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“I Hold Out My Hand and My Heart Will Be in It” (St. Francis at Mount La Verna). All icons and images by William Hart McNichols, reproduced here courtesy of the artist.

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book All My Eyes See: The Artistic Vocation of Fr. William Hart McNichols (Orbis Books). Divided into three parts, the book explores the life and art of Father Bill McNichols by way of conversations with the theologian Christopher Pramuk of Regis University in Denver. The first two parts of the book trace Father McNichols’s early sense of loneliness and of being set apart for some purpose, a purpose realized in his emerging vocation as an artist, priest and hospice minister to men dying from H.I.V./AIDS in Manhattan during the 1980s. The last part of the book explores his move to New Mexico and his apprenticeship with Robert Lentz, a Franciscan brother, which set Father McNichols on a path to become one of the most renowned iconographers of our time. His art can be viewed at frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com.

Christopher Pramuk: Father Bill, across the years, your icons have covered an astonishing range of subjects. We’ve talked about Damien of Molokai, Joseph and Mary, Ignatius of Loyola and a host of Jesuit saints who have shaped your spirituality. Your art also has been influenced by musical artists like Joni Mitchell and k.d. lang, Bach and Pergolesi. But there are others whose names come up with almost equal frequency as sources of inspiration. I’m thinking of Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio, for example, and Adrienne von Speyr. 

Father McNichols: Ever since I can remember, there has been Francis. I remember during theology studies, our teacher, Father Emerich Meir, O.F.M., said in a homily at Mass on the feast of Francis, “Francis had an I-Thou relationship to all of creation.” Of course, Pope Francis builds his encyclical “Laudato Si’” on this relationship, citing St. Francis’ hymn to Mother Earth, and the “groaning” of all creation that St. Paul writes about. But it was my bus trip in 1984 from Assisi to Mount La Verna, where Francis received the wounds, that has been burned into me ever since. With both Francis and Padre Pio, the blood-soaked bandages of the stigmata were used by their contemporaries to heal, and so the blood became a miraculous salve. I think that’s part of what Henri Nouwen was trying to say in his famous book The Wounded Healer.

“Our Sister Thea Bowman” All icons and images by William Hart McNichols, reproduced here courtesy of the artist
”Our Sister Thea Bowman.” All icons and images by William Hart McNichols, reproduced here courtesy of the artist. 

Adrienne von Speyer has meant a lot to me because she says things that will nourish me for 35 years, an insight that I couldn’t figure out for myself but that helps me see what is going on. What she says about Clare of Assisi, for example, is that Clare “is a born Martha,” but the fact that “she also receives a share of Mary is something she owes to Francis.” By disposition, Adrienne says, Clare “would have preferred to leave contemplation to others,” but she learns from Francis that “contemplation is the mother of action.” And from this, “she allows herself to be fashioned into what God wants to make of her.” 

A true icon is more real than a photograph or painting.

When I read Adrienne’s insight—that Clare let herself be molded by God—I realized I experienced this when I began to do icons. It’s a heartbreaking insight in a way, because it speaks to what it costs you to do something that God is asking you to do. When I understood it as “a busy AIDS priest arrives in Albuquerque,” then I knew that God was speaking to me through her words. Contemplation is the mother of action. I realized: You’re a painter now. You’re not supposed to be traveling, or going out and speaking in public. You’ve got to be alone and in relationship with these people, the subjects of your icons, otherwise they’ll come out wrong.

You’ve recently completed your icon of Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, who was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, and I know that you spent the better part of a year with her, researching her life and praying with her, while you wrote the icon. From our many conversations and from my own writings you know that she has long been one of my heroes in the church. What is it about her story that draws you in? 

It’s true, this icon came from almost a year’s prayer, a lot of preliminary work, including a study—meaning a small version of the icon to work out some of the detail—and many spiritual meetings with those African Americans whom I have especially admired during my lifetime: Dr. King and Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Elijah McClain, and, of course, Sister Thea. When I was commissioned to write the icon for Georgetown University, my next worried thought was “Why did Thea pick me?” And how can I place a very vibrant, warm, extremely intelligent, literally glowing, often wonderfully “rowdy” woman—her own word about herself—into an iconic form? This question gets to the very purpose for having an icon, as opposed to having a photograph or painted portrait of someone. How to make Thea into an iconic presence?

I say “presence” because an icon is supposed to give you the opportunity to pray with Thea as she is now, in heaven. In other words, a true icon is more real than a photograph or painting. I know this is a very strong claim to make, but this is my own experience and that of many others down through the tradition. Also, it is more challenging when a prototype or original of an icon does not yet exist, when you are called upon to create the prototype. An icon takes time to sit with, to converse with, to get to know—the same time it may take to get to know and love a friend.

We never have needed Sister Thea Bowman so much as we need her right now.

