First, some reading selections from “The Achievement of Jacques Maritain” by Michael Novak:
An Architect Of Christian Democratic Politics
Although the twentieth century was often proclaimed by the church to be the “Age of the Laity,” it remains true that most Catholic discourse is still taken up with the words of popes, bishops, priests, and sisters. Nonetheless, as in the nineteenth century so in the twentieth, a number of lay men and women have made intellectual contributions to religious discourse of such magnitude as to place not just Roman Catholics but the entire body of Christians in their debt. Of these, no one has been so influential in so many different spheres as Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), a man who, in addition to his intellectual stature, was widely esteemed for his holiness of life.
His range was truly catholic. Perhaps no one in any tradition has written more beautifully of the subject he addressed in his book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. (So lovely is that book that often, while reading it as an undergraduate, I had to put it down and go for a long walk, my heart burning with more than it could bear.) In political and social thought, no Christian bas ever written a more profound defense of the democratic idea and its component parts, such as the dignity of the person, the sharp distinction between society and the state, the role of practical wisdom, the common good, the transcendent anchoring of human rights, transcendent judgment upon societies, and the interplay of goodness and evil in human individuals and institutions. Indeed, in the thrust that this body of thought gave to Christian Democratic parties after World War II, Maritain gained the right to be thought of as one of the architects of Christian Democratic politics both in Europe and Latin America.
A Giant of Catholic Intellectual Life
Nonetheless, it is perhaps in his profound grasp of the metaphysics of the philosophia perennis (vocab: An idea taken up by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who used it to designate the common, eternal philosophy that underlies all religions, and in particular the mystical streams within them. The term was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy). that one must seek the essence of Maritain’s achievement. More clearly and subtly than anyone else in modern times, and over a larger body of materials, Maritain grasped the “intuition of being” that animates the deepest stratum of Catholic intellectual life. For him, this was at once an intuition of charity as well as of being. He chose most often to express this intuition philosophically — philosophy, not theology, was his vocation — but his vision of caritas, “the Love that moves the sun and all the stars,” broke through over and over again.
A number of critics have pointed out that of all Maritain’s books no doubt the most seminal, like a pebble plunked in a quiet pool and rippling outwards in ever-expanding circles, is his tiny Existence and the Existent. This “Essay on Christian Existentialism,” a difficult and dense but immensely pregnant book, lies at the heart of his work. Its brief 142 pages were penned in Rome from January through April of 1947, as much of Europe still lay in the ruins of war and as the terribly disappointing Cold War of the subsequent era was just beginning. Its five compact chapters, it is safe to predict, will echo in the world’s thinking for generations to come. Indeed, their full meaning is likely to become more apparent in the future than at the time of the book’s first appearance, as thinkers from other world traditions engage its arguments.
Limits of His Achievements
I would not suggest that there are no faults or limits in Maritain’s achievement. Concerned as much as he was for the poor (or, as he usually expressed it in the vulgar Marxism current at the time, the “workers”), it is surprising how little sustained attention Maritain gave to the most significant new discipline of post-medieval times, political economy, with the accent on economy. Maritain came to the problems of politics and society rather late in his reflections and then, having achieved much, never took up a study of the great economic classics, especially those of the Austrian and Anglo-American worlds. Further, much as he admired the United States — a civilization, he felt, full of reverberations of the realities to which he was trying to point in Integral Humanism — Maritain never fully grappled with such classics of American political economy as The Federalist, his fellow Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or the writings of Abraham Lincoln.
His Writing Style
On the whole, Maritain wrote a beautiful prose, a prose that reaches the heart and the imagination more than that of most philosophers, even while manifesting a Thomist love of exquisite clarity, particularly in the making of distinctions. To read him on any subject is to be forced to look, through such distinctions, from many angles of vision at once. And all for the sake of unity: “To distinguish in order to unite” was a most suitable motto for his life’s work. He had a passion for clear and precise ideas, distinguished sharply from their nearest neighbors, as well as for the relations that tie each idea to every other. Sometimes, indeed, he tried to capture too much at once, piling up within a single sentence distinctions within distinctions or introducing an analogous aside, all the while trying to encapsulate an entire argument. Many of his sentences require rereading. But the effort is almost always worthwhile, for Maritain’s true conversation partners were less his contemporary critics than the classics, whose intricate treasures he did not wish to muffle, encrust, or belittle by oversimplification.
