Jacques Maritain Center : The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain / by Ralph McInerny




1882 November 8. Jacques Maritain born in Paris, son of Paul Maritain and Geneviève Favre, grandson of Jules Favre.
1883 September 12. Birth of Raïssa Oumasov at Rostov-on-the-Don.
1885 Divorce of Jacques's parents. Religious instructions from Jean Reveille, pastor, liberal Protestant, who from 1907 occupied a chair at the Collège de France.
1898-1899 Jacques studies rhetoric at the Lycée Henri IV. Meets Ernest Psichari.
1899 Jacques begins his studies at Sorbonne. Dreyfus Affair. Meets Charles Péguy
1901 Jacques enters Sorbonne. Meets Raïssa. Péguy takes Jacques, Raïssa, and Psichari to hear Henri Bergson lecture at the Collège de France.
1902 Jacques and Raïssa secretly engaged.
1904 November 26. Marriage of Jacques and Raïssa. They begin to read Léon Bloy. Paul Maritain commits suicide.
1905 June 25. First visit to Bloy's home. Jacques passes his agrégation en philosophie.
1906 June 11. Baptism of Jacques, Raïssa, and her sister Vera iu the church of Saint-Jean-l'Evangeliste. Léon Bloy is their godfather. Maritain, at his own expense, reissues Bloy's Salvation by the Jews . Departure for Heidelberg.


Je serai socialiste et vivrai pour la revolution.


Jacques Maritain tells us so little of his antecedents and boyhood that one is tempted to agree with his biographer Barré that the philosopher made a concerted effort to cut himself loose from his roots, choosing to be an exile in his native land and elsewhere.{1} In many respects, one could scarcely blame him.

Although a remote ancestor was one of the first Jesuits, it was Maritain's grandfather Jules Favre whose memory brooded over Jacques's childhood, even though the great freethinker and politician had died in 1880, two years before Jacques's birth. There was something untoward even in this heritage. Jules was unable to marry the woman by whom he had Geneviève, Jacques's mother. Jeanne Charmont had a husband when she began her affair with Favre, and divorce was not yet legal in France. Apparently Jeanne Charmont was a fervent Catholic, and Geneviève remembered attending church with her as well as the fervor of her prayers. But after she died in 1870, Geneviève repudiated her mother's faith. To her consternation, her father married a woman, Julie Velten, who drew him into Protestantism. Geneviève apparently saw her accomplished stepmother as a rival for her father's affections. In any event, she married Paul Maritain, a lawyer and lapsed Catholic who served as Favre's secretary. They had two children, Jeanne and Jacques. The father had the daughter baptized Catholic, whereas Geneviève had Jacques baptized as a Lutheran.

Paul Maritain is a hazy figure. He looks indolent in photographs, regarding the workaday world with the sleepy semi-interest of the sensualist. His libertine ways would not have contributed to domestic tranquillity and, in any case, the couple separated. Geneviève made an effort to heal the breach and restore the household, but Paul had had enough of her and the couple was divorced. Geneviève Favre -- she resumed her father's name after the divorce -- was one of the first divorcées in France. Paul Maritain, having published a collection of Jules Favre's papers in 1882, sank into comfortable obscurity and, before he committed suicide on February 20, 1904, composed a document that came into his son's possession. Having tried everything else, he had decided to try death. When Jacques looked over his father's papers, he got rid of those he called Rabelaisian; but the rest are to be found in his dossier at the Maritain Archives in Kolbsheim. The fact that Jacques chose to keep any of his father's papers tells, if only slightly, against Barré's thesis.

Jacques Maritain and his sister Jeanne were raised by their domineering mother, who was determined that her son would duplicate the political triumphs of her father. Boyhood photographs of Jacque reveal a delicate, almost feminine child, with long hair and a bewildered receptive look. The ménage à trois -- in an innocent sense -- that characterized his childhood -- mother, sister, self -- would be replicated soon after his marriage, when Raïssa's sister Vera would take up lifelong residence with the Maritain. Jacques broke free of the suffocating influence of his mother and found in his wife another self, a person whose moods and illnesses and tearful pursuit of the heights of mysticism and dedication to his career would define his life for sixty years.

Geneviève Favre turned against the Lutheranism into which her father had led her, just as earlier she had turned against her mother's Catholicism. Her household was one in which political and social affairs dominated and, in what seems a harbinger of later temptations to radical chic, Jacques tells us that he became a socialist as a child. What form did this take? It consisted of conversations with the husband of the Maritain cook, who was a socialist, and whom Jacques idolized. he tells us of evenings spent in the kitchen poring over the socialist paper with François Baton, but what this suggests is the need for masculine influence rather than any serious understanding of politics.

One of the surprises in Barré's book is the revelation that, at one point, Geneviève Favre enlisted the theologian Jean Reveille to instruct her children. Later Jacques would dedicate Three Reformers, with its severe treatment of Martin Luther, to his mother.