One vivid example comes to mind. In 1995, I painted, or wrote, the icon of the Ukrainian Holy New Martyr Nestor Savchuk. In 1996 an Orthodox church in Atlanta asked to purchase Nestor because he had been martyred in 1993, and the youth in that church had a great devotion to him. It was very hard to give him up, but I had his photograph and I thought I’d frame it and he’d still be with me. After taking the icon to be shipped to Atlanta, I came back to my room at Boston College and his “presence” was gone, even though I had his photo. This is how I learned the very real presence and need for an icon.

Can you describe a bit of your process in painting/writing Sister Thea? 

I started by asking Louise Davis, an African American Catholic from our parish here in Albuquerque, to pose for me. Louise not only posed for me, she gave me many symbols to work with, including the acacia tree, with the word umoja, or unity, written beneath the tree, near the bottom of Thea’s dress. This word means, “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.” She told me that this tree is the symbol of the African American Catholic Community. I chose the Nsoromma star, meaning “child of the heavens,” for her headdress: the Nsoromma ne Osrane, star and moon, a symbol of faithfulness. And finally, the ladder, Owuo Atwedie: “all people shall climb the ladder of death.” Around her neck are leaves and berries signifying Thea’s abundant life-affirming power while she was here on earth and now as one of our intercessors. 

She also wears the Franciscan Tau cross. I painted the cross red to honor the Franciscan charism of the five wounds, the stigmata. Above Thea is the dove, the Holy Spirit painted in brown, signifying God is “all races.” This brown Spirit I first saw and copied in a 19th-century icon of Mary called “Mother of God Your Lap Has Become the Holy Table,” in which Mary, the Child and the Holy Spirit are all deep brown. Rays of the Spirit surround Thea as she opens her arms in Marian fashion to receive all of us.

In writing about Sister Thea for your blog, you included one of my favorite quotes, which captures for me her spirit of childlike wonder and possibility, her ability to “work a room” and bring diverse people together. She says, “I think that children carry a message just by the way they are, and it’s a message that needs to be heard.… My approach is: Teach me. I will learn. I want to learn. I want to keep learning until I die. But I also want to teach. I want to accept your gifts. Please share your treasures with me, but I also want to share my treasures with you.” 

She represents a whole group of people who don’t feel part of this culture. In the icon, I made the Franciscan Tau cross red to symbolize the suffering and the blood of the Black community. Of course, she really knew pain, sickness and suffering in the last months and days of her life. But also, the experience of being the only Black woman in her religious order. Her father said to her, “Do you realize you’ll be on the outside your whole life?” She said, “Dad, I’m going to make them love me.”

Sister Thea represents a whole group of people who don’t feel part of this culture.

The truth is I’ve been exhausted since I finished Thea. When I finished it, I realized that I had been worrying that people who knew her would not find it resonant with their image of her. She speaks for the Black Catholic church so eloquently. Yet, like Dorothy Day, she belongs to the whole church now. We never have needed her so much as we need her right now.

I agree. Her witness as a Servant of God, prophetic truth-teller and preacher of love in the U.S. Catholic Church is being recognized and celebrated more and more. 

What was coming through for me in doing the icon and researching her life was some of her pain, which she was not known for in public. She’s known for her joyful singing and dancing, her singing with children in the classroom. I was focusing on being able to see her, and to be seen by her. Which might be difficult if she is singing and laughing and so on. I’m focusing on her inner life, the inner Thea. 

“St. Joseph Mirror of Patience”
“St. Joseph Mirror of Patience”

You wanted to highlight her solitude, her receptivity.

When you do an icon, you want people to relate to them as they are now, the heavenly Thea, something that I hope people will sit in front of and feel they can talk with her, especially Black people, who are being killed every day. As I said, the Tau cross is for her Franciscan charism, painted red for the blood and suffering of her ancestors, which she was very aware of, and for her final years with cancer. 

I’m grateful you trusted those instincts. As you know, the icon has meant a lot to me and my wife, Lauri, and our daughter, Sophia, during her treatments for breast cancer, at age 19. During her recovery from surgery we had your study for the icon hanging on the wall by her bed. For me, it was a comfort just knowing she was there. Again, these things are difficult to explain, so generally, I don’t try to. But a number of your icons have become quite personal to my family in ways I could never have predicted 10 or 12 years ago. 

Images in Christian art are like the wounds of St. Francis, the poverty of St. Francis. If Francis could find the places you were wounded, the way you were poor, that was the doorway through which he could relate to that person. While doing Sister Thea’s icon, I watched a documentary in which she spoke of the two wounds in her chest, the incision sites where she had chemotherapy. It showed me a side of her that isn’t the usual happy, singing, glowing image of Thea. It showed me her suffering, her solitude. 

We all have wounds, but it takes courage not to hide them.

