More than two years ago Episcopalian priest and spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault named 2015 the “Year of Teilhard,” encouraging study of the work of 20th century French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Over the last month Cynthia has written three blog entries for the Omega Center entitled “Teilhard for Troubled Times,” which can be read below my reflections. The Center requested a response to the three blogs, which I have posted below.
I write as a high school humanities teacher who for more than 25 years has been on a quest to find what power in education really means in the international setting of Hong Kong. My starting point, then, in response to Cynthia’s reflections on Teilhard, is that her comments address arguably the biggest cosmological question of all: where do we find hope?
The students I teach are increasingly struggling to find hope in the 21st century, an attitude that my colleagues and I have termed the “people-planet divide.” The news regarding the climate crisis is often expressed in apocalyptic terms; meanwhile, the mental health of our students is visibly deteriorating. These are no longer debatable issues in our school community. Educational change needs to holistically address this dual crisis.
I recently asked my 15-year olds studying in my social conscience class that aims to make a difference in the world: what is the collective purpose of humankind? Despite many inspiring suggestions, when we talked it through there was one clear winner: there is no collective human purpose. In a cultural milieu where catastrophic biospheric disruption, rising levels of stress and mental illness, and assumed cosmic purposelessness are givens, Teilhard’s unflinching consideration of the “unresolved anguish of post-modern skepticism and despair” strikes a chord in me, for I sense that below my students’ frenetic striving for achievement is an unrelenting, if rarely acknowledged, malaise.
For the first 20 years of my teaching I answered the question of power in education through the transformative pedagogy of service learning. The progressive vision of our method, akin to Cynthia’s observations about the post-World War II consensus, was about “making a difference.” Drawing upon Teilhard, I can say that I was privileged to teach and live out of “a zone where people have eyes to see, hands to help, and hearts to love.”
Yet Teilhard warns, “But how precarious that habitation is!” My own version of this caveat is a student’s question at the end of a service trip about ten years ago, “But how do we keep the fire burning?” How do we continue to find the inner energy to fight for love and justice? I’m embarrassed to say that my only answer at that point was . . . to go on another service trip to get re-enthused. The real question that I needed to face, however, was: when the chips are down, when elections sweep reactionary forces into power, when climate change appears irreversible, when mental health deteriorates, where do we find hope?
Teilhard’s and Cynthia’s answer is to find the fire within, the bush that burns but is not consumed, the pillar of fire that leads through the wilderness, the Pentecost tongues of flame. Yet rather than being merely lofty incendiary metaphors for otherworldly abstractions, they serve as pointers, I have come to understand, of embodied experiential realities. Teilhard taught that Christic energy can be found anywhere and everywhere – in matter as well as in consciousness, in body and in mind, in cosmic order and environmental despair, in hope and in darkness.
With humans being the leading edge of evolution, however, the most conspicuous place for this cosmic energy, Teilhard and Cynthia assert, is in the human heart. If humans have three centers of intelligence – the body, mind, and heart – then the tripartite heart is the center of the center, sustaining our physical, emotional, and spiritual life. This “living reality” for Teilhard, the Jesuit priest, had a name: the radiant heart of Christ. As a humanities teacher in a multicultural setting, my search for power in education, then, has brought me to this question: how can I bring this radiant energy to my students?
I find myself drawn to and energized by Cynthia’s comment that “every new benchmark of consciousness as it manifests on earth is accompanied by . . . the emergence of a higher, more articulated physical form … of a new organic body of humanity, a mystical body of humanity [emphasis hers].” Rather than just saving the world through my social conscience classes, a daunting Sisyphian task, the call here is paradoxically to something humbler and closer to home – the physical body – yet with cosmic resonance.
In the last several years in my religion classes, then, I have slowly moved to include nutrition, breathing practices, yoga, conscious walking, calligraphy, mandala making, ikebana, etc., in my curriculum. I have gradually gained the confidence to teach how to exercise the underutilized intelligences of the body and the heart, while relaxing the overtaxed mind muscle. Not one student has expressed any concerns about this approach to me. While I can never remember a student voicing affirmation when I ask them to write a paragraph, the occasional student will come into my religion class and plead, “Can we meditate today?” I interpret this not so much as a diversionary tactic but rather a deeper cellular response breaking through into my students’ conscious minds asking for what the body yearns to do – to reach out, connect, touch, love.Once this paradigm shift from saving the planet to attending to the self has been adopted, there begins, I would offer, a wooing of the holistic “I” into a new mode of being that is intrinsically rewarding. In other words, attending to inner disharmony in the physical and emotional self intuitively feels like the right path. Transforming the planet, then, includes the necessary, and joyful task, of upgrading Teilhard’s “individual” to the “person.” This is the “more articulated form” that is capable of bearing the love radiance of the sacred heart.
