Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
There are different theories as to why Schubert did not finish the Unfinished Symphony. Although his Symphony in B minor lacks two movements, it has two. And explaining why it began is as challenging as explaining why it did not end. Mozart did not finish his Requiem for the simple reason that he died. That also is why Thucydides did not finish his History of the Peloponnesian War, Raphael’s Transfiguration was incomplete, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus was left for Titian to complete, and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov had unrealized chapters.
A Roman soldier’s sword prevented Archimedes from resolving a mathematical problem. Chaucer did not finish his Canterbury Tales because he had to go back to work as a clerk in the Port of London, and Spenser did not finish the last six books of The Faerie Queene for political reasons. Coleridge could not complete his Kubla Khan because someone awoke him from a laudanum stupor. Perhaps the arrival of Alessandro de’ Medici caused Michelangelo to quit Florence without finishing the statue that still puzzles experts, who are not sure if it is Apollo or David. We do know that Donatello deliberately used his non finito technique to give a kind of emerging vitality to his figures.
Artists rarely think that they have completed a work. Tolkien, for example, kept re-writing The Silmarillion. At least they have an intuition, a mental sense, of what should be realized with paint or pen. But if life has no goal, there is nothing to complete. Chesterton said that man has always been lost, but modern man has lost his address and cannot return home. Far different was Saint Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). His faith was trust that life has a goal, and it is realized in the eternal existence offered by the Creator who made us in his image. “In him you have been made complete” (Colossians 2:10).
The days of Lent are like signposts toward the goal. Meanwhile, we are “works in progress.” The question is, “Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3). When Ash Wednesday is coincident with St. Valentine’s Day, there is a stark contrast between love and sentiment. The martyr Valentine loved so much that he sacrificed his life for the love of God. To reduce him to some sort of cupid, is never to finish the picture.
The world’s greatest Lover shouted from the cross: “It is finished!” That tetelestai is an accounting term meaning “paid in full.” The Son cried out to the Father that he had paid the debt incurred by human pride. It is what every composer, painter, writer or scientist wants to be able to say, but can only be said satisfactorily when Christ is seen “face to face, and not as a stranger” (1 John 3:2).