Moral Loneliness

Ron Rolheiser OMI
June 24, 2001

In her book, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, Ruth Burrows makes an interesting comment on Therese of Lisieux. Looking at photographs of her, Burrows points that there is a quality of separateness, of being alone, that Therese's face always exhibits, even when she is in a group. Something always set her apart, even though she was a very sociable person. There was a loneliness inside her that nothing quite ever erased.

Robert Coles makes essentially the same comment about Simone Weil and coins an apt term to describe this quality. He suggests that she suffered from “moral loneliness”:

"Some years ago, I wrote a book on loneliness, suggesting that there are four essential kinds of loneliness: alienation, restlessness, rootlessness, and psychological depression. Were I to write that book today, I would add another category, moral loneliness. What is this?"

Loneliness lies at the very centre of our lives. Feeling lonely, restless, and set apart isn't something we experience at the edges of our lives. It's a fire that burns at the heart. We aren't restful beings who occasionally get restless, but restless beings who occasionally experience some rest. And this is true at every level of our being: body, psyche, soul, sexuality. We are perennially restless, driven, hungry, longing creatures, never perfectly in union with others.

In this life, we never fully overcome this. Always we are somewhat alone, separate. Sometimes this restlessness is more inchoate, we can't really name what we need or want, and sometimes it is so painfully focused that it becomes an obsession. Always it is there.

Today it is all too easy to believe that, at the end of the day, this is simply about sexual hunger. Powerful voices insist that what we're really lonely for, what we really want, is sex. The rest is camouflage. The final solution for loneliness, we are told, is romantic sexuality. For us, the expression “lover” simply means “sexual partner”. Sex is seen as a panacea, the ultimate answer to our loneliness.

There is some truth in this, albeit it's far, far from the whole truth. Sexual union, when the proper conditions are met, is indeed the “one–flesh” consummation decreed by God to overcome loneliness: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Outside of sexual union, we are, in the end, always somewhat more radically alone, single, lonely, a minority of one. However, as experience has taught us, sexual union of itself is no guarantee of overcoming separateness. Why? Because we are lonely at levels that sex alone cannot touch. Our deepest loneliness is moral.

Where we are most alone is in the moral part of our souls, namely, at that place where we feel most strongly about things and where all that is most precious to us is held, cherished, and guarded. It is precisely in this place, a point–vierge, that we feel violated when what is precious to our integrity is attacked.

Rarely does anyone penetrate that dwelling, whether in love or in violation. Why? Because we are rightly very cautious about whom we admit to the place where all that is most precious to us lies. Since this is the place where we are most deeply vulnerable, it's also the place where we are most deeply protective. Thus, most often, in that place we are alone. A fierce loneliness results, a moral loneliness. More deeply than we long for a sexual partner, we long for moral affinity, for someone to be with us in that deep part where all that is most precious to us is cherished and guarded.

Our deepest loneliness is for someone to sleep with morally, a kindred soul, a soulmate in the truest sense of that phrase. Great friendships and great marriages always have moral affinity as their real basis. Persons in these relationships are “lovers” in the deepest sense because they sleep with each other where it most counts, irrespective of whether or not they have sexual union. In the experience of moral affinity we have the experience of “coming home”. Sometimes this is coloured by sexual attraction and romantic feelings and sometimes it is not. Always though there is the sense that the other is a kindred spirit, that he or she holds precious what we hold precious. Biblically, we are feeling what Adam felt when he first saw Eve: “At last, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone!”

Most of us spend our lives looking for this and perhaps, like Simone Weil and Therese of Lisieux, we never quite find it, despite a good marriage, a healthy family, and close friends. What's to be done? Therese of Lisieux suggests that, in the end, we are all “exiles of the heart” and that we can only overcome this separateness through a certain mysticism, that is, by sleeping with each other in charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long–suffering, faith, fidelity, mildness, and chastity. There is a loneliness even beyond sex, moral loneliness. Overcoming it asks for a higher love–making, a sleeping together in the Holy Spirit.