As Cynthia so profoundly explains, it is simply the nature of love to flow. Harmonization of the physical-emotional self brings about an energetic rising tide that overflows into the noosphere, bringing each of us into a higher collectivity. Every enflamed heart can make a contribution to this rising energy, placing our inner fire in service of the arrow of evolution towards a greater unified complexity. Such an understanding is, by definition, a mystical leap, for on the visible level alone setbacks appear legion. Yet understood mystically, we can join the conscious circle of humanity that carries “deep hope over deep time.” We can’t but help join this mystical body of humanity.
In my own teaching journey, then, I now have an answer to my student’s question about how to keep the fire burning. I need to provide teaching and training to my students in spiritual practices that direct their attention to their individual bodies and hearts. To my great surprise, most of my students find this going inside to be relatively easy compared to the arduous years of schooling required for mental skill development, giving credence to Cynthia’s claim that the heart is already fully formed, a “perfect hologram of the divine heart” (61).
At this point, then, I continue to teach courses that aim to make a difference in the world, but I now understand that keeping that inner fire burning is the one needful task. My greatest pedagogical responsibility, in this present moment and for the sake of deep time, is providing the space and training for students to access, in their own manner and tradition, the radiant heart of Christ within. My long journey has come to the simple conclusion that the inner traditions have had it right all along: overcoming our human-created crises, including the people-planet divide that afflicts my students, means enlivening each human heart. Where do we find hope? As Blaise Paschal stated, “The heart has its reasons that Reason does not know. It feels a thousand things. It is the heart that feels God, not Reason. This then is perfect faith: God felt in the heart.”
 The Heart of Centering Prayer
Teilhard for Troubled Times #1
“Deep Hope Flows over Deep Time”
By Cynthia Bourgeault
I don’t know what kind of divine nudge it may have been that prompted me in January 2015 to challenge the students in my Wisdom network to a deep dive into Teilhard, but the response was electric, to say the least. Over the ensuing eighteen months we collectively chomped our way through The Human Phenomenon, The Divine Milieu, and The Heart of Matter in both online formats and on-the-ground Wisdom schools and retreats. Students who really caught the Teilhard bug read even more widely, exploring the entire range of his canon from the magnificent early mystical upwellings in Writings in Time of War to the profound final synthesis in The Christic, completed less than a month before his death.
So the cornerstones were all in place by November 2016—and not a moment too soon, I might add.
Without straying too far into politics, I can simply report that within the circles I mostly travel in, the response to the upset election victory of Donald Trump has been one of shock, disorientation, and a gathering sense of doom. Not only does it appear that the progressive social and environmental values that have set the political agenda for nearly six decade are being systematically deconstructed; the even more fundamental moral values—truthfulness, compassion, integrity, conscience— now seem themselves to be under attack. In a brave new world of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and a rising tide of belligerence and vulgarity it seems as if human consciousness is going backwards. How could this have happened, and how do we come to terms with a future that suddenly feels much darker and more precarious?
It is just here that Teilhard enters the equation, offering a vastly broader and more hopeful perspective in which to search for a new moral resolve. Writing in a historical era whose traumatic upheavals eerily foreshadow our own (and in whose unresolved anguish lie the roots of so much of our post-modern skepticism and despair), he is yet able to paint a bigger picture where there is still room for optimism and coherence. As I’ve drawn out these Teilhardian “waypoints” before a variety of audiences, I have found that people are deeply comforted and encouraged by his perspective. Amidst the welter of analysis (sociological, historical, psychological, political) being thrown at our present situation by the secular intelligentsia, there is simply not enough breadth and depth of vision to reveal the deeper processes from which hope emerges. That is precisely the missing piece Teilhard is so powerfully able to bring. Over these next three blogs I would like to call attention to three points in particular, all foundational pieces of the so-called “Teilhardian Synthesis,” that have already proved to be powerful starting points for reorientation and renewed hope as our planet begins to regroup.
