Home » Articles » The Phenomenon of Teilhard de Chardin, December 9, 1967

The Phenomenon of Teilhard de Chardin, December 9, 1967

The Phenomenon of Teilhard de Chardin

By Gregorio C. Brillantes

One of the greatest minds of the 20th century, the Jesuit priest-scientist returned from journeys into the past with a vision of hope and unity for the future

December 9, 1967—TWELVE years ago, on Easter Sunday in New York City, a tall, gentle, white-haired French priest with wise, pensive eyes on the finely sculpted face of a nobleman was struck down by a heart attack. A month earlier, he had told friends of his hope that when God saw fit to take him, it would be on the Day of the Resurrection.

Fr. Marie-Joseph Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Tay-ar d’ shar-dann) died at 73 as he had lived for most of his life—an exile. His exile, in more senses than one, was not just from kin and country. Forbidden to teach and publish his works as a scientist during his lifetime, he spent years separated, as it were, from the contemporary current of history, probing into the secrets of rocks and bones millions of years old in the remotest corners of the earth. He was, for all his assurances of fealty, estranged from the official thinking of his religious superiors and the institutions of Rome. The Vatican at one time issued a formal warning, a monitum, against the dangers to the Faith posed by his reinterpretation of Christianity in the light of evolution, which to him was no mere theory but the existing and indispensable key to the meaning of the universe. Not a few of his companions in the Society of Jesus viewed the man, if not with alarm, at least with puzzled skepticism; and even fellow paleontologists—scientists whose particular discipline is the study of past geological periods as known from fossil remains—considered him an enemy of accepted methods and ideas. To learned men within and outside the Catholic Church, he seemed to be working against the greater glory of science and religion.

Thus, when Pierre Teilhard de Chardin died, the absence of pomp and ceremony at his funeral, aside from being a tradition among the Jesuits, might have been regarded by the more worldly as a fittingly obscure end for a man deserving of oblivion: the world would hear no more of him. The service at St. Ignatius Church in New York, we are told, was “simple to the point of poverty.” There were no more than ten mourners, and only one, Fr. Pierre Leroy, accompanied the body on the 75-mile trip to the Jesuit cemetery at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson. The priest-scientist who had traveled far and wide over the earth, farther perhaps than any other man if we take into account journeys of the mind unreckoned by miles or even light-years, rests there today, under a stark headstone among others similarly fashioned, at the edge of a forest.

A photograph of the austere cemetery illustrated an article on Teilhard de Chardin by John Kobler in The Saturday Evening Post, in 1963. Three dates are inscribed in Latin on the headstone, beneath the name Pierre Teilhard, S.J. (“de Chardin” was added to the original family name after a 19th-century marriage): born May 1, 1881; entered the Society of Jesus, May 19, 1899; died April 10, 1955. In the fall the winds tear the last leaves from the forest and scatter them between the rows of tombs.

Today the winds of change and renewal are blowing through Christendom, the late Pope John, in his own words, having opened wide the windows of the Church: a metaphor Fr. Teilhard would have appreciated, for he had a passion, a poetic feeling for wide open spaces, gulls on the wing, skies and far-ranging horizons. And one of the moving spirits behind these winds, no less than Pope John himself conceded, is the Jesuit Tielhard. Indeed, the tone of the Second Vatican Council, with its stress on the need to “bring the Church into step with modern times,” its optimism and its hopes for Christian unity, and more recently, Pope Paul’s concern with the “development of peoples” appear to reflect Teilhard’s influence, grown wider and more pervasive since his death.