Jacques is little help in any effort to reconstruct his pre-school life. It has to be approached obliquely, by way of the ambience in which he was raised, what we know of his mother, and a few unreliable allusions of his own. But by and large those years are closed to us. Perhaps he did want to repudiate those fatherless years lived with a mother trying to be her father's daughter, with people like Charles Péguy dropping by to talk with her, and with the socialist in the kitchen to whom he might repair and mimic his mother's enthusiasms over the socialist newspaper. This household in theory and action, sought to distinguish itself from the dreaded bourgeoisie, a distaste for whom Jacques retained throughout his long life. The only item from his pre-university days that he includes in his Carnet de notes is a letter written in his teens to François Baton, the cook's husband, in which he dedicates his life to socialism. The letter was preserved by Geneviève Favre.

Writing later in 1904, two years before his conversion, Jacques inveighs against communities, likening them to the family. "Communities. There is never a chance to be free! When three or four individuals are gathered together the same bonds of authority and the same servitudes appear. The smallest group becomes a little family . One becomes the father, the other the brother.... This community has all the vices of a bourgeois marriage."{2} Who can fail to see in this distaste for the most natural of human arrangements the influence of the unusual ménage in which Jacques was raised? On November 25 of that same year, he married Raïssa.


In 1898, Jacques entered the Lycée Henri IV at the age of sixteen and later remembered being caught up in the Dreyfus affair. he was under great pressure to succeed to do well in class, to please his professors and his mother, presumably to prepare for a career like his famous grandfather's.This may have been the year when he felt a strong if fleeting impulse to commit suicide by hurling himself out the window of his room, thereby removing the frightening prospect of the years that lay ahead. His detestation of those "on the right" and a romantic desire to be "with the people" remained with him, as it would throughout his life; but these were the thoughts of a boy, as they would be those of a man, which were entertained while seated in a study. His later alliances as well as his political philosophy can scarcely be understood without this romantic radicalism. Late in his life, he would write that he had known only three truly radical men: Saul Alinsky, Eduardo Frei, and -- himself! That he should think of himself in the same thought as a leftist agitator in Chicago and a Latin American politician gives the reader pause. But the identification of political, even revolutionary action with thought began under the tutelage of Geneviève Favre. In these early stages his contempt for the army and the bourgeoisie extended to the Church as well.

It was at the lycée that he formed a friendship that would mark him for life. Ernest Psichari was the grandson of the famous apostate Ernest Renan, whose fatuous rationalism took the place of religion he shuffled off while retaining a sentimental attachment to it. Like Jacques, Ernest lived in the shadow of his famous forebear, and the two boys became like brothers, inseparable. The socialist in the kitchen was not enough; Jacques needed male companionship, and not just the rough and tumble of boys in number, but someone who could give him respite from his mother's high hopes for him. Geneviève was delighted with Jacques's new friend, and Ernest became like a third child to her. Perhaps she imagined this friendship to be an alliance between two great families of liberal and republican France. In her memoir, Raïssa Maritain saw it in just that way. "On his mother's side, Jacques Maritain is the grandson of Jules Favre; Psichari, on his mother's side, was the grandson of Ernest Renan. In the nineteenth century the Renans and Favres were among the most representative of the great intellectual and politically minded families of liberal and republican France."{3} The boys had been raised in the same atmosphere of free-thinking positivism. Ernest remembered his grandfather from summers by the sea the old writer's eyes following his grandson with who knew what expectations? Ernest's father was Greek, his mother Dutch, and from his namesake he was Breton, so that he represented three rejected faiths: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy. Ernest had been baptized into the last.

The optimism of the Psichari household struck Jacques. It was as if they all believed the progressive slogans that for them replaced religious faith. There was something prelapsarian about it, and later Jacques would write, "I see now that it was a milieu in which original sin and even metaphysical misery were really nothing, not yet arrived." For all its supposed tolerance, the Psichari home was firmly anti-Christian, not antagonistically, but rather in the sense of having gone through all that and surpassed it.

Jacques and Ernest were both intellectually gifted and curious and, in their case, the lycée was a place in which they would discover everything for themselves, not receive it from the professors. It was a time of voracious reading. And they carried on an active correspondence, as if being together during the day was insufficient for all they had to say to one another. Baudelaire, Zola, Voltaire, Rousseau -- they devoured and discussed these and other writers. The two boys saw themselves as opposed to the very milieu in which they found themselves, in which they had been raised, and from which they drew their companions. Jacques conceived a deep contempt for the society that had condemned Captain Dreyfus, and he would blame it later for the debacle of 1940.

Ernest fell in love with Jacques's sister Jeanne when she was twenty-five and he but eighteen. Jeanne Maritain did not take her young admirer seriously, soon married another and left Ernest crushed and in despair. He tried to take his own life twice and then sought oblivion in sensual excess, as Raïssa delicately puts it.{4} Ernest, in Le voyage du Centurion , was equally oblique. "Maxence wandered without conviction in the poisonous gardens of vice, pursued by vague remorse, troubled at the hatefulness of deceit, burdened with the dreadful mockery of a light caught in the trap of disorderly thinking and feeling."{5} Eventually, he sought redemption by joining the army, and the discipline of military life turned out to be precisely what he needed.

