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Jacques Maritain
Jacques Maritain / ©La Stampa

Church and Life. Aqua Vitae (cf. John 4: 27)

Jacques Maritain (1882 – 1973), known as one of the greatest Thomistic philosophers of the twentieth century, was so famed during his lifetime, that even Pope Paul VI chose a work by Maritain to close Vatican II. Yet Maritain had many other friends in his life, friends who were quite distinct from the acknowledged holiness of the Pontiff, – writes Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania in Church and Life.

In the 1920’s, Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963), was a man seemingly entangled within a web of opium, fornication and pederasty. Cocteau had become immersed in the seamy side of avant-garde France, ever since that time, when as a teenager he ran away from school and lost his virginity to a woman over a decade his senior. Hardly had Cocteau graduated from childhood when his everyday confreres became famed men such as: Stravinsky (1882 – 1971), Nijinsky (1890 – 1950), Picasso (1881 – 1973) and Dighailev (1872 – 1929). Yet as Cocteau notes in his autobiography, after the death of his ‘friend’, Radiguet (1903 – 1923), he became lost, standing precariously balanced on the edge of suicide. Unwilling to break out of his self-imposed casket of grief, Cocteau wrote that on one occasion he sat near a harbour: “Fishermen talk to me without seeing the death in which I am enclosed, and I have the illusion of living”. (Cocteau, 1970, p. 105). Yet amidst this darkening vale of tears, Jacques Maritain, invited Cocteau to his home for a meal. There at the dinner table sat Maritain, the great champion of St. Thomas Aquinas, together with a man infamously recognized as being a purveyor and partaker of ‘cultured’ vice. Soon after this meeting Cocteau in a letter to Maritain, speaks of Maritain opening his eyes to a new hope and to God: “I have lost my seven best friends. Which is to say that God has had mercy on me seven times without my realizing it. He lent me a friendship, took it from me, sent me another, and so on. Seven times He has thrown out his line and pulled it back without catching me: I let go the bait and fell back, stupidly. Don’t for a moment believe He was killing the young; He was costuming angels. A sickness or a war afforded them an excuse for undressing … My dear Jacques, there is no end to your indulgence: it acknowledges that a man exhausted by troubles and tasks beyond his strength may fall asleep. For a long time sleep was my refuge. The prospect of waking kept me from sleeping well and dictated my dreams. In the morning I no longer had the courage to unfold my life. Reality and dream were superimposed: a bedraggled smear. I would get up, shave, dress, and let whoever was in my room take me … anywhere”. (Cocteau, 1970, pp. 109 – 110). Maritain eventually took Cocteau on a ‘successful’ retreat; yet Cocteau’s ‘conversion’ experience was to be short-lived. Cocteau’s subsequent ‘fall’ did not however preclude the two men from seeking each other out for dinner, two decades later, when Cocteau traveled to the United States where Jacques Maritain was now firmly established as an academic of international repute.

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Yet what inspired Jacques Maritain, a man of such high esteem within the Catholic Church to risk his standing so as to enter into an intimate relationship with Cocteau – a man who could not offer Maritain anything but destructive scandal? Perhaps the answer to this question may lie in the writings of a contemporary of both Maritain and Cocteau – the Spaniard, Miguel de Unamuno (1864 – 1936). In his famous work, Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida (Eng. The Tragic Sense of Life), Unamuno attempted to discern the depth of the love of God for humanity. Unamuno wrote that: “Consciousness (conscientia) is participated knowledge, is co-feeling, and co-feeling is compassion. Love personalizes all that it loves. Only by personalizing it can we fall in love with an idea. And when love is so great and so vital, so strong and so overflowing, that it loves everything, then it personalizes everything and discovers the total All, that the Universe, is also a Person, possessing a Consciousness, a Consciousness which in its turn suffers, pities, and loves, and therefore is consciousness. And this Consciousness of the Universe, which love, personalizing all that it loves, discovers, is what we call God. And thus the soul pities God and feels itself pitied by Him; loves Him and feels itself loved by Him, sheltering its misery in the bosom of the eternal and infinite misery”. (Unamuno, 1954, p. 139). According to Unamuno, we imitate the love of God, by taking pity on all members of humanity, especially those in whom we could possibly bring about a transformation, a metanoia, a turning toward God. Every person, has within them the potential for goodness, for God is the creator of all – and as Scripture teaches us: The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3: 9, RSV). Cocteau was to muse in his autobiography, (indicating the necessity in his life of a stabilizing influence such as Maritain), of his inherent and intense struggle with morality: “I am probably the most notorious poet in France and the most unknown. Sometimes this saddens me – fame intimidates, and I want to arouse only love. My sadness is the consequence of the mud which covers us, against which I rebel”. (Cocteau, 1970, p. 294).

We imitate the love of God, by taking pity on all members of humanity, especially those in whom we could possibly bring about a transformation, a metanoia, a turning toward God.

