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




1961 January. Trip to United States.
March. Settles in Toulouse with the Petit Frères de Jésus.
Grand prize for literature of the French Academy.
Autumn. Visits United States.
1962 Private edition of Raïssa’s journal.
Cercle d’etudes Jacques et Raissa Maritain established at Kolbsheim.
Opening of Vatican II.
1963 June. Death of John XXIII, election of Paul VI.
September. Journal de Raïssa.
God and the Permission of Evil.
1965 Charles Journet created cardinal.
February. Carnet de notes.
September. Visits Paul VI at Castel Gandolfo.
November. Le mystère d’Israel.
December 8. Close of Vatican II. The pope presents Jacques with a message to intellectuals.
1966 April 21. Speech to UNESCO on the spiritual conditions of progress and peace.
Autumn. Last visit to United States.
November 3. The Peasant of the Garonne. Touches off a controversy that lasts months.
1967 May. On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus.
1968 March 11. Last public lecture, at Dax, on Léon Bloy.
1970 Autumn. On the Church of Christ.
October 15. Dons the habit of the Petit Frères de Jésus.
1971 Makes the vows of religion.
Canticle of Canticles.
1973 April 28. Jacques Maritain dies at Toulouse.
May. 2 Burial at Kolbsheim with Raïssa.
September. Approches sans entraves.

Custodi nos, Domine, ut pupillam oculi . . .

Jacques became professor emeritus at Princeton in 1952, but “the little flock” stayed on in the house on Linden Lane. It was there, in March, 1954, that Jacques suffered a heart attack. Although Raïssa had been sickly and valetudinarian throughout their marriage, Jacques was the first to become seriously ill. But it was the sturdy and unflappable Vera who was struck next. She had a heart attack in 1956 and soon was diagnosed as having breast cancer. With treatment and surgery she lived on, dying on the last day of 1959. Jacques and Raïssa were in Paris in the summer of 1950 when Raïssa suffered a cerebral thrombosis. It had fallen to Jacques to tend Vera, and get her back and forth to doctors. Now he became Raïssa’s nurse. But the ordeal was not prolonged. Raïssa, half his soul, departed this life on November 4, 1960. Jacques was on his own in the final chapter of his life. He was, he said, preparing to die.


It was after his heart attack that Jacques formed the idea of writing his memoirs. This work was interrupted by the illnesses of the three, and Carnet de notes was not published until 1965. The opening chapters were written in 1954 and the rest later. In an introductory note to the Carnet, he tells us that it was in 1961, while walking in the garden at Kolbsheim, that he prayed for strength to read and transcribe the journals of Raïssa. The following year, a small private edition of Raïssa’s journal was published and sent to selected friends. In 1963, an expanded version was published, with a preface by Father René Voillaume, spiritual head of the Little Brothers of Jésus. Jacques himself provides a precious avertissement to the book, dated in Toulouse. The two journals supplement the account of their lives Raïssa had given in the memoirs she had written in New York during World War II. Etienne Gilson had suggested the idea to her, and she responded with two books that have inspired many.

        Julie Kernan tells us that the diaries and papers that make up Raïssa’s Journal came to Jacques as an unexpected gift. They had been entrusted to Antoinette Grunelius and one day at her chateau near Kolbsheim, she turned them over to Jacques. On several large envelopes, Raïssa had written, “To keep, perhaps, for Jacques to look over.” Early in their marriage, Jacques had toyed with the idea of writing his wife’s biography. The diaries and papers brought back memories of their life together, but beyond the pleasures of nostalgia was the sense the Raïssa’s story of her soul could be of help to others. His tendency increasingly was to efface himself before her memory, elevating her to the status of the principal member of the “little flock.” To Thomas Merton he wrote, “You understand that I live now only for her, and by her. During these last years she has spoken to me at length from the other world.” Although Kernan writes that the recipients of the privately printed version urged Jacques to make it known to a wider public, some advised against publication. Jacques had written in his presentation of the journal of the vow he and Raïssa had taken to live as brother and sister. He accepted this “human prudence” as right, since the revelation might be misunderstood or give scandal and Raïssa’s messge not get through. Thomas Merton counseled against publication, and suggested that the book be available only to those who were as madly in love as she. Never one to take advice that did not coincide with his intentions, Jacques replied that what Merton had written was precisely an argument for publication. He described the effect he expected the journal to have on dispersed anonymous souls who, without such encouragement, might perish. He would publish the journal because to do so was “the kind of folly we practiced all our lives and without which we would have done nothing. The decision to publish would come as our last battle.”{2} His soul had become more than half hers.{3}

