Friendship With God After a Time of Tragedy

Raïssa Maritain finished the second volume of her autobiography, Les Grandes Amitiés (Great Friendships) in the summer of 1944, in East Hampton, New York, where the doctor had prescribed her rest.[1] She was fifty-six. That same summer, Allied forces liberated Paris on August 25th.[2] She and her husband, Jacques Maritain, had fled France four years earlier with the Gestapo on their heels. 

Raïssa’s autobiography was an exercise in remembering, and mourning, past friendships. Close friends Ernest Psichari and Charles Péguy had been killed in the first year of the Great War. Raïssa’s godfather, Léon Bloy, died in 1917. Henri Bergson, a beloved professor, died during the German occupation. Too many friends perished in the Holocaust.[3] Throughout the autobiography, she speaks about her friends much more than she speaks about herself.

At the same time, Les Grandes Amitiés was Raïssa’s way of making sense of her own life. In the introduction to the first volume, she wrote, 

How could I have spoken of those who are dear to me . . . of a period in which everything (even anguish and suffering) now seems to me like a paradise lost,without at the same time living again my own life with which all these things are . . . so inextricably entwined? Our friends are a part of our life, and our life explains our friendships.[4]

“Our life explains our friendships.” This line could come off as trite, or cloying. Yet, by the time she published Les Grandes Amitiés, the first volume in 1941, the second in 1944—Raïssa had a profound understanding of human and divine friendship, informed by a life of study and contemplation. In particular, her lifelong effort to promote contemplation among laypeople—as she put it, to take contemplation from the monastic enclosure to the roads, “sur les chemins”—shaped her thoughts on friendship. It is no accident, then, that her autobiography gives pride of place to her friends. 

In what follows I offer a brief biography of the early life of Raïssa Maritain: a Thomistic philosopher, poet, mystic, and spouse of Jacques Maritain. Then, I turn to the theme of friendship in light of Raïssa’s thoughts on the contemplative life.

Biography: The Sorbonne

Raïssa Oumançoff enrolled in the science curriculum at the Sorbonne in 1900. The precocious seventeen-year-old, a Russian émigré who had been living in France since the age of ten, had great expectations that the sciences would help her to know the truth about life— in her words, “To know what is.”[5] Raïssa had all but abandoned her Jewish faith, but still searched for some meaning, “in order that human life not be a thing absurd and cruel.”[6] Her hopes were dashed when one professor, a neuroscientist, called her metaphysical questions “mysticism”[7]—suggesting that the truth she sought, which transcended empirical observation was “unlovely,” and, “could be uttered only between the quotation marks of a disillusioned smile.”[8]

Around this time, Raïssa met a fellow student, “a young man with a gentle face,” who asked her to participate in a protest against the ill-treatment of Russian socialist students in France.[9] This was not the smoothest of pickup lines, but Jacques Maritain and Raïssa soon became inseparable. In her autobiography, she introduced him as “the greatest of my friends.”[10 ] He, in turn, called her dimidium animae meae—half of my soul. “Together,” Raïssa wrote, “we had to think out the entire universe anew, the meaning of life, the fate of man, the justice and injustice of societies.”[11]

Jacques and Raïssa admired their professors, but could not find the meaning of life in an educational philosophy that rejected metaphysics and the transcendent. They recognized futility of empiricism. In class, “Jacques would draw pictures of grimacing little men who through some inordinate effort hoisted themselves up from the ground with their own hair as a halyard.”[12]

Lighter moments such as these gave way to “metaphysical anguish” as the couple realized that scientism, and its attendant skepticism, logically culminated in moral nihilism.[13] What was existence—an accident? A blessing? A misfortune? They decided, with the melancholy and passionate intensity appropriate to young French lovers, to search for the absolute meaning of existence, and, if it did not come after a matter of time, to kill themselves. “Suicide,” Raïssa recalled, “before the years accumulated their dust, before our youthful strength was spent. We wanted to die by a free act if it were impossible to live according to the truth.”[14] Within two years, the couple would be married (1904); in four years, they would be baptized Catholics.

