Jacques Maritain Center : Art and Prudence / by Ralph McInerny


The theme Spirituality in a Secularized Society invites certain historical reflections which turn out to be far from tangential to the lives and writings of Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton. If I may be permitted an autobiographical remark, I am especially pleased to discuss the spiritualtiy of these two men because it was in the same year, 1948, that I first read The Seven Story Mountain and An Introduction to Philosophy. To fall under the influence of Maritain and Merton was a common feature of the lives of those of us who were coming of age in the late Forties and who saw in the great French Thomist and the fascinatingly congenial Trappist of Gethsemani vital models as well as mentors. Strange myths about the decades that preceded Vatican II have achieved currency. For one who considers that bliss was it in those days to be alive and very heaven to be young, it is puzzling to hear not only false but condescending remarks about a time that was influenced by Maritain and Merton but also by Chesterton, Belloc, Bloy, Mauriac, Green, Waugh, Claudel, Gilson – to speak only of kings across the water.

It should be said that there was then a sense of the Catholic intellectual life that was exciting and far from apologetic, an almost romantic attachment to the cultural tradition of the faith, the conviction that “after the surprising conversions,” as Robert Lowell put it, cradle Catholics as well as converts would make contributions to the spiritual and cultural life of the nation that would be all the better for being Catholic. Those were the days of Catholic Action, the Renascence Society and the golden days of the Thomistic Revival.

But if Maritain and Merton were part of a vast network of Catholic thinkers and artists who evinced pride in our spiritual and cultural tradition, they were in their different and related ways especially distinctive. Perhaps more than others they spoke of philosophy and poetry as activities to be carried on in the wider context of the life of faith. Both men stressed as definitive the life of prayer. Both men laid unusual emphasis on contemplation as the common vocation of the believer.

In the case of Maritain, this emphasis on contemplation may seem somewhat surprising. As a Thomist, Maritain’s principal reading was in the works of the great 13th Century Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas, who seems the telos toward which the previous efforts of Scholasticism aimed. It is the world “scholasticism” that suggests the difficulty. It connotes the work of the schools that developed, as it seemed, away from the interests of the monasteries by finding secular learning a useful ancillary to their reflections on the faith.

Consider, for example, the kind of opposition that emerges in the 12th Century between such personalities as Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux. Both men of course were Christian believers, both reflected on what they believed, but Abelard, enthralled by dialectic and in the grips of a species of intellectual triumphalism, seems to see the great documents of belief, Scripture and the Fathers, as occasions for a dazzling intellectual game. In his preface to Sic et Non, Abelard lays down a number of useful and interesting principles of interpretation. The work itself is a collection of opposed authorities on a number of crucial issues of Christian belief. Opposition or contradiction is sometimes only apparent – that is one of the assumptions of the collection – but even where Scriptural positions are only apparently in conflict, a method is necessary to see that this is so. Martin Grabmann, the great medievalist, sees Abelard as one of the founders of the scholastic method in theology.

The opponents of this method often found it irreverent when they did not see something far worse at work in the writings of people like Abelard. To engage in such dialectical pyrotechnics when confronted by divine revelation seemed as inappropriate as parsing loving letters or checking them for grammatical accuracy. God did not become man in order that men might become theologians. What was needed was a living response to a salvific message, to live a life in the great rhythm of the liturgy, a life of contemplative prayer.

Dialecticians and anti-dialecticians have often opposed one another in the history of Christianity. The Imitation of Christ may seem obscurantist and anti-intellectual, but who can be unmoved by the reminder that it is better to feel compunction than to be able to define it? In the 12th Century we see an opposition of monk and schoolman on the matter of scholastic theology. It was Denis the Carthusian who was to ask why so few of those scholastic theologians were raised to the altar while the flow of canonized saints from the monasteries seems uninterrupted.

In recent years, Dom Jean Leclerq has pressed for a rethinking of this opposition, not because he does not recognize the difference between schoolmen and monks, but because he objects to the view that there was no monastic theology. In The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, and in many subsequent writings, Leclerq has argued that there is a different and complementary theology coming out of the monasteries. He quotes this passage from St. Bernard on the method of monastic theology.

As for us, in the commentary on mystical and sacred words, let us proceed with caution and simplicity. Let us model ourselves on Scripture which expresses the wisdom hidden in mystery in our own words: when Scripture portrays God for us it suggests Him in terms of our own feelings. The invisible and hidden realities of God which are of such great price are rendered accessible to human minds, vessels, as it were, of little worth, by means of comparisons taken from the realities we know through our senses. Let us also adopt the usage of this chaste language.

