By guest contributor, Matthew Wright. This is the first part of a 2-part essay.
Writing forty-eight years ago, Roman Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen predicted, “It is very likely that within fifty years when all the trivial, verbose disputes about the meaning of Teilhard’s ‘unfortunate’ vocabulary will have died away or have taken a secondary place, Teilhard will appear like John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, as the spiritual genius of the twentieth century.”
Following the same trajectory of sight, earlier this month my own friend and teacher Cynthia Bourgeault declared 2015 “The Year of Teilhard de Chardin,” and challenged her network of students in the Christian Wisdom tradition to begin working their way through his corpus.
She wrote: “Teilhard’s star is now rising powerfully on the horizon, heralding the dawn of an entirely new kind of Christian theology. […H]e is finally coming into his own as the most extraordinary mystical genius of our century and the linchpin connecting scientific cosmology and Christian mystical experience on a dynamic new evolutionary ground.”
Archbishop Sheen’s “fifty years” are almost up, and certainly his words seem to have been prophetic. Christian thinkers today are beginning to realize how vital Teilhard de Chardin’s voice and vision are for a Christianity that will have any serious traction in the 21st century. My own sense is that this is because Teilhard—unlike any thinker before him—united in a single vision devotional fire, mystical depth, scientific and evolutionary thought, and Christian faith. He brings these various strands of truth together in a way that each strengthens and supports the other, each coming into its own hidden fullness through the encounter. Not only does Christian mystical hope take on deeper resonance and meaning in light Teilhard’s scientific and evolutionary thought, but evolution’s processes and trajectory become clear and focused in light of his mysticism. Once the synthesis has been achieved, the connections seen, they can never be unseen. Today, the number of seers is reaching a critical mass.
My own encounter with Teilhard began six years ago, of all places, in India. I was staying near an ashram dedicated to the nondual teachings of Advaita Vedanta, and struggling with what seemed to be the other-worldly emphasis of this tradition: You are not the body. The world is illusion. I was convinced that Advaita had realized a significant truth, but I was also confident that this couldn’t be the whole picture—that our manifestation in this world of form and duality was profoundly important. One morning, wrestling with this tension, I hiked to the top of the sacred hill where the ashram sat, listening to a lone monk chant his morning prayers along the way. The whole time I felt a profound unease with what seemed like a disembodied spirituality.
When I reached the top, something prompted me to walk back down the mountain a different way. I found myself arriving right smack in the middle of town, surrounded by the colors, sounds, and smells of the market, children playing, an elephant in the temple courtyard, everything bursting with life. I felt an overwhelming sense that this was where God was happening, that God had poured God’s self out into matter, as matter, in order to be known through the beauty and diversity of creation. The goal of life could not be simply escape or the realization that the world was illusion.
I made my way back to the ashram, to the quiet side of the mountain, and wandered into the library, looking for a book. I was certainly not looking for a Christian book. Something on Hinduism, maybe Buddhism. But my eye, almost against my will, fell on a title along a spine that read The Hymn of the Universe by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I pulled the book off the shelf, read the first few words, and my whole being glowed with recognition. I devoured the first section, The Mass on the World.
Finding himself in the steppes of China without bread or wine or altar to celebrate the
Mass, Teilhard wrote: “I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world.” He prayed, “Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body.” I saw the spices and fresh fruit in the market, the elephant at the temple, the children playing.
He sang: “For me, my God, all joy and all achievement, the very purpose of my being and all my love of life, all depend on this one basic vision of the union between yourself and the universe. Let others, fulfilling a function more august than mine, proclaim your splendours as pure Spirit; […] I have no desire, I have no ability, to proclaim anything except the innumerable prolongations of your incarnate Being in the world of matter; I can preach only the mystery of your flesh…” Matter was not a distraction from God, but the very outworking of the life of God in form: a cosmic Incarnation.
Reading Teilhard’s words, my heart sang with his. What I found in his Hymn was a profound spiritual love of matter, of body and form; it was the balance I so desperately needed to complement the teachings of Advaita. This was not a nonduality that said “The world is illusion” or “You are not the body.” This was a nonduality that said, “You are the body of God.” Teilhard struck right at the heart of a tension felt by spiritual seekers throughout history, and one that I was certainly feeling: a pull between a spirituality that is all about swimming back “upstream” to a rarefied, nondual awakening (with little relation to the world and the body), and a spirituality that is about fully embracing life in form, duality and diversity.
Teilhard felt this tension in himself between the classical mystical pull towards the “Absolute” and his deep love for matter and the Earth, and he found that these seemingly contradictory “upward” and “downward” currents could be reconciled and united in a forward movement: that of an evolving universe. In a static universe (or worse, as some traditions have it, a degenerative universe), it makes perfect sense that the goal of the spiritual journey is to swim back “upstream” to God. But in an evolving and converging universe, the goal shifts dramatically: our spiritual work is not about escape, but instead about driving the whole creation forward toward that which is becoming.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Contemplative Journal. Follow Matthew’s monthly column at Contemplative Journal.