Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955): Priest, Scientist, Theologian

Some of the saints' feasts get "lost" in the major celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus this first week after Easter. Nevertheless, a longtime "hero" of mine and of many others, I believe, deserves some attention.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was known to wrestle with questions: about life, about God, about nature and the universe. All his life he thirsted to know more and more about human beings and their world. For over 40 years Teilhard traveled the globe, to four of the seven continents, searching, digging, excavating. He sweated through the steaming jungles of Java and fought freezing winds across the barren wastes of China's Gobi Desert. Helping others to look beyond what the eyes can see, he gazed into the future, dedicating his life to making humanity's boldest hopes a reality.

Teilhard, as he was called, was born in the little village of Sarcenat in the south central French province of Auvergne on May 1, 1881. His father, Emmanuel Teilhard, was a wealthy gentleman farmer, archivist, and a man who had a taste for natural history, yet was very down-to-earth. Pictures show Teilhard and his family to be tall and slender people. An old Sacrcenat farmer once remarked: "I just met one of the little Teilhards -- eight years old and not more than six feet tall!

As a young boy Teilhard seemed unusually grown-up for his age. While only 6 or 7, he was busy acquainting himself with all of nature's elements, as he himself admits: " would have had to watch me as I withdrew, always secretly and without a word, without even thinking that there was anything worth saying about it to anyone, to contemplate, indeed, to possess, to savor the existence of my 'God Iron'. Yes, just that: Iron. I can still see with extraordinary clarity the whole series of my 'idols'. In the country a plough-key, in the town a hexagonal head of a metal staple, and later on little shell splinters which I collected lovingly on a nearby shooting range..."  His father encouraged his children in this, taking them for picnics and vacation trips, alerting them to the wonder of insects, plants and rocks.

Teilhard's mother, Berthe de Dompiere, was wise and religious. Teilhard later claimed that he owed to her all that was best in himself. At age 12 Teilhard entered the secondary school at Mongré. Though always a good student, he wasn't outstanding in religion, finding it difficult to adjust to the cut-and-dried manner in which it was taught. At age 17, in 1898, however, somewhat influenced by the philosopher, Maurice Blondel, he entered the Jesuit novitiate to study for the priesthood. Here Teilhard encountered a serious inner struggle in trying to reconcile the God "on high" of faith, adoration and love, with the God "in front", the God present in scientific research. "...The Cosmic Sense and the Christly Sense", he says, "definitely coexisted in my heart and irresistibly drew towards each other.

Having completed his studies in philosophy and theology in 1905 at age 24, he was sent to teach physics and chemistry in Cairo (Ismailia), Egypt, for three years, after which he went to Sussex, from 1908-1912, to complete studies in geology and paleontology. During this time he had his first realization of a movement from a "Less" to a "More" within the process of evolution. Teilhard's era was an age of science and discovery. Madame Curie had discovered radium. John Thomson and Ernest Rutherford uncovered the secrets of the electron and the atom. The Wright Brothers, fellow-citizens of my hometown, Dayton, OH, took to the sky for 59 dramatic seconds in 1903. And there were others: Peary, Marconi, Einstein, etc.

Teilhard de Chardin was ordained a Jesuit priest at Hastings in 1911, when he was 30 years old. He devoted the rest of his life to scientific teaching and research. During these years he became more and more involved in the science which was to be his life's focus: the evolution of the human being. He came across and was captivated by some of the ideas in Henri Bergson's L'Evolution créatrice (1907). Bergson held that matter is the degradation of energy of the creative élan vital, a sort of dead condensation-trail left behind by the movement of life. Teilhard, on the other hand, saw matter as life in its physico-chemical preconditions, sharing by anticipation in the vital upward movement of convergence of all things toward their final spiritual communion in the Pleroma, a scriptural concept of St. Paul's. Teilhard later met Abbé Henri Édouard Prosper Breuil (1877-1961), a French priest, archaeologist, anthropologist, ethnologist and geologist, noted for his studies in cave art in the Somme and Dordogne valleys, as well as in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, China, Ethiopia, British Somaliland and South Africa. It was Breuil who greatly influenced Teilhard to choose the evolution of the human being as his life's primary focus. 