In the autumn of 1960, in one of my first conversations with a full professor in Harvard’s philosophy department, a teacher of metaphysics and ethics who confessed cheerily that he deeply admired Hume’s happy atheism mentioned how nonetheless deeply impressed be bad been with Jacques Maritain during the latter’s presence on campus. “He was perhaps the most saintly philosopher I have ever known,” be said, “gentle, kind, honest, almost childlike. Of course, I didn’t agree with a single position he took. But I did come to admire him a great deal.” This was meant to be a warning to me, of course; I, also a Catholic, should not expect an easy time at Harvard. Yet it was also meant as a token of esteem for a significant tradition and a remarkable thinker: no small tribute considering its source.
That professor’s tribute to Maritain’s saintliness, his gentleness, his childlike manner has remained with me, especially the unusual word (for Harvard), “childlike.” This is, I think, the key to Maritain’s intuition of being, a way of seeing in which so many other philosophers simply could not follow him. Maritain approached each day with a certain wonder — at the color of the sky, the scent of the grass, the feel of the breeze. He marveled that such a world could have come to be. There was, he understood, no necessity in its coming to be. It had happened. Here it was. He could sense it, his every sensible organ alive to its active solicitations of color, sound, scent, taste, and feel. More than that, his intellect would wonder at it, knowing that it did not have to be as it was on that particular day, or on any other day. And it could also cease to be.
Well before the cloudburst of the first atomic bomb, long before a perceived “ecological crisis,” Maritain perceived the fragility of life on earth — not only in his personal mortality, nor even in the fragility of planet earth. Rather, Maritain sensed, in the obscure way of the human intellect at its most childlike and most profound, that all changeable created things— all things short of an Existent necessarily and fully existing in Itself — are fragile and dependent….
Nonetheless, I am emboldened by the recent testimony of my second-favorite atheist humanist, Sidney Hook—Albert Camus still being my first—who just before his death confided to the American Jewish Committee Archives that there were many times in his life, at the height of his powers, that he often felt well up within him the desire to say thanks that things, which might have gone badly, worked out in existence as they had. This barely conscious, intuitive inference seems to me wholly natural. It seems to me also a bit of data about the human intellect that ought never to be lost to the attention of philosophers. Sidney Hook was a supremely honest man, willing to put on the record evidence that went against his own philosophy. True, Hook never understood that bit of data as Maritain did, or accepted the interpretation of human life that went with it, but his experience of the movement of human intellect to utter thanks remains a phenomenon to be explained.
Maritain and Russell Kirk
It is not my intention, however, to spell out the implications that Maritain derived from his intuition of the existent, not at least in the direction of metaphysics, the philosophy of God, or even Jewish and Christian faith. (Maritain was deeply involved through his wife Raissa in questions of Jewish as well as Christian faith; in fact, he may have done as much as any Christian in our time to lay the intellectual groundwork for a special instinct of fraternity among Christians and Jews.) I would prefer here to carry the intuition of the existent into Maritain’s further reflections on politics and society.
For if all of human existence is fragile, even more fragile is human action, above all in the political sphere. Maritain writes in Existence and the Existent that the end of practical wisdom is “not to know that which exists but to cause to exist what is not yet.” Between the cup and the lip, many a slip. It is easier to intend results in ethical or in political action than to achieve those results. Politics, in a language more favored by Reinhold Niebuhr than by Maritain but by no means in conflict with the latter’s, is the realm of the contingent, the ironic, and the tragic.
We might pause here to observe the sharp difference between a Thomist view of politics, such as that of Maritain, and that of classical conservatives such as Russell Kirk. Struck by the contingency and organic relatedness of social institutions, practices, and actions, and dismayed by the Utopian ideologies to which so many modern minds are prone, paleoconservatives (as they now style themselves) such as Kirk are opposed to “ideological infatuation” or even to imagining social projects for the future at all. Considering the projection of social notions into the future to be signs of the disease of “ideology,” such conservatives prefer to let things continue, to move along “organically,” to be. They resist “thinking for the future,” for fear of contamination by ideology. Maritain had a significantly different view. For him (as for Thomas Aquinas), practical intellect is aimed by its very nature not at knowing that which already exists, but at causing to exist what is not yet. Practical intellect is oriented toward the future, more precisely, to changing the future, to making the future different, “to cause to exist what does not yet exist.” For this reason, Maritain did not hesitate in Integral Humanism (1936) to imagine possible futures or to suggest new courses of action that would alter the awful European present in the direction of a better—a more humane, more Christian—proximate future.
