscape painter I am destined to be. I sketch like crazy: sheep, rocks and Irish pubs. I come home with four sketchbooks brimming with pen-and-ink sketches to be transformed into beautiful paintings, which I begin as soon as I get off the plane. But soon I see that one landscape is worse than the next—24 in all before I realize that "just one more in that nice shade of green" isn’t boosting my tormented spirit. My stomach turns. This whole dream has become something of a nightmare, and the voices in my head are at fever pitch. "What were you thinking?" God shakes his head. "I can’t do this anymore. Will he never get it?"

And out of the blue Thea came back to me. One Thursday evening I watched "Her Own Story," a video about her life, and was swept away by this singing, swaying, laughing, praying black wonder of a nun. That night in bed, as I struggled to sleep, images began to sketch themselves in my head. They were with me still on Friday morning, and I started to paint. Actually, it felt like the paintings started to paint themselves and I was merely the brush in the hands of some unseen painter. I found myself working in a style I’d never worked in before—something much looser and more spontaneous. I almost felt possessed, but "good" possessed, not the head-spinning kind.

The first painting to emerge was of Thea with the bishops, a trinity of white guys in miters who don’t know quite what to do with this wildly liberated spirit dancing before their eyes. It was inspired by her great (and her favorite) speech at the meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1989, where she got the old boys to join hands and sing "We Shall Overcome." She did this from a wheelchair, but I have her walking on water, sign of the miracle of jubilant life that was shared on that occasion between a fatally ill nun who would die six months later and a captivated room full of bishops.

From there, the rest of the paintings flowed out of me, nine in all over a two-week period. The first one, called "Give Me That Old-Time Religion," shows Thea in her old religious habit. "This Little Light of Mine" is next, a scene of Thea dancing with the Eucharist, totally freed by Jesus to be more fully herself. Seven more follow with the same bursts of color and movement, each of them with the title of an Afro-American spiritual, the music that filled Thea’s soul. As the series progresses, we see her journey home and her determination to "live until I die."

By the end of it all, I knew something significant had happened to me as an artist, but it took several more years and much meditation to sort it out. What I knew immediately was this: that each of us has a gift inside that we must discover, use and enjoy, and that our talents aren’t intended to torture us, but rather to make us free. I would no longer spend my short time on earth painting bad landscapes to win the approval of others. Thea’s words, "Remember who you are and whose you are," led me back to a long-forgotten childhood dream of paiýting saints and holy pictures. She reacquainted me with my true self, the self that was buried beneath the clutter of self-doubt and private fear. Making use of my own gift for art, she led me and guided me through my grief to a new threshold of discovery: that there is Light in every darkness if we only open our eyes to see.

Seven years have passed since that time, and I still light up when I see her face or hear her name. I have traveled most of the country offering presentations on her life and its wondrous intersection with my own. I show the pictures, the choir sings the songs, and we all "have a good time in the Lord." My work as an artist and speaker has been blessed many times over in a variety of ways I never dreamed of when I was a little boy or even a frustrated professor. Sister Thea used to say, "Keep on steppin’!" With her in the lead, I know these pilgrim feet will never stop.

Michael O’Neill McGrath, O.S.F.S., an artist working in Washington, D.C., is a frequent contributor to America and the illustrator, most recently, of

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