By this time Teilhard had already done some excavating in Egypt, Spain and England. Questions of how life, especially human life, began intrigued Teilhard. For most folks in Teilhard's time, the Bible had long ago settled such queries. God created the world, then crowned God's work by creating man and woman, breathing into them "a living soul". This simple scriptural view was shored up by the teachings of Artistotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Almost 20 years before Teilhard's birth, Charles Darwin had proposed a bold new theory of "natural selection". Animal groups or species, he said, develop through a very long, continuous process. The strongest and most fit survive longer and develop gradually into new groups. If this were true, it meant that human beings possibly derived from a well-developed animal form, such as a primate. The theory of evolution, predictably, raised quite a storm and most people of the time rejected it. Nevertheless, the thoughtful Teilhard felt that evidence generally favored the theory.

In 1914 World War I began, and Teilhard's studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the medical corps. He served as a stretcher-bearer and unofficial chaplain with the 4th Regiment of Zouaves and Light Infantry. Often in the thick of battle, he several times retrieved the wounded or dead under heavy fire. He was later given the Military Medal for heroism. In 1915, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and promoted to the rank of Corporal. Throughout the war Teilhard continued thinking, writing, questioning. Even in the trenches he would study the geological deposits. He was determined to look beyond the evil and suffering around him to a richer future for the world and humankind which he perceived to be in a developing process.

By 1919, now 38, Teilhard had decided that professionally he would pursue a geological career, specializing in paleontology, and that as a priest he would strive to reconcile the facts of religious experience with those of natural science. Having received his Ph.D. in 1922, he taught geology at the Institut Catholique in Paris from 1922-1928. For a year, 1922-23, he served as President of the French Geological Society. In the spring of 1923 he set out on the first of many expeditions to China, writing about his increasing discoveries as he traveled, more than ever convinced that God was guiding the creative evolutionary process.

Teilhard returned to continue teaching in Paris in 1924, eager to share his findings. His research, he believed, confirmed that higher forms of life developed from simpler ones, and that creation has a purpose. He believed that the human being was becoming more intelligent, that both the world and humankind are moving toward greater unity, and that Christ stands at the center of all this. He was very much in tune with St. Paul's notion that Christ is the goal of creation and that in Christ all things and humankind will eventually be complete. Teilhard taught and spoke openly and honestly. Nevertheless, his "cosmic" views proved controversial to many and greatly disturbed his superiors. The latter considered Teilhard's ideas too unconventional to be commonly accepted, and feared that higher Church authorities would label him a heretic. At length the controversy became so heated that the Jesuit superiors forbade him to teach and asked him to leave Paris. It devastated Teilhard who was simply searching for the truth, yet now found his views and teachings under suspicion, not only by his own Community, but by the Roman Catholic Church as well. Obediently, he returned to China at his superiors' bidding, limiting his writings to the scientific domain and doing further scientific research. Teilhard's expressed his attitude during this difficult time: "I show by my example, that if my ideas are new, they make me no less faithful."

For almost 30 years, Teilhard de Chardin remained under the Vatican's cloud of suspicion, was barred from teaching in Catholic institutions, and had all his major works officially banned. Unfortunately, that continues, even to the present day. On June 30, 1962, the Holy Office issued a warning on Teilhard's writings: "Several works of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, some of which were posthumously published, are being edited and are gaining a good deal of success. Prescinding from a judgement about those points that concern the positive sciences, it is sufficiently clear that the above-mentioned works abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine. For this reason, the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries as well as the superiors of Religious institutes, rectors of seminaries and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers." In 1981, on the centenary of Teilhard's death, Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, Vatican Secretary of State, issued a letter praising the "astonishing resonance of his research, as well as the brilliance of his personality and richness of his thinking." Casaroli asserted that Teilhard had anticipated John Paul II's call to "be not afraid," embracing "culture, civilization and progress." The media and other, in large part, interpreted this as implying that the warning against Teilhard's writings had been revised. The Vatican responded swiftly: "After having consulted the Cardinal Secretary of State and the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which, by order of the Holy Father, had been duly consulted beforehand, about the letter in question, we are in a position to reply in the negative. Far from being a revision of the previous stands of the Holy See, Cardinal Casaroli's letter expresses reservation in various passages—and these reservations have been passed over in silence by certain newspapers—reservations which refer precisely to the judgement given in the Monitum of June 1962, even though this document is not explicitly mentioned." Officially, the warning stands to this day.

