Saturday, February 14, 2015

Fifty YEARS of a Great and Mysterious Love Story

It is the Lord who shows us the real drama, and the real possibilities and mystery of a human relationship. That is why today I feel it worthwhile to continue my account of a very special and astonishing relationship between a man and a woman, a relationship far more radical and unusual than anything we see or hear about.

Several months ago, in Magnificat, I wrote about the conversion to Jesus and the Church of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, a remarkable young couple whose lives and search for the truth could not be separated.

And indeed, they continued for more than fifty years this relationship of loving Jesus together and bearing witness to Him. It was a passionate love story, deeply personal, and yet also wonderfully fruitful in the world. They touched so many of those around them, and drew them in to share in the "great friendship" with Jesus that they had found and were living.

Meanwhile they also made a great and lasting impression upon the world. Jacques became internationally recognized as a great philosopher (arguably the greatest Thomistic philosopher of the twentieth century), and also as a teacher, a prolific author, a man of public affairs, and an ambassador. Raissa's reflective nature led her to become a notable poet and writer, and though hindered greatly by health problems, she wrote through the years and also continued to be Jacques's most important inspiration, confidante, editor, and critic (when necessary she could be a very blunt critic, and he listened to her when she corrected his thinking).

Raissa's most famous works are the two beautiful memoirs (Les Grandes Amities and Les Aventures de la Grace) about her early life with Jacques, their conversion, and their years of spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and artistic partnership in France before World War II. Of course there's even more to the story after that, and some things were only revealed when Jacques published Raissa's Journal after her death, along with his own notes.

I believe it was one of the greatest human friendships ever.

As a marriage, it was unique... mind blowing, really.

It was a truly great marriage between two people who loved each other really and concretely, in every kind of circumstance and stress. But this marriage had at its core a very special commitment: something that strikes even Christian married people as strange and incomprehensible, and that is positively not recommended by the Church as an ordinary way of life in the married state.

It is a commitment that is possible in extraordinary circumstances and in the light of a very particular kind of vocation, and it must be rigorously discerned in spiritual direction to be sure that it is entirely free of any subtle contempt for the goodness of married life as a real means of sanctification. But Jacques and Raissa were deeply convinced of the God-given goodness and interpersonal beauty of the activity that they both felt called to abandon freely in sacrifice. They wanted to sacrifice this expression of love... for the sake of love. This was not an immature spiritual impulse or a failure of affectivity. This was a desire that had been growing in their hearts for some time, for a very special path they were called to follow.

Many people simply don't understand it, or even disagree with it. Certainly there is nothing "ordinary" about it even for Catholic Christians.

But the Maritains were called by Jesus in a singular, extraordinary way. It is impossible to comprehend, but at the same time the reality of this call for these particular people is evident; it is undeniable, in its fruits.

And this commitment between them was completely unknown to anyone else while they both lived (except those who gave them spiritual direction, who kept it in confidence as was their duty).

Jacques revealed the whole truth about their marriage and their decision only toward the end of his own life, and he emphasized that it was something very particular to their own personal Christian life together, their particular circumstances and the ever-greater love that Jesus continued to draw from their hearts. They believed themselves called to a mysterious love that Jacques called "mad love" -- the love of Jesus that draws people to sell everything and follow Him alone. At the same time, they experienced this as a "common vocation," to love Christ "madly," to sacrifice everything but to do it together and in the midst of the secular world.

After eight years of married life, characterized by an ardent physical intimacy that participated in and expressed, no doubt, their profound growth in faith, they felt called to a great renunciation. No doubt also, this possibility arose in light of the fact that they had no children, and it did not appear that they would be able to have children.

Finally, after much prayer, discernment, and direction, they took vows as Benedictine oblates and included therein something not required for a married oblate: celibate chastity. In their circumstances, without responsibility for a family, they could have chosen to part ways in this world, with Jacques becoming a monk and Raissa a nun.

But that is precisely what they did not choose to do, and herein lies the utterly radical and particular nature of the vocation they had discerned. They chose to live their marriage within this profound and secret commitment, to leap into the mystery of living the bond they shared in new ways unknown to them (and to us). So they consecrated themselves to pursue God alone (but also together) and lived thereafter in a celibate marriage.

They lived together in this way, as husband and wife, for fifty more years!

And everyone who knew them testified that they lived a relationship of profound unity, companionship, and fidelity to each other, while also possessing an openness that drew people from the milieu in which they lived, people of many faiths or no faith: intellectuals, artists, musicians, political activists, poets and writers.

The cultural world of France, and later America, found in them a unique kind of hospitality. Not a few of these men and women of the world converted, and the Maritains became godparents many times over. Clearly Jacques and Raissa lived a companionship that was both personally intimate and full of a humanity that radiated out to many others.

The Maritains, near the end of Raissa's life.
They lived what Raissa called, "Contemplation on the roads of the world."

In its particular sacrifices and as a form of married life, it is not a way that people should try to copy (really, people, don't try this out...).

It was simply something extraordinary, a unique grace that they were given.

For us married people it seems strange, like a distancing, a coldness, a breaking off of spousal love, an attempt to turn marriage artificially into a kind of religious life. And that is what it would be (and worse) if any of us presumed to take it up.

It was not meant to be a "form of life" that could be proposed in a general way to the Christian people. Rather it was a profoundly personal and interpersonal grace given to transfigure the lives of two particular people. As such it is, really, incomprehensible; it touches on the mystery of particular human persons and their relationship.

We can't really understand it.

But the more we "get to know" the Maritains from their own writings and the testimony of others, the more we can "see" the fruits of their "mad love" for Jesus (and for each other!). There is in them, unmistakably, something both awesome and tender, great and humble, incomprehensible and approachable.

We see the Mystery within the human. We see humans being transformed and at the same time becoming more profoundly human, more attractive with a love that reaches out to us and accompanies us.

Even though we are not called to imitate the dramatic life and relationship of the Maritains, it remains a witness to a Love that can change us even when it surprises us, a Love that can be trusted and followed because it leads to the depths of God and the realization of our own personal identity.