First of all, Teilhard reminds us that “deep hope flows over deep time.” From his perspective as a geologist and paleontologist, he reassures us that evolution has not changed direction; it has always been and always will be “a rise toward consciousness” (HP 183), moving irreversibly toward its consummation at the Omega point. But its span is measured in eons, not decades. When we try to “cinch up on the bat” too tightly or lose sight of the cosmic scale, the result is anguish. If we measure human progress only by our usual historical benchmarks—the last eight years of Obama initiatives, the eighty years of FDR social safety nets, the not-yet 250 years of the American democratic experiment—or for that matter, the “mere” 2500 years of Western civilization; we are still only catching the inevitable play of what Teilhard calls tatonnement, or “trial and error,” part of the necessary play of freedom. Even the emergence of human consciousness itself, he reminds us, reaching its present configuration a mere 125,000 years ago with the stunning debut of homo sapiens, was preceded by a 10,000-year ice age, in which it appeared that all that had been gained prior to that point was irreversibly lost. It wasn’t. No sooner had the ice receded than the first irrefutable paleontological manifestations confirm that human beings were now using fire and tools— unmistakable evidence that beneath the ice and apparent desolation, the evolutionary journey was still unperturbedly marching forward
Perhaps that feels like a false hope. Perhaps it is bought at the cost of all sensitivity to individual suffering and pain, by setting the scale at so vast a magnitude that human lives register as no more than as tiny pixels. Teilhard was accused of exactly that in his writings after World War II, when Europe still reeling from the horror of the holocaust and Hiroshima, overwhelmed by personal and collective remorse. He was accused of false optimism, of an indifference to personal suffering. But Teilhard was by no means indifferent. His life-transforming vision of the oneness of humanity came in the midst of serving as stretcher bearer in the bloody trenches of World War I, and his writings on human progress rose from the untold depths of personal suffering he endured in faithfulness to a vocation and a Church that actively blocked his path. He knew personal suffering only too well, and he looked straight into the face of the sorrow, the horror, and named it as such. The haunting prayer woven into his reflection on faith in The Divine Milieu makes clear that it is no cheap optimism he is dispensing here, but a wrenchingly honest acknowledgement of our human predicament:
Ah, you know it yourself, Lord, through having borne the anguish of it as a man: on certain days the world seems a terrifying thing: huge, blind, and brutal. It buffets us about, drags us along, and kills us with complete indifference. Heroically, it may truly be said, man has contrived to create a more or less habitable zone of light and warmth in the midst of the cold, dark waters—a zone where people have eyes to see, hands to help, and hearts to love. But how precarious that habitation is! At any moment the vast and horrible thing may break in through the cracks—the thing we try hard to forget is always there, separated from us by a flimsy partition: fire, pestilence, storms, earthquakes. Or the unleashing of dark moral forces—these callously sweep away in one moment what we have laboriously built up and beautified with all our intelligence and all our love. (The Divine Milieu, p. 112)
But he knew that to capitulate to anguish was to lose the thread, and this he would not permit. The deeper ley lines of resilience and hope were alive and well for him, safely sealed within the deep, telluric memory of the earth itself and the Christic impulse beaconing from the future. But the road rises on the other side of despair. Allowing oneself to be engulfed in either anger or grief amounts to a fatal loss of moral nerve and hence a betrayal of the evolutionary task entrusted to our species.
I want to conclude by making clear that I do not see this “deep hope” as an excuse to relax our vigilance in stewardship for the planet earth. Teilhard does not permit himself to be used that way; his sense of the oneness of the earth and of its dynamic interwovenness pervades everything he sees and writes. But he realizes as well that Mother Earth has an intelligence and a resilience that meets us far more than halfway, and that frantic efforts to “save the earth” are likely to be more about saving our own skins. Over the millennia our planet has endured meteor strikes, the rise and fall of sea levels, ice ages, the continual shifting of tectonic plates, the appearance and disappearance of species. We homo sapiens may indeed become one of those “lost species” if in our greed and arrogance we bring about planetary conditions that no longer support the uncomfortably tight tolerances in which human life is actually sustainable. But even if that unthinkable should occur, evolution itself will not be derailed. The earth itself, infinitely adaptable, will continue on, and the species that inevitably arises to replace us will bear in its cosmic memory the trousseau of all that consciousness has attained in this evolutionary go-round.
