Léon Bloy’s Role in the Catholicism of Jacques and Raissa Maritain

The world in which Raïssa Oumançoff and Jacques Maritain began life at the university was a spiritual desert. 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.

As things stood, science seemed to them full of power but empty of meaning. Science fostered intellectual skepticism and moral relativism. As Matthew Arnold put it in “Dover Beach”:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarums of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

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Religion seemed to the Maritains to offer nothing better. The French bourgeoisie had turned religion into a kind of bookkeeping. So many penances and so many prayers produced small gains on the plus side. It remained only to avoid a certain list of sins to keep one’s balance sheet in order. Religion had become—as Flannery O’ Connor put it—“the poor man’s insurance company,” quoting from The Habit of Being.[1]

Jacques and Raïssa were repulsed by such a religion. But many believers, alas, were quite proud of their own supposed virtue. French artists—Bloy, Mauriac, Marcel, Bernanos, Péguy—took delight in unmasking such pharisaism, and mocking it.

More and more of the Maritains’ friends were reporting that they found Bloy one of the strangest yet most compelling persons in France, and kept urging the Maritains to meet him. Eventually, in 1905, they did.[2] They were immediately enthralled by Bloy’s threadbare mode of life and his inner spiritual fire. This meeting with Bloy occurred not long after Henri Bergson had given a set of lectures mapping a route out of materialism. Bergson emphasized the role of the human spirit in all human inquiries, sciences, and ethical paths. Now Léon Bloy (b. 1846 – d. 1917) appeared to the young Maritains as the embodiment of one of the most intense human spirits they had ever met. He was obsessed by a palpable hunger for the Infinite. Meeting Bloy was for the Maritains an abrasive shock. 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.

One other thing about Bloy: his language was contemptuous and rough about the ordinary, safe, boring materialism of extant French culture. He particularly loathed bourgeois religion, with its petty calculations of merit and demerit. In his lightning bursts of anger, Bloy sharply distinguished between the smugness of false religion and true religion’s passionate pursuit of the Absolute. His powerful novel The Woman Who Was Poor opens with the words, “This place stinks of God.”[3] In another place, he describes the typical priest’s ineffectual Sunday sermon as “warm air emitted from a hen’s ass.”[4] Bloy hated the bourgeois with excessive emphasis because the bourgeois trivialized the mystery of Christianity. His language was unalterably crude, his contempt for false religion matchless. His very being seemed to flash out the message: If you are going to talk about religion, you must talk about the real thing. Do not dim the real fire of the Absolute with the dust found in so many French churches.

Here a brief excursus. When Bloy writes of the bourgeois with so much excess, three points must be made. First, Bloy and many French writers typically used the word rather as Karl Marx used it, as a term of opprobrium not for workers or the laboring classes (the proletariat), but for the shopkeepers and other small owners in the growing towns where owners of service businesses multiplied.

Second, in all fairness, Bloy fails to give due credit to the extraordinary number of young priests and nuns who volunteered in the nineteenth century to go out to Africa and North America as courageous missionaries into unknown territories, and to the unprecedented flowering of religious congregations of men and women given to works of mercy and adoration of the Eucharist. For that matter, Bloy fails to give due credit to his younger saintly contemporary, Ste. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Suffering Face of Jesus. Surely, Thérèse was as much a pilgrim of the Absolute and as committed to total giving as Bloy was. Surely, too, one must greatly honor her exceedingly bourgeois family—it is hard to imagine any family more bourgeois than the Martins—which gave four sisters to the highly ascetical and disciplined discalced Carmelites, as well as a saintly mother and father to the Church. It is as wrong to underestimate the intensity of the holiness of many bourgeois Christians across four generations as it is to overestimate the pharisaism and shallower piety of some others.

Third, I cannot help judging that Bloy is exaggerated in his too sweeping condemnation of the bourgeois Christian. Theirs was, after all, a necessary precondition for the Catholic Renaissance that followed them. Yet I am glad to accept that Bloy was speaking as a prophet, not as a renderer of full and precise and measured justice. And I tend to justify his excessive vehemence for its pastoral quality in shocking awake many souls whose own bourgeois tendencies, combined with the dulling effects of materialism, had blinded them to the immensity of the power and the love of the Creator God, the Absolute Good and Beauty. I join those who hold that for Bloy “much can be forgiven, because he has loved much”—and has opened up to so many others the paths of divine love. For ourselves, I would not want to encourage his severity to so many of the bourgeoisie who tried so hard to be good and to encourage their children to be good, even sometimes with unfortunate faults of self-deception. Finally, it goes without saying that many of the still humbler poor, without any affectations of pharisaism, served the Lord nobly to the best of their talents and energies, and produced many good fruits for the Church as a whole. It is to such good people, often our immigrant grandparents, that many of us owe our own faith.

