There is joy in finding something you didn’t know you were looking for, and when you find such a thing, it makes your heart leap with joy. You experience all the longing that you never knew you had until that moment. Such is the work and path of the mystic.
For mystics, work is not only measured towards progress of some kind of seemingly unreachable, unknowable goal but is a solvent which renders everything down to its most rudimentary or intrinsic value. This element, akin to fire but finer still, not only rinses the soul but tempers it into something more resilient. Christians know it as the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Other faiths and theologies may know it by different names with different properties but it is the essential ingredient everyone is looking for, but seldom finds.
Father William Hart McNichols, or Father Bill, as he is affectionately known here in Taos, is an artist and a priest. His interests, pursuits, and the continuous polishing of his soul suggest he is also a mystic who runs messages, in the form of his art, between regular teachings of Christianity and other outposts of understanding – some that are even beyond the intellect.
Beyond his art, however, Fr. McNichols is also a Catholic activist of the highest order. As a young Catholic priest from 1983 to 1990 he was immersed in a life-altering journey working as a chaplain at St. Vincent’s AIDS hospice in New York City. It was during this time that he became an early pioneer for LGBT rights within the Catholic Church. He spoke out in the national news and worked closely with the founding members of DIGNITY/USA. In 1990 he was called out of the city and into the desert of New Mexico, where he began a six-year apprenticeship to a master of the ancient art of painting icons, Robert Lentz.
Now, there is a feature-length film about Father Bill. It is titled “The Boy Who Found Gold: A Journey into the Art and Spirit of William Hart McNichols.”
Director Christopher Summa said it was played at a social justice film festival in Los Angeles in November and will play at a church in New York City on Friday (Dec. 9). It will be released on Amazon Instant Video and Vimeo On Demand Dec. 16, which is The Feast of Our Lady of the New Advent in the Catholic liturgical calendar.
“I filmed several scenes in Taos, at private homes, driving and at the Church of San Francisco de Asís [in Ranchos de Taos]. People have all told me Father McNichols is a legend and what he shares in the film is truly extraordinary,” Summa said.
In 2012 Fr. McNichols suffered heart failure prior to moving to Albuquerque from Taos.
“After I came back from the heart collapse my first question was why did I live? I was told I was so near death. My first thought was that the images and icons have not really been seen. I’ve had three offers to do a documentary but all wanted to do me [my history as an activist] and the art second. I wanted someone to concentrate on the art,” he said.
“Chris has done a beautiful gospel-influenced film, which includes the theology about Martyrs who are Lights and therefore ‘hunted.’” Fr. McNichols said.
In the film Fr. McNichols mentions, “We murder our martyrs twice. First, we murder their bodies, then their reputations so their word will not go out into the world,” he says, but it goes out anyway, referencing figures like Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, among others.
“These works were given by God for me to share, not to keep to myself and so I, with some trepidation, accepted the idea of a film. I asked Chris as much as possible to please concentrate on the work and not me. I think he has done just that, in a symbolic and beautiful way,” Fr. McNichols said.
The film has garnered some early praise. “A heartfelt look at one of the great Christian artists of our age,” writes James Martin, SJ, who is the author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”
Another review by Sister Wendy Beckett reads, “Our Blessed Lord has given Father McNichols such a gift, in a way a very costly gift, but at the same time a sanctifying gift.” Also known as Sister Wendy, a British hermit and art historian, she became well known internationally during the 1990s when she presented a series of documentaries for the BBC on the history of art.
Even Time Magazine writes, “He is among the most famous creators of Christian iconic images in the world.”
The synopsis of the film states that “For the past 25 years he has received non-stop commissions for his work and has never signed his name to a single icon. All of his works hang anonymously in churches and colleges around the world, including the Vatican Museum.
Born into the most powerful political family in the history of Colorado, McNichols colorful life has crossed paths with both presidents and popes, peace activists and martyrs. His imagery possesses a sensuality that is both beautiful and provocative and his subjects include individuals from all different faiths, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, and Jewish. His message as a priest, artist and man speaks to the most powerful element of the human spirit: Mercy.”
Summa said he “wanted to make a film that captured the power of Father McNichols’ art and to do this it meant becoming an ‘icon pilgrim.’ I know many other filmmakers would have been drawn to the politics and conflicts on the surface of his story but for me the icons are what will last. They represent something eternal.
“I knew the challenge was going to be getting out of the way, just listening, just as Father Bill doesn’t sign the icons, he gets out of the way and the painting of an icon is a solitary journey. Approaching the film this same way, I began to mirror the iconographer’s discipline,” Summa said.
“I know it’s rare for artists in any medium to actually attempt something spiritual, something that really goes for it but we do with this film. Father Bill has an expansive all-inclusive sense of God, it’s in his icons and blends into his philosophy and theology as a priest. It takes you to the edge and asks you to bear witness and find Jesus there. In the film I treat his poem ‘When someone becomes Christ to you as a theme and any person who can take that on, well, they’ll be changing the world within minutes,” Summa said.
“It was important to me to share how Father Bill has spoken out for gay rights throughout his life. It was also important that he address the church sex abuse scandal as it has affected so many lives. I personally see Father McNichols honesty as priest as heroic and redeeming, his message being very much in line with Pope Francis’,” Summa said.
When asked if he felt he has been changed by being in the presence of these icons, Summa said, “I feel my life has been totally changed by making this film. After spending time with all these holy images and after listening to Father Bill’s heart for so long, I now know that this short life is about what we ask of ourselves. Can we love? Can we have courage? Can we live our truths even if it makes us an outcast? And that finding the ‘gold’ sometimes takes a journey.”
Other video-on-demand services will be added for “The Boy Who Found Gold,” plus DVDs and BluRay Discs are being pre-ordered now from the film’s website at theboywhofoundgold.com. For more information, visit these links: imdb.com/title/tt5928818 and facebook.com/theboywhofoundgold.