Léon Bloy

Two people were instrumental in Jacques and Raïssa’s conversion to Catholicism. The first was Henri Bergson, who lectured on metaphysics at the College of France. The couple attended these lectures with their friends; they arrived early for good seats. In Bergson, Jacques and Raïssa found someone who could help answer their existential questions. One might say he placed before them the fact of the human spirit.[15]

The second person instrumental in their conversion was author Léon Bloy.[16] Through his life, writing, and his love for the saints, Raïssa recalled, Bloy “placed before us the fact of sanctity.” After they were married, the young couple came across one of his novels, La Femme Pauvre.The prose was unlike anything they had ever encountered. Raïssa recalled, “What struck us so forcibly on first reading La Femme Pauvre was the immensity of this believer’s soul.”[17] In June of 1905, the couple wrote Bloy a fan letter, and he invited them to visit him in Montmartre. 

This was the beginning of a deep friendship between the Maritains and the Bloy family. Léon, his wife Jeanne, and daughter Véronique opened their home and table to Jacques and Raïssa.They gave from their poverty. Raïssa recalled that at times, Léon Bloy would come to dinner with his “jacket collar carefully buttoned up to the top.” She continued, “Most often at this time no shirt collar appeared above it; it was perfectly evident that he had no shirt.”[18]

Despite the meager meals, Raïssa wrote, “We shared the royal feast of their charity, while listening to them speak of the wonders of God.”[19] Véronique would sing songs of her own composition; Bloy would read his latest work, the ink barely dried. Raïssa remembered this time fondly as “a communion of hearts,” and “a time of rest.” And Bloy described the early days of the friendship as reminiscent of those Spirit-filled events in the Acts of the Apostles.[20] “I have never seen anything more astonishing than your dear friendship, Jacques and Raïssa,” he wrote in his journal, “you who give us your heart.”[21]

It is striking that an intelligent young woman who valued academic learning, read Plotinus, and wished, above all, to “know what is” (after the manner of metaphysics) was so captivated—not by a book, nor a lecture, but a life in all its ephemeral particularity: a table, a child’s song, a jacket buttoned up to the collar. The woman who sought to know the truth beyond the domain of observation was struck by Bloy’s visceral sanctity.[22] “Having seen Léon Bloy,” she wrote,

We could no longer limit ourselves to a literary admiration . . . We had to go further, we had to consider the principles, the sources, the motives of such a life. This time we were brought face to face with the question of God, both in all its power and in all its urgency.[23]

While Jacques and Raïssa did study and discuss Catholic doctrine together, Raïssa’s autobiography remembers their friendship with Bloy as the ultimate persuasion for conversion—so much so, at the time of their baptism, Jacques and Raïssa found the institutional church somewhat bourgeois, and off-putting, and thought they’d have to abandon philosophy and forswear the intellectual life![24] It was only after their baptism that Jacques and Raïssa discovered the compatibility between faith and philosophy. Raïssa began reading Aquinas’s Summa Theologica during a period of convalescence: Jacques came to know the work of the Angelic Doctor even later. They were baptized, along with Raïssa’s sister Vera, in 1906—Léon Bloy was their godfather.

Growing in Faith

In 1908, Vera moved in with the Maritains, followed by her mother. They were natural additions to the family, which they affectionately called “the little flock.” Jacques, Raïssa, and Vera became oblates of Saint Benedict in September of 1912. Shortly thereafter, Jacques and Raïssa took a secret vow to renounce conjugal relations in their marriage, in order to devote themselves more fully to contemplation.[25] Daily life from thence forward resembled more of an intentional lay community than a traditional marriage. 

