Teilhard de Chardin

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy cccprod.com

He was at a friend’s apartment in Manhattan when it happened – the “grace of all graces.”  Looking out the friend’s window at the New York skyline, a sharp pain lanced through his chest.  Unconscious, he fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes.  Some time later he regained consciousness for a few fleeting moments.  He had no memory of toppling.

When the doctor arrived, after a quick examination of the man, he looked up and shook his head.  “Better send for a priest,” he suggested.

The priest arrived, but was too late.  The man was dead.  Last Rites were administered.  Then the body was removed and transported to a mortuary for routine preparation.  The mortician carefully embalmed the body.  Then it was necessary for the coffin to be selected, which is usually done by a family member.  Since no family members were present, a phone call was made to the headquarters of the Diocese of New York.  After a quick consultation, which concerned cost, a coffin was chosen.  Luckily, there was one in the warehouse.  Another phone call was made, and the coffin was shifted onto a delivery truck.  Upon its arrival at the mortuary, the coffin was inspected for damage.  It was perfect, except for a layer of dust it had gathered while in storage.  Someone swept the dust away, and ran a damp cloth over the exterior.

The body, dressed in a simple black suit, was placed in the coffin. 

For two days his body lay next to the altar, in the chapel of the Jesuit house on Park Avenue in New York.

A few friends gathered for the funeral.  After the Mass the body was placed in a black Cadillac hearse.  Two priests accompanied the body; one drove, one rode shotgun.  They drove sixty miles to the cemetery.  Arriving, they watched as the coffin was unloaded from the hearse and placed in a temporary vault – a kind of cement purgatory, a place for exiles – until the ground thawed enough so a hole could be dug.

It was as if the ground itself had determined the time was not yet. 

Weeks later, when it warmed up and the earth relented, a hole was dug and he was buried.  The same two priests watched as the coffin was lowered into the hole.

The headstone was flat and common, made of gray marble.  His name and dates were engraved on it.  

It was the Jesuit Fathers Cemetery, and the graveyard resided on the grounds of St. Andrews Jesuit Novitiate, near the Hudson River, in Poughkeepsie.  Later, the novitiate was closed due to lack of interest.  The building was sold for a good price, proving once again that real estate is a smart investment.

The Culinary Institute of America bought the property.  Today the building bustles with chefs-in-training instead of the muted otherworldliness of priests-in-training.  The graveyard remains.  All of its permanent residents were and still are members of an exclusive fraternity – the Society of Jesus, commonly called Jesuits.


His name was Marie Joseph Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Although his headstone reads:  Pierre Teilhard.  De Chardin, being an aristocratic title in French heraldry, is not technically a family name; rather, it is ascribed like Africanus in the name Scipio Africanus.  

However you choose to refer to him, his impact on popular culture continues:  Alfred Manessier, the French artist, painted “L’Offrande de la terre ou Hommage a Teilhard de Chardin” in homage to him.  The novelist Morris West, inspired by de Chardin, depicted him in The Shoes of the Fisherman as Father Jean Telemand, who was misunderstood and persecuted because of his radical religious writings.  And the classical composer Edmund Rubbra, equally inspired, entitled his eighth symphony Hommage a Teilhard de Chardin.

Flannery O’Connor, the southern Catholic author, and Shriekback, the hard-core rock band borrowed de Chardin’s remark that “everything that rises must converge.”  O’Connor used it as the title of a volume of short stories, and the rock and rollers used it as a song title. 

De Chardin, played by the great German actor Max Von Sydow, was named Father Merrin in the movie version of The Exorcist.  And de Chardin’s picture hangs on the wall in one of the scenes. 

In his novel A Scanner Darkly, the great cult novelist Philip K. Dick quoted from de Chardin.  And James Redfield claimed that de Chardin was the inspiration for his heretical book The Celestine Prophecy.  While author Stephen J. Gould accused de Chardin of taking part in the Piltdown Man Hoax, an archaeological site at which de Chardin was present.

Science fiction author Dan Simmons portrayed de Chardin as a saint in his novel Hyperion Cantos, and when the main character of the novel was elected Pope, he selected Tehilhard I as his regnal name.  Whereas the French novelist Michel Houellebecq has the main character of his novel The Possibility of an Island, make fun of de Chardin’s writings, calling them “naïve.”  Yet in Hooking Up, renowned author Tom Wolfe asserted that de Chardin shaped the unconventional thinking of the creators of Silicon Valley in California.

