Classical theology and philosophy name four things that they call transcendental, meaning that they are somehow true of everything that exists, namely, oneness, truth, goodness, and beauty.
What is the real root of human loneliness? A flaw within our make-up? Inadequacy and sin? Or, does Augustine's famous line, You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you, say it all?
Augustine's adage, for all its merit, is not quite enough. We are infinite souls inside finite lives and that alone should be enough to explain our incessant and insatiable aching; except there is something else, that is, our souls enter the world bearing the brand of eternity and this gives all of our aching a particularized coloring.
There are various explanations of this: For example, Bernard Lonergan, the much-esteemed theologian and philosopher, suggests that human soul does not come into the world as a tabla rasa, a pure, clean sheet of paper onto which anything can be written. Rather, for him, we are born with the brand of the first principles indelibly stamped inside our souls. What does he mean by this?
Classical theology and philosophy name four things that they call transcendental, meaning that they are somehow true of everything that exists, namely, oneness, truth, goodness, and beauty. Everything that exists somehow bears these four qualities. However these qualities are perfect only inside of God. God, alone, is perfect oneness, perfect truth, perfect goodness, and perfect beauty. However, for Lonergan, God brands these four things, in their perfection, into the core of the human soul.
Hence we come into the world already knowing, however dimly, perfect oneness, perfect truth, perfect goodness, and perfect beauty because they already lie inside us like an inerasable brand. Thus we can tell right from wrong because we already know perfect truth and goodness in the core of our souls, just as we also instinctively recognize love and beauty because we already know them in a perfect way, however darkly, inside ourselves. In this life, we don't learn truth, we recognize it; we don't learn love, we recognize it; and we don't learn what is good, we recognize it. We recognize these because we already possess them in the core of our souls.
Some mystics gave this a mythical expression: The taught that the human soul comes from God and that the last thing that God does before putting a soul into the body is to kiss the soul. The soul then goes through life always dimly remembering that kiss, a kiss of perfect love, and the soul measures all of life's loves and kisses against that primordial perfect kiss.
The ancient Greek Stoics taught something similar. They taught that souls pre-existed inside of God and that God, before putting a soul into a body, would blot out the memory of its pre-existence. But the soul would then be always unconsciously drawn towards God because, having come from God, the soul would always dimly remember its real home, God, and ache to return there.
In one rather interesting version of this notion, they taught that God put the soul into the body only when the baby was already fully formed in its mother's womb. Immediately after putting the soul into the body, God would seal off the memory of its pre-existence by physically shutting the baby's lips against its ever speaking of its pre-existence. That's why we have a little cleft under our noses, just above center of our lips. It's where God's finger sealed our lips. That is why whenever we are struggling to remember something, our index finger instinctually rises to that cleft under our nose. We are trying to retrieve a primordial memory.
Perhaps a metaphor might be helpful here: We commonly speak of things as "ringing true" or "ringing false". But only bells ring. Is there a bell inside us that somehow rings in a certain way when things are true and in another when they are false? In essence, yes! We nurse an unconscious memory of once having known love, goodness, and beauty perfectly. Hence things will ring true or false, depending upon whether or not they are measuring up to the love, goodness, and beauty that already reside in a perfect form at the core of our souls.
And that core, that center, that place in our souls where we have been branded with the first principles and where we unconsciously remember the kiss of God before we were born, is the real seat of that congenital ache inside us which, in this life, can never be fully assuaged. We bear the dark memory, as Henri Nouwen says, of once having been caressed by hands far gentler than we ever meet in this life.
Our souls dimly remember once having known perfect love and perfect beauty. But, in this life, we never quite encounter that perfection, even as we forever ache for someone or something to meet us at that depth. This creates in us a moral loneliness, a longing for what we term a soulmate, namely, a longing for someone who can genuinely recognize, share, and respect what's deepest in us.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.