For sure, we need to fall on our knees every morning and beseech our mother Earth to help carry us through this latest dark time of human greed and destructiveness. But our real task at this evolutionary cusp is not to lose sight of what is coming to us from the future, the vision of our common humanity that is indeed “groaning and travailing” to be born. That will be the subject of my next blog.
Teilhard for Troubled Times #2
Don’t Co-exist, Coalesce
The second hopeful resource that Teilhard brings to our unsettled political times is his unshakable conviction that evolutionary progress will unfold its ultimate triumph in the realm of the personal. While our postmodern temperament has a well-engrained tendency to regard the world through a filter of distrust, in which the bits and pieces inevitably appear “random” and disconnected—certainly impersonal—Teilhard encourages us to see our planetary home as a coherent and increasingly compassionate whole, steadily plying its way along its irreversible evolutionary trajectory. In the big picture, there is nothing to suggest that evolution has gone off track. But there is plenty to suggest that we are entering a critical new phase in which some old-order planetary survival strategies are giving way to a new and more intentional sense of mutual interdependence.
Early on in Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon, in the course of a powerful philosophical reflection on “The Ways of Life,” (HP 65-68), he acknowledges that one of the characteristics of life as it voraciously emerges on our young planet is its “indifference toward individuals.” The evolutionary trajectory over its inaugural billions of years has been far more skewed toward collective survival than individual wellbeing— “Life is more real than lives,” as Teilhard unflinchingly observes, (HP, p. 67). But that pattern may now be starting to shift as human beings, more and more consciously awakening to he sway of Omega (the ultimate convergence of all things in love) willingly embark on the next leg of the evolutionary journey that will transform them from individuals into persons.
How’s that again? We typically use these terms interchangeably, but for Teilhard they denote distinctly different, progressive evolutionary stages. An individual lives as an autonomous unit, subject to the old-order laws of “survival of the fittest” and planetary indifference. A person has come to understand himself or herself as belonging to greater relational field in which individual autonomy defers to a flowing give-and-take that allows the whole unit to function at a much higher order of coherence: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. In this greater whole both unity and differentiation are preserved; meanwhile, the symbiotic union between the whole and the part drives the evolutionary dynamo toward even more powerful expressions of consciousness and love—or in other words, ever more firmly into the realm of the personal. When we are fully there, Teilhard boldly predicts, yet another cosmic threshold will have been crossed as “the world’s indifference to its elements will be transformed into an immense solicitude—in the sphere of the person.” (HP 67)
“But we are not there yet,” he cautions. The journey toward this next evolutionary benchmark is still barely underway, and at the stage we’re at, three steps forward are still regularly matched by two steps back. Yet for all the bumps in the road, the vision of that higher collectivity he first glimpsed in the trenches of World War I guided Teilhard like a pole star throughout his life, both galvanizing his imagination and enflaming his heart. It can do the same for us, even in our own sad and distrustful times.
A cautionary note, however: for Teilhard, oneness does not equate simply to some sentimental proclamation of “fellowship” or “let’s all just get along.” It is firmly grounded in his master evolutionary principle, the Law of Complexification/Consciousness. According to the law, every new benchmark of consciousness as it manifests here on earth is accompanied by —or in other words, correlative with— the emergence of a higher, more articulated physical form (Teilhard calls it an “arrangement”) that serves as its vehicle. This implies, if I catch his drift correctly —and in distinct contrast to the model commonly promulgated in most schools of spiritual enlightenment today— that the breakthrough to what is now popularly called “nondual consciousness” will not come as the result of a series of individual enlightenments, but in the emergence of a new organic body of humanity, a mystical body of humanity. This new organic whole will display the signature “differentiation-within-unity” that Teilhard variously refers to as ”cephalization” or centration. It will have a “head,” i.e., a distinctly recognizable command post or seat of consciousness, around which its diverse components will self-organize— in a fashion not unlike like St. Paul’s stunningly prescient vision in 1 Corinthians 12 of the “many members of the one body of Christ:”
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body, that would not make it any less an part of the body. And if the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body, “ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you”…if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”” (1 Cor 12: 14-26)
This new organic body of humanity, its corporeity primarily carried in the noosphere, will guide and shape—is already guiding and shaping— the emerging consciousness of humanity. It is serenely undisturbed by the rise and fall of political tyrants and the final paroxysms of religious and nationalistic tribalism. The rising scent of our common humanity is already in the air, and as we consciously join hearts across the antiquated boundaries of the nationalities and denominations that once defined our identities, the blue biosphere of our planet earth is being superseded and suffused with the gold and scarlet of our common human heart coursing toward its Omega.