Finally, among many others not recounted, de Chardin was presented as a universal spiritual mentor in Annie Dillard’s remarkable book For the Time Being.


Who was this man, this priest, who had such an effect while he was alive – on the Catholic Church – and who jolted the contemporary world after his death?

Born at Sarcenat, the de Chardin family chateau, which lies a few miles from Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne, a province in the center of France, Pierre de Chardin was the fourth of eleven children.  This fact is significant, as many of his biographers try to weave a web of invisible spirituality about his childhood, most hinting at his mother’s influence.  Undoubtedly true, her devotion to the “heart of Jesus” falls short of explaining Pierre’s spiritual tendency.  There are probably two reasons for de Chardin’s choice to enter the priesthood:  1) something inside him responded to the energy of life around him – what he called “the crimson glow of matter.”  This statement leads me to believe he saw auras, or light, or colors beyond the normal spectrum; 2) since Pierre was not the oldest male child and could not inherit land from his father, according to custom, he had two alternatives:  a career in the military or the priesthood.

So what I’m saying is this:  de Chardin’s mother influenced him in his spirituality, but did not persuade him to become a priest.  The priesthood was his decision, one born out of his own being, perhaps out of his being the fourth child.

When he was eleven, Pierre was sent to the Ecole Libre de Notre-Dame de Mongre in the city of Villefranche-sur-Saone, which lies near Lyons.  The Ecole was administered and taught by the Society of Jesus.  It was an elite prepatory school for the sons of France’s wealthy aristocrats.  And although the school’s motto was that of the Jesuits, “God’s will is my will,” the instructors reconciled science with religion and religion with science, a very progressive philosophy. 

It was at the Ecole that Pierre’s interests in life solidified.  They were two:  geology-archaeology, and God. 

While he was still seventeen years old, Pierre de Chardin joined the Society of Jesus, entering Aix-en-Provence as a novice.  Two years later, the French government, in its ongoing power struggle with the Church, passed legislation against religious orders.  The legislation was specifically directed against the Society of Jesus, which was becoming too powerful as far as the government was concerned.  So, in a roundabout way, they tried to shut the Jesuits down.

The Society of Jesus responded by simply packing up and leaving for England, taking Pierre de Chardin with them.

After four years of study in England, Pierre was assigned to Cairo, Egypt, where he taught at the Jesuit College of the Holy Family.  He remained in Cairo for three years, and then returned to England to study sacred theology.  It was there that he read Henri Bergson’s l’Evolution Creatrice, (Creative Evolution), which added direction to his own religious thinking.

Pierre de Chardin was ordained a priest at the age of thirty, August 1911.

For the next two years Pierre studied and worked in the paleontology department at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France. 

In 1914, the Great War intervened.  Pierre entered the ranks of the Moroccan Rifles, 8th Regiment, as a stretcher-bearer, that is, a medical corpsman.  During this period, he kept detailed journals of his spiritual insights and wrote hundreds of letters to family members and friends.  According to Pierre, the war was “a meeting with the Absolute.” 

After the Great War, Pierre entered the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied zoology, botany and geology, earning his doctorate in science.

Conflict slipped into Pierre’s life in 1922.  It came in like the Angel of Death in the book of Genesis, silently, rapidly.  Pierre had been asked by a ‘friend’ to write a paper on Original Sin. In the paper, Pierre tried to reconcile Original Sin and science, giving a biological explanation for the old sin nature.  Somehow the paper ended up at the Holy Office in Rome.

After reading the paper, the Holy Office began an investigation of Pierre’s beliefs.  He was suspected of doctrinal heresy.  Pierre was questioned extensively by Princes of the Church, and testimonials from supporters were gathered.  The damning evidences were his publications, and his own statements.  For he refused to lie or hedge by means of evasive answers. 

In the end, Pierre signed a legal document containing six propositions.  Essentially, Pierre would not teach, publish or discuss any of his religious views.  The only papers he could write and publish were those deemed purely scientific.  In other words, the Church had fit him with a muzzle. 

Pierre almost left the Church and the Society of Jesus.  He wrestled with his conscience and, finally, decided to remain true to his vows, his God.  The powers-that-be in Rome told him that China would be a good place for him.  He left Paris, sailing aboard the Ankor to Shanghai, then traveled into Western China to do archaeological work.  He was effectively in exile.  During this banishment, he wrote The Divine Milieu and The Human Phenomenon.  Because of the propositions he had signed, neither of these books could be published.  Indeed, none of his writings were published until after his death.

