Image to Insight: A Book for Our Times

MaryNotre Dame. It is a bit late in the Lenten season to be recommending a book for quiet reading and meditation, but after some delay, I am still eager to call to your attention Image to Insight: The Art of William Hart McNichols. For decades, Bill’s ministry and vocation have centered on painting icons (or “writing” them, as the Orthodox tradition insists), with reverence toward the great traditions of the East, but also with vital attention to the world of today. Now a diocesan priest, but many years a Jesuit (and still, I think, a Jesuit at heart: Jesuit+) his icons express his inner vision, and catch hold of the sacramental reality of our world. In a wonderfully simple way, these icons suffuse the view’s eye and mind with a deep, fresh, luminous view of spiritual realities that nonetheless remains deeply imbedded in old ways of tradition. You can find many of his icons online; you can also find a DVD narrative of his life and vocation: The Boy Who Found God: A Journey into the Art and Spirit of William Hart McNichols (Dramaticus Films, 2016), with a fine clip at Youtube. Image to Insight is a wonderful collection of 53 of the icons Bill has painted over the decades. (You can find many more of Bill’s icons at his website and elsewhere on the web.) Some feature Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, or portray Madonnas, mother and child. Others honor holy women throughout history, such as Joan of Arc, Rose of Lima, Kateri Tekawitha, Dorothy Day, Maura Soshin O’Halloran – and holy men, such as Maximilian the Martyr, Thomas Merton, Bernard Lonergan, and Matthew Shepard. Some too are interreligious, showing us Al-Hallaj, Crazy Horse. Given his many years of living in the Southwest, it is not surprising to find here also “El Santo Espiritu de Taos,” so evocative of the New Mexico landscapes that surround Bill and infuse his attentiveness. Indeed, his icons show us vividly what reverence for the earth looks like. This is a perfect book to read along with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si. I hope the Pope has a copy of it.

The book is particularly valuable, beyond the individual icons, because it is enhanced by the lucid and insightful theological accompaniments given by John Dadosky, a respected theologian and professor at Regis College in Toronto. John himself is well-versed in the writings of Bernard Lonergan, SJ, most famous for his great tome in philosophical and theological epistemology, Insight. Hence the volume’s title, Image to Insight, or as John puts it, “Artists are aware of the power of image and symbol to communicate meaning or insights. These insights, when effectively communicated, can lead the viewer to social, cultural, political, religious, historical, and even personal understanding… In the case of religious art, the insights or meaning communicated is theological. This means it seeks to communicate some understanding about the mysteries of God or the Transcendent, insofar as they can be communicated.”

John’s comments, most often on the page alongside the icon, give some background on the saintly figure represented, and then too lead us into linked the spiritual and theological meanings. For example, Bill’s “Mother of the Incarnate Word” portrays Mary (even as she is pregnant with the Word) studying the book of the Word. Alongside it, John gives a page-long exegesis that, among other things: identifies the model, the 1748 Kaluga Icon; recounts a bit of its history, written, lost, found, newly venerated; notes Mary’s balancing of the outer Word (of the book) and the inner Word (in her womb) as good advice for all theologians; records Lonergan’s insight “that the Word of God is a person. Scripture may express the profound revelation and message of Jesus, who is the Word, but of itself the scripture is not the Word, that is, the person;” highlights McNichols’ desire to show “a theological Mary, the Mary for theologians;” provides the interesting fact that Avery Dulles, SJ used this icon on the cover of his Lecture, Mary at the Dawn of a New Millennium. Every one of John's theological meditations is rich in this way, enhancing what we see, without distracting us from it.

It is rare to find so beautiful a book that is so complete: the image, the word, the spirit/Spirit and the theology too, all in one place. It is all intensely personal too, the art, the theology, and the friendships that led to the production of the volume. As Mirabai Starr puts it in her moving preface, the subjects Bill chooses are “luminous exemplars of people who lived through harrowing circumstances and show us the way to live in an ever-deepening love (conversion)… In the Book of Revelation, Fr. Bill points out, the dragon goes after the pregnant woman to eat her children. We are all her children, he says. And, in the lineage of the prophets, we are bringing nativity into the apocalypse. We need our role models to keep the flame of devotion and courage alive in our hearts. Fr. Bill’s icons are beacons in the darkness, beckoning us home to love.”