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Mysticism and friendship helped Teilhard endure

By Ursula A. King
Orbis Books, 245 pages, $15, paper


“What divides people today into two camps,” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) once wrote, “is not class but an attitude of mind -- the spirit of movement.” That division, as Teilhard frequently stressed, also exists within a church “drifting in a backwater of abstract theology” and “confined to a little, artificial world of ritualism, of religious practices, of pious extravagancies.” His life was committed to guiding the church out of that backwater, a task in which he succeeded significantly albeit in unanticipated ways.

A biologist and archaeologist, fascinated by the incredible thrust of matter to build itself into ever more complex and spiritual forms, and by the incalculable energy that drives this amazing process, Teilhard believed that the human potential was practically unlimited. He saw thought as the ultimate power, a power that would bring all humans into a spiritual unity, “a natural mysticism of which Christian mysticism can only be the sublimation and crowning peak.”

Teilhard the scientist achieved fame in his lifetime. France made him an officer of the Legion of Honor. Scientific institutes in England, the United States and China made him a member. Most of his Jesuit superiors were sympathetic to his theological innovations. But Rome obstinately refused to allow publication of his vision of a divine plan that gave to humans a more exalted destiny than petty curial minds could allow. Only after his death were we able to share in his great insights.

His conviction of the correctness of his vision was such that he continued to develop it in one book after another, even though he was able to share it with only a small circle of friends. Fortunately they included such theologians as Henry de Lubac, Marie Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar, all of whom -- like Teilhard -- had languished in disfavor until John XXIII picked them to help prepare the Vatican Council.

Chenu, in particular, has recorded the role Teilhard played in creating the climate for the “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” a radically new kind of conciliar document. He was fascinated by Teilhard’s claim “that many are unable to believe because the evidence of the world is stronger than the light of Christ. Only if we take with complete seriousness the evidence of the world, its proportions, its unity and its history, will we be able, working from within it, to restore God and Christ to their place in it and enable them to show themselves there once again.”

Ursula King, an English theologian, tells Teilhard’s story with great sensitivity. Nearly 200 illustrations, artistically inset, lighten the text and give added insight into Teilhard’s life and worldwide travels. This is the ideal book for anyone exploring Teilhard for the first time.

I found King particularly helpful in her explanation of two characteristics of Teilhard that assist me in appreciating his ability to endure the rejection by the institutional church of ideas that for him were the essence of his Christian faith. These were his mysticism and his need for human friendship and support.

Perhaps the highest point of Teilhard’s mysticism is found in a note he wrote on a scientific expedition in the Mongolian desert. “Since, Lord, I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer all the labors and sufferings of the world.”

Toward the end of his life, Teilhard wrote, “From the critical moment when I rejected many of the old molds in which my family life and my religion had formed me, I have experienced no form of self-development without some feminine eye turned on me, some feminine influence at work.” His cousin Marguerite, who edited many of his letters, was his first love. Others were Leontine Zanta, an early feminist, Lucile Swan, a sculptor and portrait artist from Iowa, Ida Treat, Jeanne Mortier, who arranged for the publication of his works after his death, and Rhoda de Terra.

“Love was for Teilhard,” King writes, “the greatest form of human energy, an intensely physical and spiritual energy. Without its warmth, its spark and fire, he could not have carried on his many tasks.” We can be grateful to the women who helped him survive the long years of imposed silence.

Gary MacEoin writes from San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998