In an essay on Christ and the universe written in the last year of his life, Fr. Teilhard had observed that “if the truth appears once, in one single mind, that is enough to ensure that nothing can ever prevent it from spreading to everything and setting it ablaze.” The truth as the priest and scientist perceived it is no longer confined to unpublished manuscripts guarded by the Holy Office. More than a million copies of his ten published books have been sold; difficult, labyrinthine, original, controversial, his style nothing less than the involved reflections of a scientific and mystical Faulkner, he is being read by Christians and atheists, unbelievers, agnostics and the merely curious. Bibliophiles of any number of faiths who give up on Teilhard in Chapter 1—“The Stuff of the Universe”—of his most famous work, The Phenomenon of Man, reserve for him a place of honor among their Kierkegaards and Bertrand Russells. Far from complete, posthumous publication of his writings is being supervised by an international committee composed of, among others, historian Arnold Toynbee, the late nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer when he was alive, biologist Julian Huxley and the man of letters André Malraux. No less than men of science and philosophy, the writers of our time have paid tribute to his singular influence. He was the model for the philosophical Fr. Tassin in Romain Gary’s novel, The Roots of Heaven, which, appropriately enough, deals with the splendor and nobility of a form of life; and for the brilliant and humble Fr. Telemond in Morris West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman. Flannery O’Connor used as the title of her last collection of short stories Teilhard’s mystical axiom: “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

In Europe and South America, associations dedicated to propagating his ideas have sprung up, and his vision of mankind has inspired numerous studies, interpretations, conferences, symposiums in various countries, not to mention the adulation of Marxists who see in his philosophy a confirmation of their doctrines on the socialistic and collective future of mankind. One of his most outspoken admirers is the communist Roger Garaudy, head of the Center of Marxist Studies in Paris and one of the leaders of the current dialogue between Christian and communist intellectuals in Europe. For his part the French-educated Catholic President of the African nation of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor, would advance Teilhard’s ideas as an antidote to communism. Marxism, according to Senghor, might “cure our underdevelopment,” but “it could not satisfy our spiritual hunger. Father Teilhard enabled us to transcend the paradox of materialism and spirituality.” The Jesuit thinker who proclaimed that “the most humanized groups appear always, in the end, as the product not of a segregation, but of a synthesis,” has found ardent champions, thanks to Senghor, among the political leaders and intellectuals of the dark continent where, one recalls with a certain awe at the profound aptness of it all, the phenomenon of man that so obsessed Teilhard is said to have had its mysterious beginnings more than a million years ago.

In an age of strife, class conflict, disintegration, dark forebodings and the ever present danger of nuclear war, the appeal of Teilhard de Chardin derives mainly, it would seem, from the boundless optimism of the man and all his works. To begin with, evolution to him was not a process of blind chance leading, inevitably, to that solar doomsday billions of years from now when all energy will have been expended, the hydrogen atoms of the sun will have been consumed and the sun itself will have expired into a cold cinder. This, as Teilhard himself was well aware, is what science says is the fate of our world. “I believe in science,” he wrote, “but up to now has science ever troubled to look at the world except from without?” Since evolution was a process planned by God, He must have provided, according to Teilhard, a kind of energy that transcended the laws of thermodynamics and would prevent “universal decay.” This “radial” or spiritual energy, which acted on the “Inside of Things,” or consciousness, he went on, is capable of producing higher forms of life ad infinitum, thus reversing the spiraling descent, as of a spent rocket, of the world into a cold, immobile darkness.

With this energy, the universe is constantly ascending, so to speak, striving to perfect itself. The stages of evolution, from the pre-life of atoms and molecules to life in plants and animals, to consciousness and thought in man, attest to this irresistible thrust toward perfection. And evolution does not end with man as he is today, the complex creature that moved Hamlet to both rhapsodic praise and ironic dismay: beyond present life and consciousness lies hyper-life, the threshold of which, Teilhard believed, 20th-century man has just entered: “Something is happening to human consciousness. It is another species of life that is just beginning.” The chief attribute of this new species is thought, and thought has generated around the earth a new layer which Teilhard called the “noosphere” (from the Greek term for mind: noos), a layer as real and recognizable to him as the hydrosphere, of water, and the atmosphere, of air. As if anticipating that other prophet of modern communications, Marshall MacLuhan, he wrote of “the earth not only covered by myriads of grains of thought but becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought….” Enclosed in this “thinking envelope,” the noosphere, men are destined to be united: “on a round planet they keep meeting, they intermarry, they interbreed—communication is inevitable.” As social progress brings about an intensification of the noosphere, men will in time arrive at the culminating synthesis of evolution, borne there by a unique quality of “radial” energy, the love of the “cosmic Christ.” United in and by this love to form a kind of universal mind, the human race will then be united with the Omega point: God: the final end of evolution and of the world.