Thus it is that in all ranks of the Church many serve the Church well even in their human flaws—maybe even because of them. We who need mercy must be merciful to others.

If Henri Bergson’s recognition of the role of the spirited subject cleared the way for the Maritains’ confidence in their own inquiring spirits, Léon Bloy’s sharp distinction between true religion and false, between the cardboard-holy-card calculations of a major part of French Christianity and the passionate search for the Infinite, cleared away one crucial objection that blocked Raïssa and Jacques from considering the Catholic faith.

Like many young Frenchmen who stumbled from materialism as if out of a dark cave and into the bright quest for the true, the good, the beautiful, and for infinite Love, the Maritains saw only one path. Remaining rationalists would doom them to relativism and by that route to the abandonment of reason. At the heart of the universe, there had to be impulsion toward the most real of all realities, from which all that exists had sprung. In short, only Christianity answered all the longings of the human spirit. For those awakened by Bloy, tutored to the rigors of the whole kingdom of the Absolute, only Catholicism was Christianity full and straight; the soft version of Protestantism seemed a kind of “Christianity light.”[5]

But Raïssa and Jacques, like hundreds of others who shared similar experiences, could not possibly see in the Catholic Church a plausible home. Its historical sins and its nineteenth-century bourgeois face made it appear to them as “that dunghill.”[6] Léon Bloy’s very crude expressions of loathing for this false form of Catholicism blasted Raïssa and Jacques past this blockage. They were freed from being misled by false religion and opened to the far more demanding Real.

Léon Bloy taught the Maritains that God is to be addressed as the Absolute, the total Creator and Lover who demands of his children everything. Everything. Look at the crucifix on the wall: this is what God demanded of his own Son. How could he demand less of the rest of us? In fact, God warns us that each of us will have to pick up his own cross, follow the stones on the way up to Calvary, and die to ourselves. The Good Lord does not give Christians false promises. He tells us the straight and demanding truth: we will suffer. We might well become martyrs. Of each of us is asked everything. The Maritains saw how Bloy had endured bitter poverty for many years, even the pain of watching his own children barely survive. His living was at one with his speaking.

Léon Bloy brought to birth two great goods in the souls of the Maritains. First, he himself embodied for them the inflamed human spirit alive in every act of questioning, seeking, and braving the unknown future. Bloy taught them how to live by and through their own spirits. He showed them how to leap over the defensive wall of materialism. Second, Bloy wiped out the great scandal of middle-class smugness they experienced in the Church. In his own person, Bloy brought them into contact with an altogether different inner sort of Catholic faith. Bloy’s spirit now enflamed, inspired, and guided the Maritains. Neither for Bloy nor for them was it possible to desire merely to sit in the pews. Bloy taught them to give everything, to aspire ever higher. This is precisely what Jacques and Raïssa desired and demanded. Nothing less satisfied them. They made Bloy’s saying their own, and Jacques repeated it more than once. It is the last sentence of The Woman Who Was Poor: “There is only one misery … and that is not to be saints.”[7]

Consider this passage by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis from Deal Hudson and Matthew Mancini’s excellent collection, Understanding Maritain: Philosopher and Friend:

Jacques, Raïssa, and her sister, Vera Oumançoff, were baptized, with Léon Bloy as their common godfather, less than a year after having met with him. Obviously the speed of the conversions may be attributed to the superior power of lived witness over argumentation. Before they discovered Henri Bergson, Jacques and Raïssa had been nothing if not argumentative and rationalistic, and this path of sheer logical demonstration had led them to despair. But what Jacques and Raïssa could not find even in Bergon’s intuitionism, and did find in Bloy’s Christian faith, was the living Logos, with all the resonances this word carries for an Origen of Alexandria. Bloy mediated to them not primarily a philosophical principle of spiritual order but a living utterance continually so taken into men’s hearts by the Lover of Mankind.[8]

It is also really profitable to go back through the second chapter of Untrammeled Approaches, “In Homage to Our Dear Godfather, Léon Bloy.”[9] Here, Maritain himself states in eight words what Léon Bloy meant to him and Raïssa: “Without him, we would not have become Christians.”[10]

Maritain describes Bloy as

a sort of bedazzled prophet, of extraordinary intuitive genius, in a kind of wild primitive state, possessed by the Holy Spirit. He was filled with supernatural gifts of extraordinary power joined to the sensitivity of a pure poet in which the ways and tools of reason played almost no role at all—“I understand only what I divine,” he liked to say so that it was not very surprising to find in him sometimes, along with the prodigiously penetrating intuitions of a visionary which enabled him to touch the ineffable and to reveal the most profound truths, an enormous naïveté as well concerning matters of secondary importance. [Emphasis added.] We must note also, and he did so himself, that he experienced immense impulses of a love obsessed by the desire for God which overflowed its banks and because of which, due to his affectionate loving nature, his life was filled with lapses, with remorse, with confessions, and with relapses, that left him tortured by moral anguish in the midst of material destitution.[11]

