The Theme of Le Point Vierge in the Writings of Louis Massignon
by Dorothy C. Buck
Louis Massignon was not only a brilliant and distinguished professor and scholar, but also a man of deep religious conviction. His vast collection of published works is therefore uniquely informed by his own spiritual experience and particular quest for the Divine. Contemporary spiritual writers suggest that it is in the nature of human beings to search for ultimate meaning in their lives. Those drawn to a Christian religious vocation feel called into relationship with God, themselves, and others in a life-long conversion experience. Louis Masignon's unusual call to a religious quest began to take shape in Egypt in 1907 when he found himself drawn to a sentence in a book by Attar, Memorial of the Saints, about a tenth-century Muslim mystic known as al-Hallaj, who was crucified in Baghdad for having loved God. The following year in Iraq, in the midst of the Muslim world, Massignon had a conversion experience, a new awareness, that led him to embrace the Roman Catholic Church. He was convinced that it was al-Hallaj who brought him to Baghdad and that his miraculous experience was partially due to the intercession of the Sufi mystic/martyr of Islam. His scholarship for the next fifty years was devoted to meticulously searching for sources of the saint's life and mystical doctrine. Simultaneously, he struggled with the meaning of his own conversion experience. He wrote:
Comme j'ai souffert, quand Dieu m'a converti! Car j'ai éprouvé que c'était toute ma vie qu'Il voulait à Lui, et qu'aucun de mes actes n'échappait à son Ordre visible, l'Eglise ... (Petit p. 91)
(How I suffered when God converted me. Because I experienced that it was my whole life that He wished for Himself, and that not one of my actions would escape His visible Order, the Church ... ) Just as his linguistic talent and keen intelligence informed his scholarship, so it also produced an erudite religious thinker.
It is in the context of Massignon's life experience that the theme of Le Point Vierge, which I call the Virgin Heart, becomes more and more central in his writings. His career in the French military was influenced by his reputation as an Arab scholar, and his involvement in the Muslim world increased as he pursued his search for primary sources for his understanding of al-Hallaj. In studying the writings of any of the mystics, such as the great Roman Catholic Carmelite Saints, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or Thérèse of Lisieux, we take the risk of being transformed by them. It is difficult to separate Massignon's vocation as a scholar from his own religious quest as he discovered the writings of al-Hallaj on religious philosophy, as well as his mystical doctrine, which were rooted in al-Hallaj's own intense experience of his God. Massignon himself understood his research as a relationship to the Islamic mystic. He found the primary source for the theme of The Virgin Heart in the context of the mystical doctrine of al-Hallaj.
In 858 A.D. the Sufi mystic al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj was born in Persia. In 922 A.D. he was accused of violating Islamic law and, after imprisonment and torture, he was executed for blasphemy. The legend of this mystic/martyr of Islam has been kept alive throughout the Muslim world in ritual and prayer. Persian and Turkish mystical poets have told and retold his story in diverse literary forms and the poet Rumi used Hallajian themes. Members of Sufi orders today refer to al-Hallaj as a true disciple of divine love. In his travels as a mendicant preacher and spiritual master, al-Hallaj tried to lead his followers ever more deeply into the reality of the human soul toward ultimate unity with the divine. (Buck 1996 p.63) He writes:
Our hearts are one single Virgin, which the dream of no dreamer can penetrate .... Which only the presence of the Lord penetrates in order to be conceived therein. (Massignon 1989 p. 133) The Virgin Heart refers to the secret place in the center of the human soul where God alone has access. al-Hallaj envisions the core of all human hearts as one, where the human and the Divine meet, unified and untouched by anything except the seed planted by God's love.
In his reflections and teachings al-Hallaj keeps the notion of the human heart expressed in the Qur'an under the heading of the "Science of Hearts". The heart is the human organ prepared by God for contemplation. It is in our hearts that our conscience is formed and there that we know and are conscious. It is in our hearts that we experience the sacred. al-Hallaj reaches beyond the Qur'an in expressing his mystical experience of the Science of Hearts. He writes:
The final covering of the heart, inside the nafs, which means the self, whose appetite is lustful, is the sirr, or latent personality, deep subconscious, or secret cell, walled up [and hidden] to every creature, the inviolable virgin. (Massignon 1983 p.19)
To al-Hallaj, the Virgin Heart is God's secret holy place at the core of each of us "whether we are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, worthy or not" which "remains forever whole and intact regardless of our fear and pain, self-defeating habits or ungracious thoughts and desires." (adapted from Buck 1994-95 p.8) The mystery of The Virgin Heart is a call to recognize the Transcendent in our midst and overcome our illusions of power and control. al-Hallaj writes:
God makes Himself explicit through everything which is perceived and considered; everything that one sees face to face signifies Him. And this is why I have said: I have seen nothing in which I have not seen God. (Massignon 1983, Vol.lll p.68)
Through years of contemplating al-Hallaj's mystical doctrine and the meaning of the Virgin Heart, Massignon realized how this theme is a connecting link to many others. His reflections on the Virgin Heart were incorporated into his major writings, lectures, and extensive correspondence and became an integral part of his own on-going spiritual conversion. When he "crossed over" into relationship with his Muslim friends he discovered that his own Christian religious experience was enhanced rather than threatened or diminished. He called this engagement with the Muslim community, "sacred hospitality".