This is from the Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles. By contrast, all one need do is recall how the scholastic theologian will go on in the 13th century to employ the structure of Aristotelian demonstrative syllogism to speak of theology as a science, argue for the fittingness of using argument in theology and ask whether theology is speculative or practical. Thomas Merton, in The Last of the Fathers, put it this way.

Taking a broad, general view of all of Saint Bernard’s writings, we find that they give us a definite and coherent doctrine, a theology, embracing not merely one department of Christian life but the whole of that life. In other words, Saint Bernard is not merely to be classified as ‘a spiritual writer,’ as if his doctrine could be limited to a certain nondogmatic region of affective intimacy with God. He is spiritual indeed, and a great mystic. But he is a speculative mystic; his mysticism is expressed as a theology.

Maritain, in Les degrés du savoir, traces the modes of wisdom from natural philosophy through metaphysics and theology to the mysticism of St. John of the Cross. That continuum suggests the kind of complementarity Leclerq speaks of. For Maritain, to philosophize was to be a Thomist and that meant not only to think as Thomas did but to live a life like his. Thomas Aquinas was a mystic, a saint who spent hours in prayer before teaching and writing, whose whole life was a prayer. Toward the end of his life, after he had returned to Naples where his higher studies had begun, Thomas had the famous mystical experience of which Josef Pieper wrote in The Silence of St Thomas. The saint remarked that after what he had seen everything he had written seemed mere straw and he wrote no more. At the end of his life he set off from the Council of Lyons, but fell ill along the way and was taken to the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova, where he was to die. The monks asked him to comment on the Canticle of Canticles. Thomas agreed so long as they would bring him St. Bernard’s sermons on the same book.

We have here an historical backdrop against which to discuss what Maritain and Merton have to say about contemplation. Seeds of Contemplation, read in the wake of the tremendous impact of Merton’s autobiography, gave us a contemporary and colloquial discussion of matters which might have appeared merely monastic. Yet the author was the same Trappist who was publishing poetry and who was as well – this should not be forgotten – a scholar. As John of the Cross had been, Merton was a professor in his monastery.

So too Maritain, first read in the dryly precise Introduction to Philosophy, with its definitions and divisions, its sketch of the skeleton of the intellectual enterprise, was the same man one met in the memoirs of his wife Raïssa, We Have Been Friends Together and Adventures in Grace. Moreover, he coauthored with her Prayer and intelligence. The constitution of the Cercle d’études thomistes which the Maritains conducted at Meudon prior to World War I, stresses the role of prayer and retreats in order to assimilate Thomism and make it a felt force in the cultural life of the France of the time.

Starting, as it may seem, from different points, Maritain and Merton both exhibit rather than merely argue for the complementarity of the two theologies Leclerq describes. More importantly, they relate these theologies to the depths of the Christian life and its full expression in contemplation.

To read Merton’s The Ascent to Truth is to find oneself in the presence of a scholar of a different valence from Maritain but nonetheless a scholar. Let me now attempt to say a few things about contemplation and the intellectual life, contemplation and the academic life, guided by Maritain and Merton. Indeed, what I have to say is little more than an elaborate gloss on what Maritain means by Christian Philosophy.

In a chapter entitled “Faith and Reason” in The Ascent to Truth, we do not find an abstract discussion of two ways of entertaining a truth, on evidence or on authority. Merton proceeds in an anecdotal manner drawing our attention to some overlooked aspects of the life of St. John of the Cross. The Carmelite mystic was a professor and even served for a time as rector of a theological college of his Order. I am not suggesting that this was an historical discovery Merton made; the fact was well enough known. What is important is the significance he finds in the fact. But what a fact it is. The life of John of the Cross can frighten us. His asceticism strikes l’homme moyen sensual as repellent and even the well disposed may be forgiven for thinking he is so unlike the rest of men that he can scarcely serve as our model. Perhaps if one had a Carmelite vocation . . .

The first antidote to this is found in the poetry which, before it is seen as allegorical, has a direct lyrical impact. Merton makes use of the professorial career in much the same way, to humanize his portrait of John. “Under the masterly direction of this saint, Carmelite students at Alcala were living the lives of intellectuals and mystics at the same time – and finding no contradiction between the two. It is said that in Saint John’s time practically all the students at the college were ‘great contemplatives.’” (144-5)

Saint Teresa, Merton remarks, had suffered too much from half educated directors; she wanted the priests of the Carmelite reform to be well grounded in theology. Saint John did not see his academic career as in opposition to his vocation as a mystic. Merton quotes the following words of the saint, which he rightly regards as of great significance.

He (God) draws near to those who come together to treat concerning truth in order to expound and confirm it in them upon a foundation of natural reason.

