By Peggy Moen
Originally published on September 3, 2018 on TheWandererPress.com
In 1901, Jacques Maritain and Raissa Oumansoff made a suicide pact.
Both were students at the Sorbonne, living in a world that was a “spiritual desert,” in the words of the late Michael Novak (Crisis, March 24, 2016).
“In a horrifying pact, they swore together to give themselves one more year to find some meaning in life. If that search failed, they promised to commit suicide together. The Maritains seem to have argued themselves into this decision much as Albert Camus was later to argue in The Myth of Sisyphus. If human life is absurd, then the only way to give it meaning is to give at least one act in it one’s own meaning. One could at least choose the time and the mode by which to exit from it. Suicide would not make life any more meaningless than it already was. But it could put at least one moment of purpose into it.”
Fortunately for twentieth-century Catholicism, they, after finding a path away from materialism via studies with Henri Bergson, met with a fiery Catholic named Leon Bloy.
“In a world that had settled for materialism, Bloy was the experience of an intense and pure spirit that ruptured all previous categories. The Maritains could never erase from their minds their first encounter with pure spirit,” wrote Novak.
Jacques Maritain recalled the encounter in his introduction to Bloy’s The Pilgrim of the Absolute (a selection of his writings edited by Raissa Maritain):
“In June, 1905, two children of twenty were going up the everlasting stairway that leads to the Sacré-Coeur. They bore within them that distress which is the only serious product of modern culture, together with a kind of active despair illumined only — they did not know why — by the inner assurance that the Truth for which they hungered, without which it is almost impossible to accept life, would one day be shown them. A kind of esthetic morality sustained them feebly, to which — after they had tried some experiments with it, probably too beautiful to succeed — the idea of suicide seemed to offer the only outlet….
“On the whole they saw the Church — hidden from their view by inane prejudices and by the appearance of many of its self-righteous members — as the rampart of the powerful and the rich, whose interests supposedly lay in maintaining in people’s minds the ‘darkness of the Middle Ages.’“They were going toward a strange beggar who, disdaining all philosophy, was shouting on rooftops the divine truth; and who, a totally obedient Catholic, condemned his times and those who have their consolation here below, with more freedom than all the revolutionaries of the world.”
Going through a “little garden of olden times,” they then entered the humble family home of Leon Bloy, who “seemed nearly shy.”
The Maritains, who married in 1904, entered the Catholic Church in 1906, with Bloy serving as godfather to both of them.
The last sentence of Bloy’s novel The Woman Who Was Poor is, “There is only one misery…and that is not to be saints.”
We sense discouragement — and feelings of misery — in our readers. We understand why.The scandal of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick felt like falling on a collective intramuscular bruise, compounded by fears of tripping over more buried scandals. Then the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report plunged us into the abyss, and from there we swam on to meet Archbishop Carlo Vigano’s August 25 dossier saying the Pope long knew about McCarrick and he should resign.
And, on another issue, Francis again sounded his uncertain trumpet, this time with an incomprehensible attempt to rewrite the Catechism to absolutely ban capital punishment.
Those are only the most recent and most disturbing episodes.
In answer to this, The Wanderer dated August 9 (p. 8B) carried a LifeSiteNews report about a noteworthy sermon Fr. John Hollowell, the Indianapolis Archdiocese, preached on Sunday, July 22. Addressing the news about McCarrick and the ensuing scandal, he recalled an address he and his fellow seminarians heard in Rome in 2005, from an older priest who was part of a group there on sabbatical.The seminarians mistook the priest, wearing a polo shirt, for a progressivist. But these were the words they heard:
“The Church is on fire right now,” the priest exclaimed, it’s burning with the scandals and sins, and you men ran into the burning building, and said, “I want to be a priest anyway.”
“Despite people looking at you like you’d be hurting children, you ran into the burning building,” he said, “and I want to say thanks to you.”
“We are the Church too — not just the shepherds,” Fr. Hollowell told the faithful present for that Sunday Mass. “There are also lots of really good priests and holy people, and so I say, let’s do it together. Let’s encourage good young men and women to enter the religious life as priests and sisters, to rebuild and put out the fire.”
And: “I invite you to join me as we run back in and double down our commitment to be Catholic Christians in a Church and a world that needs us,” he concluded. “Let us rise and be on our way to becoming saints.”Fr. Hollowell therefore agrees with Leon Bloy that the one tragedy is not to become saints. Bloy wasn’t much closer to perfect than any of the rest of us are — he had an overly harsh view of the bourgeois Catholicism that alienated Jacques and Raissa, for example, and he could be crude, but he nonetheless showed the Maritains a convincing example of a flaming and self-sacrificing Catholic.
In The Wanderer dated August 16, Don Fier (p. 3B) quoted Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins Today:“Behind our sloth there lie a series of rationalizations…which our culture has inculcated in us, [one of which] is that the evil of the world and of our societies is so great that there is little we can do to combat it.
. . . We retreat instead into our own private pursuits, persuaded that at least in them the half-hearted efforts of our spineless love will be enough to get by” (p. 124).
It is indeed tempting to withdraw from the fight.
We are aware that what we report — often on the front page — is upsetting and discouraging. But don’t let that stop you from turning the pages and reading our articles on the saints, the Mass readings, liturgy, apologetics, catechetics, and more.
All the gains won in the previous two pontificates haven’t been lost. As James Drummey wrote in his August 23 Catholic Replies column:
“Things are much better on the catechetical front today, compared to 25 years ago, largely due to the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in English in 1994 and the formation a few years later of the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism, which reviews textbooks to ensure their conformity with the Catechism.”
As longtime readers know, The Wanderer fought — and still fights — those catechetical battles.
And we do have other good news to report as well — the growing strength of the pro-life movement under the Trump administration, the ongoing successes of orthodox Catholic colleges, high schools, and catechetical programs, and the canonizations of many Catholic heroes.
Also, we carry the news of solid Catholic leaders and faithful who may indeed one day be found on the calendar of saints. Notably, in 2011, Rome Reports suggested that Jacques and Raissa Maritain might be up for beatification. Instead of ending up as suicides, they helped revive Catholic intellectual life in France in the twentieth century, Jacques Maritain becoming known as a great interpreter of St. Thomas Aquinas. This came about largely because of a zealous lay Catholic who witnessed to them. We also can be zealous Catholics to help others, but we need to be well formed and well informed to do so.
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