The Omphalos (Dennis Aubrey)

“I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon – the unimaginable universe. I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity. “ “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges

Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours, Guingamp (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours, Guingamp (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I talked in the past how certain words and phrases live in me, awaken me in the middle of the night with their repetition – abyssus abyssum invocat or “My name is Legion”. There are words of James Joyce in Finnegans Wake; “Tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!” The words of Jorge Luis Borges quoted at the beginning of this article have stayed with me since I first read them in 1968 when I discovered his book of short stories in a used bookstore. The idea of an “aleph” – a point in space that contains all spaces – mesmerizes me still. Another idea, one that James Joyce refers to in Ulysses, is the omphalos. In Greek mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles to fly across the world to meet at its center, the navel of the world.

Cloister, Abbaye de Montmajour, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône)  Photo by PJ McKey
Cloister, Abbaye de Montmajour, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by PJ McKey

These words and ideas affect me deeply, even when I don’t know why. It feels like when I first became aware of the mysteries of the real world. We lived in the Orleans suburb of Saint Jean-de-la-Ruelle when I was a child. My brother David and I went to a French school just a short distance from the house. One day, the caretaker who sometimes walked us home took us to the furnace room, opened up the hinged door to the furnace and lifted me up to look at the flames inside. I could see the blazing of the fire and feel the heat. “That’s where you go if you are bad,” he said. I remember the mystery of this and how it had a different effect than he perhaps intended. I was not moved by fear but by a theatrical fascination of the vision. In much the same way some concepts like the aleph or the omphalos still move me.

Cathedrale Sainte Marie, Saint Bertrand-de-Comminges (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Cathedrale Sainte Marie, Saint Bertrand-de-Comminges (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Meanwhile, I have been too long away from France, my personal omphalos and am starting to feel adrift. PJ and I did not go to France this fall because of obligations in the United States. We are planning our spring trip, but it feels so far away and I am drifting. There have been no posts for over a week – I don’t know where to start. I need help.

Mary Magdeleine, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais de Mozac, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey
Mary Magdeleine, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais de Mozac, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

I need to feel the loneliness of the churches, to reassure them that they are loved and treasured. The mold and the dirt in the corners are part of their life, like the deep begrimed wrinkles in the hands of a man who has spent his life working the earth.

I need to stand in these churches and watch and listen. I need to hear the echoes of ancient voices, to feel the pain and exaltation, the endurance and the faith that was present in these spaces.

I need to be reminded that stone can be a living thing capturing the spirit of the past. How can I ignore the echo of a thousand hallelujahs?

Eglise Saint Julien (Courville, Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey
Eglise Saint Julien (Courville, Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

I need to sit in the cool silence of the stone churches, letting the frenzy of the world abate so that my own voice can find breath.

I need to look across the church to see PJ lighting a candle, knowing that she senses what I sense and that she will have that certain look on her face, where she feels almost like she is trespassing on a grave.

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by PJ McKey
Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

I need to see the shafts of light piercing deep shadows, where the chiaroscuro light becomes the story-telling, and in the telling, changes the stone. In the same way, my identity transmutes into the stone of these churches. There is no difference between me and the subject about which I write. The stones both tell the tale and are the subject of the tale.

I need to feel Borges’ infinite wonder and infinite pity.

14 thoughts on “The Omphalos (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I have missed your beautiful words. And the photos illustrating this article are so handsome and so appropriate. Let your mind drift back in time as you survive the winter far away from your beloved France.

    1. Kalli, sometimes I just miss photographing these churches. To tell you the truth, I hardly photograph anything unless we are in Europe. We make special trips to break out the equipment here in the US (we hope to shoot the Bryn Athyn cathedral in Pennsylvania in December, for example), but it feels incomplete without going to see our beloved churches. PJ feels it too – she was so saddened that we had to postpone our Fall trip. Thank you for your thoughts on this, we appreciate it so much.

  2. Your pictures are masterpieces. Your art is light-years ahead from that of simple “aficionados” -like myself-. But your feelings, your “need to stand in these churches and watch and listen … to hear the echoes of ancient voices, to feel the pain and exaltation, the endurance and the faith that was present in these spaces …”, those feelings are very close to some of your reader’s hearts. Go on, Dennis. Via Lucis is outstanding.

    1. Covetotop, you are far too kind, but your words mean a great deal to us. This project is so dear to our heart, both as photographers and as people. One of the great surprises of our Via Lucis project is to find so many people from so many countries passionately interested in these churches. We never thought to experience this, and it moves us greatly. Again, thank you.

  3. I have felt this sense of dislocation lately, Dennis. The banality of modernity is tragic and leaves me feeling very much alone and bereft of the Glorias and Halleluijahs that once filled those Romanesque and Gothic structures with something larger than self-preoccupations. I feel ya, as they say.

    1. Dislocation is a good word, Gordon. It is such a relief to hear from you at times like this. A few years ago I did a post on the wonderful Saint John’s bible project headed by Donald Jackson. I did a test on Google and this was the result: “In a world where a Google search of “Lady Gaga” returns about 273,000,000 results in 0.23 seconds, a search for “Donald Jackson Calligrapher” returns about 2,690 results in 0.18 seconds. That is 101,487 Lady Gaga hits for every Donald Jackson hit.” Sometimes I don’t feel that I am part of this world.

  4. sometimes i can hear the voices of the past centuries and the clatter of the building of these monuments-sometimes you can hear brutality and beauty at the same time so maybe, the rest is needed and a different you to look and feel again- like peeling away the layers of an onion

    1. So many times we see and feel the violence done to the churches – the broken faces and hands of the statues, the “idole” scratched into the paintings at Saint Nazaire in Béziers. But most of the time we can feel and sense the beauty, faith and the intelligence. You sound very familiar with these churches. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Your photographs and words make a perfect blend. Both are to the essence of human experience. Last year I retired from teaching history of art and culture. What anchors me into a 47 year career is most certainly not the professorial distinct nor pitiful financial rewards, but the near-forgotten memories of those ancient sites, their smells, the old monk who answers a door of a tiny monastery, the “dirt in the corner” of the church. What an impossibility to convey those witnesses to my “lectures,” the ghostly memories revently walking in San Ambrogio, never thinking a parking lot could be built beneath it.Those chiaroscuro glimpses in the side aisles of a moment in time captured by your camera are priceless. From Easter Island to Delphi the omphaloi were once axes of the world. I like that yours and PJ’s is in France.

    1. Darrell, we are very glad to have you participate here at Via Lucis. As I am sure that you can tell, it is our life work. My personal precise omphalos is a square meter of land at the hotel Pont de l’Ouysse in the Lot region of France. I have gone there since 1986 and when I arrive, I know that my world has stabilized.

      Thanks for your kind words and I look forward to hearing more from you on these posts.

  6. Well, it is my pleasure to participate in whatever way I can. I look forward to following your beautiful photography and your thoughts. To know you, someone, has a place of tranquility, peace, an omphalos, evokes many thoughts. Thanks

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