Many of us – even since the time we were little children—have been feeling disconnected, feeling like we are not completely at home in this world.
Though we can feel quite secure, happy, and loved within our families, we can also feel a nagging sense of emptiness, loneliness, and alienation (not being at home) in the world—or even the universe—or the totality of everything around us.
Have you ever had the experience—when you are alone in your room or looking in the mirror—of feeling emptiness in the pit of your stomach—a feeling like you are “out of kilter or disconnected from the universe”?
These feelings are not uncommon. Virtually every spiritual writer from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis has commented on this peculiar sense of emptiness and loneliness. They say it comes from “not being at home in the universe or reality itself.”
Where does this feeling come from?
So where does this feeling of “not being at home in the cosmos” come from? Ironically, it comes from our sense of “perfect home.” How so?
When we feel disconnected from “perfect home,” or we believe that we can never get there, or that this world is all there is, and so “perfect home” is unreal, we feel a deep sense of anxiety. It is as if we can never be brought to completion, and never be at peace—that we are consigned to partiality, frustration, and turmoil until there is nothing more than darkness.
If we probe more deeply into this feeling, we may see that it is linked to being at home with an ultimate personal being – that the perfect home we anticipate and desire entails companionship with a perfect personal being – who cares for and loves us in a perfect way.
Saint Augustine and the desire for perfect home
One man who sought to move beyond his peculiar feelings of emptiness and loneliness was the great St. Augustine, who not only fared bravely for the cause of good, but found himself at the entrance to the home he so greatly desired.
St. Augustine speaks about this adventurous journey in his autobiography, “The Confessions.” He lived about 400 years after Christ and was a very successful student, teacher, orator, and writer who had many friends and admirers, a devoted mother, and incredible opportunities to advance himself in society as an intellectual and scholar.
In his earlier life, when he was particularly obsessed with worldly pleasures and success, the sense of spiritual emptiness and alienation became quite acute, but he didn’t notice that it was “spiritual”—just a very acute sense of emptiness and loneliness in the whole of reality.
This strange feeling induced him to start searching for something that could truly satisfy him—that could truly make him feel at home within himself and in the whole of reality. He knew worldly and material successes could not produce it so he tried to find it in his friendships with people—the women he loved, and the teachers he respected, but this did not make the emptiness go away.
He still felt that something truly important was missing—that he was not at home here. He then tried to take solace in philosophy, the great ideas, the arts, and the intellectual life, but this too left him empty, lonely, and alienated—not at home in the whole of reality.
In his search, he began to take seriously something that he had ignored for a long time: God.
At first, Augustine viewed God as an idea, as an ultimate cause, an ultimate ground of being, and an ultimate source of design—something which the Platonists believed had to exist, and could be proved to exist. But the idea of God did not make the emptiness go away. He finally encountered some genuinely intellectual priests, principally St. Ambrose, who explained to him that God was not just an ultimate cause or an ultimate ground of existence and design, but a perfectly loving personal being. Finally, Augustine understood what he had been searching for.
Somehow he realized that the only thing that could ultimately satisfy him—the only thing that would enable him to be perfectly at home within the whole of reality—was a perfectly loving personal being who wanted to be with him. He understood the significance of this, and he prayed at the beginning of “The Confessions”:
“For Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
He did not stop there. He wanted to know everything about the one who had called him from the beginning—the one he had ignored. And so he began a journey of not only theological investigation, but prayer. At long last, he began to feel a lifting of the emptiness, loneliness, and alienation he had felt for so long.
As he prayed to this perfectly loving being and integrated himself more deeply into the Church, he felt the spiritual emptiness begin to lift, and felt God’s presence breaking through the barriers he had formerly set up, and the more he let God into his heart, the more he found himself loving that God and desiring to serve him.
He wrote a prayer describing his life:
Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
…You were with me, but I was not with you.
…You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
You flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
You lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
St. Augustine went on to do tremendous good for the Kingdom of God. He was one of the most important Christian philosophers of all time, published 30 encyclopedic volumes (encompassing over 100 separate titles) of philosophy and theology, had influence on dozens of Church Councils throughout the centuries, was the spiritual inspiration of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, was the Bishop of Hippo Regius, and a great defender of the Christian Creed.
Proof of the desire of perfect home
Our desire for perfect home resembles our other four transcendental desires for perfect truth, love, justice-goodness, and beauty. The same familiar argument for God’s presence to us is evident.
Let’s review. First, we desire perfect home, and we have the capacity to recognize every imperfection in home that we experience in others and the world. This provokes the question, “How can we recognize every imperfection in home if we do not have some awareness of what perfect home would be like?”
Given that we do have such an awareness, we are led to the next question of how we came to it.
Once again, we see that it cannot come from the world around us, because this is precisely where we don’t feel perfectly at home. It can’t come from our brain because it is constituted by restricted physical structures and processes, and is therefore not perfect.
And so, we conclude that it must come from perfect home itself.
Once again we use the same proof from unity and simplicity to show that perfect home itself is one and the same reality as perfect truth itself, perfect love itself, perfect goodness itself, and perfect beauty itself—namely, the same perfect cause—that is, God.
Transcendence and Dignity
This last indication of God’s presence reveals something more—captured in the life of St. Augustine.
God’s presence in our consciousness not only makes us transcendent, but also aware of the dignity and destiny that awaits us through his perfectly loving personal presence. When God makes himself present to us, we begin to yearn to be closer to him. (This resembles the invitation of the mysterious transcendent being in Rudolf Otto’s numinous experience.)
Notice that this personal loving being does not force us to come to or relate to him. He has made us free, and waits for us to freely seek him. When we do not seek him, we feel that something of ultimate importance is missing, and we feel an emptiness in the pit of our stomachs or a sense of loneliness in the whole of reality.
God does not directly cause us to feel this cosmic emptiness and loneliness; His presence in us combined with our failure to seek him produces it. If we continue to ignore this interior calling, it can lead to deeper emptiness and loneliness—as it did for St. Augustine.
But if like St. Augustine, we seek God in scripture, study, prayer, and the Church, the sense of being at home will increase—until eventually we will be able to say, “For Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.