The Quarter-Inch Hole in My Heart

I spent the last part of this week in a design-thinking workshop, which is kind of a new thing for a guy who majored in English three times. But it was well-worth the effort. The first thing the facilitator told us was that nobody ever wants a quarter-inch drill; people want a quarter-inch hole. They ask for a drill because they think that there is no other way to get what they want.

All of this talk of holes got me thinking about “the God shaped hole in the human heart,” a common notion—originating in a kind of related passage in Pascal’s Pensées—that posits religion as the fulfillment of a deep human need for some kind of connection to the divine. In 1989, Salman Rushdie famously used the term in an editorial explaining his religious motivation in writing The Satanic Verses—a book that outraged Muslims around the world and placed Rushdie’s own life in danger.

Rushdie’s term seemed right to me, and, for years I went around saying that there was a God-shaped hole in my heart. It seemed a reasonable way to explain why I remained part of a religious community without committing the academic sin of seeming certain.

I no longer believe that I have a God-shaped hole in my heart. Rather, I have a quarter-inch hole—a precise, oddly shaped set of needs and longings that motivate me to search for things and never be entirely satisfied with what I have. God and religion are one way to fill the hole, but there are others. It is not the size of the hole that makes it hard; it is the shape.

It is difficult to articulate the contours of the hole—but it includes the need for a community, the need to be comforted when I am in need of comfort, the need to feel connected to things larger than myself, and the need for a vocabulary to discuss what I long for the most, a way to reach out and touch beauty and goodness and truth.

One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn in my life is that my quarter-inch hole cannot be perfectly filled by a quarter-inch Church. This is not an indictment of the Church, or of any institution or organization. No one thing is big enough, or small enough, or precise enough, or precisely the right shape to fill the hole perfectly or forever. It is filled by poetry, and music, and deep friendships, and great ideas, and, occasionally, ice cream. And it is also filled by sitting in Sacrament Meeting with people with whom I share a culture and a belief. It is, I have discovered, a very complex and eclectic hole.

But, as I have watched the recent revelations about sex abuse in the MTC—and have reflected on similar feelings I have had when I feel let down by an institution that I love—I have become increasingly aware of how spiritually dangerous it is to try to fill the hole with any one thing. We don’t have a quarter-inch Church. Nobody does. Human institutions have neither the power nor the responsibility to achieve such precision in matters of the heart.

The takeaway, at least for me, is that the Church can be part of my spiritual life without being all of it. It can be good without being perfect. And it can have true things without encompassing all truth.  The world, despite the bad knocks it gets over the pulpit from time to time, has wonderful things in it that can also nourish our souls when the Church doesn’t quite fit the quarter-inch holes in our hearts. It has art and music and poetry and ice cream and wonderful people and other beautiful religious traditions.

And this is not a forced choice or a zero-sum game. Hearts are made of spongy stuff, and heart-holes can be filled by many things at once. There is no need to rely on any pre-fabricated heart-hole filler, hoping that it will be just the size of the hole we are trying to fill. And we should never think that we have to try.


  1. Rachel E O says:

    Beautiful. True. Thank you.

  2. jaxjensen says:

    I find the church doesn’t fill the hole, but the Gospel does. It is the church’s (and member’s) failure at living the Gospel that leaves the hole unfilled. If we built the Zion we read about and covenant to build, if we comforted and cared for others instead of retirement accounts and vacations, etc, etc, etc, then I think there would be no hole at all.

    I don’t expect to ever see it.

  3. “Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who … clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecouchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
    Roberto Bolaño

  4. From 2666

  5. No, the Church is not the right shape. There’s a myth going around that the Mormon temple rites are the right shape and size, but I don’t think so. (In fact I think this is a source of unexamined disappointment for some.) Nor is God, curiously. Unless I make a god over in my size, but that doesn’t work for more than a moment. God stretches and prods. Something like the shape I should have but necessarily the one I want.

    But chocolate ice cream . . .

