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Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre

Category: Mystic

You gave me the gift of sensing, beneath the incoherence of the surface, the deep living unity which Your  Grace has mercifully thrown over our heart breaking plurality”.

Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (born 1 May 1881, Orcines, France – died 10 April 1955, New York City) was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest, who trained as a paleontologist and geologist.

He had a number of mystic experiences, all documented in his books, and his deeply spiritual writing is not only poetic and extremely moving, but sincere and simple.   I think you can see I love his work.  He is, however, best known for the controversy that his work caused in the Catholic church.

Teilhard de Chardin was the fourth child of a large family. His father was an amateur naturalist, but Teilhard's spirituality was awakened by his mother. When he was 11, he went to the Jesuit college of Mongré, in Villefranche-sur-Saône, where he studied philosophy and mathematics.  In 1899, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence where he began a philosophical and theological career.  Teilhard studied theology in the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1912, and was ordained a priest on August 24, 1911, aged 30.

A field hospital in WWI

Thus as we can see he was already a spiritual person before anything happened to tip the balance.  What happened was the war – the first World War.

Mobilised in December 1914, Teilhard served in World War I as a stretcher-bearer in the 8th Moroccan Rifles. For his valour, he received several citations, including the Médaille Militaire and the Legion of Honor.  Throughout these years of war he developed his reflections in his diaries and in letters to his cousin, Marguerite Teillard-Chambon, who later edited them into a book: Genèse d'une pensée (Genesis of a thought). He confessed later:

"...the war was a meeting ... with the Absolute."

 

In 1916, he wrote his first essay: La Vie Cosmique (Cosmic life), where his scientific and philosophical thought was revealed. He pronounced his solemn vows as a Jesuit in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, on May 26, 1918, during leave.

After 1920, he lectured in geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris, then became an assistant professor after being granted a science Doctorate in 1922.

Teilhard's primary book, The Phenomenon of Man, set forth a sweeping account of the unfolding of the cosmos. He abandoned traditional interpretations of creation in the Book of Genesis in favor of a less strict interpretation. This displeased certain officials in the Roman Curia, who thought that it undermined the doctrine of original sin developed by Saint Augustine. Teilhard's position was opposed by his church superiors, and his work was denied publication during his lifetime by the Roman Holy Office.

 

The book was published posthumously.

In 1925, Teilhard was ordered by the Jesuit Superior to leave his teaching position in France and to sign a statement withdrawing his controversial statements regarding the doctrine of original sin. Rather than leave the Jesuit order, Teilhard signed the statement and left for China.

This was the first of a series of condemnations by certain church officials that would continue until long after Teilhard's death. The 1950 encyclical Humani generis condemned several of Teilhard's opinions, while leaving other questions open.

The climax of these condemnations was a 1962 monitum (reprimand) of the Holy Office denouncing his works. From the monitum:

"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."

 

So what we have here is psychological trauma induced by two events  - the war and his persecution by the Catholic Church, which by any stretch of the imagination might be classified today as chronic verbal abuse and a form of intimidation - frequent, high levels of violence.  In a man as sensitive as de Chardin it must have had the most appalling effects psychologically, although what helped the healing was his writing and mystical experiences.  He was helped.

After his death and a life of stress and verbal condemnation, the works of Teilhard gradually gained more support in the church.  For example, on June 10, 1981, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli wrote on the front page of the Vatican newspaper, l'Osservatore Romano:

"What our contemporaries will undoubtedly remember, beyond the difficulties of conception and deficiencies of expression in this audacious attempt to reach a synthesis, is the testimomy of the coherent life of a man possessed by Christ in the depths of his soul. He was concerned with honoring both faith and reason, and anticipated the response to John Paul II's appeal: 'Be not afraid, open, open wide to Christ the doors of the immense domains of culture, civilization, and progress".

However, shortly thereafter the Holy See clarified that recent statements by members of the church, in particular those made on the hundredth anniversary of Teilhard's birth, were not to be interpreted as a revision of previous stands taken by the church officials. Thus the 1962 statement remains official church policy to this day.

References

The dates in parentheses are the dates of first publication in French and English. Most of these works were written years earlier, but Teilhard's ecclesiastical order forbade him to publish them because of their controversial nature. The essay collections are organized by subject rather than date, thus each one typically spans many years.

  • Hymn of the Universe (1961; English translation 1965) mystical/spiritual essays and thoughts written 1916–55
  • The Phenomenon of Man (1959), 1976:
  • The Divine Milieu (1960): spiritual book written 1926–27
 

Other works include 

  • Man's Place in Nature (1973)
  • Le Milieu Divin (1957), spiritual book written 1926–27
  • The Future of Man (1964) 2004
  • Human Energy (1969) essays written 1931–39, on morality and love  trans Harcort Brace Jovanovich
  • Activation of Energy (1970), sequel to Human Energy, essays written 1939–55 but not planned for publication, about the universality and irreversibility of human action
  • Let Me Explain (1970)
  • Christianity and Evolution, 2002:
  • The Heart of the Matter, 2002:
  • Toward the Future, 2002
  • The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919, Collins (1965), Letters written during wartime.
  • Writings in Time of War, Collins (1968) composed of spiritual essays written during wartime. One of the few books of Teilhard to receive an imprimatur.
  • Letters to Two Friends 1926-1952, Fontana (1968) composed of personal letters on varied subjects including his understanding of death.

 

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