Sacred stories

Amid the icons in a new book about the art of Father Bill are insights into faith, reason and hope


"There are some people you meet in history that you just can't forget. For me, and my 7-year old mind, it was Crazy Horse." So says William Hart McNichols, affectionately known as Father Bill throughout New Mexico. The new book, of which he is the subject, "Image to Insight: The Art of William Hart McNichols," traverses the intersections of faith, reason, and hope.

On Saturday (Feb. 24), Father Bill will be appearing at Op.Cit. Books from 2-3:30 p.m. to introduce and sign this latest book co-authored by John D. Dadosky and McNichols. Each of the 53 icons included in the book "communicates sacred stories, as well as marks significant moments in the artist's personal development," according to McNichols' publisher. The event is free and open to the public.

Locally, McNichols is beloved for his 14 years of service as pastor of San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos, tending to the lives and deaths of his parish and the community at large. Internationally, he is recognized as one of the most accomplished iconographers, having completed hundreds of commissions, paintings, one of which hangs in the Vatican Museum, and illustrating dozens of books.

"I grew up in Denver and my father was governor of the state from the late 1950s to 1960s," he said. The privileges that come with such an upbringing are many, "but I never felt a depth of culture or identity there despite its obvious natural beauty. It was still a young place, relatively speaking."

As a 20-year old, a visit to the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota would prove to be a moment of clarity for McNichols. "Native American spirituality is so deep. It's their identity, their belief system, the way of their worship. I found it very powerful."

He moved to Taos and found the culture he felt was lacking from having grown up in Colorado. "I made friends here, whether Native or Hispanic, and was struck by how they had a background with such depth, a culture that spanned centuries and how today that culture continues to be honored."

"Beyond Native spirituality, even New Mexico Catholicism is 500 years old. That depth of religious belief is unprecedented in this country," continued McNichols, who was ordained in1979 as a Roman Catholic priest.

In selecting the icons to illustrate his book, McNichols chose many he thought would be of relevance in connecting the past with today's stories.

Of course Crazy Horse found his way into the book's pages. "In his Lakota vision quest, Crazy Horse was told to wear only one feather, and he would be protected from all other arrows and bullets. And so he wore his lone arrow. But he never trusted the white man, and was ultimately betrayed by his own people, and some say it was Little Big Man who held his arms while he was stabbed."

Said McNichols, "I compare Crazy Horse to Malcolm X, who also never trusted white men and advocated separatism between the races."

The icon of Mary Dyer is another of McNichol's selections. "She was a Quaker woman who lived in 1600s Massachusetts, and for me, she represents the fight for religious freedom.

"Mary Dyer came with her husband to America to pursue her right to worship as a Puritan, but in realizing the Massachusetts colonies were as restrictive as England, she moved to what would become Rhode Island and became a Quaker," explained McNichols. In defiance of the Puritans, who would not allow Quakers in the colonies, "she continued to return several times to Massachusetts until she was hanged in Boston Common in the year 1660 … Besides her pursuit of religious freedom, I see her as a champion of women's rights and human rights, in general."

Another of his icons included in the book is of Mexican santo, Toribio Romo. "He was a Mexican Roman Catholic priest in Jalisco, in a time and place where Catholics were being mercilessly murdered as part of the Cristero War between the government and rebellious clerics," McNichols continued. "Santo Toribio was martyred in 1928 when he also was murdered by government soldiers. He's since become the patron saint of immigrants, and legend says he's appeared to immigrants crossing the Sonoran desert and helped them to safety. When I asked my friend, master woodworker Roberto Lavadie, to frame this icon, he embedded barbed wire into the wood."

McNichols paused for a moment to let that thought settle in.

Continuing, "I'd like to mention that the book opens and concludes with Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century clairvoyant who wrote 77 songs, nine books, and and was part of the 'Viriditas' movement, which preached vigilance against the spiritual and physical decline of the environment. I'm paraphrasing, but she basically said, 'If you attempt to destroy the earth or pollute it, God will turn the elements against you.'"

Human rights, the women's movement, immigration, the environment. It has to be noted that these icons, and others in the book, appear to be mirrors, held up to the faces of this country. "Sure they are," he said. "Today we're looking at a world that needs to learn respect for all people and all true religions."

But, amazingly, this book was completed almost three years ago.

"I discussed this project with a colleague, John Dadosky, early in 2012, A month after my open-heart surgery, he approached me again and, in July, he pushed me to move it forward. Despite my crankiness, which he ignored, we decided we were going to go forward with it. So, we did. John has studied Bernard Lonergan, one of the 20th century's greatest thinkers, his entire academic career. He was trying to distill the incredibly deep lessons of Lonergan about aesthetics and transcendental beauty, but it's hard to grasp on the academic level. He thought he could translate Lonergan through my icons."

Author John Dadosky narrates "Image to Insight," and McNichols said he couldn't imagine a better person to put words to the imagery he has written into his icons. "He wrote a beautiful, beautiful book called, "The Eclipse and Recovery of Beauty." I knew we were a great match in this.

"I think this is a book meant to be read one icon at a time. Those you love, spend some time with.

"I've always been interested in people who were witnesses to spiritual truth, and now, more than ever. In an era of lies, ecological crises, threats to human rights and religious freedom, they stand out through time in their courage."

Dadosky is a professor of theology and philosophy at Regis College at the University of Toronto. He is the author of "The Structure of Religious Knowing: Encountering the Sacred in Eliade" and "Lonergan and The Eclipse and Recovery of Beauty: A Lonergan Approach."

Op.Cit. Books is located at 124A Bent Street. For more information on this event, call (575) 751-1999.