        Her husband’s high regard for Raïssa and the fact that he speaks of her in the same breath as Saint John of the Cross and Thérèse of Lisieux might seem pardonable pious exaggeration. But Father René Voillaume of the Little Brothers of Jésus, in his introduction, speaks glowingly of the journal, himself suggesting a link between Raïssa’s spiritual experience and that of Thérèse of Lisieux and Brother Charles of Jesus, the founder of the Little Brothers. Believing as he did in his wife’s mystical experience, Jacques could well rank it above his intellectual work.

        And what of himself? There is nothing in his Note Book remotely comparable to the fervent entries in Raïssa’s diaries, which record the ups and downs of her inner life. He speaks of Vera as well as Raïssa as having reached the heights of contemplation. It is difficult to believe that the third member of the trio had not experienced what he recognized in others and wrote about so searchingly. In his case, his vocation as a philosopher is sustained by the prayer life to which he had vowed himself when the Thomistic Circles were formed. His suggestion that it was Raïssa’s prayer that accounted for whatever is good in his philosophical work perhaps tells us indirectly that his own prayer too provided the grace and inspiration for his long lifetime work.

        Raïssa’s memories, her journal, and Jacques’s Note Book put us in contact with the person Jacques Maritain was and the the spiritual ambience that sustained and inspired his intellectual work.


The Catholic Church is the only thing which spares man the degrading slavery of being a child of his times. -- G. K. Chesterton

When Pope John XXIII announced that he was convening an ecumenical council he surprised everyone. Historically, councils have disruptive effects, largely because they are called to settle some crisis in the Church and state their judgments in terms of anathema sit. But John XXIII said that there were no doctrinal problems facing the Church; what he had in mind was looking for ways to evangelize better, to find more effective ways of propagating the Good News. He called it aggiornamento. The first of four sessions began in 1962, and the council closed on December 8, 1965. Paul VI had been elected when John died after the first session. Already there were signs that, whatever the pope’s aim in convening Vatican II, it had unleashed a movement to define the council in ways that had little to do with what was taking place in St. Peter’s. Hundreds of interested parties gathered in Rome, interpreting what was taking place for the secular press. Among those often heard were the periti, or experts, who had been brought by their bishops to advise them. It soon became clear that there were those who saw in the council an opportunity to effect a radical revolution in the Church.

        In Toulouse, in the valley of the Garonne, an aging Jacques Maritain watched warily what was going on. When he decided to speak out it was in a book that was the most controversial he had ever published, The Peasant of the Garonne. The title suggests a plain-speaker, or more negatively, one who puts his foot in his mouth. Maritain was alerting the reader to the fact that he intends to speak with uncharacteristic, even acerbic, frankness.

        From the time of The Letter on Independence, Maritain had meditated on the Right / Left opposition, saying at the time that, while he was by natural disposition of the Left, he considered himself to be neither Left nor Right. What claims his attention now is the way in which this essentially political opposition has been introduced into religious discussions. Was the council Right or Left? Did the council jettison some truths and replace them with others? The attitude he opposes, Maritain describes quite simply as neo-modernism. It has been said that the errors condemned by Pope St. Pius X had continued in a suppressed form for decades, only to emerge at the time of the council as if modernism were vindicated by the call for aggiornamento and the opening of windows to the world.

        The several relevant senses of “world” provide a recurrent theme of the book. On the one hand, the world, God’s creation, is good. On the other hand, from a religious or mystical perspective, the world may either accept Christianity and be saved or oppose it and become inimical. It is in this last sense that the saints advised contempt of the world. Obviously, this does not mean contempt of creation, nor of the world as what Christ came to save. The worldliness, the secularism Maritain condemns involves what he calls a “kneeling to the world,” as if the Church should be guided by secular values. He suggests that it is likely the case that what we are seeing is a necessary first phase, where the message of the council is distorted and falsified and only with time will its true import be felt. We can celebrate the council’s ringing assertion of human freedom and of religious liberty, its condemnation of anti-Semitism, and its affirmation of the role of the laity. Indeed it is only by means of the true spirit of the council that the false spirit can be described and opposed.

