Religion Booknotes

Jean-Luc Barre’s biography of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain presents a lyrical account of two of the most significant Catholic intellectuals of the twentieth century. From the time the two first met as students in Paris, one could not imagine a more implausible couple. Jacques was a scion of an old French family (one of his ancestors was an early companion of Ignatius of Loyola), while Raïssa was a Russian Jew. Their conversion to Catholicism (1906) was facilitated by Léon Bloy, whose approach to the faith, as Barre puts it, was one “of sanctity, of suffering, of trials, of illuminations.”

Jacques & Raïssa Maritain

Beggars for Heaven

Jean-Luc Barre

University of Notre Dame Press, $50, 536 pp.

Indeed, it was not easy to be a Catholic intellectual in prewar France. The French intellectual elite was deeply skeptical, if not hostile, to people of faith, and the church was suspicious of thinkers who sympathized with modern ideas. When the Maritains sought to bring writers like Jean Cocteau and Julien Green (both homosexual) into the church, they were accused of chasing after “effeminate souls.” They did not receive much support from their Dominican spiritual advisors, first the old monarchist Humbert Clerissac, and next Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange, who later would be Maritan’s antagonist in Rome over the former’s odious support of the Vichy regime.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the Maritains’ home at Meudon was one of the most intellectually vibrant spots in Europe. Gabriel Marcel, Yves Simon, Czeslaw Milosz, Paul Claudel, and Georges Bernanos all ate at their table. In the late 1930s, the Maritains traveled to North America, where they made contacts at the Medieval Institute at the University of Toronto, the University of Chicago (where there was a vibrant Thomistic culture), the University of Notre Dame, and Princeton. Jacques later taught at Princeton, where he was cooly received by the snobbish philosophy department. In the postwar period, he was treated with indifference by the American hierarchy, who suspected that he was too much a man of the Left. Maritain did, though, develop relationships with Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day-he had an almost unerring sense of people who were deeply implicated in faith. He also struck up an implausible friendship with Saul Alinsky of Chicago. Their correspondence has been published and is a treat to read. Following World War II, Maritain served as the French ambassador to the Vatican, where he was treated warmly by future Pope Paul VI and suspiciously by the old guard who never forgot his failure to support either the Vichy government or Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

Catholics of my generation remember Maritain for his powerful work on art and scholasticism, his masterful study of the degrees of knowing, and his passion for social justice. They forgive his somewhat splenetic The Peasant of the Garonne, which he wrote in his old age while living with the Little Brothers of Jesus after the death of his beloved Raïssa. (Although Maritain’s violent reaction to the sunny optimism of Gaudium et spes and the worldview of Teilhard de Chardin did contain a grain of truth.)

Jacques is at the center of this biography, but Raïssa is never offstage. She was a significant collaborator in Jacques’s work, and a vital part of life at Meudon. By nature and physical limitation (almost always in poor health), she was a contemplative. Acutely sensitive to poetry, widely read in the mystic tradition, she was also an exquisite prose stylist. With the resurgent interest in Catholic spirituality, she is an obvious candidate for further study. Maritain’s love for his wife was one of the reasons for his vehement opposition to anti-Semitism, before and after the Holocaust. It was also why he demanded that the church beg forgiveness for its failures during the Nazi period.

This biography, ably translated from French by Bernard Doering, does not explore Maritain’s philosophical ideas in depth. It does illustrate, though, how courageous he and Raïssa were. While some today among the bien pensants have tried to capture Jacques for their own political cause, the plain truth is that Maritan was a radical Christian whose life is as compelling as any of the books he wrote. The same can be said of his soulmate and friend, Raïssa.

The Catholic Worker Movement

Intellectual and Spiritual Origins

Mark and Louise Zwick

Paulist, $29.95, 358 pp.

In their new book surveying the philosophical influences on the Catholic Worker movement, Mark and Louise Zwick devote an entire chapter to the Maritains. From them Dorothy Day learned two crucial things: the primacy of the spiritual (which explains her utter devotion to the Worker retreats), and Maritain’s insistence on the “purity of means.” If Day, shaped by the American Left, was generally forgiving of Communists, she never failed to criticize the impure way they achieved their goals.

Much of this book appeared originally in the Houston Catholic Worker. There are fine chapters on Nicholas Berdyaev and Emmanuel Mounier, whose philosophy of personalism anticipated John Paul II’s writings on the dignity of the human person. And there are chapters on the saints. If anyone constructed a theology drawn from the lives of the saints, it was Dorothy Day: she drew on the communitarianism of St. Benedict (she was a lifelong Benedictine oblate), Francis of Assisi’s love for the poor, and the lives of three strong women who would later become doctors of the church: Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

The Zwicks also examine the Catholic Worker’s thinking on economics, the common good, and the works of mercy. They present an excellent sketch of Day’s pacifism (not always embraced by even her ardent supporters), and a stinging repudiation of the Catholic court theologians to the Republican Party who justify everything from preemptive war to “wealth-creation theology.”

