Tuesday, September 18, 2007


These are just a few thoughts that have been bouncing around the cavernous recesses of my cranium lately.

The omphalos, or navel, is an archetype. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the center place of the world, whether you place it in Jerusalem, Rome, Cuzco, or Independence, Missouri, is often called the "navel of the world." The navel as a symbol also has special significance in Mormon ritual. Then on Thursday I got to see the umbilical tether of my unborn daughter in an ultrasound image. All this got me thinking, what's so special about the belly button? Why does it seem to inspire such fascination?

I've always thought of the navel simply as a reference to the stomach---nothing more than a convenient mark on the body placed right over the organ associated with digestion and nourishment. But the thing is, the navel itself isn't an organ or a useful appendage---the navel is a scar. It's a leftover, a shadow, a dried up remnant of something that used to be. It's a reminder that the umbilical cord, the source of constant pre-natal nourishment is gone. A reminder that we, quite literally, have been cut off from that source, and that it was bloody and painful. As a scar, the navel is an assertive absence.

This physical, visceral cutting off has at least three spiritual parallels. 1) The pre-mortal life doctrines teach that before birth, we were in God's presence and constantly nourished and that when we are born, we are cut off from that source of pre-mortal spiritual sustenance. 2) Adam and Eve enjoyed God's presence in Eden, but were then cut off in the fall and forced to earn their own food by the sweat of their face. 3) In the Doctrine and Covenants, we read that we as children are innocent, but as we grow and gain knowledge we become accountable and are cut off from God because of sin.

So how does this all relate to the umbilical scar? Usually we think of the Eden story, the pre-mortal story and the story of our individual fall from innocence as a precursor to some greater narrative of reconciliation and reconnection. But with the navel, reconnection doesn't seem to be an option. We sure can't reconnect to a placenta. That would be grotesque and perverse, almost like an old man trying to re-enter his mother's womb to be reborn. With no hope of umbilical renewal, what are we to do?

An infant is cut off, and so she must nurse. She has to work to get her food. It's difficult for both mother and child. But nourishment comes, and when it does, it is given to her freely, (she gets milk without money and without price, so to speak). And despite the necessity of her own sucking efforts, she is still completely dependent on her mother, her source of food. I'm reminded of Julian of Norwich, a 14-century mystic who described the Savior's role as a mother's role. Julian said:

"A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself. He does so most courteously and most tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament, which is the precious food of true life. With all the sweet sacraments he sustains us most mercifully and graciously."

Transubstantiation questions aside, I think Julian's on to something. Maybe the point of the umbilical scar is to remind us that we are cut off, and that therefore we absolutely must rely on the one who gives (new) birth to us. Otherwise, we die. Maybe the point of this scar, a symbol of our separation, is to remind us of the other scars---those in the hands, wrists, feet, and side---that represent our reconnection, or at-one-ment, with God.


Amanda said...

I love the paradoxical relationship between connection and separation that you hit on. The separation that the scar represents actually implies a connection.

I think I find it so fascinating because I'm learning about the equally complicated relationship between absence and presence in Virginia Woolf's third novel "Jacob's Room." Woolf is absolutely brilliant. In this novel, or rather anti-novel, Jacob is at the center but he is not the subject. He isn't ever in the novel; you just know that at one point he was. You learn who Jacob is only through the other 120 characters in the short piece. Jacob is silence, absence, and his absence is ever-present, just as the things we never say to each other are ever-present.

My good friend Lina Ferreira is writing something about how autopsies are stories--think about how all of our scars could tell the stories of our lives. Man, you could write a whole book on physical scars.

Very cool post, Jared.

JKC said...

"The separation that the scar represents actually implies a connection."

Yes, but not a present connection. It implies a past connection and in doing so highlights the need for a new connection. I find this idea really interesting.

The autopsy thing sounds cool, too. I remember thinking something similar in Crim Law when we heard from the county medical examiner. It's amazing how much about a person's life they can learn when all that's left is a charred section of vertebrae. (That lady was killed and her body burned in a car to make it look like an accident and destroy evidence. Obviously, it didn't work.)

Scar stories. I like it.