Colors, Sounds, and an Incarnational Faith

Since icons are part of Father Kevin’s campaign, I wanted to get his thoughts on them and see how they fit into his priestly-musician life.  I also wanted to catch up with the iconographer herself and ask her some questions. Last time, Father and I spoke about beauty and the ability for us as humans to access to divine through the material world.  Father reminded us, “In the Incarnation, He has sanctified human life.  Now every area of life that’s truly human somehow is a place where we can touch God.”  This approach to the material world is the same perspective that undergirds an understanding of icons as windows into eternity.

The word icon comes from the Greek word for image or representation.  First and foremost, Christ is icon, as St. Paul tells us in Colossians 1:5, “He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God.”  What Paul is speaking about is the mystery of the Incarnation — that the invisible, all-knowing, all-powerful God came to us in the flesh.  The face of God was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  This is the beauty of icons - they begin to penetrate the impenetrable, invisible mystery.  St. John of Damascus said, “An icon is the visual image of the invisible, given to us that our understanding may be filled with sweetness.”

With this background, I asked Father about the role icons play in his campaign.

Team KMcG: Icons by Britta Prinzivalli are featured in three of your Indiegogo perks.  Why?NoliMeTangere1

Father Kevin:  Britta is a good friend of mine. She studied art in college, and I’ve always loved her artwork.  She was always talented, but she went on a course to learn how to write icons and it totally changed her.  From that point on, she’s pretty much done only that, and I think I speak for her when I say it’s vocational for her.  She’s taken her natural talent and her learned skill in art, and really put it at the service of iconography.  So she’s a really good friend of mine, and she is also very supportive of what I’m doing with music and wanted to offer something to help.

Team KMcG: So that’s on a practical level.  Do you personally use icons in prayer?

Father Kevin: In the West we are not as familiar with icons as the East - in the East, icons are central to their spirituality.  But there is something about icons that both hides and reveals the mystery of God in a way that no other form of religious art does. So much so that iconographers wouldn’t call it “art” in the same sense.

Team KMcG: They would even say they “write” icons…

Father Kevin: That’s right.  So they don’t say they “painted” it - they wrote the icon, like you write the Gospel.  So this icon [Father held up an icon of the Mother of God] - I keep this with me wherever I go play.  Britta wrote this for me on one of her retreats and gave it to me as a gift.  Every brush stroke is a prayer.  This whole icon is a prayer that she prayed for me— so hours and hours and hours of intentional praying and intercession.  And I pray with this icon.  Things of the faith are not meant to be passive, they’re meant to be active. And icons especially are meant to be active, they’re meant to be used and prayed with - bring them with you to prayer, or have them in your place of prayer where you can actually meditate on them and use them as sources and springboards of prayer. So this one I bring when I play because I need to have Our Lady.  I don’t show it to people when I play, it’s there so I can see her.

I also wanted to talk to Britta about her experience as an iconographer.  

Team KMcG: When did you meet Father Kevin?

Britta: When I met Father Kevin, he was just “Kevin.” (laughs) I met him at Saint Charles Seminary through one of our mutual friends about thirteen years ago.  At the time, I was a budding guitarist (just a passing phase! No real talent!) and Kevin was an awesome guitarist (not a passing phase! Much talent!).  Our mutual friend knew we'd connect there.  I'm glad I pretended that I could play the guitar for awhile, because I made a great friend through it.CopticMadonnaandChild

Team KMcG: Why did you start writing icons?

Britta: I started writing icons eleven years ago. I'll never forget the moment when I encountered my first hand-written icon.  Father Kevin and I were making a visit to the TOR sisters in Toronto, Ohio, for a retreat.  We took a moment to visit with a Sister who was making a private retreat in one of their hermitages.  The Sister was praying before a hand-written icon of the Crucifixion, and I remember audibly gasping when I saw it. It touched me deeply like no other religious artwork had ever done. Immediately I asked her where she bought it, and she replied that one of her fellow TOR's had painted it.  "You can PAINT those?!" I exclaimed. Within hours I was googling iconographers and trying to find out where I could learn how to do it myself.  I had just graduated with a degree in Art Education, but I had never felt so intimately connected with a piece of artwork before.  I suppose I had just assumed icons were images that ancient monks did... not something that you or I could learn to do.  From that moment forward, I dove right in!

