Living in the midst of a lonely place

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


February 14, 2000

Robert Coles once wrote a fine biographical essay on Simone Weil. In it, he coined a beautiful phrase to describe a quality which made her so extraordinary and which also caused her much suffering. Moral loneliness, he called it.

Poets, novelists, mystics and philosophers have always, in their different ways, spoken of this: The German poet Goethe speaks of "the desire for higher love-making." Ivan Klima, the Czech novelist, talks about "knowing how to bear your solitude at a great height." Milan Kundera, another Czech writer, speaks of "resisting the great march."

And Jesus, the Gospels tell us, used to go off "to the lonely place" to be by himself. Each of these expressions is speaking about a certain feeling, but it is also speaking about a place in the soul – that part where you are most yourself, most true to yourself, most alone and most lonely; that part of your soul where you would most need someone to sleep with but where generally you sleep alone. What is meant by all this?

Olivier Todd recently wrote a biography on Albert Camus, the French existentialist who won the Nobel Prize for literature. The portrait he gives of Camus is not a pious one. Camus had his weaknesses, including irresponsibility in personal relations. Yet, what emerges in the end is the picture of a great soul, an extraordinary moral creature.

Why? Precisely because, whatever his other faults, Camus, like Simone Weil, always bore his solitude at a great height, like Jesus (albeit in a different way) he often went off by himself to the lonely place. In Camus' life there was always a structural innocence even when he wasn't innocent in his private life.

Throughout his whole life, he always stood apart from the crowd – not in the sense that he asserted his individuality so as to make a statement with his life – but in the moral sense. He was always the one defending the outsider against the crowd, a minority-of-one resisting the surge of mob.

Thus, when the Nazis overran France and many of his colleagues, because of fear or personal advantage, collaborated, he held out, at great danger to himself. After the war, when Marxism became fashionable among his intellectual friends, he resisted it, pointing out its inconsistencies, violence and narrowness, even though this cost him popularity and some key friends.

This was his pattern in everything – he took the road less-travelled. Against suffocating clerics, he asserted the freedom of the human mind; then, against narrow atheism, he asserted the central importance of the question of God's existence. Always he stood against the mob, against the great hammer of popular acclaim, ever suspicious of the political correctness of both the right and the left. Because of this, most of the time he stood alone, without friends, unanimity-minus-one.

There is an irony here. Camus was hardly a celibate, but where it counted most, he slept alone. He was morally single.

It's people like him, and Simone Weil, that we most need in the world and the Church today. There is a want for persons, especially leaders, who can bear their solitude at such a height, who can stand solitary, against the political correctness of both the right and the left, and speak and minister out of that lonely place.

We don't have enough Simone Weils and Albert Camuses today. We have enough pretence of high solitude – more than enough unhappy persons who confuse truth with personal anger, ideologies of the right and the left, political correctness, or the surge of a mob.

It's easy enough to be part of a great march, but like Weil and Camus, can we be just as critical of our own, can we challenge our fellow-marchers with the truth found in the position of those we are marching against? Not easily done, mostly because it's a quick way to lose friends and popularity, not to mention your membership card in whatever movement within which you happen to be marching.

To bear one's solitude at a high level is to exalt the freedom of the human spirit, even as you genuflect in obedience to a sovereign God; to celebrate the fire of passion, even as you defend the beauty of chastity; to defend what is best in liberal ideology about women, ecology and racism, even as you defend what is best in conservative belief regarding the importance of family, sexual boundaries and private morality.

To bear solitude at a high level is to find yourself morally lonely, sleeping alone in that area where you most need intimacy, and praying from the desert Jesus frequented, "the lonely place."