For several weeks, we have been companioned by the presence of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin through the inspired and inspiring writings of Kathleen Duffy (Teilhard’s Mysticism, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2014).
This week we will see Teilhard through the eyes of someone who knew him, walked with him for a time, engaged in conversation with him, encountering his transformative view of reality. In her autobiography, A Mythic Life (Harper Collins, New York, 1996), Jean Houston gives us a perspective on Teilhard that is deeply personal and insightful. The great palaeontologist and mystic becomes for us, through Jean’s experience, a warm, enchanting, human presence.
At the time of their tumultuous first meeting in the early 1950’s, Teilhard was living in a Jesuit Residence in New York City, having been exiled from his native France, silenced, forbidden to write or to teach his advanced ideas about evolution.
Jean, a high school student, heartbroken over her parents’ impending divorce, had taken to running everywhere. Then, one day…
…on 84th Street and Park Avenue, I ran into an old man and knocked the wind out of him. This was serious. I was a great big overgrown girl, and he was a rather frail gentleman in his seventies. But he laughed as I helped him to his feet and asked me in French-accented speech,
“Are you planning to run like that for the rest of your life?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, thinking of my unhappiness. “It sure looks that way.”
“Well, bon voyage!” he said.
“Bon voyage!” I answered and sped on my way. About a week later, I was walking down Park Avenue with my fox terrier, Champ, and again I met the old gentleman.
“Ah,” he greeted me, “my friend the runner, and with a fox terrier.I knew one like that many years ago in France. Where are you going?”
“Well, sir,” I replied, “I’m taking Champ to Central Park. I go there most afternoons to … think about things.”
“I will go with you sometimes,” he informed me. “I will take my constitutional.”
And thereafter, for about a year and a half, the old gentleman and I would meet and walk together as often as several times a week in Central Park.
He had a long French name but asked me to call him by the first part of it, which as far as I could make out was Mr. Tayer. The walks were magical and full of delight. Mr. Tayer seemed to have absolutely no self-consciousness, and he was always being carried away by wonder and astonishment over the simplest things.
He was constantly and literally falling into love. I remember one time he suddenly fell on his knees in Central Park, his long Gallic nose raking the ground, and exclaimed to me, “Jeanne, look at the caterpillar. Ahhhhh! ”
I joined him on the ground to see what had evoked so profound a response.
“How beautiful it is,” he remarked, “this little green being with its wonderful funny little feet. Exquisite! Little furry body, little green feet on the road to metamorphosis.”
He then regarded me with interest. “Jeanne, can you feel yourself to be a caterpillar?”
“Oh, yes,” I replied with the baleful knowing of a gangly, pimply-faced teenager.
“Then think of your own metamorphosis,” he suggested. “What will you be when you become a butterfly? Un papillon, eh? What is the butterfly of Jeanne?”
What a great question for a fourteen-year-old girl, a question for puberty rites, initiations into adulthood,and other new ways of being. His comic-tragic face nodded helpfully until I could answer.“I …don’t really know anymore, Mr. Tayer.”
“Yes, you do know. It is inside of you, like the butterfly is inside of the caterpillar.”
He then used a word that I heard for the first time, a word that became essential to my later work. “What is the entelechy of Jeanne? A great word, a Greek word, entelechy. It means the dynamic purpose that is coded in you.It is the entelechy of this acorn on the ground to be an oak tree. It is the entelechy of that baby over there to be grown-up human being.It is the entelechy of the caterpillar to undergo metamorphosis and become a butterfly. So what is the butterfly, the entelechy, of Jeanne? “You know, you really do.”
“Well… I think that…” I looked up at the clouds, and it seemed that I could see in them the shapes of many countries.
A fractal of my future emerged in the cumulus nimbus floating overhead.
“I think that I will travel all over the world and … and … help people find their en-tel-echy.”
Mr. Tayer seemed pleased. “Ah, Jeanne, look back at the clouds! God’s calligraphy in the sky! All that transforming, moving, changing, dissolving, becoming. “Jeanne, become a cloud and become all the forms that ever were.” (A Mythic Life, 141-3)
Years later, as Jean looked back on Teilhard’s effect on her life, as well as that of a few other such beings, she would write:
To be looked at by these people is to be gifted with the look that engenders.You feel yourself primed at the depths by such seeing. Something so tremendous and yet so subtle wakes up inside that you are able to release the defeats and denigrations of years.
If I were to describe it further, I would have to speak of unconditional love joined to a whimsical regarding of you as the cluttered house that hides the holy one.
(The Possible Human, 123, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1982)