Five sun-soaked, star-speckled days walking, listening, speaking, learning, even dreaming of a sacred- earth centered spirituality, inspired by the writings of Teilhard de Chardin have filled my writer’s quiver with fresh insights into the mystic path for our time. Kathleen Duffy, SSJ, brought her own love for Teilhard, her years of deep pondering on his life and writings, to Jericho House in Ontario’s Niagara Region from July 24-29, 2019, in her Retreat on “Teilhard’s Mysticism”.
Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest, palaeontologist, mystic, France 1881-1955
Wondering how I might share this experience with you, I was drawn back to the words of theologian Margaret Brennan, IHM:
Mystics are people who come in touch with the sacred source of who they really are and are able to realize and experience that in their lives.
Teilhard’s life path led him to the sacred source not only of himself but of the entire Universe. Beginning with his childhood enchantment with rocks, through his work delving into the depths of the earth as a palaeontologist in China, and, while he volunteered as a stretcher bearer in the First World War, through watching the light that briefly illumined the eyes of a dying soldier, Teilhard grew into knowing a divine presence at the heart of all that exists. He wrote:
During my life, as a result of my entire life, the world gradually caught fire for me and burst into flames until it formed a great luminous mass lit from within.
The Diaphany of the Divine at the heart of a glowing Universe, as I have experienced it through contact with Earth – the Divine radiating from blazing Matter: this it is that I shall try to disclose and communicate. (The Divine Milieu, translated by Bernard Wall, New York, Harper and Row, Publishers, 1960)
During my life, as a result of my entire life, the world gradually caught fire for me and burst into flames until it formed a great luminous mass lit from within. (Teilhard de Chardin).
Thinking back to Kathleen Duffy’s unfolding of Teilhard’s story, I see in that quote above the significance of the word: “gradually”. Mystics are not born that way! And for Teilhard the path was truly a “long and winding road”.
I was touched by his struggles as a young Jesuit novice reading the book The Imitation of Christ by the fifteenth-century writer Thomas a Kempis. That spiritual handbook counselled that one must love ONLY Christ. Teilhard feared that his great love for the natural world would draw him away from his love for the Christ. His life experiences would gradually bring those two loves into a deep harmony so that he could finally write with deep joy:
Now Earth can certainly clasp me in her giant arms. She can swell me with her life or take me back into her dust. She can deck herself out for me with every charm, with every horror, with every mystery. She can intoxicate me with her perfume of tangibility and unity. She can cast me to my knees in expectation of what is maturing in her breast. But her enchantments can no longer do me harm, since she has become for me, over and above herself, the body of him who is and of him who is coming. (The Divine Milieu)
Of all that I learned of Teilhard during Kathleen Duffy’s Retreat, this revelation of his personal struggle and its resolution is what stirred me most. It reveals Teilhard as a mystic not only OF our time but FOR our time. He recognized the allurement of the Universe for the people of our time:
The great temptation of this century is (and will increasingly be) that we find the World of nature, of life, and of humankind greater, closer, more mysterious, more alive than the God of Scripture. (The Heart of Matter, translated by Rene Hague, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1978)
Yet that allurement was what he saw as most needed for spiritual healing: Our age seems primarily to need a rejuvenation of supernatural forces, to be effected by driving roots deep into the nutritious energies of the Earth. Because it is not sufficiently moved by a truly human compassion, because it is not exalted by a sufficiently passionate admiration of the Universe, our religion is becoming enfeebled…(Writings in Time of War translated by Rene Hague, New York, Harper and Rowe, Publishers, 1968)
Teilhard looked at the earth with the eyes of a mystic, with the heart of a lover. Finding the Holy Presence at the deep heart of all that exists, he could echo Rumi’s wonder-filled exclamation: “Is the one I love everywhere?”
Through Teilhard’s eyes, we can learn to see what mystic-poet Catherine de Vinck calls “the fire within the fire of all things”. Once we see that fire, we know the call that Teilhard knew to put our hearts at the service of the evolution towards love that is the call of the Universe, as well as our personal call within the universal call, for the two are inseparable.
Teilhard shows us that our deepest call is to love, that evolution is advanced by union on every imaginable level of being. And, as another poet, Robert Frost observed: Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
Nothing that lives on our planet is outside of us. We can no longer accept lines of division between religions, between cultures, between nations, between species. This Universe is evolving as one.
Our place within it, like Teilhard’s, is to be its eyes of wonder, its heart of love, its allurement toward union. In co-creative partnership with the Love at its heart, everything that we do contributes towards that great comingled work of the evolution of the Universe, the evolution of ourselves.