Teilhard coined another word, “noogenesis,” for the movement that would take the human race to the point of final convergence. “Noogenesis rises upwards in us and through us unceasingly,” he wrote in the concluding chapter of The Phenomenon of Man. “We have pointed to the principal characteristics of that movement: the closer association of the grains of thought; the synthesis of individuals and of nations or races; the need of an autonomous and supreme personal focus to bind elementary personalities together, without deforming them, in an atmosphere of active sympathy. And, once again: all this results from the combined action of two curvatures—the roundness of the earth and the cosmic convergence of mind—in conformity with the law of complexity and consciousness.

“Now when sufficient elements have sufficiently gathered together, this essentially convergent movement will attain such intensity and such quality that mankind, taken as a whole, will be obliged—as happened to the individual forces of instinct—to reflect upon itself at a single point; that is to say, in this case, to abandon its organo-planetary foothold so as to shift its center on to the transcendent center of its increasing concentration. This will be the end of the fulfillment of the spirit of the earth.

“The end of the world: the wholesale internal introversion upon itself of the noosphere…detaching the mind, fulfilled at last, from its material matrix, so that it will henceforth rest with all its weight on God-Omega.”

As “our planet approaches the final stage of maturity,” Teilhard prophesied, “evil…will be reduced to a minimum. Disease and hunger will be conquered by science and we will no longer need to fear them in any acute form. And, conquered by the sense of the earth and human sense, hatred and internecine struggles will have disappeared in the ever-warmer radiance of Omega. Some sort of unanimity will reign over the entire mass of the noosphere. The final convergence will take place in peace….”

In the book’s epilogue, he wrote with lyrical confidence: “Christianity is the unique current of thought, on the entire surface of the noosphere, which is sufficiently audacious and sufficiently progressive to lay hold of the world…in an embrace, at once already complete, yet capable of indefinite perfection, where faith and hope reach their fulfillment in love. Alone, unconditionally alone in the world today, Christianity shows itself able to reconcile, in a single living act, the All and the Person. Alone, it can bend our hearts not only to the service of that tremendous movement of the world which bears us along, but beyond, to embrace that movement in love….

“The palpable influence on our world of another and supreme Someone….Is not the Christian phenomenon, which rises upwards at the heart of the social phenomenon, precisely that?

“In the presence of such perfection in coincidence, even if I were not a Christian but only a man of science, I think I would ask myself this question.”

Because his triumphant vision little stressed such doctrines as original sin and divine grace, orthodox theologians are quick to detect the odor of heresy in his works. Fr. Jean Danielou, a renowned Jesuit in his own right, and one of the theological experts who served at the Vatican Council, observes that a man should base his life on the hope of individual salvation rather than on the certainty of an evolutionary movement carrying humanity to absolute perfection in the remote future. The agnostic Julian Huxley, who wrote the introduction to the English translation of The Phenomenon of Man, voices the viewpoint of fellow scientists when he asserts that he finds it “impossible to follow [Teilhard] all the way in his gallant attempt to reconcile the supernatural elements of Christianity with the facts and implications of evolution.” Huxley points to certain possible shortcomings: “The biologist may perhaps consider that in The Phenomenon of Man he paid insufficient attention to genetics and the possibilities and limitations of natural selection…the social scientist that he failed to take sufficient account of the facts of political and social history.” Other critics have attacked him for his “sheer mysticism” and his faith in human progress and the certainty of universal survival in the face of the Bomb. Perhaps it was to detractors who would question his optimism that Teilhard addressed these words, in a letter to a friend:

“I do not see man as a static center of the world, but as the axis and leading shaft of evolution, which is something far finer, because in you and me, through matter, the whole history of the world is in part reflected. The trouble, as I keep emphasizing, is that we don’t look far enough. It’s the old problem of seeing. We are continually inclined to isolate ourselves from the things and events that surround us, as though we were spectators, looking at them from the outside, not elements in what is going on.