Massignon's writing is filled with Biblical and Qur'anic images. He describes God as a Stranger who visits unexpectedly like the three angels who visit Abraham in Genesis 18. Abraham's hospitality to these strangers who bring messages from God is a key to understanding Massignon's emphasis on Sacred Hospitality. When he became a third order Franciscan in 1931 he took the religious name, Abraham, identifying in spirit with the great patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Massignon sees in the biblical story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac out of faithfulness to God a parallel in the sacrifice of Jesus, also in the desire of al-Hallaj to die as a witness to God's compassion for the soul of humanity. Standing at the center of Massignon's vision of these three Abrahamic religions is the Virgin Mary, the young Jewish girl whose "yes" to God reminds us that God can relate only to the virginal found in the heart of the human soul.
It was Massignon's character to be deeply moved by life and particularly by the stories of human beings. He seems to have understood his own religious vocation as profoundly connected to human relationships. As his scholarly research plumbed the depths of these connecting themes and images his views of the world expanded, leading him to live out his convictions through social action. Imaging God as the stranger who comes to our door begging for food and shelter, or the refugee who struggles to speak our language, or the poor and marginalized in our society Massignon envisions Mary, who was also an outcast in her society. She represents the sacred hospitality in the center of every human soul that welcomes the stranger, God.
Massignon struggled for the "right of asylum" for Muslim refugees in France experiencing them with compassion as friends and religious brothers because of their common heritage through Abraham and Mary. His writings have influenced the course of contemporary interreligous dialogue and his passion for God led to his increasing compassion for all human beings, the effect of deep reflection on the meaning of The Virgin Heart.
In 1959 the trappist monk Thomas Merton began a correspondence with Massignon. Both men were seekers of the mystical aspects of diverse religious traditions. Merton was drawn to Massignon's increasing activism as a witness against war, spevcifically the Algerian-French crisis, and was intrigued by the theme of the Virgin Heart. ( Buck 1996 p.63) As a result of his own reflections and correspondence with Massignon he writes:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God ... this little point ... is the pure glory of God in us.... It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody. (Merton 1965 p.158)
Massignon expands his vision of the Virgin Heart suggesting that by "providing hospitality to God in our hearts we enter the path toward mystical union and thereby risk becoming witnesses, and even outlaws, as did al-Hallaj. He speaks of a secret place in each human soul that we cannot betray because God alone has access to its hospitality. He calls it "the last virginal point"; our last point of honor as human beings."(adapted from Buck 1995-96 p.8)
The images of the Virgin Heart in the writings of Massignon, al-Hallaj and Merton contain important contemporary messages. My own reflections begin with Massignon's vision of the Annunciation as the core of Christian faith and belief. When the Angel of the Lord announces to Mary that she will be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and bear a son she answers "yes" despite her fear and lack of understanding. The ultimate manifestation of Massignon's sacred hospitality is the divine Guest seeking hospitality in the center of every human soul. It is out of that unconscious depth that Mary answers "yes" to God and becomes a witness to the deeper meaning of the Virgin Heart.
Believing in the Virgin Heart leads me to a conversion experience that calls for my own "yes" to God despite my fear and lack of understanding. My conversion experience changes my relationships and opens my heart to others in true compassion and hospitality. I risk changing my habitual way of seeing the world, of making artificial distinctions between people of different nationalities, races or beliefs. And I risk waking up to my desire for communion, and connection, and allowing love itself to transform my vision. I can no longer pass by homeless people as though they do not exist, nor can I make any distinction between those who have wealth, education, or position and those who do not. I can no longer deny that I too am homeless, a refugee, and a victim of social and political injustice. "To believe in the mystery of the Virgin Heart is to believe in a secret place in every human soul where the sacred is given to us despite our unworthiness, failures, and human limitations. That place cannot be touched by anything I do, yet it calls me to transcend myself and see others as they are -- sacred." (adapted from Buck 1996 p.79)
"Today, this moment, is also the last opportunity we have as human beings to recognize the sacred meaning of hospitality and the overwhelming responsibility we have as guests when we enter the homes and lives of others both at home and abroad." (Buck 1995-96 p.8) For when we know the sacredness hidden in the depth of every human soul, how can we refuse anyone hospitality in our homes or pass by an opportunity to treat others with compassion?
