The Ancient Modern
The Unknown Project / Joshua Alan Sturgill
The question I have to ask myself today is: what is my project? I do not have an answer. This is an essay full of questions without answers.
When I think of great souls leaving behind great works, I wonder if these works were in fact the pinnacle of their hope and desire. Is art or science what they would have us know of them? Or might these great souls say, Stop! Don’t look at that monument, that accident! It didn’t express the real goal I had in mind. If I could go back, I would do things differently.
What is worth the pursuit? Does the goal depend somewhat on the person pursuing it? Does the married person have a different set of worthy goals than the single person? Does our talent or interest determine our set of best choices?
On the scale of good projects, success in marriage and family, artistic achievement and union with God are all common, possible answers. But they strike me as both beautiful and ambiguous. What is success in relationships? How is this Union to be achieved? Should our focus be on the goal itself or on the steps or means we must put in place?
What I am thinking is this: good marriages are not guaranteed, but we can choose to make the small decisions that lead toward a good marriage. Union with God is a gift of God and cannot be contrived, manufactured or guaranteed. But perhaps the conditions for union—prayer, fasting, service—we can put in place?
Is it true that each of us is called into the world to accomplish a task unique and unachievable by any other? Is it true that some are able to reach further into the divine mystery than others? That some have greater artistic talent than others? What is the place of intelligence, reason, class, confidence, awareness or calling in the choices we make in our lives?
As I think through these questions, a strange and somewhat melancholy thought occurs to me. When we think of great artists and great art, our choice is very limited. We might discuss which is the greatest painting. But this will only be the greatest of those we know, that accidents of history have left to us. We might discuss who is the greatest painter. But again, we are sorely limited in the debate.
The greatest of possible painters will never be known. I do not mean an imaginary or “ideal painter,” but that person who had the greatest gifts for painting. Perhaps this person died in infancy. Perhaps this person never had access to paints and a brush, but would have achieved work to rival the great Renaissance masters.
What I feel is that we live in a world where talent and means rarely coincide, and this is true for artistic, relational and religious life. Perhaps all long for success in relationships. But not all have the same relational maturity. Perhaps all have access to God. But what does He do for the one who has great aptitude, but also great obstacles? If I desire union with God and yet no one and nothing around me supports and nurtures this ambition, does God Himself supply what is lacking? Does it matter that, to all appearances, God seems to scatter His favours randomly—showering some with blessings and depriving others of what would be most useful to them?
All this amounts to saying that I see darkness ahead. It may be divine darkness, but it is nevertheless an unknown road. I do not know what my project should be. I do not know my own talents, and many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same. They are husbands, wives, artists and business people. Many long for transcendence, success, peace—not in the abstract, but right in the middle of their choices and circumstances. They hope, but rarely find what they hope for.
I do not know how to avoid making serious, and perhaps, fatal mistakes. But I know that I must press forward. I must pray and read and write, pound my fists on the floor and make demands—even when I have no voice and feel blind.
Airless and dark is the way ahead, and only a dim hope of something undefinable, but beyond all Good—an echo of an echo of Grace—fuels my continued asking:
Where are You today that I may go to You today?