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  • Best of 2023: Celebrating 100 years of Teilhard de Chardin's 'Mass on the World'

Best of 2023: Celebrating 100 years of Teilhard de Chardin's 'Mass on the World'

It is rare to celebrate the centenary of the writing of an essay, especially one as brief as ‘The Mass on the World’ by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. To be fair, The electrodynamics of moving bodies, the paper Einstein published in 1905 while he was working at a droll job in a patent office in Bern is even shorter. Nobody who has seen Oppenheimer will doubt the impact of those few pages.

Teilhard was in the same league as Einstein as a creative thinker, especially with regards to the possibilities of matter and the energy hidden within it. Teilhard’s work, however, was always towards a coalescence, a bringing together of the energies of the world rather than a splitting them apart. His believed in an ultimate convergence, an omega, a final point towards which all things were evolving. It’s a mystery to me that he was the one who was considered threatening.

‘The Mass on the World’ was not published until 1961, six years after Teilhard died. Like many of his works, including another exquisite essay, The Divine Milieu, copies had circulated from hand to hand among his friends and supporters. But Teilhard, a devout Jesuit priest, was seldom in the good books of his ecclesiastical superiors and was forbidden from publishing or lecturing for many of his most productive years. This was deeply painful to him as, despite the sophistication of his mind and the esteem of his scientific peers, there was a simplicity in Teilhard. He was consigned to an isolation that grated against his convivial nature.

Born in 1881, Teilhard grew up in the warm folds of a Catholic family in southern France; his first love beyond his family was the landscape of Auvergne, especially its rocks. In his spiritual biography, The Heart of Matter, written in 1950, he begins: ‘I was certainly not more than six or seven years old when I began to feel myself drawn by Matter – or, more correctly, by something which "shone" at the heart of Matter.’  This was the beginning of his lifelong quest for a ‘unique all-sufficing and necessary reality.’

In the middle of 1923, Teilhard was a member of a scientific caravan finding its way through Mongolia and China, carrying an improbable cargo of fossils which would shed light on the development of the human species. Conditions were basic, but Teilhard, despite his refined and gentle manners, never minded this. He had coped better than most as a stretcher bearer on the western front during World War I. In China, Teilhard described himself as ‘a pilgrim of the future on my way back from a journey made entirely in the past.’ His travels in Chinese pre-history, as exciting as they were, turned his attention towards what the world was becoming. A letter to a friend on August 26, 1923, is collected in Letters from a Traveller (1962):


The more I look into myself the more I find myself possessed by the conviction that it is only the true science of Christ, running through all things, that is to say true mystical science, that really matters …  I keep developing and slightly improving, with the help of prayer, my ‘Mass upon things.’ It seems to me that in a sense the true substance to be consecrated each day is the world’s development during that day- the bread symbolising appropriately what creation succeeds in producing, the wine (blood) what creation causes to be lost in exhaustion and suffering in the course of its effort.  


The ’Mass Upon Things’ to which he refers is ‘The Mass on the World.’

The essay begins with a moment of stillness. Teilhard finds himself at the start of a new day perched out of doors on a high place. He has no bread, wine, or altar. Instead, ‘I will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world.’ His utensils for saying such a Mass are simply ‘the depths of a soul laid widely open to all the forces which in a moment will rise up from every corner of the earth and converge upon the Spirit.’ He brings to mind ‘all those you have given me to sustain and charm my life’ and, beyond them, ‘the vast anonymous army of living humanity.’

I have read this essay on countless occasions and never fail to find another phrase of beauty and dept which had not caught my attention in quite the same way before. It challenges my understanding of the Eucharist or Mass, the central act of communal worship for many Christians. It is easy to mistake the Eucharist for what happens in church. The Eucharist is not confined to any particular liturgy, least of all one with so many airless rules and regulations that it is difficult to feel a pulse of life in its veins. When we gather for Mass, we bring to focus the entire Eucharist of creation: the bread is our toil, the wine is our pain:


All of us, Lord, from the moment we are born feel within us this disturbing mixture of remoteness and nearness; and in our heritage of sorrow and hope, passed down to us through the ages, there is no yearning more desolate than that which makes us weep with vexation and desire as we stand in the midst of the Prescence which hovers about us nameless and impalpable and is indwelling in all things.


Jean Houston, a founder of the human potential movement and close advisor of Hillary Clinton, tells a wonderful story about her childhood. In the early 1950s, she was saddened by the divorce of her parents. The break-up hit her at a bad time: she was an adolescent, exceedingly tall, awkward, and self-conscious. By chance, she met an old man in New York’s Central Park who asked her simply to call him ‘Mr Tayer.’

The pair started taking weekly walks and this became a safe space for Jean, meaning, for her, a place of adventure that lifted her beyond her anxious world. She was fascinated by the joy that this man in his seventies took in the smallest living thing, such as a caterpillar. In the middle of a great metropolis, he would exclaim about the caterpillar’s ‘wonderful, funny little feet’ and told Jean that she, too, would experience her own metamorphosis, becoming not just a butterfly, but perhaps more like a cloud that floated above the cacophony of urban life. She later wrote in Godspeed: the journey of Christ (1988):


‘Old Mr Tayer was truly diaphanous to every moment and being with him was like being in attendance at God’s own party, a continuous celebration of life and its mysteries … Always he saw the interconnections of things … he was truly penetrated by the reality that was yearning for him as much as he was yearning for it.’


She told her mother that when she was looking at nature with Mr Tayer ‘I leave my littleness behind.’

Only years later, when she came across one of his books, did she realise that the old man was Teilhard. Sadly, the austere church of the early twentieth century had little place for such an expansive spirit. At the time Jean met him, he was exiled from Europe and forbidden to teach or publish. One day, he failed to meet his weekly appointment with Jean, and she was sad. He had died alone. Ten people came to his funeral; only one, Pierre Leroy, attended his graveside.





Michael McGirr is Mission Facilitator at Caritas Australia.

Topic tags: Michael McGirr, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Mass, Jesuit, Einstein, Omega



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