Merton takes the upshot of this to be that those who consider St. John of the Cross to be the enemy of scholastic thought have fundamentally misunderstood him. “The study of scholastic theology not only is no obstacle to the contemplative life, it is its necessary foundation.”(150)

If one sought a parallel to this in Maritain, it would go somewhat differently. One might find Merton’s words just quoted a cause for preening, as if unlike other misguided souls one had wisely devoted himself to the study of the great scholastics. But surely there is a possible dark side to the picture. Does it not contain an implicit warning about a concern with scholastic theology which is closed to the possibility of contemplation? Is there not just as much danger in a pursuit of the intellectual life divorced from the spiritual life? To read a monk’s warning that our spiritual life may suffer if it’s not tied to the intellectual life may not be the advice most of us need. For every person concerned with his soul who eschews the Summa theologiae, there may be dozens of academics in whose lives there is either a dissociation of the life of the mind and their faith or an understanding of the intellectual which almost insures that its pursuit will draw them away from the faith let alone toward the spiritual life.

It was Kierkegaard who said that we have forgotten what it is to be a Christian because we have forgotten what it is to be a man. In the university it is not at all unusual to see young people who, enthralled by the intellectual and existential promise of undergraduate courses, go on to graduate work and find there disillusionment. The trivialization of a pursuit that is one of the natural glories of civilization in the name of professionalism is deeply depressing to the young in the first fervor or their higher studies. The great questions seem fragmented into smaller and smaller ones until they are lost sight of entirely and disputes go on and on over matters of little or no moment. What can I know? What must I do? What may I hope for? So Kant formulated the big questions of philosophy. How often they are treated with methodological skepticism, too vague to deserve an answer. Nowadays a philosopher is embarrassed by the suggestion that he might presume to tell us how to live. Young graduate students do not see any relation between the topics and style of their seminars and the paradigmatic efforts of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Boethius, Bede, Anselm, Hugh of St. Victor, Aquinas, Pascal. What do all those men have in common? That they saw a virtuous life as a condition for achieving the truth, that they were trying to be holy as well as wise.

Students will be told that we have made a linguistic turn, that contemporary man knows something that was hidden to those great predecessors, that now at last the philosophical enterprise is carried on as it should be. Well, there is much that is important and interesting in contemporary philosophy, but undeniably for the most part the most important thing of all is missing. Too easily we lose the sense that what is being discussed matters, that what is learned is in continuity with the certainties and convictions one brings to philosophy. Debunking seems unserious because it has so little to do with the lives led by the debunkers. Thought is dissociated from the thinker.

Philosophy is a way of life. It is the pursuit of wisdom. It is far more an effort to become a kind of person than it is to learn and know something. The mark of contemporary philosophy is criticism. English bards and Scotch reviewers? Something like that. In De omnibus dubitandum est, an unfinished work, Kierkegaard sketched the living absurdity of the view that philosophy begins with doubt, with negativity, with rejection. His suggestion was that philosophy will be redeemed when it regains its link with the life and that this redemption will entail a broadening as well as a multiplying of the modes of discourse in which philosophy is expressed.

If the dissociation of thought and life is bad from a natural point of view, how much worse when the life of the mind is divorced from the life of faith. There are professional philosophers for whom there simply is no relation whatsoever between what they professionally do and what they profess to believe. Here is one of the great manifestations as well as sources of current fideism.

Especially in our times so full of errors and above all where the discipline and graces proper to the religious state are lacking, we think it is impossible that Thomism can be retained in its integrity and purity without the special aid of a life of prayer.

That is taken from the Statutes of the Cercle d’études thomistes that Maritain printed as an appendix to his Carnet de Notes. They are the source of the thoughts expressed here.

There are many alive today who remember when Catholic colleges and universities were strongholds of Thomism, philosophy and theology departments animated by the thought of Aquinas. Something happened. It is no longer thus. What went wrong? Is it possible that we were insufficiently Thomistic rather than too exclusively so? Was an institutional Thomism divorced from the real springs of Thomas’s thought? Were those departments of philosophy and theology guided by the outlook expressed in the thought of Maritain just cited?

Let these questions remain rhetorical ones. What is clearly at the center of our tradition, a truth of which both Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton were witnesses, is this: Unless the intellectual life is seen as a vocation, as a special way of leading the Christian life, it will become a lily that festers and smells worse than weeds. Thomists who pray together stay together? Perhaps. In the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul attributes the moral turpitude of the pagans to their failure to act appropriately in the light of their natural knowledge of God.

That is the dark side of the picture. The bright and attractive side is this. The great heroes of the Catholic intellectual life have always been holy men and women, saints, mystics. One is a Thomist only in a marginal sense if Thomas appeals only to his mind and not to his soul as well. Much the same can be said of the impact of Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton. Could anything better be said of them?

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