I managed to climb up to the point where the
Universe became apparent to me as a great rising surge,
in which all the work that goes into serious enquiry,
all the will to create, all the acceptance of suffering,
converge ahead into a single dazzling spear-head –
now, at the end of my life,
I can stand on the peak I have scaled and continue
to look ever more closely into the future,
and there, with ever more assurance,
see the ascent of God.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of Matter, 52
Teilhard’s life journey along the mystic path was not for himself alone. His writings, published only after his death, are a gift to us. They are a travel guide of such depth and wisdom that even in our own complex, sometimes terrifying, often mystifying reality, his footsteps shed a light that we may follow into a future filled with hope.
For this exploration of his climb to the peak where he could “look ever more closely into the future”, I rely on the July 2019 retreat experience led by Kathleen Duffy, SSJ and her book, Teilhard’s Mysticism (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2014).
Teilhard left us a road map, a set of five circles, stages of his mystical growth.
These circles, which are more properly imaged as loops of a spiral that he revisits throughout his life, provided him with steeping stones into an ever-deepening reality, a reality informed as much by the science of his time as by his religious tradition. They plot his growth and development as he sinks ever more deeply into the heart of matter and into the heart of God….Stepping with him through each of these circles…we come to understand ….how we too can be drawn more and more deeply into that privileged point where the depths of our hearts and the heart of the cosmos converge with the heart of God. (Kathleen Duffy, Teilhard’s Mysticism 4, 5)
Of the first of these spiralling loops, the Circle of Presence, Teilhard writes: There were moments, indeed, when it seemed to me that a sort of universal being was about to take shape suddenly in Nature before my very eyes. (The Heart of Matter, 26)
Duffy tells us that “something as simple as a song, a sunbeam, a fragrance, or a glance would pierce his heart and heighten his awareness of an unexplained presence.” (23) These encounters with beauty in sensations elicited by encounters with nature, with music, with persons, drew from Teilhard a wonder and a joy that illumined his life. At times they occurred in settings that hardly seem the stuff of poetry. In the midst of a long, arduous voyage to China, he wrote to his beloved cousin Marguerite:
Yesterday I could never tire of looking to the east where the sea was uniformly milky and green, with an opalescence that was still not transparent, lighter than the background of the sky. Suddenly on the horizon a thin diffuse cloud became tinged with pink; and then with the little oily ripples of the ocean still open on one side and turning to lilac on the other, the whole sea looked for a few seconds like watered silk. Then the light was gone and the stars began to be reflected around us as peacefully as in the water of a quiet pool.(Letter cited in Teilhard’s Mysticism, 25-6)
While serving as a stretcher bearer in the First World War, Teilhard “…had occasion to look into the eyes of many a dying soldier. Just before the moment of death, a strange light would often appear in a soldier’s eyes. Teilhard was never sure whether the eyes were filled with “unspeakable agony or…with an excess of triumphant joy” (HM 65). Each time the light went out and the wounded soldier died, Teilhard was overcome with deep sense of sadness. (Teilhard’s Mysticism 34-35)
Teilhard discovered light in other eyes when he came to know his cousin Marguerite as a kindred spirit with whom he could share the depths of his own soul. “A light glows for a moment in the depths of the eyes I love….under the glance that fell upon me, the shell in which my heart slumbered, burst open”. (Writings in Time of War, 117-8)
Of Teilhard’s relationship with Marguerite, Duffy writes: A new energy emerged from within, causing him to feel as vast and as rich as the universe. Marguerite had awakened the feminine aspect of his being. His love for her drew him out of himself, sensitized him, and stimulated his capacity for deeper and more intimate relationships. (Teilhard’s Mysticism 34)
Teilhard tells us that his encounters with beauty in the Circle of Presence, “drew me out of myself, into a wider harmony than that which delights the senses, into an ever richer and more spiritual rhythm” (Writings in Time of War, 117).
Duffy comments: Having invaded his being and penetrated to its core, having pierced through to his depths, Beauty drew him into that single privileged point where Divine Presence exists equally everywhere, and where all diversities and all impurities yearn to melt away.(36)
photo credit: Brenda Peddigrew
Teilhard saw that underlying Earth’s surface charms a vivid Presence lies hidden within and penetrates all things. This was the only source that could give him light and the only air that he could ever breathe (Writings in Time of War, 123). He yearned to sharpen his sensibilities so that he could see ever more deeply into the heart of matter. Along the first circle, the palpable world had truly become for him a holy place, a divine milieu, permeated with a vast, formidable, and charming presence. (Teilhard’s Mysticism 38)
Teilhard understood that the duty of a mystic is to be aware of the inner rhythm of the universe, and to listen with care for the heartbeat of a higher reality…. At this privileged place, he tells us, “the least of our desires and efforts…can…cause the marrow of the universe to vibrate.” (Teilhard’s Mysticism 32)
As Teilhard wrote in Human Energy: Indeed we are called by the music of the universe to reply, each with his own pure and incommunicable harmonic. (HE, 150 in Teilhard’s Mysticism 38)