Here is Jenny Raper’s introduction to the early life of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his influences, given at Spiritual Reading Group via Zoom on Wednesday morning the 19th of April 2022.
The baptismal font in the tiny church of Notre Dame in Orcines, within walking distance of Sarcenat. The plaque declares that Teilhard was baptized here on July 21, 1881.
Teilhard de Chardin, born in 1881, died in 1955 aged 74.
is said that the child is the father of the man.
It is said “give me a child until he is seven and I’ll show you
would be very foolish to think I could do justice to either Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin, his spiritual and philosophical books and his scientific papers. His own spiritual books were never published
in his lifetime (his scientific papers and lectures were), however he had appointed
a literary executor, Mademoiselle Mortier who already arranged publication of
his works with a committee. Considered
to be his most important work, The Human Phenomenon, was published in
1955, the year of his death.
writings were gathered together and published in 13 volumes in French. Translations in many languages followed. His
scientific writings were published in specialist journals as he wrote them and
they were gathered and published in 11 volumes.
Many of his letters have been collected and published, but many remain
still to be published.
his works were finally open to the public in the period 1959-1972 readers, whether
spiritual, scientific or philosophic were avid to read his works. Associations have formed around the world to discuss
his works and published journals dedicated to his works. Academies hold courses on his spiritual and
philosophical ideas and many conferences and seminars are held each year to
discuss and probe his thinking in relation to our cosmos and its future.
that he was born only 22 years after the publication of Charles Darwin's book The
Origin of the Species, Teilhard was commencing his career as a priest at a
time when the Church was struggling to respond to evolution as fact. No official position was taken and this is
not the place to discuss this matter.
However, over the decades Catholic writers who offered opinions
favouring some sort of reconciliation between the Biblical story of the
Creation and Evolutionary theory were denied publication of their works. Teilhard was one of these writers and in 1926
(?) his “Note on Some Possible Historical Representations of Original Sin”
found its way to the Vatican and his Jesuit provincial asked him to sign a
document, pledging silence on the matter.
He did not. Eventually, he was
convinced to sign six propositions on agreement on doctrine. He later said this act was “the moment of the
great choice of my life”. He wished to remain faithful to both and science and
being a Jesuit, so he agreed to return to China “something of a disgrace”.
was at this time 1926/7 he wrote The Divine Milieu in which he explored
how he could remain a follower of Christ, a Jesuit and faithful to the
doctrines and dogmas of the Church. The
church refused publication of this book but many copies were printed by his
friends and circulated quietly.
he firmed up on the idea that “it is Christ alone who stands ahead of human
progress and can give a sense of direction to the modern world”. (Ursula King 125) He is increasingly aware of the indifference
of people to Christianity after the horrific First World War and that the
Church did not understand – not sustaining and feeding the zest for life, 'so
essential for a human”. (Ursula King 125).
worked in China from 1923 until 1945, with many trips home to Europe and to America. He also returned to the desert of
Egypt and from there to India, Burma and Java. During this time he developed
his scientific career but most importantly, perhaps, he developed his spiritual
ideas on which he wrote prolifically.
The central ideas were on the nature of the spirit in everything in the Cosmos
– in the Heart of Matter, his final work he says that matter and Spirit
are woven in a tapestry, where all are joined together, knit into a 'supreme
centre, an omega....”. “The irresistible
and universal centre of convergence to which we are attracted is a Person he
calls Omega and eventually identifies with the Cosmic Christ.” (Duffy)
did this man arrive at such an amazing complex idea and how did he withstand
the silencing, the distancing, the exile and still immerse himself in this huge
struggle to discern the basis of all that was, is and is to come?
life began in rural France at a time of continuing upheaval. The Third Republic was established in 1871
and in 1879 the anti-clericals took control of the government. Catholics were mostly monarchists and were
therefore side-lined in all national matters, however the Pope advised
Catholics to take more interest in national affairs. However, the divisions became more bitter.
Pierre was born in the Auvergne region of Central France. His family was of ancient, noble lineage and
owned a chateau at Sarcenat near the provincial capital of Clermont-Ferrand, an
ancient city. It was a region of extinct
volcanoes, high mountains, and wooded hills.
Traditionally the buildings in the city and the surrounding chateaux are
all made of stone from the volcanic mountains.
Pierre wrote in The Heart of Matter
“Auvergne moulded me Auvergne served me both as
museum of natural history and as wildlife preserve. Sarcenat in Auvergne gave me my first taste of
the joys of discovery, to Auvergne I owe my most precious possessions; a
collection of pebbles and rocks still to be found there, where I lived.”
natural world helped him develop his unusual powers of observation which was
fostered by his father, who also had an avid interest in natural science. Yet, Teilhard's earliest memory of childhood
was not of the flora and fauna of Auvergne, but a striking realisation of
life's frailty and the difficulty of finding any abiding reality. He wrote of his distress which happened when
he was six. His mother had snipped some
of his curls and he held one up to the fire.