There is far more to the story of Ernest Psichari as it impinged on that of Jacques Maritain, but for now let us savor the irony of a passionate Drefusard seeking and finding salvation in the army, which, along with the Church and the bourgeoisie, had been an object of contempt for Ernest as well as Jacques. Somewhat similarly, Jacques would come to see in the faith he thought he had dismissed forever the only answer to the inner tumult that made him, too, think of suicide.


Dimidium animae meae.


When the Maritains were in exile in New York during World War II, Raïssa published two volumes of memoirs. The first, written in 1940, was an almost desperate effort to recall better days before the fall of France and to conjure from memory the presence of old friends, some of them already casualties of World War I. We Have Been Friends Together introduced American readers to a woman and her husband and their friends. It recalled forgotten figures and introduced others previously unknown. It was the story of the religious conversion of Raïssa, whose Jewish family had come from Russia to France when she was a child, and of Jacques, whose early years we have just considered. Nothing enthralls a cradle Catholic more than an account of conversion to the faith, a mature adult's deliberate choice of Catholicism. When there is added to this the éclat of cosmopolitan France, when the account of the conversion places it within the cultural developments of Paris, the result is heady indeed. Raïssa's book enjoyed a vast readership among American Catholics -- and others as well, of course -- but for American Catholics it was a first installment on what became an almost tribal legend.

The second volume of Raïssa's memoirs, Adventures in Grace, was written in 1944 when the liberation of France and the victory of the Allies were assured. In many respects, the second volume covers the same ground as the first, but there is an expansion of themes and episodes. Raïssa's memoirs were certainly read by many more Americans than had ever read her husband, but it is to Jacques that the reader's attention is directed.

Raïssa's memoirs; Jacques's Carnet de notes, published in 1965; and Raïssa's journal, which Jacques published first privately, then commercially, are the main elements in a problem that faces one seeking to trace the spiritual life of Jacques Maritain. Both Maritain and his wife have made it virtually impossible to deal separately with either of them. Raïssa was fiercely loyal to Jacques and jealous of his reputation; Jacques insisted that his wife was an accomplished poet, art critic, and more importantly, mystic. Her journal is put before the reader as if it were equivalent to Saint Thérèse de Lisieux's Story of a Soul. There were some, however, who had a different view of Raïssa and of her literary accomplishments. Etienne Gilson, for example, disliked Raïssa and her influence on Jacques. Conflicting images arise from her journal. Must a biographer of Jacques address the enigma of Raïssa as well?{6}

My decision is this. I will by and large adopt Jacques Maritain's view of his wife, since it is his view of her that is an integral part of his own spiritual life. He deferred to her in aesthetic matters because she was the poet; his estimate of her inner life is clear both in deed and, in the case of the Journal, in word. Increasingly after death he adopted a self-effacing attitude toward her, as if she had been the important unit in the dyad of their life. They lie buried in the same plot in Kolbsheim under a single stone that bears her name and dates in large letters and then, in a lower corner in small letters: And Jacques. Quite apart from the difficulties posed for such a book as this, the story of their meeting and their marriage and their conversion is fascinating.


Before the world of Jacques and Raïssa, there was the world of Raïssa and her sister Vera. Jacques did not so much replace Vera as to make way for a triad: Jacques / Raïssa / Vera. The three were to form one household shortly after the marriage of the young couple; the three came into the Church together. One could say that Vera played the role of Martha and Raïssa that of Mary, except this would assign too exalted a role to Jacques. Or would he be Lazarus?

Raïssa Oumansov was born in Rostov-on-Don on September 12, 1883. (All dates are according to the Gregorian calendar.) She spent her first decade in Russia. Her father was a tailor and hers was an extended family in which both her maternal and her paternal grandfathers were integral parts of the household. The family moved to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov in 1886 just before the birth of Vera. The two sisters were to be very close and, early on, despite the fact that Raïssa was the older, in their games Vera took the role of mother and Raïssa that of child, thus establishing a rapport that would remain for life. unusually for a girl, Raïssa was admitted to school in Russia and, over the course of three years, did very well. In part to enable her to develop her talents, the family decided to emigrate. Their original destination was New York, but they stopped, then stayed, in Paris. At the age of nine Raïssa was sent to school in a strange land where a strange language was spoken, but soon she was excelling as she had in Russia. French came easily to her, and she fell in love with the language and France as well.

Raïssa was born into a religiously observant family but with adolescence she began to draw away and to entertain doubts about the existence of God and about the family's religious practices. Having completed the lycée at sixteen, Raïssa entered the Sorbonne shortly after her seventeenth birthday and devoted herself to the natural sciences, hoping to find in them the answers to the large questions of life. This expectation was derided by the one professor in whom she confided it. One day after class, she was approached by a young man who was soliciting signatures for a protest against the treatment of socialist students in Russia. His name was Jacques Maritain. It was the beginning of a relationship that would soon ripen into love, be consummated in marriage, and, sublimated, would continue until they were parted by her death in 1960.


