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Friday, June 11, 2004

Celebrating The Baptism of Jacques and Raissa Maritain

Yesterday, June 10th, was the anniversary of the baptism of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, an incredible couple who -- if any there were -- took the search for truth seriously. I find the story of their early years together nothing short of amazing, as accounted by Dr. Donald DeMarco:

Jacques Maritain was born in Paris on November 18, 1882. He grew up in that city, barely nourished spiritually on the lukewarm Protestantism of his mother. When he entered the Lycée Henri IV, he possessed no particular religious convictions. He enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1901 during France's rich and corrupt Third Republic, a time when rabid French anti-clericalism had turned the Church into an intellectual ghetto. The school's rigid empiricism had effectively excluded any respectful discussion of spiritual matters. One day, as Jacques walked hand in hand through a Paris park with his Jewish girl friend, Raissa, the two made a pact that if, within a year, they could not find any meaning to life beyond the material, they would commit suicide.

That despair dissolved when they heard lectures at the Collège de France given by Henri Bergson, whose theories of creative evolution exalted the spirit of man and his ability to discover the intelligibility of things through intuition. In 1905, Jacques and Raissa, now newlyweds, met a passionate Catholic named Leon Bloy ("A Christian of the second century astray in the Third Republic'') who led them into the Catholic faith. 1

Gerard Serafin blogs Raissa's account of their spiritual conversion and baptism from their memoirs We Have Been Friends Together. In embracing the Catholic faith, the couple overcame many spiritual obstacles, not least of which was the material image of the Church itself:

"Although the speculative debate was ended for us, we still had many feelings of repugnance to overcome. The Church in her mystical and saintly life we found infinitely lovable. We were ready to accept her. She promised us Faith by Baptism: we were going to put her word to the test.

But in the apparent mediocrity of the Catholic world, and in the mirage which to our ill-seeing eyes seemed to bind her to the forces of reaction and oppression, she appeared to us strangely hateful. She seemed to us to be the society of the fortunate of this world, the supporter and ally of the powerful, to be bourgeois, pharisaical, remote from the people.

That Jacques and Raissa were able to look beyond their negative impressions of the Church, to consider its claims to truth and to seek reception in baptism, is a good lesson for those who find themselves in a similar position today.

In addition to the scorn and alienation of many of their friends and family, Jacques believed that upon entering the Church he would have to relenquish his pursuit of philosophy:

Our suffering and dryness grew greater every day. Finally we understood that God also 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.

We still thought that to become Christian meant to abandon philosophy forever. Well, we were ready - but it was not easy - to abandon philosophy for the truth. Jacques accepted this sacrifice. The truth we had so greatly desired had caught us in a trap. "If it has pleased God to hide His truth in a dunghill," Jacques said, "that is where we shall go to find it." I quote these cruel words to give some idea of our state of mind.

How fortunate for us, that Jacques would subsequently discover the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and continue to enrich the Church with his philosophical investigations. Catholics of many stripes have been influenced by (and lay claim to) Maritain's thought: "neoconservatives", progressives, traditionalists, Catholic Workers -- we can consider ourselves blessed. To echo Michael Novak:

". . . so many of us feel immensely indebted to this layman, perhaps the greatest exemplar of the Catholic laity in the last two centuries: this master of many wisdoms, this metaphysician, this philosopher at once humane and Christian (and able to speak in either of those languages), this ethicist and philosopher of history, this political philosopher, this saintly and childlike man.2

Related Links:

  1. The Christian Personalism of Jacques Maritain Faith and Reason Summer 1991
  2. A Salute to Jacques Maritain, by Michael Novak. The Catholic Writer: The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 2 (1989): 65-82.


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