Mother of God of Magadan. Magadan is an Eastern Siberian city built to be the administrative center of the entire U.S.S.R. slave labor system. This icon honors millions of martyrs of the Catholic and Orthodox Tradition.
(The following is the transcript of an interview conducted with William Hart McNichols, on the subject of prayer and the iconographer. It took place June 6, 1995, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in Father McNichols' studio.)
You've trained as an artist and have previously done work in the field of religious art. What brought you to the study of iconography?
We think of icons as the "gates of mystery" that help us with our own prayer, but how do you as an iconographer prepare yourself in prayer before beginning an icon?
Ever since I was a boy I've had the desire to train in the way that the artists of the Renaissance and Medieval times trained. They were encouraged as children to be artists and went to school with a master. I guess we wouldn't even call it school. It was more like a workshop or tutorial. But they learned their trade there, so that by the time they were 18 or 19 they were already young artists. And by the time they were in their thirties they were masters.
In 1971 I went to Boston University to study art because they had one of the few programs left in the country where you had to learn anatomy as well as color and design. And I knew I needed that kind of structured program because I didn't have training as a child. So I had to begin really as an older kid.
The first few years I was in New York, studying then at Pratt Institute, I saw the work of Robert Lentz, the iconographer, and I was really taken by the power of the subject matter in his work. I really didn't like icons at that time, or I should say, they didn't appeal to me. But people were buying his cards and sending them to me, and I had his icon of "Dorothy Day" in every place I lived. I had felt before that God had to send somebody to make religious art in a powerful way today. To revive it. And I thought that Robert Lentz was the one who was doing that. He was really saying something through his art. He has that icon of "Oscar Romero," where the helicopters are the angels bringing the instruments of the Passion. Just to think of that is such genius. And I was moved too by his "Mother of the Disappeared" with the hand of the death squad on it.
Anyway, I would come out to Santa Fe every year for a vacation in December. And one December when I was there, '85 or '86, I was invited to an AIDS fundraiser. I was with my friend Cissy at this kind of afternoon-evening-cocktail-fundraiser event, and a friend of mine who is a priest, introduced me to Robert Lentz, who had just walked in. He asked me if I was the one who does those childrens' books, because he had seen the book on St. Christopher that I had illustrated. But he had also seen a painting I had done for AIDS that appeared in a magazine called Outside, a Protestant Evangelical magazine (not the outdoor magazine). He had actually sent me a letter, saying, "You should be studying icons. Because it looks like you're trying to do them anyway." But I never got the letter because the magazine never forwarded it. He thought that I had purposely just ignored it and not answered it, so when we met he didn't mention it.
Finally, when I went to Tertianship, all through the long retreat I kept getting Robert Lentz' name on my "radar screen." When things come up, as they say in the Ignatian Exercises, they repeat themselves, and you bring that to your spiritual director. Robert's name kept coming up, so, having met him, I thought: Is he suffering? Is he distressed or sick? Maybe I'm supposed to pray for him. My director and I explored it, and it seemed to him that I ought to put my desire to be with a master, and my mindfulness of Robert Lentz together. So I wrote to Robert when I got back from the retreat and he said, "I already wrote you and told you that you should be an iconographer, and you never answered me, so I thought you were just being a snob." I told him I never got the letter. He replied and said that if I wanted to study with him I'd have to move to Albuquerque. That's when "the word of God came to me." You know how the word of God comes with a certain violence sometimes? I knew it was all over for New York; I knew I had to go. As I said, I wasn't really excited about doing icons, because they seemed stiff to me, distant, and I never wanted to do anything, like deliberately decorative art, where you had to repeat over and over again the same images. But I knew that the discipline of doing icons would help whatever direction I decided to take.
I read all of those things that tell the iconographer what he's supposed to do -- fast, pray -- and right away I started to think of it as being exactly what a priest is supposed to do. Icon painting is exactly like the priesthood. The same things are required, and it is very similar to preparing for Mass. When you are preparing for Mass you already have to be in a position of prayer. And you have to try to fend off distractions. It's the same with icons. I have to create a whole space around them. It's not always possible, just as it isn't at Mass, but I have to try to keep out distractions from outside, like the phone, the doorbell, people coming over, people being here. I have to try hard to be as alone as I can possibly be. But there are also times when I need people around too. It's funny, in art school we all had this romance with the idea of Georgia O'Keefe -- the "solitary of New Mexico." Now that I live here, I find to my relief that she had some essential life-lines in terms of friends. And for me too, there have been a couple of trusted friends without whom I could not have worked and prayed as I have. They are the water in the desert and the ravens that bring the physical and mystical food. And Robert Lentz has been a great and giving teacher, in many ways the best I could have hoped for.How do you come, then, to a balance between inspiration and discipline?
