The new interactive public art installation in downtown Juneau, “Before I die...”
The new interactive public art installation in downtown Juneau, “Before I die…”

Walking down the street on Monday, July 29th, in the sunshine I came across a new piece of artwork on Juneau’s newly remodeled Main Street. It’s a giant blackboard with the words “Before I die I want to . . .” written on it in big block letters. Below, there are several columns of blank lines for passersby to write their own reflections.
Though it was only 10 a.m. on its first morning open for business, several people had already taken colored chalk in hand and written down their responses:

“Have a baby.”

“Travel A LOT!”

“Be an Olympic swimmer.”

“Marry Christine and bring her joy every day of her life.”

“Write a novel.”

Along with athletic aspirations, desires for family and relationships, some of the responses were spiritual:

“Walk like Christ.”

“Forgive my Father.”

“Have my children return to their Catholic faith.”

“Tell u Jesus saves.”

Reading the Juneau Empire later that day I learned that the blackboard is the work of Daniel Gildmann, a local businessman who was inspired by a Ted Talk featuring a woman in New Orleans who put up a similar piece of art after her friend died from cancer. The Empire reports that artist, Candy Chang, “after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response, began offering stencil kits and information on her website at http://www.beforeidie.cc so that people could create similar walls in their own communities.”

While offering a public forum to share life aspirations, hopes and dreams, the project also points to an important way God calls to us through our deepest desires. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, often used the language of desire while helping people discern the presence of God in their lives. In his book The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything, Fr. James Martin, SJ explains, “Desire is a key part of Ignatian spirituality because desire is a key way that God’s voice is heard in our lives. And ultimately our deepest desire, planted within us, is our desire for God.”

Martin distinguishes between a surface want for a new car or a fancy wardrobe and holy desires: “desires that help us know who we are to become and what we are to do. Our deep desires help us know God’s desires for us and how much God desires to be with us.”

Sometimes desire is scary. It’s easy to think, ‘There’s no way I could ever do that,’ when confronting the inkling to climb Mt. Everest, write a book, or commit to helping the poor or disenfranchised. But as Catholic spiritual writer Margaret Silf notes in her book Wise Choices, “No desire means no life, no growth, no change . . . Desire is energy, the energy of creativity, the energy of life itself.”

Earlier this summer I watched the movie Chariots of Fire for the first time in a long time. I love this movie and I was looking for some much-needed running inspiration. Over the past 4 years I’ve competed in the Klondike road relay the second weekend in September (“competed” is a little deceiving, “survived” is probably more accurate). The relay is divided into 10 legs ranging from 5.6 miles to 16 miles. I am not a natural runner. I first became inspired to try running during my junior year of high school after watching the aforementioned movie and realizing that to run you don’t need perfect form, speed or endurance, you just need to run (and then walk when your face begins to turn purple) and then run some more.

There’s a scene in the movie where Eric Liddell, a pastor from Scotland, has a heart-to-heart with his sister Jennie who wants him to give up his dreams of being an Olympic runner and return to China to be a missionary. Looking over the hills of Scotland, Eric tells her, “I believe God made me for a purpose. For China. But he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt.”

When I run I don’t necessarily feel God’s pleasure. I usually feel like I’m slowly killing myself for the purpose of health. And quite opposite from the easy gait and beatific expression on Ian Charleson’s face (who portrays Liddell in the film) with his head back and mouth wide open (said to be a historic representation of how the real Eric Liddell ran), I think I usually look like I’m dying too. But when I hear the synthesizer soundtrack in my mind and picture the 1924 Olympic hopefuls running through the surf it reminds me that this simple act, done with joy, can be spiritual as well.

Liddell’s passion to run for God, and the new artwork on Juneau’s main street, both ask the question, what is it that is uniquely yours to do in this world? Where do you feel God’s pleasure and how might you use that passion, that desire to build the Kingdom of God?

As one respondent wrote down, “Before I die I want to figure out what I want to do before I die.” Contemplating this question could be the first step to greater awareness of how God might be calling us through our deepest desires.

Katy Beedle Rice is the Director of Religious Education at the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Juneau. She blogs about motherhood and spirituality at blessedbrokenshared.blogspot.com/