Jacques Maritain, Thomas Merton, and Bob Dylan

The most recent New Republic has a review article on the great French Catholic intellectual Jacques Maritain by the literary critic Joseph Frank, prompted by the English translation of Jean-Luc Barré’s biography of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain and the publication of the Jesuit Stephen Schloesser’s book on Jazz Age Catholicism in France. Here are a couple short excerpts from the review:

The memoirs amply cited by Barré contain many descriptions of the peculiar sympathetic radiance that emanated from Maritain’s personality, often described as “saintly,” and as seeming “to have stepped down from the porch of a cathedral.” It is this aura that allowed him to exercise so powerful an influence on so many diverse and fiercely independent figures. Maritain himself was soft-spoken, reticent, and even hesitantly awkward; there was nothing at all commanding, impressive, or even self-assured about him. I know this from my own experience, having met him several times during the later years of my life. But there was an all-embracing quality irresistibly conveyed by his personality that I had never encountered before and have not encountered since.

I remember casual conversations during which, it seemed to me, nothing in the world had become more important for him than listening to my trivial words with rapt attention. It was then that I began to understand his remarkable success in making conversions, not only in France but also in the United States (Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, for example). It also helped to explain his ability to establish firm friendships with an incredible variety of Americans, including not only Walter Lippmann but also John Howard Griffin, the crusading white journalist who traveled through the American South as a black after darkening his skin, and Dorothy Day, the ex-communist founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, and Saul Alinsky, the hard-nosed Jewish labor leader.

Maritain returned for a last visit to the United States in 1966 to say farewell to old friends and to visit the grave of his sister-in-law Vera buried in Princeton. At the same time he went to see others, one of whom was the poet and monk Thomas Merton. The latter regaled him with recordings of Bob Dylan, “whom he [Merton] considers a great poet, a modern Villon. What a strange scene it is,” writes the friend accompanying Maritain, “listening in the monastery of Gethsemani to the hard and expressive voice of a young rebel poet. Jacques likes ‘The Gates of Heaven’ especially.” (This is probably a mistaken reference to ‘Gates of Eden.’) It is with such an appealing image, which seems to unite so many of the seemingly clashing facets of Maritain’s remarkable personality, that we can best grasp the secret of his astonishing career.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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