To know what is.” The young Raïssa Oumansov gave her response without hesitation. Her tutor for the Baccalaureat examinations had just asked her what, above all, she wanted to learn. it was a precocious response for a sixteen-year-old to give, but the professor was gratified. It revealed that his young charge had a philosophical mind.1 The future Raïssa Maritain did indeed have a philosophical mind. She viewed philosophy, however, from the perspective of her Hasidic Jewish roots. She was searching to know the truth about a personal God in the face of human suffering.2
Raïssa Maritain was born into a pious Jewish family of modest means in the Russian port city of Rostov-on-Don in 1883. When she was two years old, her father, who was a tailor, moved his family to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. During the ten years that Raïssa lived in the Russian Empire, she was deeply shaped by the piety and traditions of her observant family, especially by the example of her maternal grandfather. Impressed, even at an yearly age, by his joy and gentle goodness, she learned as the years passed the deep source from which they sprang: “they came from his great piety, the piety of the Hasidim, that Jewish mysticism which has its various aspects, sometimes leaning toward the intellect, sometimes toward the emotions, . . . My grandfather’s religion was one altogether of love and confidence, of joy and charity.”3 Raïssa’s understanding of her Hasidic heritage is best seen in her description of the work and personality of another Russian Jew, her friend Marc Chagall.
The tender spiritual joy that permeates his work was born with him in Vitebsk, in Russian soil, in Jewish soil. It is thus penetrated with melancholy, pierced by the sting of nostalgia and a hard-pressed hope. Truly, Jewish joy is not like any other; one might say that by sending its roots deeply into the reality of life, Jewish joy simultaneously draws from this reality the tragic sense of its fragility and of death.4
With images drawn from Chagall’s paintings, Raïssa continues:
The Jewish bride cries under the wedding canopy. The little Jew who dances does not lose the memory of his misery; by dancing he mocks it and accepts it as his divine lot. If he sings, he sings with sighs; for he is penetrated with the past sufferings of his people and his soul is bathed in the prophetic awareness of the unimaginable sufferings that are reserved for it. Did not God forewarn them about it? Did not God take the trouble, something he did not do for any other people, to tell them through the prophet Isaiah, through Jeremiah and the other great voices of the Bible, about the purifications that his love reserves for them? They know all of these things, those Jews who have not given themselves over to the secular world, but are bathed each day in the living waters of the Scriptures. They know these things, the Jews of Chagall.5
Raïssa Maritain was also to know them. In describing Chagall’s art, she describes herself. Her life and work were also suffused with a “tender spiritual joy” that was “penetrated with melancholy,” and “pierced by the sting of nostalgia and a hard-pressed hope.” The song she sings throughout her writings, she sings with sighs: she too was permeated with the past sufferings of her people; her soul too was bathed in the awareness of the sufferings that are reserved for all wayfarers on earth. By the time she wrote her reflections on Chagall, she had already long discovered the mystery of human suffering revealed in Christ. Yet, that was later. First, she was to undergo exile and a painful search for meaning.
Raïssa’s parents recognized that she and her younger sister Vera were intellectually quite gifted. They also knew, however, and were frequently reminded, that as Jews in Imperial Russia their position was precarious. Hence, when Raïssa was barely ten, her parents decided that they should emigrate as a family to France. They settled in Paris. Paris would become for Raïssa Oumansov her second homeland, more beloved to her than any other place on earth. Paris would bring Raïssa her deepest joys. It would introduce her to the people who would shape her life and bring her to the Catholic faith. It would also give her the gift of the French language, which she would master, becoming a stylist of great clarity, warmth and simple beauty. It would first, however, be a cause of deep pain for her.
Exile from their homeland not only uprooted them from their friends and family, it also occasioned a loss of faith. Like many Russian Jews who came to Paris at the turn of the century, the Oumansovs were confronted with fin de siecle materialism and scientific rationalism and their faith in the personal God of the Covenant began to fade from view. Already by age fourteen, Raïssa posed for herself the problem of God and suffering.
Now that I knew (at least I dimly perceived it) how unhappy or wicked men could be, I wondered if God really existed. I recall very clearly that I reasoned thus: If God exists, He is also infinitely good and all-powerful. But if He is good, how can He permit suffering? And if He is all-powerful, how can He tolerate the wicked? Therefore He is not all-powerful nor infinitely good; therefore He does not exist.6
At this point in her life, her questions remained on the level of “ideas proposed rather than affirmed.”7 She still stepped back from despair and loss of faith in God, because she still hoped to find a solution to the problem. She guarded the hope that her future professors at the Sorbonne held the key to the knowledge she sought.
