Monday, 25 April 2022

Early Influences on the Life and Work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – Jesuit and Scientist JENNY RAPER

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.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, born in 1881, died in 1955 aged 74.

It 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 the man.”

I 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.

His 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.

After 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.

Given 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”.

It 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.

Also, 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).

He 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)

How 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? 

His 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.

Young 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.” 

The 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!”

His 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.

He 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.

The 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)

The 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)

Thomas 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 King 23)

These 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 7)

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 me.”   

As 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.”  

All his 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 American friend.

When 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'.

He 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.

After 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’”.

The 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. 

Teilhard 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)

The 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.

His 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.

Further 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 me.”   

“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

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. ‘Note on Some Possible Historical Representations of Original Sin’ (circa 1922), in ‘Christianity and evolution’, Collins, 1971. 

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