Raïssa Maritain: more than a mystic

Driven by a desire for intellectual and spiritual truth, Raïssa Maritain's writings search for peace and justice - but are sadly forgotten in our own time.
Raïssa Maritain
Raïssa Maritain
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‘Raissa Maritain, 1883-1960/And Jacques, 1882-1974’ reads the tombstone in the small cemetery of Kolbsheim, in Alsace. There lie two of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. Jacques Maritain is still famous for his role as counsellor to Pope Paul VI and the part he played in the philosophical and ethical debates after the Second World War; but as their tombstone testifies, the couple were by no means a ‘man and muse’ match. They studied together, wrote together, prayed together, went through two world wars together, and fought constantly for truth and justice.

Raïssa may be more remembered as a mystic and Jacques as a political theorist, but such a dichotomy is absurd, given that they both considered a contemplative, one-to-one union of love with God as the source, and end of, human life. They both fulfilled their intellectual vocation by deeply rooting their love for one another into their love for truth.

Raïssa Oumansoff was born in 1883, in Rostov, Russia  to a Jewish Russian family. Both her grandfathers were devout. The tireless generosity of her mother’s father, and the ascetic penance of her paternal grandfather, left a deep impression on her childhood. Her family, although far from being affluent, would frequently host travellers and beggars. She was fascinated by religious mystery – the rites of Passover filled her with awe. She wrote in her memoirs: ‘All the hearts were grasped by the highness of divine promises and favours, by the pathetic story of so many centuries of pain that could not blow out hope.’ 

Raïssa listened, and wished to understand. Her interest in religion was matched by her fascination with learning. She went to school and discovered the gradual, patient acquisition of knowledge. Of her early years, Raïssa wrote: ‘My heart beat[s] with great hope, I was going to learn how to read. And all that was written was true. At least that was what I thought. I know now that it is not so, but it ought to be.’

This urge towards knowledge foreshadowed her vocation; searching, through reason, for truth; receiving, through faith and prayer, the light to see this truth.

The pogroms disrupted the Oumansoffs’ peaceful life in Mariupol. In order to secure their daughters, Raïssa and her sister Vera, a decent education, the family left to start a new life in Paris. Raïssa barely spoke French; yet in two weeks the new language suddenly made sense, and by the end of her first year, she was praised and admired by teachers for her intelligence, and by schoolmates for her integrity and loyalty.She was passionate about literature, devouring French classics, and she spent hours pondering what Hugo or Corneille wrote about mankind. She described this age as a time of sad restlessness, where her first questions about the evil in the world were left unanswered. Raïssa passed the Baccalauréat – she was ready to enter La Sorbonne, which she saw as a shining beacon of wisdom.

Raïssa first gravitated towards natural history. In positivist late-nineteenth century France, after Darwin and Renan, there was not much scope for metaphysical questions. At the Sorbonne, Raïssa met Jacques Maritain, a young man from a Protestant background. Their friendship was instant and peaceful; their conversations were endless. They were both looking for truth, and craving something more than science could provide. Yet ‘Que sais-je?’ – ‘What do I know?’ – was the intellectual motto of the time, and they soon discovered that the humanities were just as reluctant to offer unifying answers and principles about the world. In poignant lines, Raïssa described ‘the deep distress of [her] heart fainting of hunger and thirst for truth’ and ascribed the intellectual chaos that led to the Second World War to the indecisiveness of a youth left without any certainty, with ‘metaphysical anguish penetrating the very roots of the will to live’ – an entire generation, bereft of any purpose or use for their intellectual skills, ready to sink into the worship of brutish force.

Through the prompting of the poet and writer Charles Péguy, Jacques and Raïssa crossed the Rue Saint-Jacques, separating La Sorbonne from the Collège de France, to attend the philosopher Henri Bergson’s lectures. It was an instant revelation. For the first time, someone encouraged them and acknowledged their hunger for metaphysical truth.

Yet it was still not enough. There was something in Bergson’s philosophy, at least as Raïssa understood it at the time, that left too much to subjectivity, and seemed to abandon the mind to a solipsistic sequence of perceptions without unity. Raïssa and Jacques found themselves one afternoon, wandering between the animals of the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes, expressing what sounds like the deepest despair: ‘If there is no such thing as truth, life is not worth living.’ They got married in 1904, but their shared longing for truth was taking on the dark shades of a suicide pact.

The same year, Raïssa and Jacques then met someone who took this search seriously. He named truth as Christ; and claimed it could be found nowhere but in the Catholic Church. He zealously criticised mercenary artists and lukewarm Christians alike. The loud, at times coarsely anticlerical, at times gloriously prophetic, voice of his writings expressed an intransigence that attracted them. They sent, almost timidly, some money to the ‘ungrateful beggar’ who lived a life of poverty, due to the general indifference of Parisian literary circles, and a few weeks later they were invited to meet him – his name was Léon Bloy.

