Cynthia Bourgeault’s latest book, just published this year, is a brief statement of her faith; the book is called The Corner of Fourth and Nondual. If you have been exploring contemplative Christian spirituality for any time now, you probably saw the pun in this title with no problem. But if not, no worries! Perhaps this post will shed some light for you.
“The Corner” that Bourgeault is referring to is a street corner in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. These days it’s the corner of South 4th Street and West Muhammad Ali Boulevard, but in 1958 the intersection was known simply as “the corner of Fourth and Walnut.” On March 18, 1958, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton encountered the mystery of love at this corner. As he later recounted in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you…
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Like Julian of Norwich and other mystics before him, Merton not only recounts the experience of this moment of profound realization, but he also reflects on its meaning, not only for himself, but indeed for us all. In the moment in which he fell in love with everyone he saw, his self-esteem that was embedded in the sense that being a monk made him somehow “special” simply evaporated. Now, his joy arose not from how special his vocation was, but rather from how ordinary it was. Being a human being mattered for more, spiritually speaking, than being a monk! For it is our very humanity that links us to Christ (and, we might add, and Merton himself probably would have added a decade later: our humanity also links us to the Buddha, and to Muhammad, and to Moses, and to White Buffalo Calf Woman, and to Isis, and Brigid of Ireland, and Lao-Tzu, and Ramakrishna… and on and on the list goes).
Merton not only fell in love with everyone he saw, but he saw them all “walking around shining like the sun.” Perhaps those two realities are inter-connected. Perhaps when our eyes our opened and we realize that we are all made of stardust, and so we all shine like the sun and the stars, the only rational response is to fall deliciously into love. For God is love, therefore, to fall in love (with one person or with the entire human race) is to fall in God — with one another, of course.
Merton goes on to write such words of hope as few people dare to utter in our day:
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.
I write these words as tanks roll across the countryside of Ukraine, somberly cognizant that almost two-thirds of a century after Merton’s epiphany, war and hatred and cruelty and greed remain so very present in our world and our lives. And while perhaps too many of are invested in worshiping our very own selves, it seems that few of us could ever be bothered to worship one another. We have not crossed the line of Merton’s conjectured “big problem” because we remain so embedded in the (again, Merton’s words) “the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.”
But here Merton draws on a French term that he declares he cannot translate: le point vierge. I only know enough French to be dangerous, but it seems to me this could be rendered as either “the virgin point” or “the blank spot.” I think we need to hold both of these possible translations in creative tension. Here’s what Merton has to say about le point vierge:
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… 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 son-ship. 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.
The point of innocence and emptiness is in everybody, meaning it’s in you and me as well as Merton and Christ and the Buddha. I think we have seen echoes of this idea in the mystics throughout the ages. In the Quaker tradition you can find the concept of the Inner Light, “that which is of God” in the heart of every human being. Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic, called this “the spark of the soul” and the twentieth century mystical philosopher W. T. Stace called it “the apex of the soul.” Julian of Norwich, writing in her typically beautiful poetic style, has this to say:
I saw and understood most certainly that in every soul that will be saved is a godly will which never assented to sin, nor ever shall… it can never intend evil, but always intends good constantly, and does good in the sight of God… And so I understood that man’s soul is made of nothing, that is to say, it is made, but of nothing that is made, in this way: when God was to make man’s body he took the slime of the earth,* which is matter mixed and gathered from all bodily things, and from that he made man’s body; but for the making of man’s soul he would not take anything at all, but made it. And so created nature is rightfully united to the creator, which is essential uncreated nature, that is, God. And so it is that there neither can nor shall be anything at all between God and man’s soul.
The human soul is made of … nothing? Sounds like a blank spot to me! And in that nothingness we are united with God, for there is nothing at all between God and the human soul… a virgin point, innocent and sacred?
Although Julian is cautious and limits her perview just to “every soul that will be saved,” Merton with less to fear from the authorities makes a more bold statement: it is in everybody. Yes, including you and me. The virgin point, the place of pure nothingness, is within you, right here, right now. It is where you as a creature touch without mediation the infinity of the Uncreated. It is the source of love, of joy, of meaning and understanding. It is empty, which is to say silent, which is to say still. Like Merton, we have no “program” for perceiving this divine spark within us, but trusting that it is “only given,” we can drink deep of the wells of silence and contemplation to make ourselves available to recognize le point vierge as it always, already, exists within us.
It’s in you: right here, right now, always and immediately. The reason why mystics and contemplatives are so insistent on intentional silence as a spiritual practice is that we know that our words and thoughts always get in the way of the inaudible presence of le point vierge. The best way to be present to le point vierge, nestled deep within our heart, is to simply be wordlessly loving and intentionally silent before it. We have monkey minds, so our silent practice is really a dance of getting distracted, and returning to the silence; getting distracted and returning, distracted and returning. The distractions are not our enemy, for they set the stage for the beautiful gesture of return, of restoring ourselves in the rest of silence. This is the heart of le point vierge, and the heart of contemplation, the heart of mysticism, the heart of a truly spiritual life. You do not have to “attain” this gift, for it is freely given. We all simply need to learn how to receive such a silent gift with reverence and quiet joy.