Maritain took considerable care not to think in a merely Utopian fashion. But he did not hesitate to try to imagine proximate, achievable next steps, which might in turn lead to yet further achievable steps, toward building up a more humane and more Christian civilization than the world had yet known. In brief, Maritain shared with those who are currently known as neoconservatives a willingness to project a future at once more attractive and more plausible than socialists or others could imagine, a future thoroughly realizable within the bounds of proximate probable developments. Unlike Kirk, Maritain was not willing to embrace social laissez-faire in the political realm, and he was resolutely opposed to mere nostalgia about some supposedly more humane premodern era. Maritain claimed the future. Indeed, insofar as the Christian Democratic parties of Sturzo, de Gasperi, Schuman, and Adenauer drew crucial inspiration from his work, Maritain may be said to have in fact caused to exist much that had not existed before him.
Charity and Wisdom
In this sense, Aquinas is properly called the “first Whig” because his ethics and his politics did lay claims upon the future, did inspire, down the ages, a search for political institutions worthy of the rational, consensual dignity of humans. This is the sense in which Maritain was able in Christianity and Democracy, Man and the State, and other works to claim for a specific idea of democracy the support of the main spine of the Christian intellectual tradition. For this tradition nourished over the centuries the slow emergence of the ideal of a civilized politics, a politics of civil conversation, of noncoercion, of the consent of the governed, of pluralism, of religious liberty, of respect for the inalienable dignity of every human person, of voluntary cooperation in pursuit of the common good, and of checks and balances against the wayward tendencies of sinful men and women. As we shall see presently, Maritain did not claim too much for the historical efficacy of the Christian intellectual tradition; he chastised its failures severely and gave credit to nonbelievers for crucial advances. But neither did he wish to claim too little.
Here it is necessary to see how profound was Maritain’s understanding of the hold that the ideal of caritas had upon the political thinking of Thomas Aquinas. Maritain held that action in the world — whether ethical action among individuals or political action among systems, institutions, and groups — is always action among existents, among real sinners and saints and all those in between, not among purely “rational agents.” For him, realistic thinking about ethics and politics could not be conducted wholly within the boundaries of philosophy; theology was necessarily required.
Why? Because ethics and politics are about the real, existing world, and in this existing world humans are not purely rational agents but, rather, fallen creatures redeemed by grace on the condition that they are willing to accept God’s action within them. To proceed in purely philosophical categories about ethics and politics would be Utopian; one must deal with real, existing creatures locked in the actual historical drama of sin and grace.
That is why, in explicating “the fundamentally existential character of Thomist ethics,” Maritain stresses two points, one regarding charity, the other regarding practical wisdom or prudence. Concerning the first, he writes:
St. Thomas teaches that perfection consists in charity, and that each of us is bound to tend towards the perfection of love according to his condition and in so far as it is in his power. All morality thus hangs upon that which is most existential in the world. For love (this is another Thomist theme) does not deal with possibles or pure essences, it deals with existents. We do not love possibles, we love that which exists or is destined to exist.
Regarding practical wisdom, Maritain makes two extremely subtle points whose fullness I will not be able to reproduce. The first is that, at the heart of concrete existence, when an actual person is confronted with a set of particulars among which to decide to act, that person’s appetite—that person’s will or secret and deepest loves—enters into the quality of his or her perception of alternatives. More than that, for Aquinas, the rectitude of an existing person’s intellect depends upon the rectitude of his existing loves. This is a powerfully realistic doctrine. Intellect follows love, and if the love is errant so also will be the judgment of practical intellect or “conscience.” Although, for Maritain as for Aquinas, practical intellect still exerts a major discipline over the soul (over its loves, for example), nonetheless, here and now, under the immediate pressures of choice, the predispositions of one’s loves are highly likely to bend the intellect to their purposes. (Were not David Hume and Adam Smith, under different background assumptions but with the same Augustinian sense for real experience, to make an analogous point?)