I would have accepted a sad life, but not one that was absurd. --Raïssa

Although both Raïssa and Jacques were preparing for a licence en sciences, they were dissatisfied with the broader picture of human life their courses suggested. She felt that a malaise infinite was created by a myopic concentration on structure alone. Felix Le Dantec, the professor the two young people were most struck by, maintained a "calm and resolute" materialism according to which life came down to a chemical combination, with thought a mere epiphenomenon. Could they turn from the sciences to philosophy for an intimation of transcendence? Young philosophers were deflected into the sociology of Durkheim and Lévy-Bruhl.

Written many years later, the pages that Raïssa Maritain devoted to the cultural and intellectual milieu in which she and Jacques found themselves at the age of twenty fill the reader with melancholy, a melancholy all the more sad because she might be describing the beginnings of a malaise that is only deeper now. A century later the materialism that so oppressed Raïssa Oumansov and Jacques Maritain has developed into what John Paul II has characterized as the "culture of death." This makes their response all the more relevant. In those poignant pages of We Have Been Friends Together that bear the subtitle "In the Jardin des Plantes," Raïssa gives us an indelible portrait of two lost souls. There are readers who lament the vagueness of her memoirs -- it is not always clear exactly when things take place, and she even fails to mention her family name when speaking of her origins -- but such complaints are churlish. The account we are about to examine is said to take place after "two or three years of study at the Sorbonne," yet they have "scarcely twenty years behind them." No matter. The vividness of the scene transcends such chronological vagueness. "One summer afternoon Jacques and I were strolling about in the Jardin des Plantes...." Thus begins the account of the two university students, very much in love, strolling home from classes, and on this occasion unhappy, very unhappy. Somewhat like the young Descartes in winter quarters, they reflect on what they have studied and realize that it has left them empty. "But this knowledge was undermined by the relativism of the scientists, by the skepticism of the philosophers." However incoherent and self-refuting skepticism might be, it was active and real and disruptive of life. The result is a "metaphysical anguish." Nor can Raïssa forgo drawing a parallel between the time recalled and the time in which she is writing, that of World War II. Despair is rampant and, with it, suicide. "On this particular day, then, we had just said to one another that if our nature was so unhappy as to possess only a pseudo-intelligence capable of everything but the truth, if, sitting in judgment on itself, it had to debase itself to such a point, then, we could neither think nor act with any dignity. In that case everything became absurd -- and impossible to accept -- without our even knowing what it was in us that thus refused acceptance."{7} What is the measure of all things? She tells us that she had come to believe herself an atheist; she no longer put up any defense against atheism, not so much persuaded as devastated by the arguments on its behalf. "And the absence of God unpeopled the universe."

If there is no distinction between good and evil, how could they live humanly? "I wanted no part in such a comedy. I would have accepted a sad life, but not one that was absurd." Without the conviction that life had meaning, the prospect before them was indeed tragic. It was all the more tragic because their crisis was brought on by their studies, for they could not turn to science or philosophy. It was these that had caused the illness. How could they provide the remedy? The young couple did not want a false security. They were repelled by "epicureanism" as an alternative. Stoicism, estheticism -- these were mere amusements, not answers to the problem that wracked them. For they had applied not only to the philosophers of the Sorbonne, but to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, in each of whom, for different reasons, they found a temporary but finally unsatisfying respite from the sense of absurdity.

At an analogous point in his young life, Descartes had concluded that what was needed was a method that would turn opinion and falsehood into certainty and truth. But the intellectual morass in which Raïssa and Jacques found themselves was, in many ways, a logical development from what Descartes had set in train. For the moment, the young couple decided to have confidence in the unknown. They would "extend credit to existence," see the coming months as an experiment during which the meaning of life might reveal itself to them, unveiling a meaning to which they could give their total allegiance -- something for which they could live and die." But if the experiment should not be successful, the solution would be suicide; suicide before the years had accumulated their dust, before our youthful strength was spent. We wanted to die by a free act if it were impossible to according to the truth."{8} Their despair first began to lift and, with it, their self-imposed death sentence when they were induced by Charles Péguy to attend the lecture s Henri Bergson was delivering to enthralled audiences in the Collège de France. Bergson had already published Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness and Matter and memory, although Jacques did not read them until later. But almost immediately he was hooked and became a devotee of Bergson. To the Friday lectures was added a course in Greek given by Bergson in which the young couple read the Enneadsof Plotinus. It is not too much to say that this was first of all a mood, an intimation, rather than intellectual conviction on this or that point. Bergson proceeded on the assumption that the truth could be known, that the human mind was capable of knowing reality.