 Despite the flack Teilhard took, he continued his research up to the time of his death, wrote privately, was invited to be part of various projects and expeditions, and to travel the world: China, France, the U.S., Belgium, Somalia, India and Kashmir and South Africa, among other places.  It's virtually impossible to list all of the things Teilhard wrote during this 30-year period. There are simply too many of them, in various forms. The best one might do is point out some of his major works, all of which were published in English only after his death, largely because they'd been on the Catholic Church's ancient Index of Prohibited Books, generally referred to as "The Index". Also, much of his work was written and revised over many years. The following is a short list, in the order in which they appeared in English, not the order in which they were originally written: The Phenomenon of Man (1959); The Divine Milieu (1960); Letters From A Traveler (1962); The Future of Man (1964); Hymn of the Universe (1965); The Making of A Mind: Letters From A Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 (1965); Human Energy (1969); Activation of Energy (1970); Man's Place In Nature (1973).

Teilhard's own words at various times during his 30 years of being silenced can shed some light on his firm commitment to truth and to his work, regardless of the cost. Here are just a few:
"...I am at peace, really, with the Church and with God...Always tending towards what is to come, yet admitting that the new thing cannot be born except of fidelity to what is, I know find myself quite beyond revolt."

"I now feel more the Christ of the Gospel than ever before in my life."

"How can I stop without failing in my most urgent duty to God and man?...I have decided to continue as before, trusting to the legitimacy of my cause. I know that that is what all the heretics said. But...they did not take up their position solely to exalt Christ above all things: and, basically, that is the only charge that can be brought against me."

"What distresses me is not that I am shackled by Christianity, but that Christianity should at the moment be shackled by those who are its official guardians: the same problem that Jesus had to face two thousand years ago."

"It is on this point of 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.'"

"Don't picture me as an underground worker or as persecuted. The most you can say is that I am a man trying to express frankly what lies at the heart of our generation."

In 1951 Teilhard de Chardin moved permanently to New York City, residing at the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Park Avenue. After making several trips to South Africa, he revisited his beloved France for the last time in the summer of 1954. At 73 he was aging, but he never stopped writing and giving talks. "It is much less ideas", he said, "than a certain spirit I would like to spread.

In March, 1955, at a luncheon at the home of his diplomat cousin, Jean de Lagarde, Teilhard told friends that he would like to die "on the day of the Resurrection". On April 10, 1955, nearly a month later, Easter Sunday, he attended a concert, then joined friends for tea at the apartment of Rhoda de Terra, his personal assistant of six years. It was around 6:00 PM and the group had been engaged in an animated discussion. Teilhard had just laid a paper down on the window sill, when he fell forward to the floor having a cardiac seizure. He regained consciousness briefly, but died moments later, ironically having attained his wish to die on the day of the Lord's Resurrection. Teilhard's body was buried in the cemetery for the New York Province of the Jesuits, at their novitiate, St. Andrew's-on-the-Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Teilhard once said, "Let truth appear but once to a single soul, and nothing can ever stop it from invading everything and setting everything ablaze." Lesser minds found it hard to keep up with him. Misunderstanding, stubborn opposition to new ideas and to change, and prejudice were frequently thrown in his way. Who would be surprised if he sometimes wondered if he dare to dream his dreams for humankind, or should he blindly obey those who lacked his vision? He walked the tight-rope of choosing to dream, despite the cost, at the same time maintaining his intellectual and spiritual integrity. Teilhard himself said that the most difficult task for us all is not so much solving our problems as knowing what they are. Brilliant as he was, even he didn't have all the answers. Perhaps that's why he could say, "In all my work I am conscious of being no more than a sort of sound-box, amplifying what people around me are thinking. Take from me what suits you and build your own structure.    


John-Juian, OJN said...

The character or "Fr. Telemond" in the movie "The Shoes of the Fisherman" was modeled loosely on Teilhard.

John-Juian, OJN said...

The character or "Fr. Telemond" in the movie "The Shoes of the Fisherman" was modeled loosely on Teilhard.

Cecile Lusby said...

Thank you, Fr. Harry, for reminding us of Teilhard de Chardin, whose bright hopes and phenomenal research went unacknowledged by the official Church. Believing there is a bridge or a unity of God and science or a reconciliation of religion and science was a dream deferred,