Though she was frequently ill, Raïssa collaborated with Jacques on his work.[26] She reviewed everything he wrote and published in French and English, and they co-authored several books together.[27] She also wrote poetry, gave lectures, and hosted a great number of people at their home, many of whom eventually converted to the Catholic faith. The Maritains had a little chapel installed in their home so Mass could be celebrated there. A friend, Olivier Lacombe, remembered Raïssa as “the hostess and the heart of the home,” who listened to others with “a truly prodigal self-giving.”[28]

The Maritains also founded the “Thomistic Circle,” in 1919, a society dedicated to the prayerful study of Thomas Aquinas. Réginald Garrigou–Lagrange became the Director General and gave the first retreat in September of 1922.[29]TheThomistic Circle lasted until 1939—one of the casualties of World War II, as Ralph McInerny notes.[30]

Raïssa’s prayer life also deepened during this time. A spiritual director gave her permission to devote as much time as she desired to contemplation, oraison. Journal entries from this period describe absorption in prayer for hours at a time. She vacillates between joy and spiritual anguish, which is sometimes punctuated by physical suffering. It is also during this period that Raïssa’s understanding of human and divine friendship took shape. 

Raïssa on Friendship 

In a journal entry from Easter Sunday, 1924, Raïssa outlines the difference between friendship with God and love of God. Friendship with God is analogous to human friendship—it is a disinterested love that entails the desire for the good of one’s friend, even when this requires making a personal sacrifice. God loves us with friendship by providing for all our necessities and by dying on the cross. A person is a friend of God if she keeps God’s commandments.[31]Raïssa seems to be working here from Christ’s “new commandment” in Jn 13:34, and the line, “You are my friends if you keep my commandments (Jn 15:14).“God loves us with love,” on the other hand, “By making . . . the sanctified soul his dwelling.”[32]

There's an exclusive element to love of God that is not present in friendship with God. The lover of God must give her whole heart, with the help of the Holy Spirit, “in such a way that no other love ever dwells in it.”[33] What are we to make of this distinction between friendship with God and love of God, especially since Raïssa would have known that Aquinas defines charity itself as a friendship with God (II-IIae q. 23 a.1)? Raïssa never returns to this explicitly in her journal, nor does her autobiography mention it.

Jacques Explains Raïssa’s Thoughts on Friendship

Jacques elaborates on this 1924 journal entry in an essay, “Love and Friendship,”first published in 1965, after Raïssa’s death. He wrote the essay at the behest of friends who sought clarification about Raïssa’s words. I am incorporating Jacques’s thoughts here, since the Maritains were such intellectual confidants, and his description is consistent with texts they co-authored many years earlier, such as Prayer and Intelligence and Liturgy and Contemplation

Raïssa conceives of love and friendship as expressions of the same disinterested love, amor amicitiae.[34] Friends and lovers of God both possess the charity of the Holy Spirit; for charity is friendship with God (ST II-IIae q. 23 a. 1). What differs between them is how a person loves God in relation to the gift of herself.[35] A friend of God gives herself primarily through other things—like the keeping of the commandments or the love of neighbor—and only secondarily does she give her whole self to God (although a gift of something always implies a certain gift of self). A lover of God, on the other hand, gives her whole self totally and absolutely.[36] Jacques calls this latter love amour fou,” that is, “mad, boundless love,” or “crazy love.”Both friendship and amour fou are agapic, but the latter is also erotic; it is a spousal love of a spiritual character, which involves total, mutual self-giving between God and the human person.[37] In this case, “It is the very person of the lover [that] is the Gift.”[38]

The love of God with amour fou takes place in what Jacques calls “the mystical state,” which is divided into two expressions of the contemplative life—the most perfect is typical contemplation, recognizable in saints like Teresa of Avila; the other is a “masked contemplation,” contemplation masquée, in which a person predominantly engages in the active life, but with a heart that has already been fully given over to God. Vincent de Paul is an example of such a “masked contemplative.” A person in the mystical state also possesses the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, although a masked contemplative makes use of certain gifts—piety, counsel, fortitude, fear—while a typical contemplative primarily exercises the gifts of wisdom and understanding.