Hence, for Aquinas, there is necessary in one’s ethical formation in advance of such choices a deep and profound habit of disciplining and directing one’s loves, seducing them so to speak, so that in every case they will love the good, the true, and the just, and be habituated to being restless with anything less. Absent a right will, a right practical intelligence will also be absent. In doing what they think is best, those whose loves are disordered will distort even their own intellects. As they love, so will they perceive. “Love is blind,” we say, meaning that, disordered, it is more powerful than light, obscures the light, and darkens the eye of intelligence itself.
The second subtle point that Maritain makes about practical intellect begins again with the fact that ethical and political action are always about existents. This time he points out that such action always faces two wholly singular, unrepeatable realities: first, the singular character, here and now, of this particular agent; and, second, the singular, never-to-be-repeated circumstances of the here and now. For these reasons, practical wisdom is utterly different from science. Whereas scientific judgment depends upon regularities, moral judgment must cope with singulars. “The same moral case never appears twice in the world. To speak absolutely strictly, precedent does not exist.” Practical wisdom concerns unprecedented singulars (“Useless to thumb through the dictionary of cases of conscience!”). At the same time, however, its point is “not to know that which exists, but to cause that to exist which is not yet,” and so it is moved by the appetite of will or love that thrusts us toward creating something new, whether of evil or of good.
Building A Humane, Christian Society
From this discussion of the sheer existing of ethical and political action—here and now, singular, unprecedented, unrepeatable—it follows that building a humane, Christian society is an uncertain business. It cannot be built upon any institutional framework at all; it has preconditions; many things can go wrong. Thus, to be faithful to the full measure of Christian intellectual conviction about the dignity (and fallibility) of the human person, about civilization as a state of society characterized by uncoerced decisions arrived at through civil discourse, and about the pull upon human love of God’s own command of love, new forms of social institutions will have to be labored towards in history, and not without setbacks. For reasons Maritain articulates at some length, a certain kind of democracy, guarded against the diseases to which “pure” democracies are prey, best represents the full flowering of human practical wisdom about the sorts of institutions worthy of Jewish and Christian thought. This particular kind of democratic reality gives the broken world some hope for a better future.
Maritain is not unsophisticated about democracy. He knows, writing in 1944 in the depths of destruction, that “the very name democracy has a different ring in America and in Europe.” And before proceeding very far on this subject in Christianity and Democracy, Maritain makes three important distinctions, each of which he discusses at more length than we can here duplicate. “First, the word democracy, as used by modern peoples, has a wider meaning than in the classical treatises on the science of government. It designates first and foremost a general philosophy of human and political life.” Its inner dynamism, although consistent with a monarchic regime and even other classic “regimes” or “forms of government,” leads “in the words of Abraham Lincoln,” to “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Democratic regimes are not the only good regimes, but all good regimes will have to embody the dynamism of respect for free persons and their consent.
Second, Maritain argues that democracy after the war will certainly have to be ordered democracy, based on constitutions that have at least three characteristics: formation through the consent of the governed; protection of “the essential bases of common life, respect for human dignity and the rights of the person”; and grounding in a “long process of education.” This long process of education will be necessary to lead peoples away from habits of dictatorship, nationalistic impulses, and the mental sloth of unfree and coercively minded peoples. It will have to lead them towards the “slow and difficult construction” of new habits in the temporal life of nations, supportive of “the soul of democracy,” that is, “the law of brotherly love and the spiritual dignity of the person.”
By these first two distinctions, Maritain shows that he intends what in the United States we mean by a democratic republic, protective of the rights of the person. He means no totalitarian or merely majoritarian democracy, but limited government, grounded in a tradition of sound habits, associations, and institutions. Moreover, he means a set of principles not exhausted by any one form of regime, and yet capable of distinguishing false from true ideas of democracy.
Then, by his third distinction, Maritain makes clear both that Christian faith cannot be made subservient to democracy as a philosophy of life and that democracy cannot claim to be the only form of regime demanded by Christian belief. He intends “by no means to pretend that Christianity is linked to democracy and that a Christian faith compels every Christian to be a democrat.” To so argue would be to mix the things of Caesar and the things of God. Nonetheless, Maritain does affirm “that democracy is linked to Christianity and that the democratic impulse has arisen in human history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel.”