It burnt and disappeared. He said
that ' a terrible grief assailed me, I had learnt that I was
perishable...” He'd then discovered a
piece of iron which he thought was incorruptible and everlasting, finding later
it had rusted: “I shed the bitterest tears of my existence!”
father, Emmanuel, was both a 'gentleman farmer' and intellectual. He had graduated from the Ecole Nationale des
Chartes which was founded in 1821 to foster the professionalism of historical
methods and conservation. He was devoted
to the archives of the region and was permanent Secretary of the Academie des
Sciences, Belles Lettres and Arts of Clermont-Ferrand. At home in his study he worked on maps and
charts, read in French and English, especially enjoying the England country
magazine The Field. He built up a
large collection of regional insects, birds, stones, and plants. It was through his father that young Pierre
learned the science of matter in flora and fauna and rocks and pebbles.
was the fourth child of eleven and they spent much time with their cousins
during the winter in their town house in Clermont-Ferrand. The summers were spent in the countryside
where they all roamed free around the hills, which is where he found his
beloved rocks, which he started collecting when very young.
children were educated at home by their parents with the help of English and
German governesses and their father directed their reading and Latin. Pierre so
loved the earth and rocks and was always searching for the incorruptible
(Ursula King 7) “It was this love of
stones that would eventually lead him to his passionate study of the 'science
of stones'… The primacy of material
matter so vividly experience …...not only developed his taste for earth
sciences; it also nourished in him a growing spiritual vision.” (Ursula King 8)
other great influence on his life was his mother, Berthe-Adele – his sainte
mama who gave him his Catholic religious teachings. She was an extremely devout woman with a
great devotion to the Christian mystics and to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She had an enormous influence on Pierre – “her
lifelong faithfulness to the deep spiritual values of a strong Christian faith
were like a rock to him, giving him a solid foundation and strong sense of
consistency for the rest of his life.” (Ursula King 8)
King SJ quotes Pierre as saying, when I was young “I have never, at any moment
of my life, experienced the least difficulty in addressing myself to God as to
a supreme SOMEONE” (Thomas King 22) King
also points out that the Sacred Heart of Jesus was popular in France, centring
on Divine Love ….showing this Love by images of Christ manifesting a visible
heart. Pierre later described this time
as creating a dilemma – finding the Absolute in metal/rocks and at another time
in the thought of God-The-Spirit. (Thomas
two foundational influences – matter and spirit – combined to give him
experiences out in the mountains and valleys.
He named it “the crimson glow of matter” “the Divine radiating from the
depths of Blazing Matter”. (Ursula King
” The World gradually caught fire for me, burst
into flames,.....this happened all during my life, and as a result of my whole
life, until it formed a great luminous mass, lit from within, that surrounded
a young boy, aged 11, he was sent to a Jesuit boarding school which was famed
for its education in the physical sciences.
He was a quiet, studious boy who was described by one teacher as being
very intelligent and “disconcertingly well behaved!“ He made his first
communion and joined a religious society known as the Sodality of the
Immaculate Conception, making an act of “personal
consecration to the Blessed Virgin” on her feast day. The figure of Mary was “central to his
understanding of the feminine.”
The tender compassion, the hallowed charm, that
radiate from woman – so naturally that it is only in her that you look for
them, and yet so mysteriously that you cannot say whence they came – are the
presence of God making itself felt and setting you ablaze.”
life there he had strong attachments to women – his mother and sisters and his
cousin Marguerite who was a confidante and correspondent. An American
sculptress, called Lucille Swan with whom he spent years alongside in China was
very special to him. Their relationship was definitely heterosexual love; but he
wrote to her, “I belong to Something else, he cannot be yours.” There was also Jeanne Mortier, who he
appointed as his literary executor; Leontine Manta a Parisian scholar to whom
he would unburden himself in letters to her; Rhoda de Terra who became his
self-appointed secretary and who was the wife of a colleague; and Ida Treat an
he was nearly 18 he joined the Jesuits as a novice – seeking spiritual
perfection. During his noviciate the
French Government passed laws restricting religious orders and the noviciate
was re-located on the island of Jersey (which was English). This period of his life as a young novice was
a foundation for his professional life to come.