As far as fasting goes, people seem to ask about that more than anything. But I have trouble eating so it's the opposite for me. I have to make sure that I don't forget to eat because I don't really like to eat that much while I'm working. Fasting is not a virtue for me. I could fast, but I have to eat so that I get enough energy to work.
And of course I have to pray before I work. I have to get completely immersed in that person's life, and then allow the particular essence or feeling of that icon to ... I almost want to say to overwhelm me.
It's very important that people not romanticize the immense amount of work that goes into an icon. It's like watching someone dance a beautiful ballet. We see them spinning on their toes, dancing beautifully and effortlessly, then you go backstage and the toes are all bandaged and bleeding and you realize that it cost a lot to do that. There's a lot of physical pain with the work. Your hands, your back, your arms. There are times when it's just physical endurance and long hours of work. I've had two operations within the past two years, and I was trying to do an icon of the Nativity after one of them, but Mary, Joseph and the baby all looked exhausted. Robert came in for one of our sessions, took a look at it and said, "All three of these look like they've been through that operation." So I had to wait. An icon of three exhausted people is not something others want to pray with. After I recovered, they came back to life.
Unless I know my hand is going to be bad and I can't work, I go in to work like I go in to pray. Waiting. Waiting for God to come. I don't go in knowing and I don't go in with presumptions. But I go in waiting. I think part of my whole life has been Advent anyway; that has been my spiritual life.
Of course, I'm still a student, and just as musicians will say you "lose your chops if you don't practice," if I take more than a week away and I come back, I have to get back into manipulating the brush. I have to work to get it to dance again.
When I first got to Albuquerque in '90 I hadn't done a painting since '84, so it took me six or eight months to do the tiny lines well enough because my hand wouldn't do that. All of it has to come together. You can have brilliant technique and no soul, or you can have all soul and no technique, and you're missing on some end. What you're hoping for and praying for is, just as with any artist, that the disciplines and techniques will pour in naturally to allow you to be an instrument. That's finally what you're asking for when you work and work and work.
Everything about my daily life is about the icons. Everything. I have to arrange my pastoral life and be strict about not doing too many other things. I have to respect the call, the mission. I've been missioned by the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus to be an iconographer, and I have to take that as seriously as I did when I was missioned to be a hospital chaplain. This work is a lot harder, though, because you are doing it alone. You have to be the disciplinarian and, just as working with other people gives you energy, you have to get your energy from the dialogue with the icon and with the saints.
Our Lady of the New Advent is the official icon of the Archdiocese of Denver, commissioned to celebrate the coming of the third millennium of Christianity.
Do you have to know as much about the personal and spiritual life of your subject as possible in order to achieve this dialogue?
Yes. If I don't know them, I have to get books about them and read. Every night I bring the icon in and look at it alone, and try to speak with it, as I do when I am painting. There are times you feel as though you are actually touching somebody, especially when I am doing the Child's hands or feet. I always feel as though that is a very special time. When you are with that particular person, it's like having someone in your house for a month. Their spirituality, their gift to the Church, whatever it is, I try to put that in the icon, so that when you look at it, you'll get more than one dimension of who they are.
Very often traditional icons seem disproportional in their imitation of Christ, a saint, or a passage from Scripture. We might see this in faces, bodies, architecture and so on. Can you explain some of the dynamics at work here? How much of this is part of what has gotten fixed in a tradition, and how much of it is meant to remind us that we are in the presence of what transcends the natural world?
Much of what seems distorted in the great icons, as with the three angelic figures in the "icon of icons," St. Andrei Rublev's "Trinity," is actually the sheer beauty and spiritual transcendence that elongation gives. Later, El Greco, who had been a Greek iconographer, would utilize this sublime elegance to maximum effect in his majestic paintings of the Saviour, the Mother of God, and the saints.
