In the experience of almost everyone there have surely been certain texts—passages in poetry or prose—which, once heard or read, have never been forgotten. For most of us, these decisive texts are probably few in number; but, rare though they may be, they have permanently altered our lives, and they have helped to make us what we are. One such text, so far as my own life journey is concerned, is a paragraph on le point vierge
, “the virgin point”, in Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
(definitely my firm favorite among his many books):
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. . . . I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.(1)
Here Thomas Merton is seeking to elucidate the moment of disclosure which came to him on 18 March 1958, and which he recorded in his journal on the following day: “Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were or could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream—the dream of my separateness.” (2) It is noteworthy that, when attempting later on in his Conjectures
to understand what was clearly for him an experience of intense visionary insight, Merton makes use of a term, le point vierge
, which he had derived from Sufi sources. He had come across this phrase in the writings of the renowned French Orientalist Louis Massignon, with whom he had been in correspondence during the year 1960. Massignon in his turn employed the phrase when expounding the mystical psychology of the tenth-century Muslim saint and martyr al-Hallâj, whose custom it was to say, “Our hearts are a virgin that God’s truth alone opens.” (3)
Significantly al-Hallâj refers in this context to the heart. This word does not actually occur in the passage quoted above from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
, but Merton is in fact describing precisely what the Christian East has in view when it speaks in its ascetic and mystical theology about the “deep heart” (see Psalm 63:7 [64:6]). By “the virgin point” Massignon, interpreting al-Hallâj, means “the last, irreducible, secret center of the heart”, “the latent personality, the deep subconscious, the secret cell walled up [and hidden] to every creature, the ‘inviolate virgin’”, which “remains unformed” until visited by God; to discover this virgin point is to return to our origin. (4) Thus le point vierge
or the innermost heart is, in the words of Dorothy C. Buck, the place “where God alone has access and human and Divine meet”; it embodies “the sacredness hidden in the depth of every human soul”. (5)
This is exactly what is signified by the “deep heart” in the neptic(6) theology of the Orthodox Church. St Mark the Monk (? fifth century), for example, speaks of “the innermost, secret and uncontaminated chamber of the heart . . . the innermost and untroubled treasury of the heart, where the winds of evil spirits do not blow”. According to Mark the Monk, it is to this hidden temenos
that Christ is alluding when he states, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), and when he talks about “the good treasure of the heart” (Luke 6:45). (7) A similar understanding of the heart is beautifully expressed by the Roman Catholic Benedictine Henri le Saux, who wrote under the name Swami Abishiktananda, when he terms it “the place of our origin . . . in which the soul is, as it were, coming from the hands of God and waking up to itself”. (8) In the words of another Roman Catholic author, the Dominican Richard Kehoe, “The ‘heart’ is the very deepest and truest self, not attained except through sacrifice, through death.” (9)
It is immediately apparent that St Mark the Monk, al-Hallâj, and Merton share in common an all-important conviction concerning the character of this deep or innermost heart. For all three of them it is something pure, inviolate, inaccessible to evil; and specifically for this reason it can rightly be described as “the virgin point”. Thus Mark says of the “secret chamber of the heart” that it is “uncontaminated”, “untroubled”, a hidden sanctuary “where the winds of evil spirits do not blow”. For al-Hallâj it is opened by “God’s truth alone”. Likewise Merton insists that it is “untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God”. While the outer levels of the heart are a battleground between the forces of good and evil, this is not true of the innermost depth of the heart. As “the virgin point” the deep heart belongs only to God. It is pre-eminently the place of Divine immanence, the locus of God’s indwelling.
1. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
(New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 142.
2. The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals
, ed. Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 124.
3. See Sidney H. Griffith, “Merton, Massignon, and the Challenge of Islam”, in Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story: A Complete Compendium
, ed. Rob Baker and Gray Henry (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1999), pp. 63-64.
4. Griffith, p. 65.
5. “Mary and the Virgin Heart: A Reflection on the Writings of Louis Massignon and Hallaj”, Sufi
, 24 (1994-95), p. 8; Sufi
, 28 (1995-96), p. 8.
6. “Neptic”: from the word nepsis
, meaning sobriety, vigilance, spiritual insight. “Neptic theology”, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, includes the realms of both “ascetical theology” and “mystical theology”, as these are understood in the Roman Catholic tradition. For the importance of the term nepsis
, note the
Greek title of The Philokalia
, a classic collection of Orthodox spiritual writings from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries: “The Philokalia of the Holy Neptic [Fathers]”.
7. Mark the Monk (alias Mark the Ascetic or Marcus Eremita), “On Baptism”, §§4, 5, 11 (Patrologia Graeca
[PG] 65: 996C, 1005 BCD, 1016 D), ed. Georges-Matthieu de Durand, Sources chrétiennes
445 (Paris: Cerf, 1999), pp. 322, 342-43, 368.
8. Abishiktananda, Prayer
(London: SPCK, 1972), p. 54.
9. “The Scriptures as Word of God”, in The Eastern Churches Quarterly
, VII, Supplementary Issue on “Tradition and Scripture” (1947), p. 78.