I offer this Teilhardian vision as a source of renewed hope in a world that seems, at the moment, to be moving aggressively toward an intensified retrenchment and fragmentation. The downturn cannot last, Teilhard would have us see; the evolutionary current has already swept us beyond it. And indeed, we can already see moving beneath the troubled waters the unmistakable harbingers of this dawning human oneness. We see it in the worldwide demonstrations that spontaneously broke out on January 21 in solidarity with the women’s march in DC. We see it in the outpouring of concern for refugees and dispossessed in Syria and elsewhere, in the snowballing movement of churches and city governments to declare themselves sanctuary zones, and in the skillful, understated way that the other governments of the world have so far largely been able to work together to contain the Trump administration like a giant oil slick. The gathering body of universal compassion is not about to let itself be dismantled! And there is indeed reason for hope that the rising star of human oneness, announced by Teilhard nearly a hundred years ago, has by now reached sufficient stability in its noetic orbit to carry us through this present rough patch and onward toward Omega. At any rate, that is where we need to place our hope and our best efforts: in the continued, patient cultivation of our common humanity.
We will see in the next blog why this is not simply wishful thinking, but already an empirical reality.
Teilhard for Troubled Times
Sunday, October 15, 2017
I’ve invited Cynthia Bourgeault, one of CAC’s core faculty members, to explore Christian mysticism in this week’s Daily Meditations.
When I was asked to reflect on a mystic’s life and work, for me the choice was clear. In the midst of our socio-political concerns, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)—a French philosopher, paleontologist, and Jesuit priest—enters the equation offering a vastly broader and more hopeful perspective in which to search for a new moral grounding. Writing in a historical era whose traumatic upheavals eerily foreshadow our own, he is yet able to paint a bigger picture where there is still room for optimism and coherence.
Just how is Teilhard able to find hope in such troubled times? I’d like to unpack that question over the next few days by presenting what I call the Teilhardian “waypoints.”
For many of us, the concept of a forward evolutionary journey may feel like a false hope. Perhaps it seems that such hope is bought at the cost of all sensitivity to individual suffering and pain, by setting the scale at so vast a magnitude that human lives register as no more than tiny pixels.
Teilhard himself was accused of false optimism, of an indifference to personal suffering after World War II when people and nations—still shaken from the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima—struggled with personal and collective remorse. But Teilhard was by no means indifferent. His life-transforming vision of the oneness of humanity came to him in the midst of serving as stretcher bearer in the bloody trenches of World War I, and his writings on human progress rose from the untold depths of personal suffering he endured in faithfulness to a Church that actively blocked his path. He knew personal suffering only too well, and he looked straight into the face of the sorrow, the horror, and named it as such.
The haunting prayer woven into Teilhard’s reflection on faith in The Divine Milieu makes clear that it is no cheap optimism he is dispensing here, but a wrenchingly honest acknowledgement of our human predicament and an unfailing fidelity to seeing God in every aspect of the earth, even in our human suffering:
Ah, you know it yourself, Lord, through having borne the anguish of it as a man: on certain days the world seems a terrifying thing: huge, blind, and brutal. . . . At any moment the vast and horrible thing may break in through the cracks—the thing which we try hard to forget is always there, separated from us by a flimsy partition: fire, pestilence, storms, earthquakes, or the unleashing of dark moral forces—these callously sweep away in one moment what we had laboriously built up and beautified with all our intelligence and all our love.
Since my human dignity, O God, forbids me to close my eyes to this . . . teach me to adore it by seeing you concealed within it. 
Monday, October 16, 2017
Guest writer and CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault continues reflecting on the Christian mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
The first of the Teilhardian “road signs” helps us reframe our sense of scale: Teilhard reminds us that deep hope flows over deep time. From his perspective as a geologist and paleontologist, Teilhard reassures us that evolution has not changed direction; it has always been and always will be “a rise toward consciousness.”  But rather than the very small snapshots represented in our short lifetimes, evolution’s span is measured in eons, not decades. When we lose sight of the cosmic scale, the result is anguish and impatience. If we measure human progress only by our usual historical benchmarks—the span of a presidential administration, the not-yet 250 years of the American democratic experiment, or the “mere” 2,500 years of Western civilization—we are still only catching the smallest snippet of the inevitable process of what Teilhard calls tatonnement, or “trial and error,” part of the necessary play of freedom on its way to new combinations and creativity.