Now, there are people who explain all of this and write about it, but I'm not sure they are painters themselves, or artists themselves. I have read in all of these explanations that they are purposely not supposed to be realistic or lifelike. This is a heavenly portrait of being. So, for instance, in a suffering Christ, you don't see a lot of blood or wounds because it is the heavenly Christ. Even though there will be a little blood or signs of his Passion, keeping it from being a portrait or super realism allows you to meet that person, that image, on another level. It's supposed to be a window to heaven, or a way to reach them. There are many saints and mystics who have had dialogues with other heavenly spirits in heaven. They have come to them in visions, they have talked to them in prayer. And technically you're supposed to be able to do that with an icon. As I read just yesterday in this book that I got at the Orthodox Church, you gaze on the icon but it gazes on you too. When you are looking at someone you love, and they are looking at you, there is a lot that is communicated that cannot be put in words. When I worked in New York as a hospital chaplain, I remember looking into peoples' eyes when they couldn't say anything, and we communicated on a profound level of empathy, being able to say one or two things that went a lot deeper than a long conversation.
The other side of it is that in these places where icons were originally created, like monasteries, oftentimes the monks never saw babies, or they never saw women. So you'll have images of women that look like young men with a dress on, or babies that look like they're 50 years old, or funny babies with really strange anatomy, and attempts at other things that look as though the person simply didn't have the ability to create something else. So I think you can't be too romantic about it. You really have to look at it like an artist would look at it. Someone writing about an icon may go into a theology of why a baby had an extra long arm, but maybe the artist just couldn't do it. Once it's fixed, they begin to have reasons for why the Child looks so old. He's all wise. He's Christ Emmanuel. But on the other hand, you know, I wonder. I wonder if some of it isn't accident. There are things in these icons that make sense, like the old Child, or the divine Child. You meet these children, these old children, in real life. I'll meet kids at Mass who will come up and say these really serious things, and I look at them with compassion and I think, what an old mind to have in that poor little kid's body. So in that sense of disproportion icons can correspond with things we know about.
Holy Martyr Jerzy Popieluszko, who was abducted, beaten and killed by the Polish secret police in October, 1984.
Your work has certainly put you in touch with the lives of many saints. How do you see the place of the saints in your own prayer now, and what role do you see them having for us believers in today's world?
How would you explain the rise in popularity of icons, especially in the West?
Well, I never chose this, you know? The saints were always there from the time I was little. I didn't know that other people didn't think that way, until I tried to fly that at school, and found out that this isn't something everybody was interested in. I had 84 statues when I was a little kid. I collected statues. It wasn't approved of or encouraged, it was just something I had to do. I felt a passion for it. I would go to the saints' store -- they called it the Religious Goods store, and I called it the saints' store -- and I would go in and I would see Joan of Arc, and I would see Michael, and I would go home and read about them. Then I'd save my money and Mom would take me back. Ok, finally I've got enough to buy Joan. Then she'd go home with me.
As a little kid up through high school, I had a lot of trouble in school. For many reasons, I didn't fit in. I was an outcast and was beat up and abused. So I related really strongly to the kid martyrs, Agnes, Tarcisius, Pancratius, and literally I felt as though I was holding their hands through this blizzard, this hurricane of grade school. Agnes, Pancratius and Tarsisius were as real to me as the other kids at school, only they were nice. And I held onto them with that sheer force you feel when you're being pummeled.
As I got older, and while I was in the novitiate, I looked back and I could think of a lot of theological things I was given from them, like an interest in many spiritualities, so much so that, being Ignatian has meant to me being open to many spiritualities. I don't think Ignatius would want people to be just Ignatian. I could run with the Dominicans. I could run with the Carmelites. I could run with the early martyrs, go over to their house, be out there all day, come home and there's Dad, Ignatius, at dinner: "What did you do today?" "Oh, I hung out with the Carmelites." "Great! What are they doing?" "Well, they're doing the Song of Songs, and they taught me about another kind of prayer," and Dad would say, "Oh good." He wouldn't say, "What!? You stick to my prayers! Don't you go over to those Franciscans and learn about the Wounds!" I never took Ignatius as being that way for a second, because all of this happened before I was a Jesuit. So when I got in there, I felt that he encouraged all kinds of expansion and learning. Ignatius is so profoundly humble, so awfully generous.
