In the Desert with Father Bill
Encountering the faith and art of Fr. Bill McNichols
“I believe that everyone has a landscape in his or her soul that corresponds to an actual landscape on this earth. In other words, the place one feels most at home. I found it in New Mexico…” — Father Bill McNichols
John Muir said, “We are now in the mountains and they are in us.” Though he was referring to the Sierras, Muir’s realization hit home for me in Taos, New Mexico, as a writer-in-residence at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. I remember Super Bowl Sunday 2012 not for the Giants beating the Patriots, but because it was that day I drove with my dog through the desert, from California to New Mexico, grateful to be given three months to write at the fellowship, unaware that what I needed even more than a finished screenplay was hope. I had been living out of my car for four months, having left my native New York but not yet landed in Los Angeles. I would find refuge and solace in the mountains of Northern New Mexico and soon after, I would find Fr. Bill.
“I always assumed that 60% of Catholicism was art; maybe even 80%,” Fr. Bill said. “My identity as an artist was intertwined with that of a priest from a very young age. Growing up in Denver in the 60s, there was not yet an art museum. Churches served as my museums. Symbols like the lamb, the arrow, the anchor, and the fish — symbols of the faith — I had an awareness of these by the age of six along with the desire to paint them.”
(Fr. Bill’s first painting, “The Crucifixion,” right, was completed at age 5.)
When we happened to meet in a restaurant called Gutiz on Holy Thursday, Fr. Bill did not mention that Time Magazine distinguished him “among the most famous creators of Christian iconic images in the world” or that he had advanced degrees in philosophy and art and theology; that he had illustrated 14 children’s books and contributed to several others; or even that he met John Paul II in 1993 after his icon “Our Lady of the New Advent” was given a permanent home in the Vatican Museum. I would find these things out much later, and only from others. I had no idea what an “iconographer” even was or that Fr. Bill was renowned for being one of the most celebrated in the world.
That day, Fr. Bill spoke of the seven years he had spent in New York City as a hospice chaplain, ministering to people suffering with HIV/AIDS. He spoke of his love for New Mexico and the way the landscape provided inspiration to create many of his works. And he spoke of the walk that was happening the next day, Good Friday, in Ranchos de Taos, the small town where he was walking with members of St. Francis of Assisi through the desert, an annual tradition from 12 to 3, the living stations. “Would you like to come along?” he asked.
The next morning, I almost bailed. I wasn’t a “living stations” sort of person and feared I would be out of place. But I found myself there anyway. We were about 20 minutes into the walk when a car stopped and two men started shouting “Jesus was a lie!” from the car window. The driver had a gun and was pointing it at the crowd. By then we were far enough away from town to be considered in the wilderness, and my first thought was, “These guys are going to shoot us all.” I thought about my dog, wondering who would take care of her in my absence. I had been held up at gunpoint in the Bronx as a naive college student, but this felt different. My next thought? “Am I really going to die on the same day as Christ? What an obituary that will be: “Unemployed comedy writer shot on Good Friday while on a retreat in New Mexico!” I looked straight ahead. In the distance, there was Fr. Bill, “walking tall and carrying a big stick,” literally leading his flock in silence and in peace. No bullets were ever fired and the guys drove away.
Less than a month later, Fr. Bill’s heart collapsed while hiking in Colorado. He was airlifted to the hospital in Albuquerque, and would ultimately be in a coma for three weeks. At the time, all I could think was, if one person had this much effect on me in a few weeks, what must it be like for the thousands of people who have known him for years? At night alone in my little “casita,” I started reading the books Bill had given me in the past month, one of which Mother of God, Similar to Fire, had just been published and held within 67 photos of his Marian icons and images. I started researching his work, wanting to know more and more about this incredible force that had just come into my life and might now be leaving. I learned he created more than 265 icons; that he studied art at Boston University and the Pratt Institute; that Fr. Bill’s love for the saints was reflected in several of his icons. His vast knowledge of saints’ lives allowed him to recommend a particular saint for a person in need of a guide. The original word for icon means “to resemble.” Thomas Merton once wrote, “It is the task of the iconographer to open our eyes to the actual presence of God’s reign in the world.”
“Icons are ‘doorways to the sacred’ or ‘gates of heaven,'” Fr. Bill has said. An ancient art form, they “unite the visible world with the invisible world,” linking the human with the divine. Art often transcends the physical world; the icons exemplify this. “I go to work as I go to pray — waiting for God to come,” he said.
Fr. Bill would survive his heart collapse. He would return to Taos, and when I saw him last week, I asked him about his life as an artist, an iconographer and a priest and if he ever felt torn between these identities.
“There are no contradictions inside of me about who I am,” he said. “The contradictions are from society. I’ve always admired Edith Stein. She was Jewish, a feminist, a Catholic, and a philosopher … she kept all of these contradictions and remained true to herself. Edith gives me hope because she never dropped any of her identities in order to fit in.”
Fr. Bill and I both found a home in Taos but for now must leave the mountains in favor of the city. Last week, he moved to Albuquerque where he will be serving at St. Joseph’s on the Rio Grande. Though I’m living in Los Angeles, I think it’s fair to say that the mountains are still within us both.
“I believe that everyone has a landscape in his or her soul that corresponds to an actual landscape on this earth,” Fr. Bill said last week. “In other words, the place one feels most at home. I found it in New Mexico…”