When Raïssa began her studies at the University of Paris she was seventeen years old and the year was 1900. It was a time of great scientific achievement and the Sorbonne was one of its centers. Marie and Pierre Curie, for example, had discovered radium there only two years before. It was natural, therefore, for Raïssa to turn to the sciences for the answers she sought. To her dismay, however, she soon discovered that her professors were either strict materialists or simply did not pose for themselves philosophical questions concerning truth and meaning. Hope began to wane in her heart. Yet, she also continued to await “some great event, some perfect fulfillment.”8 The first step toward that fulfillment came when she met the man who would become her greatest companion during her earthly pilgrimage. II. Her Greatest Friend: Jacques Maritain and Their Journey to the Truth
II. Her greatest friend: Jacques Maritain and their journey to the truth
Almost from the moment that Jacques Maritain introduced himself to Raïssa Oumansov they became inseparable. They were both students at the Sorbonne, he a year older than she, and they both were searching for the meaning of their lives. Jacques Maritain came from a family that embodied the values of the French Revolution.”9 Maritain offers a revealing description of these values in his account of the intellectual outlook that filled the home of his closest boyhood friend, Renan’s grandson, Ernest Psichari. He explains that his friend’s home was suffused by:
a spirit of moral inquiry that was extremely broad and lofty, but foreign to all metaphysical certainty, a marked tendency to ignore the conflicts created by the opposition of intellectual principles. You did not fight Christianity, you were deeply persuaded that you had assimilated it and outgrown it.10
Maritain was raised in a similar intellectual climate. He early discovered, however, what many others of his generation would one day recognize: the metaphysical agnosticism that was their heritage was too thin a soil for the sense of justice that burned in their hearts. To withstand the winds of tyranny, justice needs deep roots and a rich soil in which to sink them. It was during his search for that rich metaphysical soil that Jacques encountered Raïssa. In the friendship that grew between them, they undertook the search together.
As they pursued their studies, the calm materialism and convinced atheism of their science professors left them cold. The philosophers at the Sorbonne were equally disappointing to them.
Our teachers were philosophers, yet they in fact had lost all hope in philosophy.... Through some curious de facto contradiction, they sought to verify everything by processes of material learning and of positive verification, and yet they despaired of truth, whose very name was unlovely to them and could be used only between the quotation marks of a disillusioned smile.”11
The cumulative effect of their years of study led Raïssa and Jacques to the threshold of despair. For Raïssa, her exile from the homeland of faith that began when her family first left Russia was now reaching its lowest ebb.
We swam aimlessly in the waters of observation and experience like a fish in the depths of the sea, without ever seeing the sun whose dim rays filtered down to us,... And sadness pierced me, the bitter taste of the emptiness of a soul which saw the lights go out, one by one.12
In the midst of their distress, Jacques and Raïssa reached a fateful decision that would shape the rest of their lives. While strolling through Paris beloved Jardin des Plantes they both agreed that if it were impossible to know the truth, to distinguish good from evil, just from unjust, then it was impossible to live with dignity. In such a case it would be better to die young through suicide than to live an absurdity. Something, however, kept them from taking that final step. Their refusal to accept the absurd and their desire to know truth, a desire that caused them great suffering, seemed to point to something beyond the absurd.
What saved us then, what made our real despair still a conditional despair was precisely our suffering. That almost unconscious dignity of the mind saved our minds through the presence of an element which could not be reduced to the absurdity into which everything seemed to be trying to lead us.13
Thus, they decided to give “the unknown” a chance to explain itself to them and to reveal a truth that they could live by.
In the days that followed, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain were to discover the wondrous fact that the Unknown God “desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2:4). God in his great mercy led them to Christ, to baptism in the Catholic Church and to the consolation of the Eucharist. Their way to faith in Christ had many twists and turns. It led from the philosopher Henri Bergson, through the writings of Plotinus and Ruysbroeck, and finally by way of Maeterlinck to the writer and fiery lay preacher, Leon Bloy. In reading Bloy’s great novel, The Woman Who Was Poor, the Maritains encountered the profile and the grandeur of the Christian saint. “What struck us so forcibly on first reading La Femme Pauvre was the immensity of this believer’s soul, his burning zeal for justice, the beauty of a lofty doctrine which for the first time rose up before our eyes.”14 Upon meeting Bloy and his family, they were even more impressed. His poverty, his faith, his heroic independence, all spoke to the young Maritains of the life-giving mystery of Christ. Entering Bloy’s home seemed to them a homecoming. They recognized in his description of sanctity and in his efforts to live it — with its zeal for divine justice, its desire for truth and its tender love for the afflicted — the image of the longings present in their own hearts.