Now that's a very intellectual explanation. But on another level, during the time of AIDS when I was working in the hospital, the saints came as, I'd guess you'd say, guides. But again, it was their presence that held many people through the storm. The beginning of AIDS was a drastically shocking time, and there weren't a lot of people who would talk about it. That's when I got with St. Joseph, because he's the patron of the dying. That was the first time in my life that I had gotten close to him. So different saints come when you need them. Aloysius was starting to impress himself a couple years before that. I didn't know him, then boom! And I was strongly leaning on him through all of those years. So they are like people who will call up and talk to someone on the phone, and then that person feels a lot better. You talk to them, they remind you that they've already been through plagues, they had trouble with their parents, or violence in community life, or whatever. They give you their life. It says in the preface on the feast of the saints: "In our communion with them you give us their friendship." So for me to try to begin to say how they are useful would mean saying that I didn't know a time when they weren't. But I'd never try to convince anybody of this. In general, in life, when I've had spiritual conversations, I will hear the person speaking and I'll think: Wow! You would really love Mariana de Jesus or Mechtild of Magdeburg; you could be good friends with Seraphim of Sarov or Francis; or someone like you would be deeply touched by Robert Southwell or Benedict Joseph Labre
Is that to say that icons can be something of a spiritual guide?
There are many things. One thing is the opening of Russia. This has allowed, especially Americans, to like things Russian. When I was little, you couldn't. It was all tainted with the view that all of this was too close to communism. So we were not allowed to embrace those things, and now we are. Icons represent depth and time. You have to spend time with them. You cannot get to know them quickly. It's a relationship. And with all the encouragement and psychological stuff in the past twenty years about relationships, and marriage counseling, talking to people, encouraging people to work out relationships, people have relationships on the mind. And suddenly somebody is telling them an icon is a personal relationship. So they are already aware of the work that a relationship takes. This may be the first time that many Americans are ready to receive a spiritual relationship with an icon and not be discouraged by the fact that it's going to take a long time; it's going to take work. Maybe that's part of it.
The other part is that Protestantism naturally has its roots in Catholicism, and I sometimes get a kick out of all the books on angels and saints books that are out right now. It's closet Catholicism. You throw something out, you don't have anything in its place, and it comes back anyway. It's a hunger people have for pieces of themselves that were lost or thrown away, even among Catholics. So people are interested in other human beings who have lived the Christian life, in extreme ways, in eccentric ways, in triumphant ways, in neurotic ways, and yet, they're all saints.
The saints are also spiritual guides for people, and it's difficult to find a spiritual guide. I think St. John of the Cross said one in a thousand will be a good spiritual guide. Then Francis De Salles said, no, one in ten thousand. And I'm not saying good in an academic way, I'm saying, where is a person before whom you can place yourself?
The hidden side, or "multiplication of loaves" side of this dilemma is that spiritual directors do come, and in many forms. This is hard to put into words, but after I met Pope John Paul II in Denver, in 1993, I decided to have him as a "spiritual director." He just radiated a grandfatherly love and holiness to me. It was very different from his younger self. I see movements and changes in him. He is no longer implacable, as is shown in his recent apology to all the women in the world. As a spiritual guide I imagine he has to listen openly to me, and I have his remembered presence and his writings to dialogue with. I got this idea from reading the life and homilies of the martyr Father Jerzy Popieluszko, while I was working on his icon. I sensed this deep love and respect between him and the Holy Father, and I thought -- this is the door! So this is how it goes with me.
That's too strong to say. It would be better to say that icons change you from within because they are a prayer. They will at times create an atmosphere inside you to receive something new from God. They will plough the field, or get ready the ground, so that you can receive what God is doing next. Or the ones that have to do with what God is doing next will come and get you ready. It's a lot like the story of Joan of Arc, where Catherine, Michael and Margaret came to Joan to prepare her to receive what God was going to do in her. There is always a journey in many of the saints. There is a pilgrimage, or a lot of work that goes on before they are finished. And God sends guides along the way, or other saints, and they're molded, painfully sometimes. Some fit hand and glove into what they are going to do, like Aloysius and Therese of Lisieux, both of whom said, when they entered their orders: "Thank God I'm home." And others are dragged kicking and screaming into their vocation, finding the whole thing something of a martyrdom.
I've thought a lot about this connection between our lives and the lives of the heavenly images icons place before us, and it's something I really must mention: What you gaze at you become. Not only what you hear and listen to, but what you see. Ignatius was really brilliant in this way. We always say, you are what you eat. But you are what you see too, what you gaze at. We Americans will spend hours in front of the television, kind of the new icon that we gaze at, and it glares back at us. And yet, we don't make any connection with what it would be like to gaze at something that truly loves us, and wants to bring us close to God. We need to gaze at truly conversational, truly loving images... images that will return our love.
Published electronically with permission of Andrew Krivak and America Magazine. This article originally appeared in America Magazine on November 4, 1995.
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