Non-philosophers might regard the restoration of such convictions as small beer, but minds that had been subject to the assault of the dominant mood of the day -- it too was initially a prejudice, the assumption under which one worked -- had been taught to doubt the mind's ability to know with certainty and truth. It is a paradox of the time that progress was read in terms of the inexorable advance of the sciences, while accounts of human knowledge seemed to undercut this confidence. Bergson's examination of what is given immediately to consciousness was meant to provide an alternative to skepticism. By contrast with the scientific method, his thinking appeared mystical; and indeed, no less an authority than Henry Bars felt that reading Plotinus with Bergson had played a role in opening up the minds of Raïssa and Jacques to the Christian mystics.{9}

The attendance at Bergson's lectures is a source of difficulties in establishing the chronology of Maritain's life prior to his conversion in 1906. Maritain entered the Sorbonne in 1900 and, during the first academic year, he met Raïssa. Presumably it was in the spring of that year, 1901, that the resolution was made in the Jardin des Plantes. The following autumn they began to follow the lectures of Bergson and their metaphysical gloom began to lift. In 1902 the couple became engaged, but this was kept a secret from their families. Raïssa's family had felt that she was drifting away from them and taking her sister Vera with her. Geneviève Favre could scarcely have regarded an immigrant Russian Jewess as a fitting wife for the son in whom she had invested such hope and ambition. Jacques married Raïssa on November 26, 1904, and in that same year they began to read Léon Bloy. This leaves a stretch of years about which we have minimal information in the published record. One thing that does emerge is the unstated resolution that their ambitions would merge into Jacques's career. Raïssa's intention to take a degree began to recede: it is Jacques who must carry the torch for both, but it will be fueled through the years by the constant inspiration of Raïssa.

Bergson had convinced them that life had meaning, and Jacques became known in the university as a disciple of Bergson. "He bore aloft through the classrooms the revolutionary torch of passionate socialism and of the philosophy of intuition."{10} Bergson liberated Jacques from the oppressive materialism of the Sorbonne. Students, intellectuals, fashionable Paris, came to the afternoon lectures of Bergson at the Collège de France. Doubtless there was an element of chic in being there for some, but for Péguy, Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and many others, Bergson was a revelation. He became something of a darling of Catholics. It is ironic, given the role Bergson played in his intellectual and spiritual life, that Maritain, in his first book, should launch a sustained critique of Bergsonism. By that time he had become a student of Thomas Aquinas, whose teaching he applied as a standard to the work of Bergson, to find it woefully wanting. Maritain himself would half regret this critique on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Bergonsonian Philosophy. He continued to think that the points he had made were just, but regretted the manner in which he had made them, since the book seemed an ungrateful response to a liberating and formative influence in his life.


Il n'y a qu'une tristesse, c'est de n'être pas des saints.


The lectures of Henri Bergson had lifted the cloud of despair from Jacques Maritain and Ra ï ssa Oumansov -- she wrote, "I was rediscovering the lightheartedness and joy of my childhood, of those days when, with beating heart, I went to the lycêe." They were experiencing a philosophical conversion, not unlike Augustine's first conversion. The instrument of this conversion, according to Raïssa , was as much Plotinus as the Bergsonian philosophy itself. Reading the Enneads with Bergson, the young couple were put into contact with a philosophical tradition that was sapiential and ultimately theological. God had been chased from the intellectual milieu of the Sorbonne, but a first antidote lay on the shelves of libraries and in the minds of such rare luminaries as Henri Bergson.

Since we must rely on Raïssa's account in which she virtually fuses herself and Jacques, it is not easy to separate her own enthusiasms from Jacques's state of mind and soul. On other occasions, she went first where he later followed, as in the reading of Thomas Aquinas. We do not know if Jacques reacted to Plotinus with the same intensity or whether he too went on to read the Rhenish mystics, but there can be no doubt that the lectures of Bergson opened his mind to a reality beyond the physical and restored his sense that the mind is capable of attaining the truth. And what we find in the few passages from this time that Jacques included in his Carnet de notes is that he and Raïssa were reading Maurice Maeterlinck. It is Maeterlinck who prompts Jacques to speak of silence and of the fear men have of what is great, profound, violent, and definitive. We do everything to avoid such things. And he speaks of the supreme intuition with which souls communicate with one another and finds in this the basis for a moral chastity that is the presupposition of physical chastity.

The single entry from 1903 concerns idealists in the philosophical sense, that is, those who say, "We know only what we know and we can only know what we know." Will they go beyond this tautology and say something of being? He suggests that such thinkers are imprisoned in their minds and have stopped up every exit. "If we wish to speak of being, we must have different postulates."{11} In 1904, there is the diatribe against communities and the attack on the family already mentioned, but it is followed by a poem that deals with the relationship between human freedom and God. The two pages devoted to 1904 end with this note: 26 novembre 1904. -- Mariage de Jacques et Raïssa. The force and beauty of Raïssa's memoirs have persuaded many that there is an effective identity between the spiritual trajectories of the Maritains during these crucial years. She speaks of herself and Jacques as virtually inseparable; she moves easily between accounts of what I have done and what we did and thought and read. From Jacques's contemporary entries, which were not published until sixty years after the fact, a more cerebral period is suggested, a more philosophical one. But his mention of their common reading of Maeterlinck is crucial .


It was an effusive judgment written by Maeterlinck that opened Jacques and Raïssa to the next stage of their journey. They were already enthralled by the Belgian writer and thus, we can imagine, disposed to be guided by him in the enthusiasm he expressed for a novelist of whom they had never heard before, Lëon Bloy. Maeterlinck was discussing The Woman Who Was Poor, and his remark was quoted in a literary column "we" happened to be reading in Le Matin. Forty years later, Raïssa set it down in her memoirs as if from memory. "If by genius," Maeterlinck said, "one understands certain flashes in the depths, La Femme Pauvre is the only work of the present day in which there are evident marks of genius."{12} This had been written in 1897 in a letter to Bloy, which the latter published in a volume of his journal. Later they were to see the full letter, and Raïssa quotes it in full. Since we have arrived at a crucial moment in Maritain's life, we will follow suit.

