We Have Been Friends Together & Adventures in Grace
by raïssa maritain
translated by julie kernan
edited by michael s. sherwin, o.p.
st. augustine’s, 448 pages, $40
In the first pages of We Have Been Friends Together, Raïssa Maritain recounts one of her earliest memories. She is five, and her parents have rented a room in their house to a woman who holds classes for young children. She remembers watching this strange woman from afar with hushed reverence: “I heard the multiplication table being repeated . . . and I was overwhelmed with the feeling that here was instruction and knowledge and a truth to be known; and my heart almost burst with the desire to know.”
This desire set the course for Raïssa’s life. Twelve years later, Raïssa is an increasingly discontented student at the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne. She takes courses in botany, geology, physiology, and embryology, but finds that none of her “questions” are dealt with there. “For myself I wanted to know nature after another fashion in its causes, in its essence, in its end. One day I was so bold as to say this to Professor Lapicque. ‘But that is mysticism,’ he cried out indignantly.”
This autobiography, originally published in two parts in 1941 and 1944, has now been reissued as a single volume. It is a fine chronicle of this unusual woman’s “metaphysical anguish,” brush with suicide, and subsequent conversion. There are rich descriptions of her marriage to Jacques Maritain, a man with whom, for the first time, “[she] could emerge from [her] silent reflections in order to share them, put [her] torment into words.”
It is also a chronicle of the Catholic revival in twentieth-century France. Entire chapters are devoted to the French painter Georges Rouault, to Charles Péguy, to the philosopher Henri Bergson, and to her beloved Léon Bloy. As the volume’s editor, Michael Sherwin, observes, this book is “nothing less than a theology of conversion and Christian vocation expressed in a narrative that traces the effects of God’s mercy upon the lives of a generation searching for meaning.” A story of a soul, and of the soul of France.
This review first appeared in the May 2016 edition of First Things.
Bianca Czaderna is an assistant editor of First Things.