Monday, June 4, 2007

the maritain connection

Jacques Maritain at Gethsemani, October 7, 1966. Photograph by Thomas Merton

Jacques Maritain was a key intellectual and humanist in the 20th century Catholic Church. Together with another French scholar, Etienne Gilson, he revived and re-interpreted the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. As an author, Maritain’s scope was wide – works on the theory of knowledge and phases of religious philosophy, studies on the just society and human rights, and works co-authored with his wife, Raissa, on contemplative prayer and the inner dimensions of Christian life.

Thomas Merton and Jacques Maritain met just twice: in 1939 during an early stage of Merton’s conversion, and again in the fall of 1966 when Merton invited Maritain to spend a few days at Gethsemani.

They were both French. Merton felt Maritain responsible for his conversion (he “sang him” into the Church), and they had been corresponding regularly since 1949. Jacques Maritain and Suzuki, the Buddhist, were the two religious elders whom Merton offered unconditional regard.

Their relationship became especially warm and strong during the 1960’s – the years after Raissa’s death. Merton felt great affinity with Raissa’s dedication to contemplative prayer. He helped to make Raissa’s journal available to a wider audience, and translated and published some of her poetry.

Maritain’s book Art and Scholarship, which was first written in 1920, was a master reference text for Merton. Maritain introduces and returns, again and again, to the notion of “creative intuition”. In his notes from that book, Merton writes under the heading of “Art and Kairos – art and the moment of great, life-giving insight”:


“In the end, all the rules having become connatural to him, the artist seemingly has no other rule than to espouse at each moment the living contour of a unique and dominating emotion that will never recur.” – from Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, by Jacques Maritain, p. 48.

Maritain sung Merton into the Church, and then was able to show him how to find, in traditional Catholic thought, the basis for freedom he had discovered through his explorations of Zen Buddhism.
See also:
"life in its totality" - an addendum to the Maritain visit

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