A most mysterious part of the resurrection is that Jesus kept the wounds. In the post-resurrection accounts we watch him speaking and acting oddly, mystically, differently, and healing with his wounds. We all have wounds, but it takes courage not to hide them. Shortly after my trip to La Verna I joined the Secular Franciscans because I wanted to participate in their charism, which includes the stigmata, which Sister Thea Bowman also participates in as a Franciscan. And that’s partly why I have her holding her hands with her palms outward toward the viewer. Though you don’t see the wounds, they were there. 

I’m very moved by that insight about Sister Thea, holding forth her hands in the icon with the hidden wounds. It’s a connection I wouldn’t have made on my own.

When I first read Jesuit Father William Lynch’s brilliant and beautiful book, Images of Hope, it struck me that part of his brilliance was having come through real darkness himself, the humiliation of being a priest and not being able to access God. They say the same about Mother Teresa, who experienced long periods of profound darkness. I think it’s one of the reasons why ordinary people, especially intellectuals, really love Thomas Merton. With Merton, I get the feeling that what people love about him is that he’s equally a regular person as well as a genius. He comes across as not completely belonging to the monastic world. “I still belong to your world.” He stands for something, like all saints stand for something. 

Padre Pio stands for this capacity to cross between the natural and supernatural without distinction. Edith Stein stands for something totally different from Padre Pio, worlds away, but no less an image of hope. And all these people we’ve been talking about are images of hope: Damien of Molokai, Dorothy Day, Sister Diana Ortiz, Nicolas Black Elk, Sister Thea. 

Let me ask you about a number of images and icons that take us, as it were, to the brink of death, the fluid boundary line between the living and the dead. What’s the story behind “Lazarus’ Tomb”? 

That was from my experience in Israel. I had this beautiful photograph that I took from inside Lazarus’s tomb, looking out at people on the outside. I did the image from that perspective, from Lazarus’s viewpoint, and the people calling him forth at the opening of the tomb are Jesus and Martha and Mary. 

We’re always growing into God. I think this is the way to look at faith or piety.

Your icon “St. Lazarus of Bethany” takes the more traditional approach, inviting us to look directly into the eyes of Lazarus, to try to see, as it were, what he has seen. And, as you suggest, to be seen by him, as he is now, from the other side. For me, it’s one of the most striking icons in all your work. 

Lazarus is a very shadowy figure to me. He was overshadowed by death—just imagine, they wanted to kill him after he was given life again by Jesus! When I did him, I thought of my own heart collapse, and what it was like to die and come back. You never get over it, that trip, you’re changed by it. In his eyes, I wanted to convey the sense of somebody that is here but has also got a foot in the other world. 

I did that icon for James Martin, S.J., when he was doing his book on Lazarus. 

“St. Lazarus of Bethany”
“St. Lazarus of Bethany”

How do you imagine the passage through death, or what you have called our “second birth”?

When I had my heart collapse in 2012, I was in a coma for two weeks. When I woke up, people asked me, “What happened? What did you see?” They all expected I had seen Jesus, my parents or friends who have died, something. I was so disappointed when I had to say nothing happened. Of course, they had given me a lot of medications so that I wouldn’t be able to think, or dream, or anything.

I don’t know who I’ll meet when I go. My mom or dad, maybe Nestor, or some other saint, will come out and say, “Hey, I’ve been watching you for a long time.... You really caused me a lot of trouble!” 

Yes, I wonder the same thing! Your painting “The Souls of the Just Are in the Hands of God” is inspired by the famous passage in Wisdom, Chapter 3. I don’t quite have the right words to explain it, but it says to me: Though you feel the loss of your loved ones, perhaps desperately, you need not be afraid, they are being cared for. 

Yes, it points to the delicate, palpable presence of the dead, especially during the season of the souls, in October and November. You try to talk about it, the communion of saints, and people think you’re crazy, but it’s a way of talking about a deep truth of human experience that’s difficult to explain. We didn’t just make up this stuff.

There’s a Dominican slogan you taught me that comes to mind here, Father Bill, that you’ve said is very important to you. It’s a Latin phrase that I don’t remember precisely....

Contemplata aliis tradere—to share what you have contemplated, to share what you have seen. I’ve always loved that saying, and maybe it’s a good description of our book. What I would like for this book to be is what’s authentically been given for me to see, not trying to mimic other people’s voices. I don’t think I have an agenda. I hope I don’t, and I trust you so much because I don’t believe you have an agenda.

We’re always growing into God. I think this is the way to look at faith or piety, rather than think you’ve lost everything and it’s your fault when you don’t feel the ecstatic rush you did in the beginning or in the peak moments of your prayer life. It’s the direction that matters. When I fall into one of those places of dryness and even despair, I’ve learned to try and accept it, not to panic. What can I learn from this situation?

 Artists or writers who evoke this mystery, things I already had inside of me but didn’t know how to articulate, these are the artists and writers who feed me.

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