The Navel of the World

God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.

-- Empedocles

Recently I awoke in the night with a word that came to me so insistently from the depths of sleep that I wrote it down on the notepad by my bed.  The word was “omphalos.”  I didn’t know what it meant or even how to spell it; in fact, I forgot all about it until I later happened to see it scribbled on my notepad.  I then looked it up. Omphalos, from the Greek word for navel, refers to a sacred stone found at the temple to Apollo at Delphi.  According to Greek mythology, Zeus dispatched two eagles to the eastern and western ends of the earth and then summoned them back.  The omphalos marks the spot where the eagles met at the center, or navel, of the world.  The conical stone is hollow and was believed to be a channel for direct communications with the gods through the oracle at Delphi.  

It turns out the sacred stone at Delphi is not the only omphalos.  There is another one at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which Christians in medieval times regarded as the spiritual center of the world.  The church is built on the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been buried and to have risen from the dead.  There is a still older Jewish tradition, dating from the Hellenistic period, that the navel of the world was the foundation stone of the temple in Jerusalem, which once housed the Ark of the Covenant, through which God revealed himself to his people.  Not to be outdone, the Romans erected a marble Umbilicus Romae in the Forum, next to a gilded column where all the roads of the empire converged.  The Umbilicus Romae was said to have been built over the entrance to Hades, the Roman underworld. 

It is no surprise that ancient peoples centered their worlds in places associated with their gods.  But where do we go to find our own spiritual anchorage?  There are, of course, any number of shrines and holy places to commemorate divine encounters from some faraway time and place.  But at best these can provide only a vicarious experience of the holy.  What matters in the end is not whether God spoke to oracles and patriarchs in ancient times but whether he still speaks to us today.  More to the point, do we listen?  The still, small voice that we yearn for may be shouting from the rooftops, or it may be the word that comes to us so insistently from the depths of sleep.  And then we discover that the navel of the world is the navel we were born with.

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