Rather than seeing friendship and the mystical state as distinct vocations, for example, of monastics and lay Christians, the Maritains thought of them as steps on the path to spiritual perfection. Anyone who possesses charity is already a friend of God; but charity deepens and develops such that, either in this life or the next, a person will ultimately give herself wholly to God in the mystical state, with a mad, boundless, love.

Even people living a full vocation to marriage, with its procreative and unitive ends, can live in this mystical state, provided they renounce a mad, boundless love for their spouse and give themselves wholly to God.[39] Jacques writes, 

If a soul has entered into amour fou for God, then it is necessary for it to renounce human amour fou . . . Because disinterested love[, in which] the Beloved is truly and really given the Whole of the Lover, has to be unique to the soul,and if such a love (amour fou) is given to God, it has to be given only to him. 

Raïssa’s Journal corroborates this notion in practical spiritual terms: She wrote

How can I prove my love to [God]? By giving myself to him from the bottom of my heart, in such a way that no other love ever dwells in it. In this sense, God is jealous. He is not jealous of our friendships, on the contrary, he encourages them. But he is jealous of that particular gift of the heart which is love, and which is total and exclusive in its nature.[40]

So, friendship and the mystical state make up three degrees of spiritual perfection—friendship, masked contemplation, and typical contemplation—normative for all baptized Christians, and differentiated by gift: both by the manner of the person’s gift of self and by the way the gifts of the Holy Spirit are present.

This three-tiered progress in the spiritual life is recognizably Thomistic. In II-IIae q. 24 a.9, Aquinas speaks of three degrees of charity, that of beginners, the proficient, and the perfect.[41] Aquinas does not, however, connect these degrees of charity directly with any kind of mystical state. These themes come from John of the Cross. 

This is perhaps not so unusual to see in Raïssa’s work, for the Maritains adored both Aquinas and the Spanish mystics.[42] What is more unusual for the time is that Jacques and Raïssa emphasized that the mystical state is possible and appropriate for every baptized Christian—as their friend Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange put it, it is “the normal, rightful end of the life of grace.” 

Jacques’s description of the three spiritual stages in Amor et Amitié is nearly identical with that of Garrigou-Lagrange in his work, Christian Perfection and Contemplation According to Thomas Aquinas and John of the Cross, first published in 1923, while he was Director General of the Thomistic Circle. On September 30 of 1924—the same year of the Easter entry on friendship and love—Raïssa notes that she and Jacques met with Père Garrigou to discuss this book. He agreed with “nearly all” the corrections they asked him to make to the new edition of his book—Christian Perfection and Contemplation.[43]

 

Conclusion

So, Raïssa’s understanding of friendship with God stems from an effort to establish continuity between the mystical life and the sanctifying grace given to every baptized Christian. This emerged as the fruit of conversations in the early Thomistic circles. It represents an effort on the part of the Maritains, Garrigou-Lagrange, and others, to connect the habit of charity normative to the state of grace with the call to contemplation, which, in previous centuries, had been relegated to specific exalted individuals.[44]

If this total self-gift of the mystical state is “the normal, rightful end of the life of grace,” what is left for our human friends? Let alone our lovers? Raïssa’s Journal and autobiography address this question implicitly. For her, human friendships have a very particular place, a place that is exalted in its right-orderedness to other things. Human friendship finds its glory in being what it ought to be, nothing more, nothing less.

It is now evident why Raïssa held friendships in such high esteem and why, at the same time, she could say of her friendships: “I love to have my hands full of them but I don’t close my fists on them; they can escape me and fly away, without affecting any essential part of me.”[45] This also makes clear how Léon Bloy, who clearly had an amour fou for God, could befriend a young couple on the brink of suicide, and guide them to the Lord.

In learning about her friends, then, we come to learn more about Raïssa. Still, when one reads Les Grandes Amitiés, the reader gets the sense that the author, in speaking of her own life through her friendships, remains behind a veil. Perhaps the way to understand Raïssa is not to further scrutinize her spiritual life, but to enter fully into our own call to a mad, boundless love of God—either in the enclosure, or on the roads of the world.


