“Saul, she died in love and by love. She saved the children. She accomplished at once what we are gropingly trying to learn: to die for those we love. She has given everything in one moment. Your mutual love has been eternally accomplished in this supreme love. She is your guide and teacher forever.”

– Jacques Maritain to Saul Alinsky, 4th October 1947

We rarely remember where we read books. Books which change us, in which we encounter truths so profound that they shape us for years to come, are different. I remember first reading The Philosopher and the Provocateur: the correspondence of Jacques Maritain and Saul Alinsky (edited by B. Doering) in my first year of academic research.

I’d encountered the discipline of community organising during a summer placement away from university – the discipline which was the life work of Saul Alinsky, the “provocateur” of the book’s title, and led to the birth of the Industrial Areas Foundation still at work today. I’d seen first-hand the impressive work such community organisers were doing to improve the lives of people throughout London, or rather what they were doing to organise those people to achieve the change they need themselves.

Late one evening I found myself back in the library, hungry to understand the intellectual basis of all I’d seen at work on London’s streets, and curious to understand what made community organisers tick. And so it was, I found myself unable to hold back tears as I read the letter of October 4th, 1947 from the catholic theologian Jacques Maritain (chosen by Pope Paul VI to accept the closing greeting of the Second Vatican Council addressed to “all thinkers and academics”) to the Jewish community organiser Alinsky upon the death of his wife Helene.

“She died in love and by love. She saved the children. She accomplished at once what we are gropingly trying to learn.”

Helene died saving her child and one other in a swimming accident. She held the children above her head in a strong current, but could not save herself. “She died in love and by love… and accomplished at once what we are gropingly trying to learn” – to give ourselves for those we love, to pour our lives out in the service of others.

This event – one woman’s death to preserve life in others – is especially apt as we prepare to celebrate Easter. The Church teaches us that during the events of Holy Week, in Christ’s death and passion, we celebrate the death of one person to bring life to us all. His death opens for us the way to eternal life – the risen life of Easter.

And at the centre of all this is love. It is in the context of this love which Maritain sets Helene’s act of loving sacrifice. He reminds us of the Church’s proclamation: that out of love God created us, out of love became one of us, out of love died for us, and out of love rises to bring us to himself in eternity. The life of the Christian is meant to share in and imitate this supreme love and self-sacrifice. As Maritain reminds us, an act such as Helene’s is the embodiment of this love, “accomplishing at once what we are gropingly trying to learn: to die for those we love.”

Running through the correspondence is Maritain’s insistence that Alinsky – described by the foreword as “a gruff, rough-hewn, agnostic Jew for whom religion of any kind held very little importance” – is living a Christian life: “a Christian at heart, a better Christian perhaps than I am, committed to the quest of justice on earth”. Maritain defines Christianity along the sacrificial love he highlighted in Helene’s death: “love for the neighbour implies… [the] gift of oneself or readiness to die for him”. Alinsky himself describes how he was introduced by a rabbi as a “Catholic Jew”. For his own part, he was troubled not by Maritain’s Catholicism but “by his example of everything good”.

The themes of closeness and difference between members across religious and secular divides (in this case Judaeo-Christian) means that the correspondence offers much for us today, especially given the contemporary clash of fracturing and resurgent national and religious identities through which we are living as the post-war settlement gives way. How two such contrasting figures as Alinsky and Maritain could find common ground and cause across such a divide is an important testament for negotiating the brave new world in which we find ourselves.

This is a book about coming to terms with the complexities of the reality of human life. This includes coming to terms with the complexity of apparent difference – finding common ground for the genuinely common good. It also includes coming to terms with the fact of human life itself – and human life’s greatest mystery: mortality. Some years after Helene’s death, in 1962, Alinsky writes: “the major change within me which resulted from Helene’s death was that I learned to accept emotionally my own mortality.”

A decade later, Alinsky died. He was buried next to Helene. A shared tombstone bears the line of Thomas Paine: “Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul.”

As the Church prepares to celebrate Easter, the Philosopher and the Provocateur remind us not only of the fact of our death, but the possibility of our life – and the need to take each and every possibility to reconcile broken relationships and cross false divides in the months and years to come.

Fr Simon Cuff is Interim Priest of the Church of England parish of Christ the Saviour, Ealing Broadway. He completed doctoral research in the reception of Scripture within contemporary continental philosophy. He pursues catholic social teaching through work with the community organising charity Citizens UK and as fellow of the Centre for Theology and Community and trustee of Migrants Organise.