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  • Writer's pictureSara Hurand

Journey to the Center of the Universe

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Before we start… A HUGE DISCLAIMER is required. This train of thought is going to lead back to the origins of time, and visit theology, cosmology, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, classical and quantum physics. All big topics that I know very little about. I apologize in advance for inaccuracies and misunderstandings. Please send me your suggestions and corrections. I welcome the camaraderie. This is a piece of creative writing, and not a scientific manifesto, as much as I would wish it to be.

Ok, here we go.

Do you know where you are going?

I’m curious how you would answer this question. Take a minute, before reading on. Seriously. Make a note now, and send it to me later. Does your answer interpret the question as literal or theoretical? If it helps, think of the song Diana Ross sings, "do you know where you're going to…."

When I asked my dear husband this question he answered quickly, “Yes, I do.” After an awkward pause, he confirmation-inquired, “This is a yes or no question, right?” I sighed, “This underscores very precisely how different we are!” Up until that moment I interpreted the question as 100% theoretical. Deep and open, a question of curiosity and mystery. Technically, my dear husband is correct, and, as usual, I learn new ways of seeing things from him. “Do you know where you are going?” is in fact, a yes or no question, but when I pushed him to consider the question beyond the literal, this opened up a whole new universe of answers. He added, “Yes, I know where I am going. I’m at a stage of life where the trajectory I’m on is deliberate. We have choices. A lot of where we are going is of our own doing. I derive happiness from interaction with others and many things that bring a sense of fulfillment.”

Wow. That is an answer.

I asked my 15 year old son,

“Do you know where you are going?”

“To do math homework,” pause. “Is that what you mean?” I started to question my question. I replied, “Whatever you want to answer.” He then said, “To die, eventually.” Ok, that is an answer. Way to skip to the end. “To bed tonight,” he continued, and after another pause and a prompt by me to consider more, he said, “to live life to the fullest.” Fair enough.

It doesn’t take much to go from the practical to the profound, and this is life in Israel where we navigate the sacred and mundane so practically and profoundly, and daily. What may be one person’s walk to work at a falafel stand in the Old City, could be another person’s journey of a lifetime, a pilgrimage to a holy place. Maybe they will meet at the falafel stand, and the falafel roller may have a holy experience, and the pilgrim who is feeding their soul may also just be hungry. It’s lunchtime.

I’m bringing you to the Old City in Jerusalem because this is where you’ll find the Center of the Universe. Literally. If you were like me, you didn’t think of the Center of the Universe as a place you can visit, but it turns out, it is! I’ll explain.

In the Old City you’ll find 4 quarters, Armenian, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. In the Christian Quarter you’ll find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you’ll find chapels controlled by many sects of Christianity including the Greek Orthodox. In the Greek Orthodox Chapel, you’ll find… can you guess? The Center of the Universe.

We visited with a tour guide who pointed it out, nonchalantly by the way, as we moved past a doorway to the Greek Orthodox Chapel in the Church complex. I couldn’t believe my ears. “The what?” I squealed with joy. “The Center of the Universe,” he repeated. I quickly made a note to follow up on this mystery, Center of the Universe, Greek Orthodox, Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Omphalos, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

What I found is a little confusing, but yes, there is an Omphalos Stone, or challis, pictured here in the foreground. “Omphalos” means navel in Greek.

According to wikipedia, so it must be mostly true-ish, the Omphalos Stone was first discovered by Zeus of the Ancient Greeks when he went in search of the center of the world, which at that time was also the center of the universe. Sure enough, he found the Omphalos, “navel," by following some eagles who crossed in flight. I'm not actually sure where this center of the universe was. For Medieval Christians the “navel of the world”, that is, the spiritual and cosmological center, is the object currently chained at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Greek Orthodox Chapel. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is profoundly important to Christian tradition as the place where Jesus was crucified, died, and resurrected. It is also important to humanity, for obvious reasons. Christianity is the largest Abrahamic monotheistic religion in the world.

On a personal level, as an American Jew, my relationship with Christianity is pretty strong. We recited the “one nation under God” Pledge of Allegiance in the morning when I was in elementary school, which isn’t exactly Christian, but did invite God every morning to a classroom mostly made up of Christians. Christian holidays were observed and present in town and on TV. I sang Mozart’s mass in Latin with my public high school choir, along with Christmas carols for the annual December concerts. I have appreciation for learning Latin, for singing the beautiful music of Mozart, and the glow of Christmas still warms me. None of this was threatening to me or my Judaism. I enjoyed singing on behalf of the community in which I lived, and many of the Christmas carols were written by Jewish composers, as a side note.