Raïssa saw in Bloy the same fiery generosity as the one practiced by her maternal grandfather, and a sense of religious intransigeance akin to her paternal grandfather’s. Bloy would lack the money for his own and his family’s subsistence; yet he would give away the little he had to anyone who seemed in need. Moreover, he was sensitive to Raïssa and Jacques’s spiritual hunger. He did not indoctrinate them, nor did he go beyond what he had written in his books. Yet the gentleness of the fifty-eight year-old writer, prematurely aged by grief and poverty, in contrast with his tempestuous writing, brought peace to the young newly-weds. Moreover, Bloy had just published Le Salut par les juifs, a stunning study of the Jewish roots of Christianity, at a time when the Dreyfus affair unleashed, even among French Catholics, the nastiest anti-semitism. For Raïssa, this book unveiled the continuity between her Jewish roots and the still, small voice of her attraction towards the Christian Church. Later, when she and Jacques subsidised the reprint of the book, Bloy dedicated it to Raïssa.

Raïssa read Plotin, with whom she discovered the metaphysics of beauty, Pascal, the seventeenth-century scientific whose writings influenced Baudelaire and Camus, but also Caholic mystics such as Ruysbroeck and Anne-Christine Emerich. Slowly at first, then with a dazzling surety, she knew where to find the truth she had been looking for — she decided to become a Catholic. Jacques followed a similar path. It was by no means easy – both their families were devastated, and Raïssa went through dire phases of spiritual struggle. Yet she and Jacques were baptised in 1905. Bloy was their godfather.

Due to a throat infection that was worsened by a misguided surgical intervention and could have cost her life, Raïssa’s health was so fragile she had to stay home for extended periods. Her sister Vera helped the household. While Jacques was working on commissions for the publisher Hachette, Raïssa dedicated one summer to the study of St Thomas Aquinas. Reading the Summa Theologica, she discovered a style so clear and effortlessly transparent, a beauty that owed nothing to artifice or affectation, as she saw it. Aquinas confirmed her spiritual and intellectual intuitions. Although Jacques dissociated himself from Bergson in his essay From Bergson to Thomas Aquinas, Raïssa continued her faithful gratitude to their former master and quoted his phrase ‘Yet there is but one truth’ as an epigraph to the chapter where she described her discovery of Aquinas (Les Grandes amitiés, 1941).

Jacques is still considered as one of the best Thomists of the twentieth century, but it was through Raïssa’s reading that he first came across his teachings, and under her enthused prompting that he built his own philosophy and teaching around Thomist doctrine. Raïssa’s reading of Aquinas did not relegate theology to the high spheres of a speculative ideal, but strived to build a bridge between God’s truth, human wisdom, and social justice. Jacques was influential in the drafting of the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; one may venture that his perception of human dignity directly tapped into Raïssa’s interpretation of Aquinas. In her posthumous Notes on the Lord’s Prayer, which condenses ideas expressed in many former essays, Raïssa extended the dignity of children of God to all mankind, because according to Aquinas, the mystical body of Christ is not limited to those who are baptised – all mankind is called to salvation. The Russian Jewish girl turned French academic had become a herald for the unity of mankind.

While antisemitism and fascism tore through France, her salon hosted circles discussing the points where Judaism and Christianity could meet. When Jacques and Raïssa fled to the United States before the Second World War, she contributed to many academic publications. Her most influential essay is probably ‘Histoire d’Abraham.’ In her view, Abraham illustrates how, at the early stages of human conscience, even before the Ten Commandments were clearly formulated, Abraham already strove to follow, in loving obedience, orders received from God, even a command to kill his own son. For Raïssa, the kernel of mankind, the most universal trait of humanity, was the urge to follow the voice of truth. As she wrote later in a biography of Aquinas for children, ‘to be hungry for justice is the same thing as to be hungry for God.’ It is as though the intransigence of Raïssa’s youth , nurtured by her early reading of Nietzsche, gradually unfolded, through the ordeal of intellectual despair, into an unconditional trust that truth, wisdom, and justice were one and the same.

Raïssa’s notes during the First World War, then throughout the turmoil of the 1930s and the Second World War, are striking in their lack of bitterness. In 1941, under Jacques’s prompting, Raïssa published the first volume of her memoirs. This is not simply a collection of anecdotes; Raïssa cared less about the details of singular impressions than about a collective idea of truth. To walk alongside her amongst these flowing recollections is to encounter beautiful, intense souls; writers and artists such as Charles Péguy, Léon Bloy, Marc Chagall, T.S Eliot, and Benjamin and Geneviève Fondane, and the actor-turned-nun Ève Lavallière,  all on the same path towards veracity. Raïssa and Jacques did not have children — they agreed to live as brother and sister, but had many godchildren whom she helped and encouraged through letters, her poems and essays, but above all, through prayer – long, and at times painful hours of silent prayer. Wherever she went, friends flocked around her, sure to find words of wisdom and peace.

Raissa wrote: ‘Wherever the objectivity of knowledge is negated in a way or another, all joy of the spirit disappears.’ Just like her contemporary Simone Weil, another convert from Judaism, Raïssa considered truth and the right to train one’s reason to discern it as the most fundamental of human rights. It is this idea that Jacques Maritain defends in June 1947, writing to the UNESCO that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was bound to be evolutive, not because truth changes, but because mankind is in constant progress towards it.

Most of Raïssa Maritain’s writings are now out of print. Yet at a time when young people are, as ever, eager to achieve justice, peace, and mutual understanding, the example of Raïssa Maritain could open a path onwards and upwards, testifying that truth matters more than opinion, and that a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of theories only settles into a steady image once one steps aside from the comfortable conviction of anti-dogmatism. 

Marie Daouda

Dr Marie Daouda is a lecturer in French at Oriel College, Oxford.

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