        Maritain began this book during the month the council ended and worked on it throughout the spring of 1965. Reading the book now we can fail to appreciate how prophetic it was. Before anyone else, Maritain saw what was happening in the wake of the council. There is no question, of course, of his rejecting or questioning any of the sixteen documents that make up the conciliar teaching. But he saw – better, he recognized having seen it before – the spirit animating those who were trying to turn the council to their own ends. The remedy is to be had in the true spirit, two aspects of which we can emphasize here. As a philosopher, Maritain was appalled by the epistemological relativism that was gaining ground. And, as a contemplative, he opposed a false activism and busyness.

        During the years when the council was meeting, Maritain’s apprehension grew. Julie Kernan writes of a meeting with Jacques on October 3, 1963, when they discussed a number of subjects. “Among them was his feeling that Catholic philosophers were turning away from the systematic Thomism that he taught, and that even among Thomists were appearing trends with which he could not agree in substance. As for the Church, he placed great hope in the renewal of spiritual life that should be brought about by the Second Vatican Council….”{4} These two were among the most prominent subjects treated in The Peasant of the Garonne.

        Maritain had been a foe of idealism all his philosophical life. A good part of his critique of Descartes had aimed at the Father of Modern Philosophy’s making problematic our grasp of external reality. The rise of epistemology, the soi-disant problem of knowledge, is at the center of the modern philosophy Maritain rejected. In one form or another, in thinker following thinker, there were variations on the suggestion that we first know our ideas or knowing – later language – and next decide whether or not they are ideas of something outside the mind. In The Peasant this theme is struck early, with a reference to “epistemological time worship,” having to do largely with the assumption that things that are true at one time cease to be true and are replaced by other, even contradictory truths. Of course “I am seated” can be true at eight o’clock and false at eight-thirty, but truths of the faith are not contingent truths in this way.

        Man is made to know the truth; his intellect is a capacity to know the things that are. The first thing that we know is extramental reality and next, by reflection, we can think about thinking. Realism is thus diametrically opposed to Cartesianism and its many imitators. “Unless one loves the truth, one is not a man. And to love the truth is to love it above everything, because we know that Truth is God Himself.”{5} We know God is truth right from the outset on the basis of faith – I am the way, the truth, and the life – but philosophically we move from truths about the world and to the truth that God exists. The truths we accept on faith invite us to intellectual reflection, a reflection called theology; but theology presupposes philosophy. “In short, faith itself entails and requires a theology and a philosophy.”{6} Maritain is speaking as a Thomist, but the truths he utters are not peculiar to a school. Of course theology has gone down different paths under the banner of aggiornamento, and Maritain refers to the book of Father Marc Oraison – he cannot forbear commenting sardonically on this surname, which means prayer – on the human mystery of sexuality. One of the most striking spectacles of postconciliar theology would be rhapsodizing about sexuality and the treatment of moral virtue as repressive and unhealthy. Here is a clear case of “kneeling to the world,” accepting the neo-pagan pleasure principle. The result would be a distortion of human sexuality, of the family, and the acceptance of contraception and abortion. One can see in this how wrong it would be to interpret the exchange with Journet mentioned above as putting Maritain among those he criticizes here.

        Ideas have consequences, in the famous phrase of Richard Weaver. Bad philosophy not only distorts our grasp of the world, it will have a deleterious effect on the faith. This is why the Church must interest itself in philosophy as well as theology – as most recently in John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio.

        But isn’t there a plurality of philosophies? Must everyone be a Thomist? That there are many philosophies is not something de iure, Maritain writes, but merely de facto. But there are conditions for something being a philosophy worth taking into account. “But we must quickly remove all risk of misunderstanding. What do the words ‘a true philosophy’ or a true theology mean? They signify that since its principles are true, and ordered in a manner which conforms to the real, such a (possible) philosophy or such a (possible) theology is thus equipped to advance from age to age (if those who profess it are not too lazy or complacent) toward a greater measure of truth.”{7}

        And now the author of Antimoderne is heard once more.