[1]Raïssa Maritain, Journal(Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1974),300 fn. 15.

[2]Ibid.,300.

[3]Raïssa writes to her friend Achsa Belkind in 1945: “Human madness and human cruelty have been given permission to go to all lengths, unchecked, and speaking of the six million massacred of whom so little is said, we counted very close friends among them: three of the Jacobs—the old mother, his daughter Babet, his son Manu . . . And Fondane and his sister and the elder brother of our friends Jean and Suzanne Marx (Suzanne became my goddaughter this spring)” (Ibid., 303).

[4]Raïssa Maritain, We Have Been Friends Together and Adventures in Grace(South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s, 2016), 2.

[5]We Have Been Friends 27. This was the reply Raïssa gave to her philosophy tutor Charles Rappoport, when he asked what she wanted, more than anything, to know

[6]Ibid.,21.                                                                                                    

[7]Ibid., 31.

[8]Ibid.,51.

[9]Ibid., 31.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ibid., 32.

[12]Ibid., 47.

[13]Ibid.,55.

[14]Ibid.,57.

[15]Michael Novak, “Léon Bloy’s Role in the Catholicism of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain.” Commonweal. March 24, 2016.

[16]Suther suggests Bergson “deepened their receptiveness” to Bloy. Judith Suther, Raïssa Maritain: Pilgrim, Poet, Exile (New York: Fordham, 1990).

[17]We Have Been Friends, 77.

[18]Ibid.,106

[19]Ibid.,106                                                     

[20]Ibid.,107.

[21]Ibid.

[22]Jacques recalled, “Bloy appeared to us as the contrary of other men. . . . Instead of being a whitened sepulcher, like the Pharisees of every time, he was a fire-stained and blackened cathedral. The whiteness was within, in the depth of the tabernacle”⁠ (Ibid.,87).

[23]Ibid.,88.

[24]Ibid.,127.

[25]Jean-Luc Barré, Beggars for Heaven(Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame, 2005).

[26]In the introduction to her Journal, he writes, “If there is anything good in my philosophical works, and in my books, this has its deep source and light in her contemplative prayer and in the oblation of herself she made to God” (8).

[27]Journal 13. We have pages of his writing with her notes scribbled all over them—which, being married to another academic, I can imagine must have been an exercise in charity.

[28]Journal401. They moved to Meudon in 1923.

[29]Journal 132.

[31]Probably, here, the “new commandment” spoken of in the same passage of John—“Love one another.”

[32]Journal 20th April 1924.

[33]Ibid.

[34]To be contrasted with amor concupiscentiae, following: Thomas Aquinas, ST I-IIae q. 26.

[35]Jacques Maritain, Notebooks(Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1984). Jacques is very deliberate here in distinguishing between the intensity or greatness of the love and what he calls the intrinstic quality or ontological greatness of the love.

[36]Ibid.,221.

[37]Journal 162 fn 2, by Jacques Maritain.

[38]Notebooks 221.

[39]It is possible to possess such a love for God and remain fully in the sacrament of marriage, for the core of marriage is a spiritual friendship between the spouses, that, while the carnal aspects of the marriage dissolve in heaven, remains in heaven.

[40]Journal April 20, 1924.

[41]This is in continuity with Augustine, and with the purgative, illuminative, unitive way attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius.

[42]Raïssa calls Teresa and Juan “the doctors par excellence of the spiritual life” (We Have Been Friends 166).

[43]Journal September 30, 1924.

[44]I think in this way Raïssa is a little Thérèsian—she simplifies a tradition of lofty mystical theology, she makes a “little way” out of contemplation by taking contemplation “to the roads” of the world. It’s an analogous vision to Thérèse; we might say this is what the little way might look like for lay intellectuals.

[45]Journal, October 24th 1931.

Feature Image: Photo by US Federal Government, Liberation of Paris, 26 August 1944; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.

Author

Jane Peters

Jane Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Marquette University. She resides in New York City with her husband.

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