There is an undeniable rhetorical and emotive power in vaulting spaces. The Catholic church makes use of this sense of elevation and awe in spaces meant for worship, confession, and ritual. Being in lofty spaces, can inspire consideration of what, who, and how we worship.
I have been reading Ovid’s Metamorphosis, trying to get a handle on the complicated melodramas that inflect the lives of gods, goddesses, nymph, morals, and other beings. It is intriguing and a bit sobering to encounter the moral failings and ambitious strivings that drive these tales of transformation.
The gods and goddesses that animate Ovid’s 250 stories are human all too human and yet were worshipped as deities. The same could be said of the majority of popes and emperors, just as many churches are built atop pagan temples, hubris and greed are common building blocks for rising and falling power structures.
A couple of days ago I read the tale of Echo and Narcissus. Echo, a “garrulous” nymph, distracted Juno at Zeus’ bidding, from his numerous “consorts” with nymphs. Juno never is duped for long and always exacts vengeance upon the female beings who “consort” with her roving husband or in any way cross her.
Note: There is a rather distorted sense of culpability in Greco Roman myths, e.g., women, both divine and mortal are blamed for men’s lust and even for rape! More on such injustice in a future post…
Echo’s punishment is loss of her own voice; she is only able to repeat the words of others. This inability to assert, to implore, to declare is truly a loss of agency.
Her inability to communicate is especially frustrating when Echo falls for a handsome youth in the forest. Echo encounters the handsome Narcissus while he is out hunting and is utterly beguiled. Narcissus senses her presence and calls out to Echo. Echo is only able to repeat his words. This cofounding call and response culminates in Narcissus’ request and subsequent, tragic miscommunication:
‘Here, let us meet together’. And, never answering to another sound more gladly, Echo replies ‘Together’, and to assist her words comes out of the woods to put her arms around his neck, in longing. He runs from her, and running cries ‘Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine is yours. She answers, only ‘What’s mine is yours!’
Narcissus flees Echo and soon encounters his own comely face in a still pool. He falls in love with his reflection and slowly withers away, tormented by a self-reflexive version of unrequited love. As Ovid poetically puts it:
Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it. It comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave!
What, who, how do we worship? How can we encounter elevating spaces, feel elevated, when so much of our focus is downcast, gazing into pools of reflecting light that comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave.