"If the human body is the source of symbols, the ultimate example is the body of Jesus; if human history aims at transcendence, its unsurpassable crown is the life of Jesus."
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid relates the myth of Arachne.1 This young woman, a native of Lydia, inherited a fabulous ability to weave tapestries. She received such praises that she began to believe herself superior to Pallas Athena, the goddess who was patron of her guild and of the other crafts. Such disrespect prompted Athena to appear to her, inviting her to acknowledge her error. But Arachne, who was proud, challenged the deity to a competition at the loom.
Then Athena and Arachne both set to work on their cloths, weaving splendid representations. The tapestries Athena wove showed epic combats between men and gods, where the humans were always vanquished by divine power. Arachne, for her part, was content to portray the ignoble deceits of the immortals, starting with the seductions of Zeus. To her eyes the gods seemed like tyrants who exploited human weakness.
In the end, Athena had to admit the perfection of Arachne’s art, but irritated by the insult she tore the tapestries into pieces and turned the girl into a spider, the eternal weaver. Dante describes her thus in the Divine Comedy: “O mad Arachne, I saw you already/ half-spider, wretched on the ragged remnants/ of work that you had wrought to your own hurt."2
So runs the myth, which, though invented in Greece, has a universal validity. Besides the misfortunes of Arachne, we find in it also a meditation on human life. The tapestry, woven at great speed, is a symbol of the fleetingness of existence, embroidered in time. The Bible also recognizes the brevity of human life using the simile of weaving. “Like a weaver I have rolled up my life; he cuts me off from the loom” (Is 38:12). In this light, the depth of the myth of Arachne becomes apparent: can it be that this fragile cloth, patterned so quickly in the weaving of our lives, bears an image so beautiful that it endures for all time, defying the passage of the centuries and raising us to divine heights? Will Arachne one day succeed in equalling Pallas Athena, without thereby having to renounce her earthly and historical condition?
The Greek world did not find a definitive solution to this dilemma. The tapestries woven by Athena and Arachne therefore represent the endless struggle between the human and the divine, the temporal and the eternal. Later eras came along and tried in their own ways to answer the same question, which is crucial if human life is to find meaning. Their attitudes differed from the Greek one, but maintained a common denominator with it: they accepted the comparison of human life with a tapestry. And this meant that the beings of the material cosmos reflected a higher light, revealing a plan and a beauty: that human history, though ephemeral, has a point. The universe was conceived of as a book in which each event occupied its proper place and indicated to man a route through time.
Modernity brought with it a change of horizon. Man disentangled himself from the fabric of the world to adopt the distance of the observer, who contemplates from afar the concert of what surrounds him.3 From this vantage point he could record the laws of the cosmos with precision, in accordance with the paradigm that modern science offered him. More than the tapestries of Arachne, which were primitive and childish myths, it was the spider’s web with its precise order and symmetry that spoke to him. Think of the modern’s fascination with the order of mathematics, which Galileo described as the alphabet with which God has written the universe.4
This dazzling harmony was nevertheless unable to assign a meaning to human life.5 And so opened the space for a doubt that has run all through modern times, a doubt to which Immanuel Kant would give expression: could not all this harmony perhaps be a projection of our own mind onto the appearances of the real? Could mathematics be located in us, rather than in the things themselves? This doubt corroded human confidence in the order of the world. If harmony is found on the side of the observer, then the movement of nature is irrational, caused by chance or autonomous necessity. So the great divorce was finalized: between the human spirit, seat of conscience and freedom, beauty and ideals, on the one hand; and the material cosmos on the other, a place of noisy agitation. The rational exists in the thinking mind; things themselves remain submerged in the chaos of the particles of mechanicism and its collisions.
Here is a question in the face of this crisis. Is it possible to recover the symbolic value of the world and to give man’s footsteps an orientation in nature? Can the universe be seen as a tapestry once again, where the narrative of life has a beautiful pattern? Christian faith offers a response, which starts by considering the capacity of our own body and our own time to bear meaning. I want to show that this happens precisely in the Christian liturgy, which therefore acquires a great importance for illuminating the problems of our time. The first step will be to reflect on the sacraments, which contain the structure of the liturgy.
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