Of all the thinkers – and great thinkers – whose lineage has its origin in Descartes, I contest neither the exceptional intelligence, nor the importance, nor the worth, nor, at times, the genius. In regard to them, I challenge only one thing, but that I challenge with might and main, and with certainty of being right: namely their right to the name of philosopher (except, of course, for Bergson, and perhaps also Blondel). In dealing with these children of Descartes we must sweep away this name with the back of our hand. They are not philosophers; they are ideosophers: that is the only name which fits and by which it is proper to call them.{8}

        It is the shared idealism of this Cartesian lineage that underlies Maritain’s judgment. A philosophy that impugns extramental reality is no philosophy, but an ideosophy. He makes a great exception of Marxism which, whatever its flaws, and they are fundamental, is a philosophical doctrine because it takes extramental reality as basic. The problem is it identifies it with matter.

        Maritain places Husserl and phenomenology in the Cartesian lineage. Having recalled the elements of philosophical realism, Maritain writes, “These things Husserl did not see. A man of greatness and fundamental integrity, he deserved the gratitude and affection Edith Stein continued to feel for him while freeing herself from his influence. But like so many others, he was a victim of Descartes and Kant.”{9} The second great bête noire of the book is Teilhard de Chardin, a then influential figure, now all but forgotten.

        Maritain is half apologetic about the severity of his treatment of the mainline of modern philosophers, but it is refreshing to hear a spade called a spade, which is the mark of the peasant of the Garonne. Much of the trouble in postconciliar theology has been the assumption that the theologian could randomly pick a modern philosophy and interpret the faith in its light. But many of these philosophers are intentionally antithetical to the faith and to its basic presuppositions about the human mind. Maritain follows his criticisms with a splendid chapter on Thomas Aquinas.

        But the heart of the book is not here. What Maritain takes the council to be is a call to inwardness, to the spiritual life, to contemplation. Thus we are not surprised when he turns to the themes of Liturgy and Contemplation, putting Raïssa in the center of his meditations. The liturgy of the sacraments or the common recitation of the canonical hours is the worship rendered by the mystical Body of Christ, head and members.{10} Having recalled things said about contemplation in earlier works, Maritain insists that contemplation is the common vocation of the Christian. Here, with obvious satisfaction, he quotes Raïssa.{11} “Saint Thérèse of Lisieux has shown that the soul can tend to the perfection of charity by a way in which the great signs that Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila have described do not appear . . . .”

        In The Peasant of the Garonne, as throughout his career, it is clear that the pursuit of truth and clarity is not at the service merely of winning an argument or negatively appraising the efforts of others. As in few other thinkers, we are always conscious that a person is doing the thinking and that this person aspires to more than the perfection of the mind. From first to last, Maritain’s philosophizing is embedded in the contemplative life. He calls The Peasant an old man’s book, and it is true that in it he is a bit garrulous and repetitive; but it is a great book, the first to see and warn of what enormities would be perpetrated in the name of Vatican II.


Returned to France, feeble, valetudinarian, yet still with years of life ahead of him, Maritain had the great good fortune of being offered a home with the Little Brothers of Jesus in Toulouse. He could share in the life of the community, teach, prepare for eternity. For all his hope and intention to lead an increasingly reclusive life, he was constantly drawn into wider affairs. And new books continued to appear. Summers he spent in Alsace, at Kolbsheim.

        Father Renê Voillaume, a Little Brother of Jesus, had been a friend of the Maritains for years, and Jacques was a great admirer of his. We remember that he was asked to comment on the journal of Raïssa before publication. So this old connection, plus the presence of the Dominicans in Toulouse (and the grave of Thomas Aquinas), would have commended this move to Jacques. For the brothers, he was a great boon, providing seminars for them that blossomed into some of his last books. His themes were often explicitly theological – The Grace and Humanity of Jesus, The Church of Christ -- and he followed the Second Vatican Council closely, viewing interpretations being made of it with alarm, as is indicated by The Peasant of the Garonne. He was consulted by Pope Paul VI before the pontiff issued his Credo of Paul VI.