It is easy for us to become self-righteous by creating small bastions of hollow virtue in order to look down from, hurling missives of damnation on those who do not meet the required bench-mark of goodness that we have set for ourselves and others to climb. Such however was not the spirit of St. Dominic (1170 -1221), who stayed under the roof of a Albigensian, nor of St. Francis (1181 – 1226) who accepted the hospitality of a warring Sultan; nor of Maritain who undoubtedly hoped and prayed for Cocteau; nor of Christ who understood that not all men are capable of reading the Scriptures in printed format – that some men, perhaps most men, rely on the Scripture that is published in our hearts and that is spoken not by the tongue but in the format printed on our actions. Christ calls Lazarus not from out of the synagogue, but from out of a tree; He calls Matthew from out behind his counting table; He calls Mary of Magdala, from an adulterous bed. In each case holiness sought out those whose hearts had been hardened against the Truth.

In a text often ascribed to St. Albert the Great, “The Paradise of the Soul”, the author offers his readers a word of warning from Pope St. Leo (d. 461), a Pontiff who in his lifetime was an ardent foe of heresy, but who was nonetheless undaunted about meeting face to face with Attila the Hun (406 – 453): “None of us is so perfect or holy but he may be still more perfect and more holy … Then we begin to be in danger of growing worse, when we cease to desire to grow better”. (St. Albert the Great, 1920, pp. 86 – 87). The author continues his discourse, by telling the teacher of theology to have patience with all who need instruction, even those who are quite content in their heresy. As the author understands the role of the teacher – one has to be perfectly liberal, meaning not that one has no concern for upholding Church dogma, but that one is not blinkered by prejudice to the point that one only seeks to preach the Word of God to the converted. He explains: “True and perfect liberality is when anyone cheerfully administers temporal relief to all that are in need according to his power; yea, also, being required, he willingly communicates spiritual goods to all those who want them, in shriving, preaching, in giving counsel and instruction. Nor is he ready only to assist those who desire such things, but also even to those who do not desire or care for his instruction and preaching he ministers, according to the counsel of the Apostle, opportunely and importunely. Yea, to the unwilling and to those who know nothing of it he communicates prayers, sighs, and tears before God. Nor is the truly liberal satisfied with this, unless, moreover, he wholly spend himself in study, meditation, and other holy work continually for the salvation of his neighbours”. (St. Albert the Great, 1920, p. 90)

True and perfect liberality is when anyone cheerfully administers temporal relief to all that are in need according to his power

That Maritain had had a friendship with Cocteau, should thus not astonish us. The Dominican mystic, Johannes Tauler also provides us with an interesting gloss about the mature spiritual life: “True Friends of God are active in the world as models of the oneness of love of God and love of neighbor. In V 76 he speaks of “a great Friend of God and wonderfully holy man” who desired the kingdom of heaven more for his neighbor than for himself. He exclaims – “This is what I call love” (dis hies ich mine [410.31]). While the Friends of God should avoid those who might tempt them to sin, they are not meant to separate from the world’”. (McGinn, 2005, p. 412). The true spiritual person is thus he or she who can be immersed in the world, but not of it; who can speak to others, even the greatest of sinners – but not be drawn into their iniquity. Such a spiritual life, is a difficult and precarious road – but it is also the path of the greatest Saints – demanding both a great depth of contemplation and creative action. On this point Marie-Dominique Chenu tells us: “A spiritual dialectic stretches the soul of the Preachers: pulled one way by contemplation, another by apostolic passion, their interior life, even their freedom, is at issue. Saint Thomas allows us to understand that he is speaking about his own experiences when he says: “There are some who experience in the contemplation of God such delight that they are unwilling to let go of it, even for the service of God in the salvation of their brothers and sisters. There are others, however, who arrive at such a summit of love where even this divine contemplation, in which they experience the greatest delight, is re-expressed in serving God in their brothers and sisters. That was the perfection of the Apostle Paul”. (Chenu, 2002, p. 44).

The true spiritual person is thus he or she who can be immersed in the world, but not of it; who can speak to others, even the greatest of sinners – but not be drawn into their iniquity.

In sum, what matters is that each of us, like Maritain, be careful not to assume that the Christian life is one of seeking personal salvation in a vacuum, thus rejecting the responsibility one owes God of offering the message of salvation to those with whom we come in contact. We must not become so ethereal that we have no salvific value to others; convincing ourselves that we are taken from an alpine spring and that others are drawn but from sullied, muddied water and that the two can never mix. By so doing we reject our apostolate – and withdraw the opportunity of speaking the Gospel to others in the everyday and sometimes mundane course of living. How can we presume, all of us drawing our natures from the same spring, that any one of us, is inherently superior to the other? The Dominican theologian Chenu reminds us in his study, Aquinas and His Role in Theology, that: “Contemplation has an absolute value as the object of full human delight, beyond questions of morality and even in the midst of the sordid reality of sin. Remember to whom Christ announces the need for “worship in spirit and in truth” – he speaks to the much-married Samaritan woman”. (Chenu, 2002, 43). All we can hope for is that God’s grace will make the draught that constitutes our lives purer – and that we are able to share this purity with others – to slake their thirst; as we have our own. For Christ freely offers salvation to all who are prepared to listen, and he can take, with our acquiescence, the muddiest of all waters and turn this into the most exquisite of wines. But who will be able to comprehend the Gospel message that Christ offers – if no one chooses to offer to his thirsty neighbour the Water of Life, by speaking to his neighbour in a language that is: gentle, open, lucid and wise; a language that must, in the words of John Henry Newman (1801 – 1890), be able to captivate “restless imaginations and wild intellects, as well as to touch … susceptible hearts”.

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This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, September 2017.