Christianity In The World
Maritain does not believe that Christianity exists in the world solely as the Church or the body of believers. Rather, he sees Christianity “as historical energy at work in the world. It is not in the heights of theology, it is in the depths of the secular conscience and secular existence that Christianity works in this fashion.” Maritain is equally far from asserting that Christians brought modern democratic institutions into existence: “It was not given to believers in Catholic dogma but to rationalists to proclaim in France the rights of man and of the citizen, to Puritans to strike the last blow at slavery in America.” He knows full well the many non-Christian sources of the democratic impulse: “Neither Locke nor Jean-Jacques Rousseau nor the Encyclopedists can pass as thinkers faithful to the integrity of the Christian trust.”
Once again, Maritain is interested in existents, not essences. In the existing world of 1944, “The chances of religion, conscience, and civilization coincide with those of freedom; freedom’s chances coincide with those of the evangelical message.” The terrors of war have obliged the democracies to rethink their spiritual foundations so as to recover their spiritual energies and humanizing mission. They dare not go back to what they were before. The demands of ‘the human spirit for the time include authentic understandings, many of them rooted in the Gospels and in the deepest Christian intellectual traditions, about the nature of human existents. But these have not always been best expressed, or best developed in practical life, by believers.
It is clear that Maritain considers the Christian message about the cry of the poor for justice to be a motor of human temporal improvement. He holds simultaneously that existing democratic ideas, traditions, and institutions were often championed in actual history by those who were non-Christians or even anti-Christian; and yet that, in building better than they knew, such persons were often generating in human temporal life constructs whose foundations were not only consistent with Jewish and Christian convictions about the realities of ethical and political life, but in a sense dependent on them. Pull out from under democratic principles the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity about the transcendent dignity of the person and the human propensity to sin, and the existing edifice of democratic thought is exposed to radical doubt.
Thus, Maritain argued, existing democratic institutions need to be grounded on a deeper, sounder foundation of intellectual conviction and moral habits than had been achieved in previous history. He urged Christians to take up this work both in intellect and in active practice. He saw a great deal to be done, both intellectually and morally, in the “slow and difficult construction” of a more humane world, whether considered from a Christian or a humanistic viewpoint.
Reading Selections from Raissa Maritain: Philosopher, Poet, Mystic by Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.P.
Her Life and Work
Raïssa’s understanding of her Hasidic heritage is best seen in her description of the work and personality of another Russian Jew, her friend Marc Chagall:
“The tender spiritual joy that permeates his work was born with him in Vitebsk, in Russian soil, in Jewish soil. It is thus penetrated with melancholy, pierced by the sting of nostalgia and a hard-pressed hope. Truly, Jewish joy is not like any other; one might say that by sending its roots deeply into the reality of life, Jewish joy simultaneously draws from this reality the tragic sense of its fragility and of death.”
With images drawn from Chagall’s paintings, Raïssa continues:
“The Jewish bride cries under the wedding canopy. The little Jew who dances does not lose the memory of his misery; by dancing he mocks it and accepts it as his divine lot. If he sings, he sings with sighs; for he is penetrated with the past sufferings of his people and his soul is bathed in the prophetic awareness of the unimaginable sufferings that are reserved for it. Did not God forewarn them about it? Did not God take the trouble, something he did not do for any other people, to tell them through the prophet Isaiah, through Jeremiah and the other great voices of the Bible, about the purifications that his love reserves for them? They know all of these things, those Jews who have not given themselves over to the secular world, but are bathed each day in the living waters of the Scriptures. They know these things, the Jews of Chagall.”
Raïssa Maritain was also to know them. In describing Chagall’s art, she describes herself. Her life and work were also suffused with a “tender spiritual joy” that was “penetrated with melancholy,” and “pierced by the sting of nostalgia and a hard-pressed hope.” The song she sings throughout her writings, she sings with sighs: she too was permeated with the past sufferings of her people; her soul too was bathed in the awareness of the sufferings that are reserved for all wayfarers on earth. By the time she wrote her reflections on Chagall, she had already long discovered the mystery of human suffering revealed in Christ. Yet, that was later. First, she was to undergo exile and a painful search for meaning.