Mosaic of the Binding of Isaac, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre I admired the rich mosaic ceilings, some with the biblical origins from our shared Abrahamic roots, like the binding of Isaac. I learned that several sects of Christianity control different parts of the Church complex, and they have a hard time agreeing on decisions that need to be made together. Well that seems universal. The keyholder for the Church today is Adeeb Joudeh, a descendant from a Muslim family who has had this important job since 1187 CE, because that’s how things are done here.

The Calvary, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Turns out that this Omphalos is pretty darn close to the Foundation Stone, where traditional Judaism believes is the Center of the World. In this place once lay the Holy of Holies, the ancient Ark of the Covenant in the Jewish Holy Temple. This is also where it is believed the first human, Adam was created, where Cain and Abel lived, Noah too, and the binding of Isaac. Origins of humanity according to Abrahamic traditions = Center of the Universe, check. But wait there's more.

In this place where the Jewish Foundation Stone is believed to be, sits the Dome of the Rock, a seminal holy place for Islam. In the Muslim tradition, the Dome of the Rock is erected on the place where Mohamed ascended to heaven. Phew, that’s a lot for one place!!

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

At this point, you might ask, do I know where I am going with this? Truth is, not really! I write these pieces to discover. I have faith it will work itself out. Let's keep going.

As we toured the multi-faith holy sites in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, I asked myself, faith or fiction? And does it matter? Or, in what many ways can this matter? These traditions, belief systems, religions that have shaped history for thousands of years sit together with truths overlapping. The layers of belief are at times in sync and others divergent, yet gathered relatively close together, in, to borrow terms from physics, a time-space continuum. This is kind of a metaphysical spacetime of spirituality, if you will.

Adam's Chapel, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

I’m not going to lie, some of these superpositions of belief systems are challenging. The image above, taken during that same tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, shows the “Adam’s Chapel,” not Adam’s apple, though it's a nice rhyme. In the Christian tradition, this is believed to be where the blood of Christ trickled down through rock onto the bones of Adam, the first of humankind. When our guide explained this I had to pause to process my complex feelings. Is this faith or fiction? Can it be faith for you and fiction for me? Is this your blood on my Adam or only your Adam? Do we share the same Adam? Or perhaps each Adam occupies his own realm simultaneously and does not impede the other, like a many Adam theory? Maybe we can apply the notion of relativity here, perhaps for each observer, they see their relative Adam, aka their spiritual relative, Adam.

Speaking of Adams and apples, the Jewish people are celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which we count as 5784. The Jewish biblical calendar counts its days from the birth of our lineage to Adam, but considers the 6 “days'' of the creation of the world as a separate form of time, which nicely reconciles the 13.7 billion years estimated to be the age of the universe, with our solar system about 4.5 billion years. How do we date the origin of the universe? Two ways, by looking at the oldest stars, and calculating the continuing expansion of the universe and then counting backwards.

Since Copernicus discovered that the earth is not the center of the universe, we have been humbled travelers on earth, cosmically speaking. We got very small indeed. Can you imagine a formative history of cosmological centeredness being blasted apart? Well, it took some time to be accepted. Anyway, Copernicus’s discovery of Earth’s rotation around the sun occurred in 1543, which seems like ages ago, yet it is much later than the Muslim family started holding the key for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1187 CE. 356 years later, to be exact according to the Gregorian calendar. The point is, let’s get back to the falafel stand next to the Center of the Universe(s). We are here! Still counting. Quite literally.

The Jewish people have lived with 2 sets of times since we defined time. But that’s not all. We also live in the current common year 2023. That’s 3 simultaneous calendar systems, some that we share with others and some not. No problem here, that I know of. The current Gregorian calendar year, 2023, is based on Earth’s position relative to the sun, and Jewish biblical calendar year, 5784, with the moon. Some time (but not all, we’ve got spiritual time on its own clock) is determined by our rotation in the universe. Check. We haven’t strayed too far from our destination.

If you chop up our apples really small, like you can't see them anymore small, we become particles. We find that not only do we relate to Adams, but we are made of atoms. And atoms are made of the materials of…. wait for it,

Our universe!

Stars! The atoms of Adams. Our understanding of atoms in turn leads to our understanding of the universe and vice versa. The atoms in me are the same as the atoms in you, along with all the recycled atomic material making up people, places, and things throughout time in our universe. Turns out, if we consider ourselves in terms of our smallest particles, that is infinitely small, we are the universe, which is infinitely huge! Whether you look through a telescope or a microscope you find confirmation of the universe we know and love.

