Living in a moral diaspora

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

In an autobiographical novel entitled, My First Loves, Ivan Klima, a Czech writer, talks about a pain he endured as a young man. Growing up without religious training and living amidst a group of young men and women who weren't much inclined towards sexual and other restraints, he sometimes found himself very much alone and isolated in terms of his feelings. For reasons he couldn't explain, and which certainly weren't religious, he, unlike his friends, simply couldn't give himself over to certain forms of youthful revelry. His conscience was reticent and he was haunted by a feeling that solitude should be carried at some high level.

And all this came on him as a loneliness, as a painful feeling that he was somehow out-of-step with others, a misfit, unanimity-minus-one, a cog out of sync with a contented world, a frigidity within lake of freedom. His refusal to give in to various things, when his friends were less willing to carry tension, left him aching in a curious way, lonely for moral companionship, for someone to sleep with in terms of his reticence. He sensed that there were others like himself out there, kindred spirits, soulmates, whom he needed to find in order to alleviate his pain. He states the pain as simple fact, but underneath there's a search for moral companionship. (What is any book besides a note in bottle tossed out to sea in hopes of finding someone who thinks like you?) The pain that Klima articulates is a pain that is more-and-more felt today by anyone who has strong faith and deep moral convictions. Increasingly, to believe in God, is to find yourself within a moral diaspora, seemingly a minority-of-one, awash in a world that, while wonderful in so many other ways, is non-supportive in terms of what's deepest and most important to you. To carry real faith and moral conviction today is to feel yourself part of a cognitive minority, a deviant of sorts, isolated, morally lonely.

What is moral loneliness? It's the pain of feeling alone in one's deepest beliefs. There are various types of loneliness, but this inconsummation is perhaps the most searing. Painful as it is to not have a sexual partner, it is even more painful not to have a moral one. More deeply than we ache to sleep with others sexually, we ache to sleep with them morally. What exactly does this mean?

Inside each of us there is a moral centre, a place where all that is most precious in us is rooted. It's this centre we call our truest self. It's here we guard what's sacred to us and it's here we feel most violated when someone either enters irreverently or doesn't properly honour what we hold there. It's here that we feel most vulnerable. It's this centre too that keeps us from falling apart. If this spot is violated in a significant way, through major betrayal, sexual abuse, or other such soul-searing experience, the soul begins to unravel and we have the sensation of falling apart. Our moral centre is the glue that holds the soul together.

And what nurtures this centre is moral companionship, the sense of having found a soulmate. Sometimes we misunderstand this simply as sexual, as a longing that can be assuaged through sexual union, but it's more. Sex only does its healing if its embrace caresses our moral centre and honours it. Deep down, we know that. For example, when Thomas Moore released the book, SOULMATES, a few years back, it's title held such a powerful attraction precisely because it intimates that real intimacy has a moral centre that goes deeper than even emotion and sex and is more properly spoken of in terms of soul and destiny.

All of this has an important faith and ecclesial dimension. Today, at least in the Western world, we live in a moral diaspora. More and more people are finding that their faith and moral convictions are not shared by their families, their friends, their colleagues, the arts, the mainstream media, the popular ethos of the culture, and sometimes even their own spouses. In what's most precious to them, many people today are very much alone, lonely, forced to look outside their own families and circles for the companionship and support for which they ache. Moral diaspora makes for more loneliness. What's to be done? Among other things, people of faith need more to seek each other; mystically, within the body of Christ, and practically, within supportive ecclesial communities. Small, intentional, faith communities, operating outside the regular ecclesial structures, can too be part of the answer.

Moreover scripture points to still another answer: When Jesus, Paul, Stephen, and others felt lonely and isolated in their faith, when they had a reticence that others couldn't understand, they "looked upward, towards heaven". It brought peace, even when they faced persecution, stoning, or death because of their beliefs. They looked to God and trusted. I think that's called prayer.