Meeting Jacques Maritain
When Raïssa began her studies at the University of Paris she was seventeen years old and the year was 1900. It was a time of great scientific achievement and the Sorbonne was one of its centers. Marie and Pierre Curie, for example, had discovered radium there only two years before. It was natural, therefore, for Raïssa to turn to the sciences for the answers she sought. To her dismay, however, she soon discovered that her professors were either strict materialists or simply did not pose for themselves philosophical questions concerning truth and meaning. Hope began to wane in her heart. Yet, she also continued to await “some great event, some perfect fulfillment.”8 The first step toward that fulfillment came when she met the man who would become her greatest companion during her earthly pilgrimage.
Almost from the moment that Jacques Maritain introduced himself to Raïssa Oumansov they became inseparable. They were both students at the Sorbonne, he a year older than she, and they both were searching for the meaning of their lives. Jacques Maritain came from a family that embodied the values of the French Revolution.” Maritain offers a revealing description of these values in his account of the intellectual outlook that filled the home of his closest boyhood friend, Renan’s grandson, Ernest Psichari. He explains that his friend’s home was suffused by:
a spirit of moral inquiry that was extremely broad and lofty, but foreign to all metaphysical certainty, a marked tendency to ignore the conflicts created by the opposition of intellectual principles. You did not fight Christianity, you were deeply persuaded that you had assimilated it and outgrown it.
Maritain was raised in a similar intellectual climate. He early discovered, however, what many others of his generation would one day recognize: the metaphysical agnosticism that was their heritage was too thin a soil for the sense of justice that burned in their hearts. To withstand the winds of tyranny, justice needs deep roots and a rich soil in which to sink them. It was during his search for that rich metaphysical soil that Jacques encountered Raïssa. In the friendship that grew between them, they undertook the search together.
As they pursued their studies, the calm materialism and convinced atheism of their science professors left them cold. The philosophers at the Sorbonne were equally disappointing to them.
“Our teachers were philosophers, yet they in fact had lost all hope in philosophy…. Through some curious de facto contradiction, they sought to verify everything by processes of material learning and of positive verification, and yet they despaired of truth, whose very name was unlovely to them and could be used only between the quotation marks of a disillusioned smile.”
The cumulative effect of their years of study led Raïssa and Jacques to the threshold of despair. For Raïssa, her exile from the homeland of faith that began when her family first left Russia was now reaching its lowest ebb.
We swam aimlessly in the waters of observation and experience like a fish in the depths of the sea, without ever seeing the sun whose dim rays filtered down to us,… And sadness pierced me, the bitter taste of the emptiness of a soul which saw the lights go out, one by one.
In the midst of their distress, Jacques and Raïssa reached a fateful decision that would shape the rest of their lives. While strolling through Paris beloved Jardin des Plantes they both agreed that if it were impossible to know the truth, to distinguish good from evil, just from unjust, then it was impossible to live with dignity. In such a case it would be better to die young through suicide than to live an absurdity. Something, however, kept them from taking that final step. Their refusal to accept the absurd and their desire to know truth, a desire that caused them great suffering, seemed to point to something beyond the absurd.
What saved us then, what made our real despair still a conditional despair was precisely our suffering. That almost unconscious dignity of the mind saved our minds through the presence of an element which could not be reduced to the absurdity into which everything seemed to be trying to lead us.
Thus, they decided to give “the unknown” a chance to explain itself to them and to reveal a truth that they could live by.
Léon Bloy And Baptism Into The Catholic Church
In the days that followed, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain were to discover the wondrous fact that the Unknown God “desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). God in his great mercy led them to Christ, to baptism in the Catholic Church and to the consolation of the Eucharist. Their way to faith in Christ had many twists and turns. It led from the philosopher Henri Bergson, through the writings of Plotinus and Ruysbroeck, and finally by way of Maeterlinck to the writer and fiery lay preacher, Leon Bloy.