  6. For a few minutes in my life–on a very few occasions–it has felt to me like God or love or whatever we might call the source of that completely fulfilling mystical moment was all I could ever want. I will call this “the completeness,” because I think that word conveys my point better than “ecstasy” or “communion” or “mystical union.” It is a state of being without holes. At all other times I am aware of being incomplete. I feel echoes of the completeness when the Spirit passes through me. Immersing myself in music, wrestling with great books, sharing intimacies with friends, creating something authentic are a few of the other things that make the completeness seem closer.

    I’m not sure whether this means that I agree or disagree with what you’re saying, Michael. Maybe I’m away on a tangent. But I’m deeply sympathetic to your idea. I sense that the completeness embraces all good things, and that we are wrong to deny anything that draws us closer to it.

  7. Thanks, Michael, that is a helpful way of thinking.
    Thanks, Loursat, there have been times of such “completeness” for me.
    Thanks, Christian, my times of “completeness” have not had anything to do with Mormon temple rites, but others in my life have found them there. I’m not sure to whom you refer with regard to “unexamined disappointment”. I’ve been examining mine for decades. Still I do sometimes find valuable experience, even for me, in the temple rites.
    Chocolate ice cream has been reputed to be sometimes made from any outdated dairy products — because chocolate can cover any flavor. Even with that thought, it can sometimes “fill the hole”. I could think more on a chocolate ice cream/church analogy, but so far Michael’s approach works better for me than anything I’ve come up with as to such an analogy..

  8. JR: “unexamined disappointment” —
    First of all, it’s not always all about you. :-) (Meant in the friendliest of ways.)
    Second, at the risk of a threadjack, what I did mean is that we sometimes build up the temple as a peak experience and people go expecting their “heart hole” to be filled. When that doesn’t happen (for those who feel that way) there’s no good place to process the disappointment. I would pay attention to the build-up of false expectations, but also the disappointment after the fact. I think the OP can be useful in that work. I find that often questions of fit are more useful than questions of right and wrong.

  9. Kristine says:

    This seems as good a place as ever for my annual-ish mention of the best prose about hearts ever written:

    Michael, all any of the rest of us mortals can aspire to is reminding someone of this piece, so… well done!

  10. My relationship with the church completely changed when I let go of expecting the church (and even the gospel) to fill the needs I had grown up expecting the church to fill or at least address. Needs like friendship, integration into the community, peace that overcomes what I now understand anxiety, opportunities for personal growth and new skill development, certain aspects of personal spirituality, etc.
    I am much more satisfied now that I’m not expecting water to satisfy my thirst or food to satisfy my hunger and that doesn’t mean I need to think any less of the importance of food or water.

  11. I love this, I have reached a similar point. The church feels enough, but I don’t expect it to be all. I used to scoff at cafeteria Mormons, but here I am :)

    Count me as one who went to the temple, full of anxiety month after month. It never got better, I felt beaten down by the words of the endowment, as a woman. Trying to fit myself into the narrative after being taught all my life that God could speak to me and that I should act when he does.

    When I realized, as the boy Joseph did, that no one stands between me and my Savior,-no man, no church, I felt God’s love again and spirituality came back into my life.

  12. I’ve also come to the conclusion that to think that any one church is supposed to be “my everything” is to misunderstand myself and the divine.

  13. Christian, yep …. meant in the friendliest possible way.

  14. Nice thoughts Michael …and to yours (and others) these:

    Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda…
    In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water…
    And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.
    When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?
    The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool…
    Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.
    And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked… (John 5:2-9)

    The Saviour wants everyone to be actively involved in their own spiritual progress. He asks “Would thou be made whole?” And we respond “Lord, please make us whole”. He then invites us to “Rise, take up our bed and walk”; to partake of His light so that His perfect (whole, complete) nature begins to become our nature.

  15. Laura Hammod says:

    I rarely comment here. I am not nearly as well read nor as eloquent as any who post or regularly comment here. But posts like these make me feel like you are my people. Thank you.

  16. Thanks, Michael. Your words spoke to me today.

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