Let’s stay really small, just for a teeny bit longer, for a quantum bit to be exact. A cubit, you may recognize as the ancient unit of measurement, measuring approximately from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. The cubit is mentioned in the Torah regarding Noah’s Ark, Solomon’s Temple, the Ark of the Covenant which are, practically speaking, located near the Center of the Universe in the Old City of Jerusalem, near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock. We’ve got our footing in cubits, so let's move to qubits.

A qubit is the measurement of a quantum bit, whereas a classical bit is the fundamental unit of information in computing, the binary 1 and 0 that modern computing is built on. Big dipping into the tiny quantum world of qubits has blasted apart our understanding of the “uni-verse” once again. Up until now, the universe has met our theories big and small with answers, and while complex, Einstein’s theory of relativity and spacetime has provided us a “relatively” unified understanding of how the physical world works within our cosmic context. When I say us, I mean them, the theoretical physicists, of course. In 2022, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to 3 scientists who proved that the universe is not locally real, in conflict with Einstein’s predictions, at least a little bit.

Oh dear. Not locally real? What about our falafel stand?

New visit to the Old City of Jerusalem, May 2023

What about our understanding of, well, everything? The universe no longer tells us precisely where we are going. It’s like we’ve been on a physics rocket ship that has been propelled by answers, answers, and more answers. We’ve got it! We know where we are going, and we know where we’ve been, which classical physics has led us wholeheartedly to believe. The origination and destination must be defined by the comfortable limits of our understanding. Even standing before God in the Old City of Jerusalem feels better when you’ve got answers in your pocket! But alas, the quantum world does not fit in our classic universe.

If you find this de-stabilizing, you can return to the universe we know and love because this only apples, I mean applies at the quantum scale, which is very tiny. Qubits are much smaller than cubits. But if you are like me, and the prospect of spending a moment in a universe of the unknown excites curiosity and wonder, stay with me just a little qu-bit longer.

The quantum bit is an entangled particle, which means, 1) I have no idea, and 2) That it exhibits shared properties with other particles it is entangled with. These shared properties seem to appear only when measured by an observer, even over time and space, defying what locality used to mean in classical terms. Locality was so 2021. This puts a curious emphasis on the measurer and process of measurement. For Einstein, relativity depends on the perspective of the observer, but the answers will always be true according to the laws of nature. Always, always, always. For quantum particles, they exist in a state of superposition, all possible states at the same time until measured, and eerily adjust to be a form of an answer upon measurement. Huh.

In a way, unknowing becomes a working part of the quantum universe.

Well, we’ve come full circle to the question, do you know where you are going? Do you define this question as open ended? definitive? Are you going to bed, or are you going to live a life full of fulfillment? Think of all the possible answers, and let them exist at the same time. When you pick one, and answer, yes, I know where I am going, for example, you have an answer, reflecting your framing of the question. And when you allow for more possibilities of answers, enjoying the questioning and answering, lingering just a little bit, a working understanding emerges; an understanding through openness and incompleteness, yet no less rich.

A motivated mosaic floor at Masada. It should read, “motifs”, but “motives” is probably also true, depending on the inquiry.

Tourists visiting Caesaria in two frames or more, depending on how you look at it.

This feels a lot closer to the world I live in, one in which many truths exist at the same time. We’ve been obsessed with rightness, with binary understandings, yes or no, black or white, right or wrong. The more we reach for definitiveness, the more frustrated we get. But we live, quite well, in a questioning state. In the quantum world, when we look for the Center of the Universe, we find…. wait for it, ourselves! Literally, well not literally, in quantum physics the measurer and measurement appears in the equation, so to speak. We cannot separate ourselves, our framing, our questioning, our methods from the answers the quantum universe is providing us. We are co-piloting the rocket ship of our own understanding. This is both limiting, as we can no longer assume the external universe has tidy answers for us, and awe inspiring, because the sky's the limit, based on the nature of our questioning!!! We are not just atomic matter, WE matter. We matter even to the universe!

Let’s wrap up with blessings for the New Year. Whether you celebrate Rosh Hashana 5784, or are just fellow travelers under the same moon, wishing a happy, healthy, joyful year to us all. May we enter this year with courage to live with possibility. A world of possibilities.

Cousins trip to Israel, May 2023 that inspired this writing

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