In reading Bloy’s great novel, The Woman Who Was Poor, the Maritains encountered the profile and the grandeur of the Christian saint. “What struck us so forcibly on first reading La Femme Pauvre was the immensity of this believer’s soul, his burning zeal for justice, the beauty of a lofty doctrine which for the first time rose up before our eyes.” Upon meeting Bloy and his family, they were even more impressed. His poverty, his faith, his heroic independence, all spoke to the young Maritains of the life-giving mystery of Christ. Entering Bloy’s home seemed to them a homecoming. They recognized in his description of sanctity and in his efforts to live it — with its zeal for divine justice, its desire for truth and its tender love for the afflicted — the image of the longings present in their own hearts.
Equally important for Raïssa was Bloy’s book Le Salut par les Juifs (Salvation through the Jews). Although Bloy’s earthy and prophetic style was often offensive to the very people he intended to defend, Raissa recognized in Bloy’s description of the vocation of the Jewish people the key to solving the problem that had plagued her since childhood: the problem of God and suffering. The key was Christ. Paradoxically, by leading Raïssa to Christ, Bloy gave back to her the Jewish faith of her childhood, now brought to completion in the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. Bloy was explaining something to Raïssa that she somehow already sensed: the salvific power of human suffering when in God’s grace it is united to the sufferings of Christ.
Léon Bloy was perhaps the most remarkable figure to arise in France at the twilight of the nineteenth century. Destitute, constantly harassed by creditors, with a wife and two children to feed, Bloy spent his life thundering against France’s rejection of God and the lukewarm complacency of those believers who still remained. At the very moment when Paris was preparing to celebrate its paean to human progress — the Exposition of 1900 — Bloy was telling France to prepare for the destruction that would befall her: “The Exposition … ought not to take place, because Paris and all nations will have enough to do with hardening their sinews against death.” When war finally did come, with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Bloy remarked that it was “only the beginning.”
In 1916, in the preface of Au Seuil del’ Apocalypse (At the Threshold of the Apocalypse ), Bloy writes, “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a nation was found to undertake something that had never been seen since the beginning of History: THE EXTINCTION OF SOULS. This was called German Culture.”
This hyperbolic assessment, so characteristic of Bloy, pointed out a real truth: something was terribly wrong in Germany, and it was spreading. Bloy was particularly concerned with the new strain of anti-Semitism that was arising around him. It was no longer this or that individual Jew or community of Jews that was being attacked. Jews were now in danger as an entire race. Remarkably, Bloy was writing this in 1916
Bloy’s message was not solely a message of destruction. He also spoke of a coming renewal. Christians would have to suffer, but united to Christ their sufferings would purify them and help many souls find the healing love of God. Mysteriously, in Bloy’s view, the sufferings of the Jews were a sign that pointed to the Christ, their fellow Jew who suffered with them. Bloy’s mission, as he saw it, was to help France prepare to walk with Christ the way of Calvary so that the Church might be renewed.
Raïssa was receptive to Bloy’s message. In 1906, with Jacques and Vera, she was baptized into the Catholic Church, with Léon and Jeanne Bloy as her godparents. From that point on, Raïssa began to discern the features of her vocation. She was being called to live in union with Christ. She was also being invited, through a life of prayer and study, to put into words — in prose and poetry — the truths she was now discovering in Christ. In the years that followed, physical and emotional suffering would never be far from her, but there was also peace and a quiet joy. She was strengthened by the growing conviction that in Christ her sufferings were secretly working for the good of souls. The life that she and Jacques were to live in the service of the Church is best understood as an effort to live Bloy’s vision.
The House in Meudon
The years between their baptism and the outbreak of the First World War were a time of spiritual gestation for the Maritains, and for many others in Europe. Those years saw the conversion of Jacques’ sister and Raïssa’s father. A number of their friends also converted at this time, including two who had become dear to many in France through their writings and exploits: Jacques’ boyhood friend, Ernest Psichari, and his early mentor, Charles Péguy. During those years, Jacques and Raïssa with her sister Vera became Benedictine oblates, establishing together a domestic community of prayer and study. Jacques and Raïssa had decided to live as brother and sister, forsaking marital intimacy and the joys of raising a family in order to dedicate themselves more deeply to their vocation to serve the truth. It was also during those years that the Maritians discovered Thomas Aquinas and began, under the guidance of their Dominican mentors, to study his works in depth.