“If I say the word history, your mind probably races back six thousand years. That’s the most—and that’s because you are thinking of history in terms of dates and recorded events. But when you see history in its proper perspective, it’s far longer. In the history of the world’s evolution 30,000 years are like a flash. I have concentrated so much on the past, on the earliest phases of the universe before even man existed, because I believe it helps to give us surprising visions of the future. Man is no more static than the world, for he, too, like the world is evolving all the time.

“In the books which I read as a boy, man was presented to me as an erratic object in a disjointed world, a conscious being standing like an actor before an unconscious backcloth. This is where as a scientist I feel bound to make a protest.

“I am optimistic about man—and I am not forgetting the bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Let me say why. Nothing on earth will ever saturate our desire for knowledge, so that as we advance toward a human era of science, so we shall find it will be eminently an era of human science. You will have the paradox where man, the knowing subject, will perceive at last that man, the object of knowledge, is the key to the whole science of nature. In short, man is the solution of everything that we can know. To decipher man is to try and find out how our world was made and how it ought to go on making itself….”

And on another occasion, he wrote on his favorite theme:

“As soon as the universe admits thought within itself, it can no longer be merely temporary nor can there be limits to its evolution. It must, from its very structure, progress into the absolute. Hence, whatever appearance of instability we may find in life, and however impressed we may be by its strict attachment to the spatial dimensions that delimit it and the forces that disintegrate it, one thing above all is certain (because it is as certain as the world itself): namely, that Spirit always will, as it always has, make sport of every sort of determinism and chance. It represents the indestructible portion of the universe.”

The worship of the durable, the indestructible, seemed to have always been a dominant quality of his temperament. As a boy in the tiny mountain village of Sarcenat, in the French province of Auvergne, “he looked always for durability in his possessions and was not greatly attracted by the frail coloring of butterflies or the evanescent beauty of flowers,” writes Fr. Pierre Leroy, who worked with Teilhard in China, in an introductory essay to The Divine Milieu. He collected commonplace objects which he called his “idols”: a little metal rod, a plow-spanner, nails, shell casings. “I withdrew into the contemplation of my ‘God of Iron,’” he was to reveal later. “Why iron? Because in my childish experience nothing was harder, tougher, more durable than this wonderful substance. There was about it a feeling of full personality, sharply individualized.” But iron, the boy soon realized with despair, could be consumed by rust: “I had to look elsewhere for substitutes that would console me. Sometimes in the blue flame (at once so material, and yet so pure and intangible) flickering over the logs in the hearth, but more often in a more transluscent and more delightfully colored stone: quartz or amethyst crystals, and most of all glittering fragments of chalcedony such as I could pick up in the neighborhood.” He and his father, who “demanded of his eleven children active cooperation in a disciplined family life,” went on long walks in the countryside gathering specimens of rocks and minerals. This early concern with the durable and the sense of spirit pervading matter were to shape his vocation as a priest and scientist.

