[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
For many of the artists and intellectuals working in mid-twentieth-century Paris, there was no topic more captivating than that of sacred presence. The public lectures of Henri Bergson had awakened the idea that experiential contact with what he called l’Absolu was indeed possible, and despite the skepticism emanating from the nearby Sorbonne, this prospect was thrilling. Some went on to write about their own inner lives, like Raïssa Maritain whose extraordinary Journal recounts thirty years of locutions and visions, and eventually, a sense of actually incorporating the person of Christ into her own body and soul. Others, like the writer Charles Péguy and the theologian Henri de Lubac, perceived powerful spiritual experiences from ancient sources. So they transcribed, translated, and read them aloud to friends, over and over, hoping to recapture something of it for themselves.
Here in this portal and elsewhere, Robert Orsi’s writing on prayer as relationship turns our attention away from the familiar tools we rely on when we analyze sacred presence– familiar tools like interiority, or even the disciplining power of social norms. He helps us see how the sacred is made real only through the personal spheres of intimacy that happen always within, and alongside, the more diffuse networks of discursive and non-discursive power. This is a shift. We’re not trained to see personal bonds as having much scholarly weight. Constance Furey also writes about powerfully this: “For scholars of religion, things like friendship seem ‘not quaint exactly, but not essential either.’”
Indeed, the world of early twentieth-century Paris was fascinated with religious experience, and it was above all through friendship that the religious/mystical/spiritual was apprehended. If Bergson had ignited their imaginations to the possibility of sacred experience in modernity, friends did the heavy lifting for one another to make it happen. Bonds between friends was the key factor in generating religious experience, and converting or returning to the religion of their childhoods. Moreover, affective intensities of friendship traversed into other realms of consciousness such as dreams, memories, and imagination, often provoking feelings for one another so intense that they were was almost as good, if not better, than the real thing.
Léon Bloy (1864-1917), a Catholic novelist, had a major role in the cultivation of religious sensibilities at the time. One of Bloy’s friends was the Dutch artist Pierre van der Mer Walcheren, who published a memoir in 1917; a vivid retelling of his conversion to Christianity. Selling by the thousands, Walcheren’s memoirplayed a powerful role in attracting the French avant-garde to Roman Catholicism. Walcheren’s narrative recounts the “spiritual family” Bloy created for him, an intimate circle of amis who constituted his “spiritual initiation” into Christianity. At the center of this new family stood Bloy and two others, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, who became Walcheren’s “spiritual siblings.” His memoir describes praying with them, participating in the sacramental system together, trying to interiorize what he perceived as Bloy’s voracious spiritual appetite. Because of these bonds, “apparently life was as it was before,” Walcheren recalled, “but everything was transformed. It was extraordinary! Every idea, every attitude, inner or outer, every action, even the most common and daily activity, was totally different. All things now had meaning, and operated in a climate far more exhilarating and more real.” These intimate relationships forged the material out of which religious experience (rendering Christianity “real” and “living”) was enacted. It was more than learning about Christianity from a mentor, but interiorizing the dispositions of their new friend in a deliberate and deeply desired way.
Jacques and Raïssa Maritain went on to shape the religious sensorium of countless friends in the interwar period (certainly owed to their early formation in Léon Bloy’s “famille spirituelle”). In 1925, the writer Julien Green wrote to Jacques Maritain something that appears in many people’s recollections of Jacques. Green was certain that God placed Jacques in his life, so “that you might speak to me, and speak to me in His [God’s] place. Of that I am very sure.” A few years later, Saul Alinsky, another friend of Jacques, claimed that “to know Jacques Maritain is to know a richness and spiritual experience that makes life even more glorious.” It is remarkable how the presence of Jacques as a friend becomes, for so many, the (to borrow from Elaine Scarry) “incontestable reality of a world invisible and unable to be touched.”
People felt it with his wife Raïssa, too. When the young religious seeker Maurice Sachs wrote about his (brief) conversion to Catholicism, it was not the sacraments, the teachings, but the friendship with Raïssa above all that generated an sense of something transcendent. When trying to befriend her, he confessed to Raïssa, “I felt an electricity go through my body and redirect my life. May God let me always be with you!” Raïssa’s letters to him were his treasures he “guarded with his life,” letters she often mailed him along other sacred objects: prayer cards, a picture of Thérèse of Lisieux, a written transcription of the mass in Latin.
During World War II, while they were in exile in New York, the Maritains carried on an extensive correspondence with friends who remained in Europe. In their letters, they wrote prolifically about how friendships pulled up from memory could inculcate God in the present. Love and Friendship were often capitalized, marking them as not just significant, but elevated to the heights of the sacred. (“you are our consolation, you are Friendship itself, you are Love itself!” Jacques told the Swiss theologian Charles Journet in a letter recalling their bond). Journet wrote to the Maritains of his own memories of going to mass and praying together as a time when he learned how to “love Love!” In their letters, the network of remembered friendship included of course Jacques, Raïssa and friends like Journet, but also Jesus, Mary and the saints, to whom they prayed regularly for one another’s safety during the war.
Bonds between friends are of course fragile too, they strain and break and this also impacted religious sensibilities. In his beautiful biography of the French Catholic philosopherMichel de Certeau, François Dosse describes the relationship between the two Jesuit historians of Christian spirituality, Henri de Lubac and Michel de Certeau. As de Certeau prepared to take his Jesuit vows, he identified in de Lubac not only a mentor and teacher, but claimed that the “certainty” of his “bond” with de Lubac was “one of my joys in my communion with Jesus”. But tensions surfaced in their relationship, de Lubac eventually rejected his former student and friend. As de Certeau felt de Lubac vanish – the Père who secured his communion to Jesus — de Certeau began describing the experience of Christian belief in terms of dissolution, disappearance, an incessant searching for a God who eludes his grasp.
How can we understand these kinds of religious experiences using categories like the gleaming nobility of the man in solitude (the life of the mind/spirit) or the diffuse power of social discourse and practice? As crucial as these categories of analysis are, we now need to understand people in the relational realm where they lived their lives and felt their God most vividly come (and go). If we take seriously friendship, it must be understood as expansively as possible and include a wide-ranging grid of experiences. In real time, memory, hope, or fantasy, friends did not deplete the inner life, or distract from it, but rendered its transformation. They seem to have made something so difficult to apprehend in modernity present, felt, and real.