In the midst of an increasingly violent culture world-wide the image of the Virgin Heart reminds us of the penetration of Grace in the symbol of a woman who makes the choice to carry and give birth to the child of God. Unmarried, against the social norms of her time, unprotected by the strict laws for women, Mary listened to her spiritual intuition and obeyed the truth of her own inner voice. Massignon suggests that she stands for the marginalized in our society, men and women of color, welfare mothers, the homeless, the mentally ill and disabled, the immigrant and the refugee, the elderly, our inner city ghettos, and all who are victims of inequality and injustice. Mary represents the Virgin Heart in our midst. Her truth is our truth, her transformation the hope for our own, her child each one of us, and her power the very power of God. The Virgin Heart is a song to Mary, full of Grace, who symbolizes for us the blessedness of our children, the hope of the next generation who must save our planet and our environment, and who are burdened with the domestic violence in our homes and the battles on our city streets. (adapted from Buck 1994-95 p.5,6)
To recognize the sacredness of life and of every human being, regardless of their differences, means to be capable of recognizing oneself in everyone "in an overstretched trial of painful love,"writes Massignon, "in a hypertension of self for mental identification with the other's need; when one cannot help him except by sharing, mentally, so poorly his pain. By tears, if one cannot afford blood -- by the burning of his hunger, if one's breast cannot give him the milk of human kindness. Tears and blood, milk and fire are the means of the housekeeping, of the immemorial rite of hospitality and the rite of asylum." (Massignon 1983 III p. 162.)
In the Qur'an, Mary's "yes" is also revered as a "testimony to God's Lordship in the Day of the Covenant" (Qur'an 7:172) For Muslims, the Annunciation takes place before the dawn of creation. Before the world was born there was a resounding response of "yes" to God. The secret of the mystery of the Annunciation is the inheritance of both Muslims and Christians revealed in the virginal heart of Mary, whose "yes" to God was offered for the salvation of all of humanity. She becomes a link to our Muslim brothers and sisters and provides an opportunity for dialogue and understanding between these two communities whose painful history continues to need reconciliation and healing. Our world is still torn apart by religious division.
Massignon's passionate response was to search meticulously for the sources of religious experience and the roots of compassion. There he discovers the God of Abraham who is possessive, persevering, and passionate in His love for all of us. Massignon reminds us that Abraham's God was first revealed to the Jewish people among whom we find the young Mary, who Massignon calls "a daughter of Abraham". He also insists that we remember the Qur'anic vision of the one God of Abraham as that of all three monotheistic traditions. Out of the depth of his understanding of the Virgin Heart he invites us to allow a compassionate God to transform us. To set us free to negotiate, reconcile, and heal our divisions by accepting, respecting, and loving our differences, rather than fearing them and feeling threatened. Then I will see the free gift of the Divine in others as "a pure diamond blazing in the light of heaven". When I fully acknowledge the truth of the Virgin Heart and contemplate the richness of its meaning, I catch a glimmer of the mystical experience of al-Hallaj who writes:
My soul is mixed and joined together with your soul and every accident that injures you injures me. (Massignon 1983 Vol.II p.426)
1. Buck, D. 1996 (summer edition). The Heart of the Soul in The Quest, Wheaton, IL.:The Theosophical Society in America.
2. ______1994-95 (winter edition) Mary and the Virgin Heart: A Reflection on the Writings of Louis Massignon and Hallaj, in SUFI, London, England.
3. ______ 1995-96 (winter edition) Mary and the Virgin Heart: A Reflection on the Writings of Louis Massignon and Hallaj, Part 2 The Visitation in SUFI, London, England.
4. Petit, J. 1973. Claudel - Massignon (1908-1914) . In Les Grandes Correspondences. Collection dirigée par J. Petit. Desclée De Brouwer.
5. Massignon, L. 1983. Vol.II and III. The Passion of al-Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr. Translated by H. Mason. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
6. __________ 1989. Testimonies and Reflections: Essays of Louis Massignon. Selected and introduced by H. Mason. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. 7. Merton,T. 1968. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday Image Books.