Team KMcG: How is writing an icon different than creating other works of art for you?

Britta: That's an interesting question.  Now that I write icons, I see all art through the lens of iconography.  I'm not sure I could paint any other way if I tried.  I spent five years of college studio classes to get my degree in Art Ed, and none of those classes compare to what I've learned through writing icons.  My own personal style has been refined and I feel like I've found my artistic vocation. Writing icons is a marriage of tangible art and prayer.  It's technical and systematic, but also intercessory. The final result simply feels like a visible prayer - it is Heaven revealed.  While I still do occasional art that is not an icon, it's not nearly as satisfying for me. It feels empty.

Team KMcG: So even in the process of writing an icon, you can see how icons bring the invisible into the visible?

Britta: One of the most rewarding parts as an iconographer is losing myself in the process.  Since writing an icon is essentially copying MadonnaoftheRosaryimages passed down through the ages, it takes the pressure off of me to express something of my own vision.  Instead, I can silence myself in the process - much the way we do when we pray the rosary.  If done well, you get lost in the mysteries and forget that you are praying words. The actual words of the rosary are just a compass to contemplation. There are moments when I'm painting where I don't have to think much about brush strokes or the technical process, and I can get lost in the intercession and prayers of my heart.  And in the end, there is something tangible and real in front of me.  While I feel I have only scratched the surface of the depths of iconography, I can say with confidence that it's enough to transform a person.  And it's my hope that people who encounter icons, any icon, feel the prayers and Spirit behind the image.  It's a wonder that some of the most miraculous icons through the ages have also been less than pretty - think of the icon of Our Lady of Czestachowa, for example. Maybe the heart of an icon is it's not how beautiful it is on the surface, but rather how it touches our soul.  It's much deeper than just a pretty picture.

Team KMcG: As a busy mom, why spend your time on art?

Britta: I need it! (laughs) Being a mom is the greatest and hardest job I've ever had. It's also the most incredible journey, but let's be honest - all parents need an outlet.  Some parents veg in front of the TV or a good book - I choose paint. Some days I just ache for an opportunity to dive into my work.  The minute my youngest son (age 1.5) goes down for his afternoon nap, I'll often gather my supplies and take my icon work to my front lawn while I supervise my oldest son (age 4) riding his bike up and down the front sidewalk.  I'm not quite sure what the iconographers-of-old would think of my "outdoor studio”... but, hey, you take prayer time wherever you can find it!  And as a parent, prayer has completely changed in form from the luxurious freedom of my single days.  Sometimes Holy Hours include Disney Jr in the background.  My husband is also incredibly supportive of my work, and he'll often take the kids the minute he gets home from work so that I can immerse myself in my commissions. I couldn't do it without him.

Team KMcG: What have you found most challenging and most rewarding?

Britta: The most challenging part is knowing that one can never make an icon as beautiful as the Saints themselves.  We're limited by our humanity.  All the classes in the world could never make me a "good enough" artist to paint Christ, His mother, and the saints in their splendor.  But there is also freedom in that.  I just do my best, and put my whole heart into each icon I paint, and trust that God will touch the souls who view it.  Knowing that it's His job to do that, it makes it easy to let go of my pride.  The most rewarding part is the process itself. I feel like it's so amazing to have a tangible "product" of my prayers. It's also an incredibly satisfying artistic process.

Britta Prinzivalli’s work can be found at All icons pictured are part of Father Kevin's Indiegogo campaign.

Why record an album: Music, beauty, & language of humanity

Father Kevin has been busy in the studio all week, but before he headed in, I had the chance to sit down with him and figure out just why he’s doing this.

Team KMcG: Okay, Father. So the first thing that might come to people’s minds is — why? Why are you taking time out of your summer to record your own album?

Father Kevin: So, for years I’ve been playing and writing, and when I would share some of my songs with people, they would ask me, ‘Father, do you have an album? Are you going to record an album? What are you doing?’ And I’d say no. I’d thought about it, but the possibilities weren’t really there.

Then coming to Nashville- with all the connections and the great people here- it just seemed like the doors opened. The people that I met were very encouraging and the right people are here to do it. It’s not difficult- I don’t need to travel a thousand miles to find a studio. There are all these awesome people here - Shawn Williams, who can play fiddle, mandolin, and be my producer, has a studio in his basement where we can demo things out. Everyone has a studio in their basement in Nashville. It’s just so much easier here.