        In The Peasant, Maritain made much of himself as an old layman, but we have seen that he was a most unusual member of the laity. From the outset of their married life, he and Raïssa – and Vera – had followed a veritable religious rule in their daily life. And of course they were oblates of Saint Benedict. When to this is added the vow Jacques and Raïssa took early in their married life to live as brother and sister, he may seem even more remote from the lives most men and women lead. And then, as he neared his eighty-eighth year, Jacques Maritain himself became a Little Brother of Jesus, taking the vows of religion and becoming a full member of the community. The very simplicity of the community appealed to one who had long advocated le moyens pauvres, slender means, as the most effective. The Brothers built their own chapel and other buildings, and Jacques’s quarters had always been simple and austere.

        Perhaps Jacques senses that many would be puzzled by this move. Taking the vow of chastity at eighty-eight might not seem demanding, but of course Jacques had taken it many years before. Writing to his dear friend Henry Bars, he asked for his prayers and said that he had always had it in his head to end his days under religious obedience. And he hoped his decision could be kept confidential.

        Does Jacques Maritain’s late entry into the religious life diminish the role we have been stressing in this presentation of his life? Is he any less a model for those lay believers whose calling it is to pursue the arts and sciences, philosophy, or theology? The Cercles d’études, it will be remembered, were not restricted to lay people, though the emphasis in the constitution is on the prayer life they must develop. The reason for this emphasis was that religious were already committed to a life of prayer. At the end, Jacques bridged the gap between the two and, I suggest, released his influence from too narrow an interpretation.

        Models of behavior are complicated entities. The saints all imitate Jesus and no two of them are alike. And we lesser mortals take our cue from the saints as well, but not in order to replicate them exactly. Indeed, it is logically impossible to become the clone of anyone else. The life of Jacques Maritain can only be understood as the pursuit of sanctity through the life of study, of philosophy, and, in the end, theology. We can reflect on his life in its singularity and go on to imagine living our own life like that. Over the decades of his life, as often as not unwittingly, Jacques functioned in that way for many. It is the argument of this little book that he still can – and does.

        In March 1973, Jacques, who had suffered a heart attack in Princeton, began to suffer pains in his limbs. For a time he used a wheelchair, but soon he was confined to his bed. On March 19, Holy Thursday, he received Holy Communion and the last rites. On Easter Sunday, he was able to attend Mass; it would be for the last time. On Saturday, April 28, he died. Did anyone think of those lines in the Phaedo? “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.”


He was raised in a broken home, his mother a natural child who became one of France’s first divorcées and resumed her maiden name. His father had been his grandfather’s secretary, was a wastrel, and ended a suicide. As a boy he was radicalized by a socialist servant and instructed in Christianity by a Protestant tutor. Jacques Maritain arrived at the Sorbonne with great talent, a thirst for truth, but little other than politics to slake it. When he met Raïssa Oumansov, he recognized immediately the dimidium animae meae, the other and complementary half of his soul. What would either have become without the other? It is impossible to imagine, so profoundly wed they were, even more profoundly after they vowed to live as brother and sister. A review, a book, the author – what could be more ordinary? Except when the reviewer is Maurice Maeterlinck, the book The Woman Who Was Poor, and the author Léon Bloy. Improbably as it may seem, this was the path the Maritains took to the Church. They became Catholics in a total and profound way, from the beginning determined to draw as close as possible to God in anticipation of eternal union with Him. Guided by Garrigou-Larange, Maritain became one of the two dominant laymen in the Thomistic Revival, the other being Etienne Gilson. A long and ambiguous connection with Action Française was ended with the papal condemnation of the movement. Jacques moved gradually leftward, following his natural disposition, and agitated against the Spanish Civil War, thereby alienating many fellow Catholics who did not understand that he sought to be on neither side. Visits to North America paved the way for a wartime exile in New York, from where his influence radiated over the continent. Raïssa’s memoirs captivated a generation of American Catholics. After serving as his country’s ambassador to the Vatican, Jacques returned to the United States, to Princeton, where he taught for some five years. Retirement and a heart attack resolved him to remain in Princeton. It was there that in 1959, Vera died, and the following year, on their annual visit to France, Raïssa fell ill and died. Alone, Jacques accepted an invitation from the Little Brothers of Jesus and moved to Toulouse. Summers he spent in Kolbsheim, where Raïssa was buried. In extreme old age, Jacques Maritain, the quintessential layman, took the vows of religion as a Little Brother of Jesus. After Raïssa’s death, he thought of himself as preparing for his own, but the more than a decade that remained was a time of great productivity. He died in 1973 and was buried in Kolbsheim with Raïssa.