Needless to say, this work is not a dispassionate scholarly monograph but, rather, a classic apologia from a husband-and-wife team who have labored with the poor, especially migrant workers in Texas. There are many fine books on the Catholic Worker movement, but this one stands out because it is born of both wide reading and lived experience. The Zwicks are models of the Catholic Worker way of fashioning service to the poor with the intellectual and spiritual life. I have never met them, but I spoke by phone with Louise shortly after the Gulf Coast disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina. She told me that they were overwhelmed by illegal migrants from the Gulf region who were destitute but fearful of seeking government aid because they were “without papers.” The Zwicks will serve them. They incarnate a remark once made by St. Vincent De Paul: “It is only by the love you bear them that the poor will forgive you your ‘charity.’”

The Mystical Language of Icons

Solrunn Nes

Eerdmans, $30, 112 pp.

Books on icons appear with regularity, destined either for the scholarly market or to feed the hunger of those who find them useful in their devotional life. For Christians of the Eastern Churches, though, icons are more than useful; they are a central part of the faith and, as the late Ernst Benz once wrote, to understand icons is to understand Orthodoxy.

The Mystical Language of Icons by the European icon painter Solrunn Nes begins with a well-illustrated presentation of how icons are produced. Using a series of photographs, Nes takes us from the preparation of the panel through the various stages of composition. This is followed by a cogent explanation of the formal elements of the icon. The second part of the book consists of photographs of various icons accompanied by an analysis of their theological, biblical, and stylistic characteristics. Thumbing through these pages, one learns to train the eye on what at first glance seems like a severe and simple image. One should read this book in the same manner one examines an icon: by gazing, lingering, and pondering. One could read this book for information, but it is best suited for contemplation. The author is in demand as an artist in Europe and one can see why. I recommend the book for use on retreat, or for Lenten reflection.

Sanctified Vision

An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretations of the Bible

John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno

Johns Hopkins University Press, $16.95, 156 pp.

The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in patristic commentary on Scripture. Two publishers (InterVarsity and Eerdmans) are producing series of books on the Bible with commentaries culled from the church fathers, and Brazos Press has just announced a forty-volume series on Scripture called “A Theological Commentary for the 21st Century.” (The first volume on the Acts of the Apostles will include a theological analysis by the polymath Jaroslav Pelikan.) It is hard to explain this newfound interest, but it is clear that something is afoot comparable to the patristic and liturgical renewal manifested in the nouvelle theologie.

First-time readers of the commentaries may be in for a bit of a shock: the fathers’ allegorical flights might seem extravagant, and the juxtaposition of words from (seemingly) random places a bit odd. Yet the fathers did have a methodology (or several of them), and it was not capricious. This brief and readable book by John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno provides much help for the uninitiated. I suspect the material was first tested in the classroom, because it includes helpful analogies and examples drawn from contemporary culture.

O’Keefe and Reno illustrate, in some detail, that the fathers read the Bible on two levels. While the average person might only read what is on the page-the narrative of an unfolding event-the fathers believed that one could attain a deeper understanding of the text by reading with the eyes of faith. Gregory of Nyssa’s “Life of Moses” is a good example. Gregory first narrates the story of Moses as it is recounted in the Bible. He calls that kind of reading historia. Then he retells the story, explaining its deeper meaning, which he calls theoria. This kind of double reading is a constant in patristic exegesis. Augustine describes this process in the Confessions, when he tells us how he learned from Bishop Ambrose of Milan how to read “spiritually.” According to Augustine, Ambrose justified this approach by citing Paul’s admonition that the letter kills but the spirit gives life (2 Cor 3).

Every Catholic is confronted by this approach to reading at Sunday Mass: the selection from the Old Testament somehow points to the selection from the New Testament. This method goes all the way back to the New Testament where, to cite a random example or two, Paul sees the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea in Exodus as a type of baptism, just as he plays off the parallel between the first Adam and the second one. Similarly, the Gospels parallel the story of Jonah with the story of Jesus’ Resurrection.

Some critics have charged that the fathers’ reading of Scripture occasionally borders on the fantastical-that sometimes it has little to do with the biblical text under examination. O’Keefe and Reno do not defend all the fathers’ allegorical readings, some of which do seem wildly improbable. The authors do note, though, that certain constraints prevented extreme textual interpretation. First was the plain sense of the text itself, which the fathers insisted on. Second, the Rule of Faith acted as a discipline upon the commentator: if the interpretation was so fanciful as to violate the faith, it was a priori incorrect.

There is a mountain of literature on patristic exegesis, but I know of no book as accessible as this one. I can imagine a study group reading it along with a text like “Life of Moses” to see how the authors’ theory applies to the patristic text at hand.

Published in the 2006-03-24 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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