Monsieur, I have just read La Femme Pauvre. It is, I believe, the only work of this day in which there are evident marks of genius, if by genius we understand certain flashes in the depths which link what is seen to what is not seen, and what is not yet understood to what will be understood one day. From the purely human point of view one is involuntarily reminded of King Lear, and nothing else comparable can be found in literature. I beg you to believe, dear sir, in my very deep admiration. -- Maurice Maeterlinck.
Here was heady praise indeed, and what author would not want it more widely known? For the Maritains, who were predisposed to Maeterlinck -- though neither mentions any particular work of his -- this praise was a powerful inducement to read the novel. How, at this stage, could they resist a story said to relate the seen to the unseen, the known to the not-yet-known? The novel was to put before them the reality of Christian faith.

The final line of this strange story burned itself into the consciousness of these young people and swept away all their prejudices and received opinions that saw in Christianity the political, the comfortable, the bourgeois. "There is only one sadness, not to be a saint."


Reading the novel led to writing the author and eventually to visiting him in his Paris home. It is Jacques who has described this moment in unforgettable words.

It was in June 1905 that two children in their twenties mounted the sempiternal stairs that climb to Sacred Heart. They bore within them that distress which is the single serious product of modern culture and a sort of active despair that was somewhat lightened, they knew not how, by an inner assurance that the Truth for which they hungered, and without which it was almost impossible for them to accept life, would one day be shown them. A kind of moral aestheticism sustained them weakly, in which the idea of suicide -- after several attempts, doubtless too beautiful to succeed -- seemed to offer the only outcome. While awaiting, they had cleansed their minds, thanks to Bergson, of the scientistic superstitions the Sorbonne entertained -- but knowing still that Bergsonian intuition was a too inconsistent refuge against the skepticism logically entailed by all the modern philosophies. Meanwhile they regarded the Church, hidden from view by inept prejudices and by the sight of too many comfortable people, as the rampart of the powerful and rich, whose interest was to keep minds in the "darkness of the Middle Ages." They were going toward a strange beggar who, distrusting all philosophy cried from the housetops the divine truth: a fully obedient Catholic who condemned the times and those who sought their consolation here below with more liberty than all the revolutionaries in the world. They had a terrible fear of what they were going to encounter -- they were not familiar with literary geniuses, but it was something very different they were going to seek. There was not a shadow of curiosity in them, but a sense filling the soul with gravity; compassion for a greatness without refuge.

They went through a little old-fashioned garden and entered a humble house whose walls were filled with books and beautiful images and were first of all struck by a sort of great blank goodness whose peaceful nobility impressed itself: Mrs. Léon Bloy. Her two little girls, Veronica and Madeleine, regarded them with astonished eyes. Léon Bloy seemed almost timid; he spoke little and softly, trying to say something important to these two young visitors that would not deceive them. What they found cannot be expressed: the tenderness of Christian fraternity, and that tremor of mercy and fear that seizes one facing a soul marked with the love of God. Bloy seemed to us the opposite of other men who conceal their serious lack in matters of the spirit and so many unseen crimes beneath the whitewash of the social virtues. instead of being a whited sepulchre like the pharisees of any time, he was a sooted and blackened cathedral. The white was within, in the depths of the tabernacle.

Once they crossed the threshold of that house, all values were displaced as by an invisible trigger. One knew, one senses, that there was only one sadness, not to be among the saints. Everything else became twilit.{13}

This moving passage is taken from the preface Jacques Maritain wrote for a collection of letters from Bloy to his godchildren that was published in 1928. It therefore antedates Raïssa's account of their conversion in her wartime memoirs. The account conflates a number of things that were separated by years. The despair and the consequent attraction of suicide takes us back to 1901. The judgment of the Sorbonne was the basis of that despair, but it increased over the intervening years. The role of Bergson is acknowledged, but regarded critically: it was not a sufficient antidote to the skepticism of the Sorbonne. Maritain emphasizes that they were about to have swept away all the clichés about the Church that had been received opinion in the home in which he was raised. Hatred of the bourgeoisie and hatred of the Church were two sides of the same coin. In Bloy, they were to confront a ferocious believer, a man whose appraisal and condemnation of the times appealed to Maritain's radical side. Bloy is described as showing more freedom -- underlined -- than all the revolutionaries in the world. But he was also a man who held philosophy in contempt.

Here we confront one of the great puzzles in Maritain's relations with Bloy. Bloy was to be the doorway into the Church for Jacques and Raïssa; he would be their godfather when they became Catholics in June of 1906, a year after this memorable first visit to the Bloy household near Sacré Coeur. Maeterlinck had described Bloy as a literary genius, but it was not in this role that he influenced Jacques and Raïssa. It was the man himself, a man of faith who had suffered enormously for his principles and whose writings were anything but mere aesthetic exercises. Bloy was a man who personified the truths of the sentence Maritain quotes and which Raïssa will quote in We Have Been Friends Together: not to be a saint is the only sadness because failing to do so is to fail to achieve the very point of life.