But Maritain’s is not the only account of this debt.[12] Leiva-Merikakis complements Maritain’s recollection of Bloy by adding additional materials from both Maritain and such friends of his as Georges Bernanos. Bernanos himself says, “I owe him everything.”[13]

Pierre Termier testifies further of Bloy:

He is at one and the same time … judge in the service of divine justice, promulgator of the Absolute, a beggar praying on the church steps; and yet he is an artist, because he cannot imagine that God is not beauty itself, and because he wants to put into his work as brilliant a reflection as possible of the glorious vision which is in Him. Nothing is beautiful enough for the monument he is erecting; nothing is beautiful enough for the Truth and for Love. “I wanted,” he says somewhere, “to be the sculptor of the Word”: a sculptor never satisfied, who dreamed perpetually of undiscoverable marbles and of a bronze whose secret is lost. Neither the frightful harshness of his life, nor the constant injustice of men, nor the all too prolonged silence of God are capable of curbing his ardor.[14]

And then the words of Leiva-Merikakis:

I propose, then, that Jacques Maritain owed the shape of his religious destiny to the “phenomenon Léon Bloy” just as he owed the shape of his intellectual destiny to Saint Thomas. Indeed, Jacques found Thomas’ love of objective truth anticipated in the very unphilosophical Bloy.[15]

For Bernanos, for Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, and for many others, Bloy pulled back the veils of bourgeois Christianity. By his life, he revealed the burning Word of God. In the words of Leiva-Merikakis:

It is no exaggeration to say that Bloy stands quite alone as the undisputed turning point in modern Catholic literature and piety—as the decisive catalyst in that religious and cultural renewal which abandoned many patterns of nineteenth-century bourgeois Catholicism and shattered the canonical forms and conventions that had long imprisoned the fire of God’s Word.[16]

Now, all of us in the Maritain Association are heirs of Léon Bloy. It is a frightening thought. It gives us much to correct in ourselves—and to teach our students.

Editor’s note: This essay was given as a talk to the American Maritain Association in February 2016.


[1] Quoted in Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, “Léon Bloy and Jacques Maritain: Fratres in Eremo,” in Understanding Maritain: Philosopher and Friend, ed. Deal W. Hudson and Matthew J. Mancini (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987), 73.

[2] Cf. Ralph McInerny, “Matins (1881-1906),” in The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), available at: http://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/RichHours2.html.

[3] Léon Bloy, trans. I. J. Collins, The Woman Who Was Poor (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1947), 3.

[4] I have been unable to find this passage, which I remember vividly from my reading of Bloy in college. Perhaps here my memory slips. I will gratefully pay $20 to anyone who locates the correct quote.

[5] Unlike, for example, Johnathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Here too springs a Protestant-Catholic difference in thinking. Edwards pictures sin and anger; Bloy stresses the Infinite versus the puny finite.

[6] Leiva-Merikakis, “Léon Bloy and Jacques Maritain,” 118.

[7] Bloy, The Woman Who Was Poor, 356.

[8] Leiva-Merikakis, “Léon Bloy and Jacques Maritain,” 82.

[9] Jacques Maritain, Untrammeled Approaches, The Collected Works of Jacques Maritain, vol. 20, trans. Bernard Doering (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 27-45.

[10] Ibid., 27.

[11] Ibid., 29.

[12] Raïssa also gives a touching account of her exchange with Bloy on his deathbed, quoted in Untrammeled Approaches, 34:

He died on Saturday, November 3, 1917, “towards the evening at the hour of the Angelus, without a death-rattle and without agony.” “On October 31,” Raïssa writes in Les Grandes Amitiés, “While I was at his bedside he confessed to me that he was in great suffering. ‘You are suffering for your godchildren,’ I said in my great desire to help him in some way, But he went on: ‘The baseness of my nature is expiated by…. ‘His voice was scarcely audible and I did not hear the last words. ‘I wish I could do something for you,’ he said a moment later with great tenderness. And I replied, my heart breaking with pity: ‘You have done everything for me, since you brought me to know God.’ I added: ‘I wish I could take your suffering upon me.’ ‘Don’t say that!’ he said with a certain vivacity, and then looking at me solemnly, ‘You don’t know what you are asking.’”

If you spoke this way to his godchild, it was because he remembered the day when, impelled by his living faith in the mystery of the Communion of Saints, he had asked to suffer “all that a man can suffer, in order that his friends, his brothers and souls unknown to him who were living in darkness might receive help,” and it was also because he remembered the terrible manner in which his prayer had been heard.

[13] Ibid., 30.

[14] Ibid., 27-28.

[15] Leiva-Merikakis, “Léon Bloy and Jacques Maritain,” 72.

[16] Ibid., 75.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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