The island was “raw, untamed and wild, full of grandeur and
overwhelmingly powerful forces. It was the wide, open sea, the wind and waves,
the lonely rock strewn shores”. (Ursula King
16) This was a very different world to that of the Auvergne. He described his feelings as being awakened
in a vibrant cosmic consciousness – an experience of such intensity that he
felt divine vibrations running through all things. (Ursula King 17) He became aware of a 'deeply pantheistic and
mystical inclination in him'.
struggled here with the reactions pulling him apart – should he continue with
his religious studies or should he become a rock scientist – a palaeontologist? The Church was also struggling as a result of
Darwin's work 50 years earlier, leading to 'an authoritarian enforcement of
traditional conservative views.” (Ursula King 21) He stayed with his vocation and was sent to
Egypt as a teacher prior to his theological studies. He had more challenges! He went on many excursions into the desert to
examine and collect rocks, including the study of fossils. He also met Muslim families and people of the
Coptic faith, he visited mosques and monasteries, discovering the riches
there. However, it was the desert that
drew him. He again experienced the
sensation of dissolving in nature, seeking union with the cosmos; he was
'transformed' by his experience in Egypt.
ordination in 1911 he followed his scientific interests in England around
Hastings, where he was studying theology, and again in Jersey. It was here he developed his belief that the
cosmos was in a process of evolutionary creation, of convergent homogenises
unfolding in space-time. He perceived
the “oneness of nature on a vast scale” – spirit and matter were “but two
aspects of one and the same Cosmic stuff.
The dualism of matter and spirit dissolved 'fog before the rising sun’”.
final and dreadful influence on him was his experience of World War I. He enlisted as an ordinary soldier and was
sent to the front as a stretcher-bearer in a Moroccan unit. He was attached to a regiment of assault
troops – constantly on the move and sent from one end of the front to the
other. He often acted as a priest even
though he was not a chaplain. Because
there was no chaplain for the Muslim soldiers, he did what he could to console
them – they called him Marabout -
a man closely bound to God. He said this experience was a “baptism of the
real”. Amazingly he was never
injured physically, never felt fear but did suffer from exhaustion. In army despatches he was described as a
“model of bravery, self-sacrifice and coolness who won the confidence and
respect of all”. He was awarded several
war decorations and made a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.
de Chardin kept a journal during the war and wrote many letters, especially to his
cousin, Marguerite. He wrote a set of
Essays to try and capture his experiences.
He called these “Cosmic Life”
To Live the cosmic life is to live dominated by
the consciousness that one is an atom in the body of the cosmic Christ. The man who so lives dismisses as irrelevant
the host of preoccupations that absorb the interest of other men; his life is
projected further, and his heart is widely receptive. There you have my intellectual
testament.” (Teilhard Cosmic Life)
war years were the crucible that he said fused all his previous experiences
together into one great mystical vision to write and communicate what he had
experienced and seen, just as he wanted to write about his scientific studies
which had convinced him about the theory of evolution. These two revealed that
the world was alive and revealed the presence of some universal being – God
Incarnate, Christ in the Cosmos, the universal Christ and Christ-Omega.
early childhood in a loving, spiritual and intellectual home filled with love
and the physical surroundings of his neighbourhood provided him with all he
needed to begin his amazing life. His further intellectual and spiritual
journeys came together, building on the very early life to create a wholly new
way of being in the world of matter and of spirit – a man who saw Christ in the
Matter in a blaze of glory.
quotes used for discussion during the Zoom Session:
” The World gradually caught fire for me, burst
into flames, … this happened all during my life, and as a result of my whole
life, until it formed a great luminous mass, lit from within, that surrounded
“The only true happiness is … the happiness of
growth and movement … the happiness of growing greater – of loving – of worshipping.”
“We must no longer seek to organise the world in
favour of, and in terms of, the isolated individual.”
“The whole future of the Earth as of religion,
seems to me to depend on the awakening of our faith in the future.”
“His was a passionate, practically oriented
spirituality and mysticism linked to the dynamism of the modern world, but also
firmly anchored and centred in his vision of the Cosmic Christ.”
Kathleen Duffy. ‘The texture of the evolutionary cosmos’, in ‘Teilhard in the 21st Century : the emerging spirit of the Earth’, ed. by Arthur Fabel & Donald St. John. Orbis Books, 2003.
Paul Grenet. Teilhard de Chardin : his theories and the man. Souvenir Press, 2007
Thomas King. Teilhard de Chardin. Michael Glazier, 1988
Ursula King. Spirit of Fire : the life and vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Orbis Books, 1996
Lubac, Henri de. Teilhard de Chardin. Paulist Press, 1968
Louis Savary. Teilhard de Chardin, The divine milieu explained : a spirituality for the 21st century. Paulist Press, 2007
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. ‘Cosmic life’ (written in 1916, published posthumously in French in 1955), in ‘Writings in time of war’, Collins, 1968
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The divine milieu. Revised edition. Harper & Row, 1968
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The heart of matter. Collins, 1978
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The human phenomenon. New English edition. Sussex Academic Press, 1999
Teilhard de Chardin. ‘Note on Some Possible Historical Representations of
Original Sin’ (circa 1922), in ‘Christianity and evolution’, Collins, 1971.