What Bloy represented then was an answer to the question that had caused them such anguish in the episode in the Jardin des Plantes. Why am I alive? The answer: in order to become a saint. Learning what that meant defined Maritain's life from then on.

The little booklet in which this preface was reprinted in 1928 was called Quelques pages sur Léon Bloy; it contains two other items, a response to certain criticisms and an essay on Bloy's tomb. Maritain occupies a role that was conferred upon him by his friendship with and loyalty to Léon Bloy, that of defending his godfather against criticisms with which Maritain clearly has some sympathy. Bloy was no respecter of persons, and his ferocious attacks startled and dismayed many who pardonably wondered how his profession of religious faith was compatible with such cruelty. Perhaps what most did not understand was how such an intellectual as Maritain could have been so decisively influenced by such an anti-intellectual as Léon Bloy.

But it was precisely the inadequacies of the intellectual life as practiced within the ambience of the Sorbonne that had led Maritain himself to lose confidence in it. Nor was this merely an epistemological crisis, à la Decartes. He saw suicide as the only reasonable alternative to the view that life is radically absurd. Later on he would develop an intellectual response to the antimetaphysical materalism against which he revolted. But at the moment, he needed an existential response to despair. He found it in a man whose whole life was meaningless if this earthly life is all there is. This "Pilgrim of the Absolute" was a powerful personal argument for an alternative, and Maritain and his fiancée were captivated.

One of the first things they did for the impoverished writer was to finance the reprinting of his book Salvation Through the Jews. This was to come back to haunt them when the seemingly heterodox views of Bloy were bruited about by Maritain's enemies. Did Bloy think there would be a coming of the Holy Spirit similar to the coming of Christ and that the Spirit, like the Son, would be rejected by the pharisees of the day? Bloy's criticisms did not of course spare his coreligionists. Jacques Maritain always remained loyal to Bloy, defending him by suggesting benign interpretations, urging others to see Bloy as a prophet, more patristic than medieval. He would never repudiate his godfather. It is one example among many of his unshakable loyalty to friends.

Bloy's devotion to Our Lady of LaSalette was central to his life, and Jacques and Raïssa adopted his attitude toward the private revelations given to Melanie by Our Lady in the village of LaSalette. The young couple made a pilgrimage to LaSalette and, as we shall see, these private revelations were the reason for the first trip the Maritains took to Rome.


The visits to Bloy continued. Later Maritain would recall this period and a day he was moved to put to the test the promises of this unknown God. "My God, if You exist, and if You are the truth, make me know." He apparently repeated this until the day when he knelt and recited the Lord's Prayer for the first time. When he described this later to Raïssa, he added that from that point everything had changed for him. In visiting Bloy, he was not concerned with hearing how difficulties raised against Catholic doctrine could be answered. "The difficulty was in entering into the mystery proper to this doctrine; in finding the center around which all the rest is organized and oriented." During the months that passed after the first visit, Bloy had them reading visionaries and mystics, Saint Angela of Foligno and Ruysbroeck. As they discussed books they would never have opened on their own, Bloy's heartfelt faith was ever manifest and spoke to them more directly than the text. They read the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich to the transcription of which the Romantic poet Brentano had devoted a large portion of his life.{14} It was through these visions, recounted by Brentano, that the Maritains became steeped in Catholicism -- its history, dogma, theology, literature, mysticism. The doctrine of the Communion of the Saints, of the way in which all believers are bound together in the Mystical Body of Christ that is the Church, animated by the Holy Spirit, altered their view of the Church as a gathering of the smug and comfortable.

But it was George Sorel who came into Péguy's shop from a meeting of the Philosophical Society, devoted to mysticism, declaring that none of the participants knew the real sources and mentioning The Spiritual Catechism of Surin. Jacques read this with a telling effect. He began to thirst for the kind of contemplation described by Surin.{15}

The meeting with Bloy took place in June. By the following February, 1906, the Maritains had become acquainted in a more or less theoretical way with the nature of the faith. But during these eight months, the reading reflection, and new friendship with Catholics such as the painter Georges Rouault, enabled them to set aside objections to Catholicism and instilled in them a desire for the happiness and holiness of the saints. In February Raissa fell ill. Her fragile health is a leitmotif of her memoirs and indeed of the Maritain marriage. On this occasion, she was bedridden for several weeks. It occurred to Jacques that the time for vacillation was over. This was when he fell on his knees and recited the Our Father. On February 15, Bloy made this entry in his journal. "The miracle is accomplished. Jacques and Raïssa want to be baptized! Great rejoicing in our hearts. Once more my books, the occasion of the miracle, are approved not by a bishop not by a doctor, but by the Holy Ghost."{16}