At 18 Pierre Teilhard entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence. Three years later, in 1902, he embarked on the first of the many journeys of his life: the religious orders were expelled from France by the anticlerical government, and he and his fellow-scholastics found refuge on the English island of Jersey. When not immersed in his philosophical studies, he went on scientific excursions around the rocky island, armed with a geologist’s hammer and a naturalist’s magnifying glass. In 1905 he was sent to teach physics and chemistry at the Jesuits’ Holy Family College in Cairo, where he endeavored “to deepen and extend his still imperfect knowledge of geology and paleontology.” Egypt’s strangeness, “nature in its richness and diversity,” exerted on him a strong fascination, and perhaps part of it was already the call of Asia: “The East flowed over me in a wave of exoticism; I gazed at it and drank it in eagerly—the country itself, not its peoples or its history (which as yet held no interest for me) but its light, its vegetation, its fauna and its deserts.” At the same time, as if to suggest that henceforth his preoccupations would be not merely with what he called “the cosmic in the solid state,” he was filled with “a sense of fulfillment, ease and of being at home” by the “world of electrons, nuclei and waves,” which he studied and taught. “There was the dawning attraction of the nature of plants and animals; and, underlying everything, one day there came my initiation into the less tangible (but how exciting!) grandeur brought to light by the researches of physics. On both sides I saw matter, life and energy: the three pillars on which my inner vision and happiness rested.” The physics of atomic structure prompted in him the thought that “to escape the inexorable fragility of the manifold,” one might “take refuge beneath it….Thus we may gain the world by renouncing it, by passively losing self in the heart of what has neither form nor dimension.” But he was too much of a Christian dedicated to action, notes Fr. Leroy, to succumb to the “eastern” solution: not for him the attraction of losing one’s identity in a vague impersonal universe. Shortly after, in England where he was sent for the last stages of his Jesuit training, he realized more than ever the “oneness, solidity and intensity” of the universe: “at sunset in particular…the Sussex woods seemed to be charged with all the ‘fossil’ life that I was then looking for, from cliffs to quarries, and in the clays of the Weald. Sometimes it seemed to me as though suddenly some sort of universal being was about to take on shape in nature before my very eyes.”

The Jesuits had returned to France, and he was by then an ordained priest and attached to the paleontological laboratory of the Paris Museum of Natural History when World War I broke out. He served as a stretcher-bearer in a Moroccan regiment. The horrors of war could not diminish his Christian faith and mystical ardor. After days of carnage at the front, he wrote to a cousin, Claude Aragonnes: “I’m glad to have been at Ypres. I hope I shall have emerged more of a man and more of a priest. And more than ever I believe that life is beautiful, in the grimmest circumstances—when you can see God, ever-present, in them.” The firing line was not simply “the exposed area corroded by the conflict of nations, but the ‘front of the wave’ carrying the world of man toward its new destiny. When you look at it during the night, lit up by flares, after a day of more than usual activity, you seem to feel that you’re at the final boundary between what has already been achieved and what is struggling to emerge.” A Christian who saw God even in the midst of forces that denied Him, he also proved himself a man of superlative courage. For valor he was awarded the Military Medal and made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He volunteered often to serve in the forward trenches, and retrieved the bodies of fallen comrades “on ground torn by shellfire and swept by machine guns.” A fellow soldier asked him how he managed to keep so calm in battle; he replied with a smile: “If I’m killed, I shall change my state, that’s all.” He would remark later that the reality he found as a stretcher-bearer would be with him forever “in the great task of understanding creation and how it must become more and more sanctified.”

At war’s end, Fr. Teilhard returned to his scientific studies, earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne, was appointed professor of geology at the Catholic Institute in Paris. The novelty and daring of his lectures began to arouse an enthusiastic following, to the dismay of his superiors, who were only too glad to grant him permission to leave Paris and join a paleontological expedition to China sponsored by the Museum of Natural History and directed by another Jesuit, Fr. Emile Licent. At the start of what he called his “Asia Adventure,” the major goals of his life, says Julian Huxley, were clearly indicated. “Professionally, he had decided to embark on a geological career, with special emphasis on paleontology. As a thinker, he had reached a point where the entire phenomenal universe, including man, was revealed as a process of evolution, and he found himself impelled to build up a generalized theory or philosophy of evolutionary process which would take account of human history and human personality as well as of biology, and from which one could draw conclusions as to the future evolution of man on earth. And as a dedicated priest he felt it imperative to try to reconcile Christian theology with this evolutionary philosophy, to relate the facts of religious experience to those of natural science.”

