Prayer and Iconography

An Interview with William Hart McNichols

Icon by Fr. McNichols of the Mother of God of Magadan
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?

How do you come, then, to a balance between inspiration and discipline?
Icon by Fr. McNichols of Our Lady of the New Advent
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?

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?

Icon by Fr. McNicols, S.J. of Holy Martyr Jerzy Popieluszko
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?

    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

How would you explain the rise in popularity of icons, especially in the West?

    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.

Is that to say that icons can be something of a spiritual guide?

    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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