The conversion story of Jacques and Raissa Maritain serves as an inspiration to many people who have been discouraged with life and have been tempted to take desperate measures. Newspapers and television report how the Covid-19 pandemic has stripped many individuals of hope. It was not the virus, however, that plagued the Maritains, but something similar—a sense of the meaninglessness of life. Therefore, their positive message has applicability for anyone who is suffering in today’s predicament.
Jacques and Raissa were students at the Sorbonne in Paris. They were fed a steady diet of scientific relativism and philosophical scepticism which were offered under seemingly impeccable auspices. They were confronted with a program for life without purpose. Thoroughly dispirited, they decided to take their own lives rather than submit to an animalistic type of experience where only material possessions and fleeting pleasures were considered important. They sense a certain nobility within their souls that did not allow them to accept a life that had no meaning. The one heroic act they could make in the face of a meaningless world was to refuse to live in it.
If one buys a Rolls Royce and discovers that he cannot start it, that is frustration. If one is dying of thirst and no water is available, that is desperation. But if one’s inner being cannot get started because there is nothing in the world to accommodate it, that is a “metaphysical anxiety”. Looking back on this torment many years later, Raissa said that “It is true that I have had other sufferings, often great sorrow, but this particular distress I have never since known. One does not forget the gates of death”.
Death would not be immediate. Jacques and Raissa extended credit to the universe for a year. If they could not be convinced that life had meaning during that time, they would go ahead with their plan. That sense of nobility, however, proved to be the first rung of a ladder that would give their life not only meaning, but one that would overflow into the lives of countless others. It would direct them to their vocation. It would, in Raissa’s words, “deliver us from a useless and sinister world”.
Intelligence without its proper object, which is truth, is meaningless. It is a key for which there is no lock. At the suggestion of their friend, Charles Péguy, they enrolled in a course with the brilliant Nobel Laureate, Henri Bergson, who showed them how intelligence can grasp both truth and meaning. The suicide pact was cancelled. Their inner sense of the absolute was confirmed.
Jacques and Raissa encountered several extraordinary individuals who offered additional enlightenment. Leon Bloy, a highly charismatic novelist introduced them to Catholicism and was present at their baptism. At the suggestion of L’Abbe Humbert Clerissac, the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas came into their lives. “Woe unto me,” said Jacques, “should I not Thomisticize”. He had found his passion and his career path. Raissa wrote in her memoir that “Jacques’ vocation shall have been to bring to light the vital forces of Thomism…to widen its frontiers whole holding in the strictest fashion to its principles, to reinsert it into the existential reality of the movement of culture and philosophy”.
If one finds truth, he finds a road that leads to the supreme Truth, which is God. The next step for the Maritains was to discover Christ, the Son of God, and experience His abundant grace. The progression from intelligence to truth, to God, to Christ, and grace laid the groundwork for their vocation, that is, the place in the world where they could enjoy life and benefit others.
That flicker of light is present in all of us. We are not creatures of chance devoid of an inner road map, inhabiting an alien planet. That light is present to set into motion our ascent to higher and more enriching levels of meaning. A number of other philosophers have made a similar journey, though varying from person to person. We list ten of these philosopher converts to the Catholic Church: Mortimer Adler, Elizabeth Anscombe, Frederick Coplestone, S.J., Peter Geach, Alasdair MacIntyre, Gabriel Marcel, Marshall McLuhan, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, and Dietrich von Hildebrand. Philosophy, as many contemporary thinkers believe, is not an endpoint, but a starting point.
It has been said many times that life is a journey. This image has been repeated so often because it remains a truism. Its end may not be in sight, but there is within each of us a compass that points in its direction. This journey has several milestones. We mention five: truth, God, Christ, the Church, and the abundance of grace. We need faith and hope and friendship to keep us on the right path. Above all, we should not despair at the starting gate.
Raissa Maritain wrote two memoirs that recounted her life with Jacques: We Were Friends Together and Adventures in Grace. She was also a poet of recognized importance. Jacques penned over 60 philosophical books and became the premier spokesman for the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 20th century. Blessed Pope Paul VI referred to him as “my teacher” and as un santo. He spent his last days in the community of the Little Brothers of Jesus in Toulouse, France, where he took vows in 1961. Jacques Maritain passed from the world in 1973 at the age of 91.
We all need conversion, in one form or another. We are made for conversion, though we cannot achieve it alone. The conversion of Jacques and Raissa Maritain should be a model for us. But it is a powerful model for those who have approached the “gates of death”.