Equally important for Raïssa was Bloy’s book Le Salut par les Juifs (Salvation through the Jews). Although Bloy’s earthy and prophetic style was often offensive to the very people he intended to defend, Raissa recognized in Bloy’s description of the vocation of the Jewish people the key to solving the problem that had plagued her since childhood: the problem of God and suffering. The key was Christ. Paradoxically, by leading Raïssa to Christ, Bloy gave back to her the Jewish faith of her childhood, now brought to completion in the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. Bloy was explaining something to Raïssa that she somehow already sensed: the salvific power of human suffering when in God’s grace it is united to the sufferings of Christ.
Léon Bloy was perhaps the most remarkable figure to arise in France at the twilight of the nineteenth century. Destitute, constantly harassed by creditors, with a wife and two children to feed, Bloy spent his life thundering against France’s rejection of God and the lukewarm complacency of those believers who still remained. At the very moment when Paris was preparing to celebrate its paean to human progress — the Exposition of 1900 — Bloy was telling France to prepare for the destruction that would befall her: “The Exposition ... ought not to take place, because Paris and all nations will have enough to do with hardening their sinews against death.”15 When war finally did come, with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Bloy remarked that it was “only the beginning.”16 In 1916, in the preface of Au Seuil del’ Apocalypse (At the Threshold of the Apocalypse ), Bloy writes, “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a nation was found to undertake something that had never been seen since the beginning of History: THE EXTINCTION OF SOULS. This was called German Culture.”17 This hyperbolic assessment, so characteristic of Bloy, pointed out a real truth: something was terribly wrong in Germany, and it was spreading. Bloy was particularly concerned with the new strain of anti-Semitism that was arising around him. It was no longer this or that individual Jew or community of Jews that was being attacked. Jews were now in danger as an entire race. Remarkably, Bloy was writing this in 1916!
Bloy’s message was not solely a message of destruction. He also spoke of a coming renewal. Christians would have to suffer, but united to Christ their sufferings would purify them and help many souls find the healing love of God. Mysteriously, in Bloy’s view, the sufferings of the Jews were a sign that pointed to the Christ, their fellow Jew who suffered with them. Bloy’s mission, as he saw it, was to help France prepare to walk with Christ the way of Calvary so that the Church might be renewed.
Raïssa was receptive to Bloy’s message. In 1906, with Jacques and Vera, she was baptized into the Catholic Church, with Léon and Jeanne Bloy as her godparents. From that point on, Raïssa began to discern the features of her vocation. She was being called to live in union with Christ. She was also being invited, through a life of prayer and study, to put into words — in prose and poetry — the truths she was now discovering in Christ. In the years that followed, physical and emotional suffering would never be far from her, but there was also peace and a quiet joy. She was strengthened by the growing conviction that in Christ her sufferings were secretly working for the good of souls. The life that she and Jacques were to live in the service of the Church is best understood as an effort to live Bloy’s vision.
The years between their baptism and the outbreak of the First World War were a time of spiritual gestation for the Maritains, and for many others in Europe. Those years saw the conversion of Jacques’ sister and Raïssa’s father. A number of their friends also converted at this time, including two who had become dear to many in France through their writings and exploits: Jacques’ boyhood friend, Ernest Psichari, and his early mentor, Charles Péguy. During those years, Jacques and Raïssa with her sister Vera became Benedictine oblates, establishing together a domestic community of prayer and study. Jacques and Raïssa had decided to live as brother and sister, forsaking marital intimacy and the joys of raising a family in order to dedicate themselves more deeply to their vocation to serve the truth. It was also during those years that the Maritians discovered Thomas Aquinas and began, under the guidance of their Dominican mentors, to study his works in depth.
Although Jacques was already beginning to become known in France through his articles, it was only after the First World War that his life as a philosopher began in earnest. Having received a bequest in support of his work from a soldier killed at the front, the Maritains were able to buy a home in Meudon, a village not far from Paris, and bring their plans to fruition. They could live a life of prayer and study, and make their home a center for Catholic thought and culture, under the patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas. Their home became a place where artists and intellectuals could find friendship and lively discussion. The guest lists to their home during those years read like a Who’s Who of the Catholic intellectual revival in France. It was during the Meudon years that Raïssa’s public life as a writer and a poet began.
III. Her work: Life in the service of the truth
of poems by Raïssa Maritain
Raïssa Maritain’s first publication was the slender La Vie d’Oraison (Prayer and Intelligence), a work she wrote with Jacques as a spiritual guidebook for the Thomistic study groups she and Jacques had formed. The goal of this little work was to convey to the members of the study groups the priority of prayer and Christian love for progress in the intellectual life: “the intelligence itself can only develop its highest powers in so far as it is protected and fortified by the peace given by prayer. The closer a soul approaches God by love, the simpler grows the gaze of her intelligence and the clearer her vision.”18 The intellectual life, therefore, must be fortified by the contemplative life if it is to make real progress in discovering truth and in leading others to know and love the truth.