        Only God knows the real plot of any human story. Our estimates of one another are at best conjectural, based as they must be on signs and visible deeds. It is not the office of a biographer to canonize his subject, but who could fail to see the life of Jacques Maritain in any terms other than those of the quest for Christian perfection, for sanctity? This account of Maritain’s life has made use of only a fraction of the mountains of material available. Many collections of his letters have been published and these are particularly precious, but there are many more in the archives at Kolbsheim awaiting future students of the life and work of Jacques Maritain. For all that, any account, even one based on every jot and tittle of information, would fall short of an adequate account of his life. As I bring this account to a close, I am deeply aware of its inadequacy.

        What I hope to have given is some intimation of the role Jacques Maritain played for those of my generation. Of course, his influence continues to be felt, but to have read him first at the halfway point of the twentieth century was to read one of the main reasons for that golden period of Catholicism. What an incomparable blessing to be introduced to philosophy by a thinker who was both a superb philosopher and a paradigmatic Christian philosopher. How shallow by contrast seem the lives of the secular philosophers who were Maritain’s contemporariesl The lives of Russell and Wittgenstein and Heidegger make melancholy reading; whatever insights one finds here and there in their work, there is absent any satisfying sense of the ultimate point of human life. The great questions, secularized, become trivial: markers in a game. How many modern or contemporary philosophers would one want to be alone with in an elevator, let alone in conversation for half an hour?

        Such judgments may be severe, but they suggest the contrast with Jacques Maritain. First and foremost, one encounters a person of whom one can say: How I would like to be like that! For it is a question of being as much as or more than of knowing. Wasn’t this the genius of Maritain’s treatment of the question of Christian philosophy? Arguments are won or lost, critics obtuse or otherwise are constant; our grasp of truth even after a long lifetime brings the awareness of how little one knows. Thomas Aquinas, a year before he died, dismissed his writings, than which there are no better, as mere straw. Compared to what? To the mystical vision he had been granted. Still, he did not quite stop teaching. In 1274, when he was traveling north from Naples to attend the council to be held at Lyon, he fell ill and was taken to the Cistercian Abbey at Fossanova. There on his deathbed, at the request of the monks, he commented on the Song of Songs. So too, Jacques Maritain at the end of his life wrote a little book on the Song of Songs. Woe is me should I not think with Thomas, he had said, and it was a kind of motto. Vae mihi si non thomistizavero. He became a disciple worthy of his master. For both men, master and disciple, in the end, it was the true end of human life that occupied them.

        Jacques Maritain continues to be the model of the Christian philosopher, of the Thomist, both by what he taught and by what he was. The Church’s prayer in the office for the feast of Thomas Aquinas can apply toutes proportions gardêes, to Jacques Maritain as well.

Deus, qui Ecclesiam tuam beati Thomae Confessoris tui atque Doctoris mira eruditione clarificas, et sancta operatione fecundas: da nobis intellectu conspicere, et quae egit imitatione complere.


{1} Quoted by Jean-Luc Barré, Jacques et Raïssa Maritain, p. 560.

{2} To Thomas Merton. Cf. Barré, ibid., pp. 562-563.

{3} "If there is any good in my philosophical work and in my books, the profound source and light should be sought in her prayer and the offering she made of herself to God." OC XV, p. 160.

{4} Raïssa Maritain. We Have Been Friends Together, p. 171.

{5} Jacques Martain. The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time, trans. Michael Cuddihy and Elizabeth Hughes (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968), p. 85.

{6} Ibid., pp. 85-86.

{7} Ibid., p. 96.

{8} Ibid., p. 101-2.

{9} Ibid., p. 105.

{10} Ibid., p. 214. The reflections on the Mass in the following pages contain some of the best things he ever wrote.

{11} Ibid., p. 234.

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