The Maritain thought that Bloy could baptize them secretly and that would be it, but of course there was no emergency justifying baptism by a layperson. The wish by the Maritains for secrecy was prompted by the realization of what the consequences of conversion would be. Their families would be alienated, their friends would first mock and then drop them; there was a heavy price to pay for baptism, something analogous in their lives to the demands his faith made on Léon Bloy. "To ask for baptism," Raïssa wrote, "was also to accept separation from the world that we knew in order to enter a world unknown: it was, we thought, to give up our simple and common liberty in order to undertake the conquest of spiritual liberty, so beautiful and so real among the saints, but placed too high, we thought, ever to be attained."{17}

Bloy sent them to a priest at Sacré Coeur, Father Durantel. Their proximate preparation for baptism began and it went on for months. Jacques was convinced that to go forward and accept the faith would be to turn forever from philosophy. He made himself ready to do that. If the choice was truth or philosophy, he knew which he would choose. Raïssa quotes his remark at this time: "If it has pleased God to hide His truth in a dunghill, that is where we shall go to find it."{18} Raïssa calls these cruel words, but they convey something of the human sacrifice that conversion required of them, and of the lingering human estimate of that which now so attracted them. "Our suffering and dryness grew greater every day. Finally we understood that God too was waiting, and that there would be no further light so long as we should not have obeyed the imperious voice of our consciences saying to us: you have no valid objection to the Church; she alone promises you the light of truth -- prove her promises, put baptism to the test."{19}

Raïssa's account of Jacques Maritain's conversion is written nearly forty years later, after the couple had sought to live the spiritual ideal they accepted in baptism for most of their adult lives. Her retrospect is suffused with her faith at the time of writing, and her account all but suppresses the repugnance conversion had for them before it took place. No doubt they were drawn, if only on an aesthetic plane, to the accounts of mystical experience. No doubt too the living witness of believers like Bloy and Rouault ignited their minds and imaginations. But Péguy's unwillingness to make Bloy's acquaintance and his dismissal of the letter Bloy sent him, full of praise for something he had read of Péguy's, suggests how against the grain of their upbringing and ambiance the move Bloy urged on them must have seemed. What precisely brought about the transition from repugnance to acceptance?

Perhaps every account of conversion -- or deconversion -- must fail to convey the heart of the matter. An Ernest Renan or an Anthony Kenny can write of his departure from the faith and the transition sounds smooth enough. One seeks to ground the faith in a way that faith assures one it cannot be grounded, and the result is predictable. But what leads a believer to act so contrary to his beliefs in the first place? That the arguments are bad arguments cannot of course explain the disposition to treat them as cogent, And so it is with the movement in the opposite direction. What explains the deed the doing of which has for so long seemed beyond the realm of possibility? The removal of historical and theoretical objections to Catholicism is only that. Something else must intervene. In deconversion, it is the slipping away of the faith, turning away from grace. In conversion it is the opposite. The Maritains were baptized on June 11, 1906, in the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Montmartre.

Raïssa put it this way: "I was in a state of absolute dryness, and could no longer remember any of the reasons for my being there. One single thing remained clear in my mind: either Baptism would give me Faith, and I would believe and I would belong to the Church altogether; or I would go away unchanged, an unbeliever forever. Jacques had almost the same thoughts."

"What do you ask of the Church of God?" they were asked when they stood before the baptismal font.

"Faith," they replied.

The gift was offered and received. This was the turning point of Jacques Maritain's life.


{1} Jean-Luc Barré, Jacques et Raïssa Maritain: Les mendicants du Ciel (Paris: Stock, 1995).

{2} Jacques Maritain, Carnet de notes (Paris, 1965), p. 29. To be found also in Jacques et Raïssa Maritain Oeuvres complètes [hereafter OC], (Paris: Editions Saint-Paul, 1982-), XII. This edition, under the editorship of a team headed by René Mougel, comprises sixteen volumes.

{3} Raïssa Maritain, We Have Been Friends Together (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1942), p. 6, and OCXVI.

{4} Ibid., p. 50.

{5} Ibid.

{6} See Judith D. Suther, Maritain: Pilgrim, Poet, Exile (New York: Fordham University Press, 1990), and Nora Possenti Ghiglia, I Tre Maritain. La presenza di Vera nel mondo di Jacques e Raïssa (Milan: Ancora, 2000).

{7} Ibid., p. 66.

{8} Ibid., p. 68.

{9} Henry Bars, Maritain en notre temps (Paris: Grasset, 1959).

{10} Ibid., p. 80.

{11} Maritain, Carnet de notes, p. 28.

{12} R. Maritain, We Have Been Friends Together, p. 87.

{13} Quelques pages sur Léon Bloy, OC, III, pp. 47-49.

{14} The Life of Jesus Christ and Biblical Revelations from the visions of Ven. Anne Catherine Emmerich as recorded in the journals of Clemens Brentano , arranged and edited by Carl E. Schmoger, 4 vols. (Rockford: Tan Books, 1979).

{15} Jean-Joseph Surin, S.J. (1600-1665), visionary exorcist at Ursuline convent of Loudon (on which Aldous Huxley based The Devils of Loudon), and author of A Spiritual Catechism and other works.

{16} R. Maritain, We Have Been Friends Together, p. 136.

{17} Ibid., p. 137.

{18} Ibid., p. 138.

{19} Ibid.

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