A sea voyage from Marseilles took him to Tientsin, the northern Chinese port not far from Peking, in 1923, and in a China “more unsettled than ever,” he spent a whole year absorbed in the discovery and study of fossil deposits, in the process “consolidating his dangerous thoughts.” That such thoughts served only to confirm his convictions as a priest rather than weaken them is a measure of the depths of his unique vision: it was during this period, in the remoteness of the abandoned hills and canyons of the Ordos Desert of Mongolia, that he composed his poetic masterpiece, The Mass upon the Altar of the World:

“Since, once again, Lord—though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia—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 you all the labors and sufferings of the world.

“One by one, Lord, I see and love all these whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life…those who surround me and support me though I do not know them; those who come and those who go; above all, those who in office, laboratory and factory, through their vision of truth or despite their error, believe in the progress of earthly reality and who today will take up again their impassioned pursuit of the light….

“Christ of glory, hidden power stirring in the heart of matter, glowing center in which the unnumbered strands of the manifold are knit together; strength inexorable as the world and warm as life; you whose brow is of snow, whose eyes are of fire, whose feet are more dazzling than gold poured form the furnace; you whose hands hold captive the stars; you, the first and the last, the living, the dead, the reborn; you who gather up in your superabundant oneness every delight, every taste, every energy, every phase of existence, to you my being cries out with a longing as vast as the universe: for you indeed are my Lord and my God.”

He returned to France, only to find himself barred from teaching: his Jesuit superiors had come upon the two closely written pages on which he had set down for a young colleague his views on original sin, which he tended to regard not as a historical fact but as a mere theory to account for the existence of evil. He was ordered to limit his endeavors to scientific research abroad, and ever the obedient Jesuit, “deeply wounded but submissive,” in the words of his friend Fr. Licent, often depressed but bearing with patience “trials that might well have proved too much for the strongest of us,” hiding his suffering and abandoning himself to “Christ as the only purpose of his being,” he returned to China, where he was to live and work, with brief visits to France and the United States, and expeditions to Africa, India, Burma and Java, for more than twenty years. As scientific adviser to the Geological Survey of China, he collaborated with outstanding paleontologists of various nations and beliefs, made important contributions to the knowledge of paleolithic cultures in China and neighboring areas, and played a major role in the discovery of the 300,000-year-old skull of Peking Man, Sinanthropus, one of the great anthropological finds of the century.

Glimpsing into the life of the Jesuit explorer during this period Claude Aragonnes give us in her preface to Teilhard’s Letters from a Traveller: “Field work always had an enormous attraction for him. Although he had to spend so much time in the laboratory, he was essentially a scientist of the open air, and to touch Mother Earth—as in the Greek myth—made him feel younger….He was always ready to go anywhere….

“He was often a pioneer in uncharted regions. Teilhard the naturalist, geologist and paleontologist had to become an expert in topography, zoology, botany and ethnography. As he journeyed he studied the different races he encountered, their mentality, habits and culture. And this over vast territories. The China which he traversed in every direction from 1923 to 1940 was still the old immemorial China in which long caravans made their way along mere tracks, the China in which road and rail were still almost unknown—the Mongolian and Gobi deserts, the banks of the Hwang-Ho and the Yangtze, the lost corners of Honan and Shansi…it was no small thing to lead expeditions into those lost regions. First, a caravan had to be formed, mules to carry the finds, sometimes a military escort as a security measure. For transport—sometimes a two-wheeled cart, more often a horse or a mule. For shelter…a tent at the mercy of desert winds. Extremes of heat had to be reckoned with—extreme cold, extreme heat, snowstorms or sandstorms, or sudden floods threatening both travelers and their baggage….For months on end there was the complete solitude of slow monotonous days traveling across grey immensities, in which only the play of light on the bare horizon could engage the eye….