Team KMcG: It’s just what you do in Nashville.

Father Kevin: Well, the environment is so conducive to it. That was another thing coming down here -- the musical environment is IMG_0014 very generative and encouraging of people to share their original work. Before coming here, I was pretty shy about sharing my originals. But here, you go to a party and everyone pulls out the guitars and says ‘Okay, let’s hear one of your songs,’ and I’d be like, ‘Okay, I’ll play a John Mayer song.’ They’d say, ‘No, we want to hear your songs.’ Really? You want to hear my songs? Why would you want to hear my songs? They’re interested; they want to hear it. So that kind of environment is encouraging. It’s generative, it’s affirming. So being here for a year, being able to do that, just got me like, okay, it would be good to do this.

Team KMcG: But lots of other people are writing music and recording music. What if someone told you: you’re a priest, you should be celebrating Mass and leaving music to others? Have you heard that?

Father Kevin: Sure. But what people don’t often realize is that priests throughout history have been intimately involved and influential in the secular culture. From science to art to astronomy. St Albert the Great was a scientist, Vivaldi was a priest. Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons. No words, just music. But it is timeless. People love it. Why? Because he’s touching beauty. Beauty is being revealed. Beauty is a transcendental and is a reflection of God. So if you’re doing something beautiful, it has that lasting effect.

So why do it? Well, truth, beauty, and goodness aren’t means to an end. They are their own end. Beauty doesn’t need an apologetic. Beauty is its own end. When we strive for beauty, when we lean towards beauty, it’s naturally lifting us up, lifting our humanity up, and it’s bringing our humanity closer to God.

If it’s one thing our culture needs desperately, it’s beauty.

Team KMcG: It seems that our culture has rejected the good and the true, and yet it still has this longing for beauty. So do you think we need to speak to it through beauty, so it can find the good and the true?

Father Kevin: God speaks to people in ways they can understand. If you look at Acts of the Apostles, Pentecost — when the Apostles go outside and are all preaching, everyone hears them in their own language. Which is a miraculous thing. What does that say? God wants to speak to them in ways they can understand, in their own language. That’s exactly what we see with Our Lady of Guadalupe.our_lady_of_guadalupe_4x6The reason that image was so effective was because when the Aztecs saw that image, it was their language. He’s revealing Himself to man in their own language - in their picture language. They knew it was a miraculous image, they knew what happened with it - but it wasn’t just because it was a miraculous image. It was that it was this miraculous image that spoke to them, and that told them God actually cares about us. He really cares about our own life - who we are, what we do - He wants to speak to us in our language.

That’s the Incarnation - entering into humanity, into the ups and downs of our real humanity and speaking to us. That’s what Jesus did.

I love doing worship, and I want to keep doing it — but I’ve also been writing a lot and writing about other stuff and you start to discover this whole reality that if truth, goodness, and beauty are its own end, it touches the human heart. So there’s something evangelizing about that — putting that out there. How many people have been touched by Vivaldi, without having any idea that he’s a priest? At all?

So it’s a subtle, hidden way of evangelizing

Team KMcG: So not many people would say The Four Seasons is a religious work. And not all your songs are strictly religious. But they all speak of the human experience. So do you think people can be attracted to the humanity of the songs and possibly then find Him?

Yes- that’s the hope. It speaks a truth they can connect with. To be truly human is to be truly a reflection of beauty. Our goal in spirituality is not to be less human, but to be more human. St. Ireneaus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

The peaks of culture in civilization is when humanity is becoming alive, when it is expressing itself. How much of the art that we go see at art museums, people are still fascinated by the art of the 13th and 14th centuries - when culture was flourishing and they were expressing themselves, especially in religious art and music and architecture. People would ask them the same question, “Why are you doing this?”

There’s a line in Chariots of Fire, when Eric Liddell explains why he runs. He tells his sister, “God made me fast… and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” And I think there’s something to that.

Team KMcG: So it’s okay for a priest to be writing songs that aren’t explicitly Christian. God gave you this talent, and now you’re using it for Him.

