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  • Fire on earth: A centenary of Teilhard de Chardin's essay 'The Mass on the World'

Fire on earth: A centenary of Teilhard de Chardin's essay 'The Mass on the World'

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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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Existing comments

I remember reading 'Mass of the Universe' many, many years ago and it quite blew my mind. It was like poetry. I saw it as a poetic vision. His ecclesiastical superiors may have seen more than an element of panentheism in it. He was obviously a good man, as his influence on Jean Houston shows. The late Thomas Merton was also subject to religious censorship on occasion. One of his academic mentors felt it would have been better if Merton stayed in the world and married. Would it have been better if de Chardin had not become a priest and been an academic and writer with more freedom? There is still much controversy around his belief and works.


Edward Fido | 23 August 2023  
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How wonderful to read this story, regarding Teilhard, that I had never known. As a Geology student whose thesis was on the Geologic Timescale, I first read Teilhard in my late teens at University and then bought every one of his translated books. They transformed my life and I have grown spiritually since then until now in my late eighties I still regard Teilhard as a vital part of my spiritual and scientific becoming. Thank you for penning this piece about him.


Lee Andresen | 24 August 2023  

However, it is worth noting that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, combined his spiritual beliefs with his scientific pursuits in a unique manner. While it is impossible to say for certain what might have happened if he had chosen a different path, it is possible that his religious vocation influenced and enriched his work as a scientist and writer. Being a priest provided him with a specific perspective and framework through which he explored and integrated his ideas about evolution and consciousness. Ultimately, whether it would have been better for him to have pursued a different course is subjective and depends on individual perspectives and values.


Bitrus shedrach | 03 October 2023  

lovely article Michael. I have written about de Chardin and his impact on me as a teenager in recent book The Library of Lost Horizons.


Trevor Hay | 24 August 2023  

Thank you Michael. I did not know that story about Mr. Tayer. It seems wonderful to me that he was guilty of humility. Long live diaphany, the interconnection of things, and the universal Eucharist.


John Honner | 24 August 2023  

Thank you for such a good article recalling Teilhard's Mass on the World. I particularly liked the parallel you made between Teilhard and Einstein. Both men of great genius perceiving the energies of matter differently. Einstein in terms of splitting while Teilhard in terms of the convergence energies. Thank you for honoring this great man - prophet and mystic for our times!


Patty Andrew | 25 August 2023  

It is possible to have the greatest personal respect for Teilhard de Chardin whilst having reservations on both his scientific and theological assumptions.


Edward Fido | 25 August 2023  

As a Vietnam war veteran, also a medic in an infantry unit, I felt a great sadness to read that Teilhard died alone. For a priest with such vision for God’s beauty and unitary creation, to have survived the horrors of the Western Front, only to be banished from Europe by his Church, is shameful at best. Paradoxical that, in our own time, there are those at the highest levels of church who would - if they could - banish another visionary in the ilk of Teilhard: Pope Francis himself.

Thank you for this story and for a much more comprehensive understanding of Eucharist.


Dr Francis Donovan OAM | 25 August 2023  

I read again my old copy of 'Letters from a Traveller' which I carried to China in 1980 when I worked there, and as I crossed Xinjiang. I quote Teilhard de Chardin frequently in 'Between the Lines Jiangsu to Xinjiang 1980-81' (Edition Winterwork, 2022): 'In so many pages of his 'Letters ...' we find writing which can only be called poetry - a scientist seeing the world with the eyes of an artist ...' (p.115)
"I am in the heart of one of the most mysterious and sacred of geological regions, and I think I am finding the key to it... established step by step, its connection with eastern China."


Adele Jones | 25 August 2023  

Many thanks Michael for a most informative article. I will spend time with the essay and let it settle again within me and bring back memories.


Peter Brady | 27 August 2023  

I do not think the late, great Teilhard de Chardin would have favoured being turned into a guru, as some Catholics seem to want to turn him into.


Edward Fido | 10 September 2023  

Thanks for your lovely words about the impact of Teilhard on your life, Michael. He is remembered by yourself and so many others for his fine mind and his great humility. A brilliant legacy. I will follow up with some reading of his work. So few people were in attendance for his funeral and only one at his graveside. It seems to me that accolades and honour in the usual sense would not have been important to this man. This makes one admire him deeply.


Pam | 11 September 2023  

The girls who snubbed us, the boys who deserted us, the strangers who ignored us, the parents who misunderstood us... The employers who rejected us, the mentors who doubted us... The bullies who beat us, the siblings who mocked us, the friends who abandoned us... The conformists who excluded us... The kisses we were denied because no one saw us. They were all too busy turning their gaze elsewhere while I was directing my gaze at you... Only at you, because I am one of you. ( Cheers and applause ) Sorrow has no hierarchy. Suffering is not a sport. There is no final ranking. Tormented by acne and shyness, by stretch marks and discomfort, by baldness and insecurity, by anorexia and bulimia, by obesity and diversity, reviled for the color of our skin, our s?xual orientation, our empty wallets, our physical impairments, our arguments with our elders, our inconsolable weeping, the abyss of our insignificance, the caverns of our loss, the emptiness inside us, the recurring incurable thought of ending it all, nowhere to rest, nowhere to stand, nothing to belong to. Nothing, nothing, nothing. ( Dramatic music ) Yes... That is how we felt. And just like you, I remember it all. But it no longer matters that the world took issue with us, for now it is us who shall take issue with the world. We will no longer tolerate being named as the problem. Because, in point of fact, they are the problem. We are the solution, we who have been betrayed and abandoned, rejected and misunderstood, put aside and diminished. "There is no place for you here", they told us with their silence. "Then where is our place?" we implored them with our silence. ? ? We never received that reply. But now we know, yes. We know our place. Our place is here. ? ? Our place is the Church. Cardinal Biffi said it first and in an astonishingly simple way. We are all miserable wretches whom God brought together to form a glorious Church. Yes, we are all miserable wretches. Yes, we are all the same. And yes, we are the forgotten ones. But no longer. From this day forth, we shall no longer be forgotten. I assure you, they will remember us, because we are the Church.

Teilhard made the list.

Script from the Angelus Prayer in The New Pope TV series. 2019


AO | 20 September 2023  

I am interested in linking up with other Teilhardian people in Australia - are there any Associations or Societies? Mary-Ann


Mary-Ann | 18 December 2023  
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Mary-Ann, I am keen to link with you. Perhaps you were the Mary-Ann at the American Teilhard Association Annual Meeting this week. I gathered that you are in Adelaide. And I’m just an hour away in Port Elliot. Please be in touch.


Di Shearer | 25 February 2024