“When he emerged from the interior and arrived at Peking, Pierre Teilhard found a totally different China, a China brimming with intellectual and political ferment and an intelligentsia avid for knowledge and emancipation. This China welcomed scientific research and hence foreign scientists—Americans, Swedes, Danes, Germans. The value of Pierre Teilhard’s specialist collaboration was immediately recognized….Convinced that the internationalism of science was to be one of the mind’s greatest achievements, he served as a link between the cosmopolitan elements which made up Peking society between the two wars. He had many friends in the legations and the embassies….

“Ceaseless travel meant continual meetings. One day Pierre Teilhard came across a friend in some remote corner of the globe. He greeted him so warmly that the other expressed mild surprise. ‘Why am I so happy?’ said the traveler. ‘Why, because the earth is round!’”

It was at friendly gatherings in the Peking of the 1930s, according to Fr. Licent, that one saw the “real” Teilhard: “his mere presence brought an assurance of optimism and confidence. He had, too, that sort of mind that needs to retain and even multiply its contacts with the world outside…he had to discuss his way of seeing things with other people.

“Not that his conversation was always serious or pitched on a high level. He was often, on the contrary, lively and gay; he appreciated good cooking and a good story….He had a fine sense of humor: his face would light up like a child’s at a good joke; and if sometimes he could not resist an inviting target for his sly wit—after all, on his mother’s side the blood of Voltaire flowed in his veins—it was done with such unaffected good humor that no one could take it in bad part. It was one of his outstanding characteristics that he never gave way to bitterness, not even when decisions were taken that prevented the dissemination of his ideas….”

During all this time he was writing his books and his essays: the prohibition to publish he could accept, but nothing could stop him from writing. “If I ceased to write,” he said, “I would be a traitor.” The Phenomenon of Man was completed in Peking, in 1940. Rome would not relax its ban on the publication of his controversial manuscripts, and on his return to France after the last world war, in 1946, although elected a member of the Academy of Sciences, he was forbidden from accepting any academic post. But convinced by a sympathetic Jesuit, Fr. Raymond Jouve, that the vow of poverty did not cover manuscripts, he appointed a literary executor who would take charge of publication outside his order, after his death.

From South Africa in 1951, where he was on an expedition for the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research based in New York, he wrote to the General of the Jesuits in Rome, the Very Rev. John Janssens, explaining, “with the frankness that is one of the Society’s most precious assets,” why he believed there was no contradiction between his loyalty as a son of the Church and his faith as a scientist: “I feel that you might resign yourself to taking me as I am, that is, with the congenital quality (or weakness) which ever since my childhood has caused my spiritual life to be completely dominated by a sort of profound ‘feeling’ for the organic realness of the World. At first it was an ill-defined feeling in my mind and heart, but as the years went by it gradually became a precise, compelling sense of the Universe’s general convergence upon itself; a convergence which coincides with, and culminates at its zenith in, Him in whom all have their being, and whom the Society has taught me to love.

“In the consciousness of this progression and synthesis of all things in Christ, I have found an extraordinarily rich and inexhaustible source of clarity and interior strength, and an atmosphere outside which it is now impossible for me to breathe, to worship, to believe. What might have been taken in my attitude during the last thirty years for obstinacy or disrespect is simply the result of my absolute inability to contain my own feelings of wonderment. Everything stems from that basic condition, and I can no more change it than I can change my age or the color of my eyes…the immediate effect of the interior attitude I have just described is to rivet me ever more firmly to three convictions which are the very marrow of Christianity.

“The unique significance of Man as the spearhead of Life; the position of Christianity as the central axis in the convergent bundle of human activities; and finally the essential function as consummator assumed by the risen Christ as the center and peak of Creation: these three elements have driven (and continue to drive) roots so deep and so entangled in the whole fabric of my intellectual and religious perception that I could now tear them out only at the cost of destroying everything.

