U. King – Teilhard de Chardin

« Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s First Essay “Cosmic Life” and his Prayer to the Cosmic Christ »

by Ursula King

The French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was an eminent geologist and palaeontologist, well known for his excavations in China and his association with the discovery of the Peking Man fossils. When his numerous religio-philosophical essays were published after his death, they attracted immense international attention. As they were published over more than twenty years without following their chronological order, it is not an easy task to retrace Teilhard’s development as a fervent evolutionary thinker and mystic from his works. 

This is especially true of his first essays, written between 1916-19, during the Great War when Teilhard worked as a stretcher-bearer at the western front. He belonged to a French North African regiment that was engaged in all the major battles of the French army. It was then that Teilhard began to write, but these seminal essays were only published in 1965 and translated as Writings in Time of War [1] in 1968. They still remain far too little known. 

Although not poetry in a formal sense, these essays possess great poetic quality and lyrical beauty, especially in the original French. They convey a deep love of life, of the Earth and of God, and especially an all-embracing universal vision centred on the cosmic Christ. This had slowly begun to emerge in preceding years, but it now found its full expression in a series of powerful lyrical essays, left as his “testament”, should he die in the war. Although writing was difficult in the midst of war, Teilhard felt a sense of urgency to communicate to others what he so ardently felt and believed.

The alluring appeal of the beauty of nature resonates through every one of these war writings – an appeal largely based on his own memory and creative imagination, for there was little beauty to be found in the trenches of the First World War. The lyrical quality of these essays makes Teilhard’s works “rank with the finest of the world’s religious poetry” (Claude Cuénot). Many passages are preludes to Teilhard’s later, much better known works such as “The Mass on the World” and The  Divine  Milieu.

Because of the great importance of these little known texts I have chosen to comment on the first essay, “Cosmic Life”, followed by excerpts from its final prayer to the cosmic Christ.

“Cosmic Life” (Dunkirk, Easter Week, 24 April 1916)

This essay of more than 60 pages is preceded by the motto “To Terra Mater, and through her, above all, to Christ Jesus.” It is in and through mother Earth, through the life of nature and the world, that incarnate, divine life is encountered and felt in its full dimension. That is why this essay opens with the affirmation “There is a communion with God, and a communion with earth, and a communion with God through earth.” This summarises the essay’s four major sections: I. Awakening  to the Cosmos; II. Communion with Earth; III. Communion with God; IV. Communion with God through Earth.

“Cosmic Life” describes Teilhard’s awakening to the cosmos, his vision of its unity, first experienced as a “temptation of matter,” but now understood as a “communion with Earth”. But such communion, so important and necessary, was a stage that had to grow into a fuller “communion with God through Earth.” This is linked to two important insights: the cosmic Christ, and the holiness of evolution – insights that Teilhard had first discovered in 1911 when he was still studying theology. He remembered his earlier initiation into the cosmos as an initial  temptation, a crisis that his faith and his transformative encounter with evolution helped him to overcome. The turmoil of war clarified his inner vision further and made him realize in a new way that matter was charged with life and with spirit. 

Even during the war he could affirm his deep-felt conviction “that life is never mistaken, either about its road or its destination” and could proclaim that “The true summons of the cosmos is a call consciously to share in the great work that goes on within it” [2]– a vision taken up many years later in Thomas Berry’s The Great Work. Our Way into the Future.[3] Teilhard discovered in the evolutionary process of life the rhythm and breath of spirit, the lineaments of the face and hands of God, the taking shape of what he called “the cosmic Christ.” Below are some passages from the culminating final prayer of his essay: 

Prayer to the Cosmic Christ

Lord Jesus Christ, you truly contain within your gentleness, within your humanity, all the unyielding immensity and grandeur of the world…

I love you, Lord Jesus, because of the multitude who shelter within you and whom, if one clings closely to you, one can hear with all the other beings murmuring, praying, weeping…

You the Centre at which all things meet and which stretches out over all things so as to draw them back into itself: I love you for the extensions of your body and soul to the farthest corners of creation through grace, through life, and through matter.

Lord Jesus, you who are as gentle as the human heart, as fiery as the forces of nature, as intimate as life itself, you in whom I can melt away and with whom I must have mastery and freedom: I love you as a world, as this world which has captivated my heart; and it is you, I now realize, that my brother-men, even those who do not believe, sense and seek throughout the magic immensities of the cosmos…

To live the cosmic life is to live dominated by the consciousness that one is an atom in the body of the mystical and cosmic Christ. The person who so lives dismisses as irrelevant a host of preoccupations that absorb the interest of other people: his life is projected further, and his heart more widely receptive.

There you have my intellectual testament.[4]

[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War. London: Collins 1968 (hereafter WTW); for the essay “Cosmic Life” see WTW, 13-116.  French original: Écrits du Temps de la Guerre (1916-1919) Paris: Grasset 1965, 5-61.

[2] WTW, 32.

[3] Thomas Berry, The Great Work. Our Way into the Future. New York: Bell Tower, 1999. See also Thomas Berry, Selected Writings on the Earth Community.  Selected with an Introduction by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014.

[4] (WTW 69-70). I have discussed Teilhard’s war experience and essays in more detail in my biography Spirit of Fire. The Life and Vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015.

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