Although Jacques was already beginning to become known in France through his articles, it was only after the First World War that his life as a philosopher began in earnest. Having received a bequest in support of his work from a soldier killed at the front, the Maritains were able to buy a home in Meudon, a village not far from Paris, and bring their plans to fruition. They could live a life of prayer and study, and make their home a center for Catholic thought and culture, under the patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas. Their home became a place where artists and intellectuals could find friendship and lively discussion. The guest lists to their home during those years read like a Who’s Who of the Catholic intellectual revival in France. It was during the Meudon years that Raïssa’s public life as a writer and a poet began.
Raïssa Maritain’s first publication was the slender La Vie d’Oraison (Prayer and Intelligence), a work she wrote with Jacques as a spiritual guidebook for the Thomistic study groups she and Jacques had formed. The goal of this little work was to convey to the members of the study groups the priority of prayer and Christian love for progress in the intellectual life: “the intelligence itself can only develop its highest powers in so far as it is protected and fortified by the peace given by prayer. The closer a soul approaches God by love, the simpler grows the gaze of her intelligence and the clearer her vision.” The intellectual life, therefore, must be fortified by the contemplative life if it is to make real progress in discovering truth and in leading others to know and love the truth.
Raïssa took to heart the message of her book and strove to live it. From the earliest days of her conversion she felt an intense call to contemplative prayer. It was during this period that Raïssa began to write her Journal, which was published only after her death. With arresting clarity she describes the Lord’s action in her life and her struggles to understand and respond. Brief insights — “To love and understand one’s neighbor one must forget oneself” — are interspersed with descriptions of her struggles and pearls of calm wisdom, such as the following:
“Error is like the foam on the waves; it eludes our grasp and keeps reappearing. The soul must not exhaust itself fighting against the foam. Its zeal must be purified and calmed and, by union with the divine Will, it must gather strength from the depths. And Christ, with all his merits and the merits of all the saints, will do his work deep down below the surface of the waters. And everything that can be saved will be saved.”
The journal also provides the record of her awareness that the Lord was inviting her to accept a share in his suffering:
“During silent prayer I feel inwardly solicited to abandon myself to God, and not only solicited but effectively inclined to do it, and do it, feeling that it is for a trial, for a suffering, for which my consent is thus demanded. I make this act of abandon in spite of my natural cowardice.”
It was during these years at Meudon that Raïssa received the gift of poetry: “He who would know the depths of the spirit or, if you will, the spirituality of being, begins by entering into himself. And it is also in the inwardness of life, of thought, of conscience that he encounters Poetry, if he be destined to encounter it.” In the depths of her prayer, Raïssa encountered Poetry. Poems became a way for her to express her inner experiences. While specialists have noted the technical limitations present in a number of her poems, her best pieces succeed in making the ordinary events of life glow with “spiritual transparency.” One finds here themes that recur throughout her works: the sudden encounter with God in the ordinary (“The Cloud”); the mystery of moral evil and natural beauty (“The Fall of Icarus”); the workings of God’s providence in the midst of human sinfulness (“Meditation”); and the ever present mystery of Christ’s suffering and our vocation to participate in it (“O Cross”). In all, Raïssa wrote close to ninety poems, published in four different collections, and brought together into one volume by Jacques after her death. For those who have the patience to let the poet’s art speak to them, her poems are of enduring value.
Darkness below and darkness above;
Under Archangel’s black wing
The plan of God unfolds.
Creation’s paradox is infinite
Eternity is being made of time,
Imperishable good by evil fostered.
Humanity plods onward seeking justice
On lazy by-ways of iniquity,
And the deceits and errors of today
Tomorrow’s truth will serve.
The little good,
Through unavailing it may seem
To overcome disaster in our time,
Contains the seed of love’s eternal tree
The Fall of Icarus
A branch in flower frames the sea.
Some ships dream of the universe; On shore the sheep stand drowsily.
Icarus has fallen from the sky
With a sea-gull’s downard dive.
In noon-day sun creation sleeps –
The world, serene, its beauty keeps.
O Cross you divide the heart,
O Cross you split the world,
Cross divine and wood of bitterness,
Bloodstained price of the Beatitudes,
Royal rood, imperious impress,
Most sombre Cross, gibbet of God,
Star of Mysteries,
Key to certitude.
A cloud in the sky,
In the meadow see
Under the peach tree
Then you appear
And the tears flow
In the thin air
Upon your face