Father Kevin: It makes me think about C.S. Lewis’ work vs. J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. Very different. Lewis’ fictional work was directly allegorical. He loved allegory, he wanted it to be obvious. So in the Chronicles of Narnia, it’s obvious that Aslan is Christ. He wants everyone to make that connection. He wrote it for his kids, so they could do this. There is a beautiful place for allegory in literature.

Tolkien hated allegory. He didn’t like Lewis’ work — and they were good friends. But he didn’t like allegory. And Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, is not allegory in any sense of the word. It’s its own thing. He never makes an explicit reference to God in the sense of the way we talk about God. In the greater work, he does talk about the Creator, but it’s not a Christian allegory, it’s not a Christian work in the sense that it’s not Christ on the cross or anything like that. Jesus doesn’t have an explicit mention or anything like that - it’s its own world.

And yet a lot of people prefer Tolkien to Lewis because, man, it makes people ask the deeper question of life. He draws you into your own life and the struggles of life, the deeper questions of time and eternity and joy and suffering and love and heartbreak and glory and victory and death. He does it in such a way that just by diving truly into this myth, he reveals humanity, and by revealing the truth of humanity it automatically opens up into God. You don’t even have to have the intention: My goal is to have people touch God here. No, if it’s truly human, if it’s really human and it touches the human experience, IMG_0015 - Version 2it opens that possibility in and of itself.

So I think a good love song is going to somehow touch love in your heart. St. Augustine says, “Love and do what you will.” If God really is love, somehow, mysteriously that has a connection to God. Now, is it going to be explicit in that first moment? Maybe not. But for some people that’s going to open that up and it’s going to be that journey.

Team KMcG: So we can find God in songs about coffee and Nashville and ladybugs.

Father: His humanity has brought about the ultimate reason for being able to sing about human things. In and of themselves, it’s good, because we’re created in God’s image and likeness. But by the Incarnation, He has sanctified human life. Now every area of life that’s truly human somehow is a place where we can touch God. So in music, if something is touching real human life — sometimes it’s joyful and sometimes it’s suffering — it touches on different aspects of human life. But this is why love songs - like heartbreak love songs - if they’re genuine, it touches the human experience. And the Lord has somehow sanctified that. The human heart is worthy of being contemplated.

Campaign Launch Party

For this member of Team KMcG Music, Saturday couldn't have been a better day.  In the middle of Father Kevin's backyard concert, our IndieGoGo campaign went live and we received our first donation. IMG_2252

Everything had come together smoothly for a beautiful backyard show.  After an afternoon of setting up, waiting, practicing, sound checking, and tiki-torch-lighting, God gave us a beautiful summer night, families started arriving with picnics, and Mario began grilling.  Father opened the show as he opens every homily he preaches-- imploring Our Lady's intercession- and then handed the stage over to Mike Lahey and Katie Rees, so that they could share their music with us as well.  IMG_2244

After Mike and Katie entertained us, Father returned and shared the fruits of his songwriting with us.  One thing I love about Father's music is its authenticity. This isn't a cookie-cutter sound, nor are the lyrics contrived or manufactured.  Father sings about life -- whether it's coffee, God, men & women, or the roller coaster we call living.

One of the most beautiful parts of the evening was standing back and observing the yard full of life.  Perhaps I've used that word too often in the last few sentences, but that was the overwhelming feeling of the night.  There were kids chasing lightning bugs.  There were married couples sharing picnics. There were young adults hanging out on the back porch.  Everywhere you looked, you saw the impact of Father Kevin on this community that he's called home for less than a year.  You saw a community that had come to support, to celebrate, and to enjoy live music.  I'm not sure you could find a backyard in Nashville more joyfully alive that night.



As we cleaned up, one of the members of Team KMcG observed that in our exhaustion, it was all really just beginning.  36 days. $12,000.  Here we go!

backyard panorama Kevin McGoldrick


Join Us on Saturday, June 14!

My album campaign officially kicks off on the evening of Saturday, June 14 with a house concert at the home of Paul and Liza Downey. I have some great musicians joining me on stage, including Mike Lahey and Katie, Stephen, and Johnny Rees of the band L'Angelus.

It's BYOB and picnic! We'll provide grilled hot dogs. We suggest you bring blankets or lawn chairs to sit on.