Harvard psychologist Robert Coles, in describing the French mystic Simone Weil, once suggested that what she really suffered from and what motivated her life was her moral loneliness. What is that?
Moral loneliness is what we experience when we ache for moral affinity, that is, for a soulmate, for someone who meets us, understands, and honors all that’s deepest and most precious inside us.
We are lonely in different ways. We feel restlessness despite experiencing intimacy, and we feel a nostalgia for a home we can never quite find. There’s loneliness, a restlessness, an aching, a yearning, a longing, an appetite, a disquiet, a nostalgia, a timelessness inside us that never quite feels consummated.
Moreover, this disease lies at the center of our experience, not at its edges. We are not restful people who sometimes get restless, serene people who sometimes experience disquiet, or fulfilled people who occasionally get frustrated. Rather, we are restless beings who sometimes find rest, disquieted persons who sometimes find solitude, and dissatisfied men and women who sometimes find satisfaction.
And, among all these many yearnings, one is deeper than the others. What we ultimately long for beneath everything else is moral affinity, for a soul partner, for someone to meet us in the depth of our soul, for someone who honors all that’s most precious in us. More than we long for someone to sleep with sexually, we long for someone to sleep with in this way, morally.
What does this mean?
It might be expressed this way: Each of us nurses a dark memory of once having been touched and caressed by hands far gentler than our own. That caress has left a permanent mark, an imprint in us of a love so tender, good, and pure that its memory is a prism through which we see everything else. The old myths express it well when they tell that, before we were born, God kissed our souls and we go through life always remembering, in some intuitive way, that kiss and measuring everything else in relation to it and its original purity, tenderness and unconditionality.
This unconscious memory of once having been touched and caressed by God creates the deepest place inside of us, the place where we hold all that’s most precious and sacred to us. When we say something “rings true,” what we are really saying is it honors that deep place in our hearts, that it coincides with a deep truth, tenderness and purity we have already experienced.
From this place issues forth all that is deepest and truest inside us – both our kisses and our tears. Paradoxically, this is the place we most guard from others, even as it is the place we would most like someone to enter, providing that entry respects the purity, tenderness and unconditionality of the original caress of God which formed that tender cavity in the first place.
This is the place of deep intimacy and deep loneliness, the place where we are innocent and the place where we are violated, the place where we are holy, temples of God, sacred churches of reverence, and the place we corrupt when we act against truth. This is our moral center and the aching we feel there is aptly called moral loneliness. It’s here that we long for a soulmate.
And it’s in this longing, in this unyielding ache, that we are driven outward where, like the Biblical woman in the Song of Songs, we achingly search for someone to sleep with morally.
Sometimes that longing is fixed on a certain person, and that fixation can be so obsessive that we lose all emotional freedom. As well, we can conclude, as does our culture, that this at its root is a longing for sexual union. There’s some truth in that, despite its one-sidedness. Sexual union, in its true form, is indeed the “one-flesh” consummation decreed by the Creator after the condemnation of loneliness – “it is not good for the man to be alone.” Outside of sexual union, in the end, one is always somewhat alone, single, separate, cut off, a minority of one.
But, ultimately, we are lonely at a level that sex alone cannot satisfy. More deeply than we long for a sexual partner, we long for moral affinity. Our deepest longing is for a partner to sleep with morally, a kindred spirit, a soulmate in the truest meaning of that phrase.
Great friendships and great marriages invariably have this at their root, namely, deep moral affinity. The persons in these relationships are “lovers” in the deep sense because they sleep with each other at that deep level, irrespective of whether or not there is sexual union. At the level of feeling, this type of love is experienced as a “coming home.”
Therese of Lisieux once suggested that, as humans, we are “exiles of the heart” and we can only overcome this by moral communion with each other, that is, through sleeping with each other in charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering and faith.
Oblate Fr. Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted at www.ronrolheiser.com.