Like Cain, Pierre de Chardin wandered the earth with no place to call home.  Most of the next few years were spent at archaeological digs throughout China.  In 1927, he went back to Paris, then to Belgium, where he published purely scientific articles and met Paul Valery and Bruno de Solages.  Then on to Somalia, and back to China.

During this time, specifically 1929, Pierre met the great love of his life.  Her name was Lucile Swan.  She was an artist (sculpture and portraits) from Iowa.  Their love for each other was outlandish, wonderful and ethereal.  They spent much time together and were true soulmates.  Despite this, Pierre de Chardin chose not to break his vows, or be unfaithful to his order.  He wanted to, but did not.  About this there is no doubt.  Later, he said, “obedience is the hardest thing.”

In 1962, seven years after his death, the Holy Office in Rome declared the “works of Father Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers” to “abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine.”  De Chardin’s writings were called “dangers.”  This declaration is still in effect today.  And although all of de Chardin’s manuscripts are presently available in book form, none of them carry the imprimatur of the Holy Office.

During his life, and even more so, after his death, Pierre de Chardin was controversial.  The controversy swirled around his view of evolution, which view, according to the Catholic Church, was heretical – because it denied Creation and God.  And this interpretation of his writings, along with his pronouncement about “evolution [as] an ascent toward consciousness,” made his teachings attractive to the New Age believers (including the Unitarians). 

So, I ask myself.  What is the problem?  Was de Chardin really an unbelieving, heretical promoter of some new wave religious philosophy?  Or was he, in reality, a Christian?

I believe he was a Christian in every strict sense of the word.  It’s just that he got sidetracked.  De Chardin himself wrote:  “I can tell you that I now live permanently in the presence of God.”  That statement, although it reminds me of the so-called Holy Rollers (those who claim to have – and manifest it by means of speaking in tongues, hearing the voice of God, and seeing visions – the indwelling and filling Spirit of God), is not incompatible with Christianity.  It merely means that Pierre de Chardin was more spiritually receptive than other Christians, that – in his words – he had evolved further.

What it comes down to, as it usually does with Christians, is semantics.  When de Chardin utilized the word ‘evolution,’ he was not talking about Darwinian evolution.  He meant ‘spiritual perfection,’ or ‘spiritual growth,’ if you prefer. 

Pierre had made the common mistake of most Christians:  believing the Lie of Satan in the Garden of Eden – “you shall be as god.”  To achieve this goal, mistaken Christians must work hard at improving themselves morally and spiritually.  They must evolve spiritually.  Attainment of the goal is consciousness of the presence of God, unity with God.  And the more people who attain the goal, the better the world becomes.  Thus the world, too, evolves in an oblique sense. 

Pierre was what I call a Christian mystic, i.e., one who believed that spiritual growth was up to him.  He had to bring about his own ‘evolution.’  Spiritual evolutin was not a supernatural process achieved by means of the power of God. 

All of this, of course, is just my opinion, my interpretation of de Chardin’s interpretation.  Which means I might be wrong – that my proposition is subject to disagreement.  And admittedly, de Chardin’s writings are very difficult to understand, mostly because his understanding was his own, and no one else’s.  He was more intelligent and more spiritual than nearly all the rest put together.  So his ‘understanding’ was more, too.

Which explains why the Holy Office silenced him, then exiled him.  They couldn’t understand him either.  De Chardin scared them on an intellectual/spiritual level.  So they banished him like Jeremiah and Elijah were banished.   


De Chardin was like the Princess in the Princess and the Pea.  When asked if she slept well on twenty mattresses, she said, “There was something small and hard in the bed, and no matter which way I tossed and turned, I still felt it.  I’m dreadfully tired, for I hardly slept at all.”  No matter which way de Chardin turned, there was something small and hard in his spirit.  So he, too, tossed and turned his whole life. 

The Princess was a real princess because “only a real princess would feel a tiny pea under twenty mattresses and twenty quilts.”  Pierre de Chardin was a real man of God, a real Christian because only a real one would so feel the presence of God, or His absence. 

Like the Princess, de Chardin was delicate and sensitive.  The Princess was physically sensitive because of her inner nobility, whereas de Chardin was spiritually sensitive because of his nobility of soul. 

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was royalty.