End Notes: The Divine Tragedy

Before Jacques and Raissa Maritain met Leon Bloy, they had read high praise of the novelist by Maurice Maeterlinck, who thought that Bloy truly had the mark of genius. This prompted the Maritains to read Bloy’s novel, The Woman Who Was Poor. The story drew them imaginatively and spiritually into a world for which they had been unwittingly longing. One sentence of the novel burned itself into their souls. “There is only one tragedy, not to be a saint.”

For two young people who felt depressed in spirit by the dominant materialism and fatalism of the Sorbonne, the suggestion that life had a transcendent purpose, one that gave meaning to even the most banal of moments, was profoundly attractive. It pointed to truths hitherto unguessed at by the young couple. They sought out Bloy, they became his friends and disciples, and they even ended being baptized with Bloy as their godfather. They were determined that their lives should not be tragic in the sense of Bloy’s memorable sentence.

This event, which became almost mythic in recollection, acquainted generations of Catholics with the spiritual odyssey of the Maritains and with the friends of their youth, many of whom would otherwise have remained unknown to American readers. What Bloy had meant to the Maritains, they came to mean to untold numbers of others. There is something contagious about eternal truth when it is confronted in a person. That is the point of the Incarnation, and it should be the point of any life lived in the grace of Christ.

Much of life consists in rediscovering what we already know, sensing again the novelty and wonder of what it is that supposedly governs our lives. Presumably one who is drawn to the faith reaches a point of asking: What if it is true? This is a question we would do well to put to ourselves as a means of renewing our sense of what an enormous and undeserved gift it is. If it is true, then the way men are by and large inclined to lead their lives is false. But do the lives of believers reveal that they have indeed retained the implications of the truths they hold?

Ours is often called the age of the layperson, but thinking back to the turn of the century and before, one thinks of dozens of laypeople whose lives had a decisive impact on the course of the Church during their lifetime and beyond. If we looked into the life of Bloy, we would be taken back to the fascinating figure of Barbey Aureyvilly and other ferocious, all but forgotten Catholics whose lives spoke to others hungry for truth. Bloy, followed by the Maritains and Claudel, took it to be a necessary implication of his faith that he should seek to share it with others estranged from or unacquainted with it. Faith is preeminently one of those gifts that is most surely retained when it is given to others.

The dark side of the influence of believers on those who perhaps unknowingly hunger for the faith is that we may provide them with an excuse to turn from it. Christians are often cited as a weighty argument against taking Christianity seriously. Doubtlessly, there is often self-deception in this complaint. But how many would suspect that we ourselves really hold that there is only one tragedy, not to be a saint?

Misunderstanding about what is taught early on in Lumen Gentium led some to wonder what the point of preaching the Gospel is if other “great world religions” are alternative routes to salvation. Well, they aren’t, and the council fathers didn’t say they were. Ecumenism is widely recognized as an effect of Vatican II, but by most accounts it has withered. Perhaps it is thought to be gauche to want our separated brethren to enjoy full communion with the Church.

In South Bend, Indiana, a Protestant pastor recently made news because of his efforts to point out to his congregation the heresies of Catholicism. Journalists seemed to find the man deficient in the etiquette of contemporary Christianity. But what good is Protestantism if it doesn’t protest? I applaud the man. He is much more likely to stumble into the whole truth by holding passionately the partial faith he has than by picking his beliefs as one might select the proper fork. Think of St. Paul.

Accounts of conversions and reconversions are powerful stimuli to those who may not have wavered but whose fidelity has become routine. What if what we believe is true? On the other hand, if Christ has not risen, our faith is in vain, and we are the most miserable of men. It is really either/or. The young Maritains, when they encountered Bloy first on the page and then in person, knew that the sentence that had overwhelmed was not a mere turn of phrase. Here was a man who lived the truth that there is only one tragedy, not to be a saint.

May we do likewise.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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