Raïssa took to heart the message of her book and strove to live it. From the earliest days of her conversion she felt an intense call to contemplative prayer. It was during this period that Raïssa began to write her Journal, which was published only after her death. With arresting clarity she describes the Lord’s action in her life and her struggles to understand and respond. Brief insights — “To love and understand one’s neighbor one must forget oneself”19 — are interspersed with descriptions of her struggles and pearls of calm wisdom, such as the following:
Error is like the foam on the waves, it eludes our grasp and keeps reappearing. The soul must not exhaust itself fighting against the foam. Its zeal must be purified and calmed and, by union with the divine Will, it must gather strength from the depths. And Christ, with all his merits and the merits of all the saints, will do his work deep down below the surface of the waters. And everything that can be saved will be saved.20
The journal also provides the record of her awareness that the Lord was inviting her to accept a share in his suffering.
During silent prayer I feel inwardly solicited to abandon myself to God, and not only solicited but effectively inclined to do it, and do it, feeling that it is for a trial, for a suffering, for which my consent is thus demanded. I make this act of abandon in spite of my natural cowardice.21
It was during these years at Meudon that Raïssa received the gift of poetry: “He who would know the depths of the spirit or, if you will, the spirituality of being, begins by entering into himself. And it is also in the inwardness of life, of thought, of conscience that he encounters Poetry, if he be destined to encounter it.”22 In the depths of her prayer, Raïssa encountered Poetry. Poems became a way for her to express her inner experiences. While specialists have noted the technical limitations present in a number of her poems,23 her best pieces succeed in making the ordinary events of life glow with “spiritual transparency.”24 One finds here themes that recur throughout her works: the sudden encounter with God in the ordinary (“The Cloud”); the mystery of moral evil and natural beauty (“The Fall of Icarus”); the workings of God’s providence in the midst of human sinfulness (“Meditation”); and the ever present mystery of Christ’s suffering and our vocation to participate in it (“0 Cross”). In all, Raïssa wrote close to ninety poems, published in four different collections, and brought together into one volume by Jacques after her death.25 For those who have the patience to let the poet’s art speak to them, her poems are of enduring value.
When the Second World War overtook France in 1940, the Maritains were in America. Unable to return to their homeland and their friends, they dedicated their energies to helping the young generation that was undergoing the crucible of the war find the deeper meaning of the events they were suffering. They encouraged the people of France to see the war in light of the new France that could arise after the war. The war was a calamity, but it also provided the opportunity to build a new France and a new Europe for those who had the courage and spiritual depth to undertake the task. Thus, Jacques wrote A Travers le Desastre (“Through the Disaster,” but published in English under the title France, My Country), a book that was smuggled into France and read widely by the members of the resistance.26
Raïssa’s response was once again characteristic of her Hasidic roots: she would tell the story. She would help the young who were tempted to despair by telling them the story of God’s goodness to an earlier generation of young people who were also tempted to despair. She would tell the story of the Catholic revival in France as she and Jacques had experienced it. With a prelude that offers an account of her infancy and early youth, she chronicles the years 1900 to 1917, a period spanning from her entrance into the Sorbonne and the beginning of her life with Jacques up to the death of Leon Bloy. The first volume, Les Grandes Amitiés (We Have Been Friends Together) appeared in 1941 and was follow by its sequel, Les Aventures de la Gräce (Adventures in Grace) in 1944. To a generation that needed to hear it, Raïssa gave an account of the hope that was within her and did so with “gentleness and reverence” (I Pt 3.15). As a chronicle of the Catholic revival in France, these books are without equal. More than this, however, they offer us nothing less than a theology of conversion and Christian vocation expressed in a narrative that traces the effects of God’s mercy upon the lives of a generation searching for meaning. For anyone who may be tempted to doubt God’s enduring love for his wayward people, these books continue to offer hope for troubled times.
IV. The truth speaks
Much more could be said about Raïssa and her work. No doubt, Jacques would remind the reader — as he often did during his life — of the role Raïssa played in the formation of his own works. She read them and revised them, often giving them greater clarity and softening the harshness of his attacks.27
Her essays on poetics and moral development also merit attention.28] Yet, taken together, her poetry, her essays and her memoirs are all a gentle and joyful answer to the question that guided her life. Raïssa Oumansov sought “to know what is.” In silence and in the midst of the cares of life, she found her answer: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46. 10).
Sherwin, O.R., Fr. Michael. “Raïssa Maritain: Philosopher, Poet, Mystic.” Catholic Dossier 5, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 23-29.
Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.
Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.R. is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright © 1999 Catholic Dossier