“I can truly say—and this in virtue of the whole structure of my thought—that I now feel more indissolubly bound to the hierarchical Church and the Christ of the Gospel than ever before in my life. Never has Christ seemed to me more personal or more immense.

“How, then, can I believe that there is any evil in the road that I am following?

“I fully recognize, of course, that Rome may have its reasons for judging that, in its present form, my concept of Christianity may be premature or incomplete and that at the present moment its wider diffusion may therefore be inopportune.

“It is on this important point of formal loyalty and obedience that I am particularly anxious to assure you that, in spite of apparent evidence to the contrary, I am resolved to remain a ‘child of obedience.’

“Obviously I cannot abandon my own personal search—and that would involve me in an interior catastrophe and in disloyalty to my most cherished vocation…the Wenner-Gren Foundation which sent me here is already asking me to prolong my stay in America as long as I can: they want me to classify and develop the data obtained from my work in Africa. All this allows me a breathing spell and gives a purely scientific orientation to the end of my career—and of my life.

“This letter is simply an exposition of conscience and calls for no answer from you. Look on it simply as proof that you can count on me unreservedly to work for the kingdom of God, which is the one thing I keep before my eyes and the one goal to which science leads me.”

He spent the last years of his life peacefully resigned, it seemed, to his fate. He continued to write: The Convergence of the Universe, Vision of the Past, The God of Evolution, The Appearance of Man, Le Christique. He read the monographs of Julian Huxley, and the novels of the other Huxley, Aldous, and of Graham Greene, also a Catholic with a penchant for the unorthodox. His letters to friends were serene as always, with a radiant fidelity to his hopes for mankind. He spent long hours in the laboratory, as he had done in all the stations of his exile; his days were devoted to work and prayer. Each morning he celebrated his private Mass. In an order famed for its discipline as much as for its achievements, he was an exceptional follower of Ignatius. The older Jesuits are dispensed from the custom of a monthly spiritual consultation with their superiors—but Teilhard, said Fr. Robert Gannon, former rector of New York’s St. Ignatius Loyola parish, “busy as he was, and living in rooms outside the parish,” would come to him every month “as humbly as the youngest novice.”

He often prayed, by his own account, for more than “a good death.” He asked to be granted “something still more precious than the grace for which all the faithful pray. It is not enough that I should die while communicating. Teach me to communicate while dying.”

It is perhaps in answer to Pierre Teilhard’s prayer that the world has not been deprived of the body of his work. He would speak still, communicate his vision, though his own body be returned to dust; the endurance of his thought speaks well of the faith he served so well to the last. At the heart of that faith shines the same hope that another seer and champion of Christ, the apostle Paul, uttered centuries ago: that someday “God shall be in all”: that despite all hardship, all pain and tribulation; despite hatred, strife and error, and all manner of cataclysm, ruin, disaster and evil, wars and rumors of war, the ultimate destiny of the human race will be a converge in unity, love and peace. The human soul, said Tertullian, one of the early Fathers of the Church, is naturally Christian. In our time, with its ovens for genocide, its napalm and hydrogen bombs, when not just nations but the entire planet and its future are imperiled, is not any optimism about the development of mankind in peace and love naturally, inescapably Christian? Saintly priest, revolutionary prophet, brilliant scientist, “the Aquinas of modern thought,” “a new Galileo,” “one of the greatest minds of the century”—all these Teilhard de Chardin has been called; but perhaps his greatest distinction was that, heart, mind and soul, he was simply yet astonishingly and magnificently a Christian optimist.

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2 Comments

  1. […] The Phenomenon of Teilhard de Chardin, December 9, 1967 by Gregorio C. Brilliantes […]

  2. John L. Murray says:

    This True ‘Phenom of a man’ was…what one ‘Patch Adams’ became…for mainstream medicine: a much-needed ‘sign of contradiction’….without ever the contention! Brilliant, indeed! ‘tyvm’ Sir Gregorio!

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