Teilhard affirmed that even the emergence of human consciousness itself, as it reached its present configuration 125,000 years ago with the stunning debut of homo sapiens [current estimate is 200,000 years], followed a 10,000-year ice age, in which it appeared that all that had been gained prior to that point was irreversibly lost. It wasn’t. Paleontological discoveries reveal that humans kept and refined their skills of using fire and making tools—providing unmistakable evidence that even when hidden by ice and apparent desolation, the evolutionary journey was still unperturbedly marching forward.
“Deep hope” is not, however, an excuse to relax our vigilance in stewardship for the planet Earth. Teilhard does not permit himself to be used that way; his sense of the oneness of the world pervades everything he sees and writes. But he realizes as well that Creation has an intelligence and a resilience that meets us far more than halfway. Over the millennia our planet has endured meteor strikes, the rise and fall of sea levels, ice ages, the continual shifting of tectonic plates, the appearance and disappearance of species.
For sure, we need to fall on our knees every morning and beseech God to help us through this latest dark time of human greed and destructiveness. But our real task at this evolutionary cusp is not to lose sight of what is coming to us from the future, the vision of our common humanity that is indeed “groaning and travailing” to be born (Romans 8:22).
Teilhard for Troubled Times #3
The third and most powerful wellspring of hope that Teilhard has to offer us—for those with “eyes to see and hearts to hear”—is the assurance that this slow toiling of the planet toward Omega is not merely some hypothetical, futuristic theory. Omega is neither abstract nor hypothetical; it is already present, actively suffusing and permeating the earth with its telluric energy. “I probably would never have dared to consider or form the rational hypothesis of it,” Teilhard writes in The Human Phenomenon, “if I had not already found in my consciousness as a believer not only the speculative model for it, but its living reality.” (HP, 211).
That “living reality,” is of course, the radiant heart of Christ, which Teilhard first met as a child and which continued to grow in him throughout his life as a palpably real and personal presence. Not only his own heart but the entire planet , were increasingly enfolded within the immediately experiential realm of “the Christic.”
There are those, I realize, for whom this aspect of Teilhard is uncomfortable. Many contemporary Teilhardian scholars—indeed, some of the most prominent among them—see as their goal the necessary “secularization” of Teilhard, extrapolating from his grand mystical synthesis the elements that will stand on their own as hard evolutionary science. Teilhard himself does not discourage this demarcation (he set up The Human Phenomenon so that his explicit comments about :The Christian Phenomenoon” are confined to the epilogue), and in light of the rigid and frozen dogmatism that is so often mistaken for “faith” in the popular estimation, demarcation is perhaps a necessary starting point. But I am personally convinced that in the long term it does no service to the ultimate impact of Teilhard’s vision; its coherence is weakened and its real sources of validation are obscured. In the grand tapestry of Teilhardian seeing, the warp of science and the weft of mysticism are inextricably intertwined. And it is just here, in fact, that Teilhard’s greatest gift to our own troubled times may lie waiting to be tapped.
To the very end of his life, Teilhard kept on his writing desk an icon of the radiant heart of Christ. I have a copy of that icon on my own writing desk right now, and I am constantly surprised by how its quiet presence continues to call me up short. From the center of Christ’s chest the energy pulsates out in radiant waves, serenely carrying the world toward its consummation in Omega.
It was Teilhard’s felt-sense conviction of the presence of Christ already at work in “the stuff of the universe,” directing the course of evolution from within its very planetary marrow, that allowed him over a lifetime of otherwise unbearable diminishments to “stay the course,” bearing untold personal suffering for the sake of world that was already luminously inhabited by Christ; in fact, his very body. In my earlier blog I quoted from Teilhard’s searing meditation on the indifference and uncertainty of this world:
Ah, you know it yourself, Lord, through having borne the anguish of it as a man: on certain days the world seems a terrifying thing: huge, blind, and brutal. It buffets us about, drags us along, and kills us with complete indifference. Heroically, it may truly be said, man has contrived to create a more or less habitable zone of light and warmth in the midst of the cold, dark waters—a zone where people have eyes to see, hands to help, and hearts to love. But how precarious that habitation is! At any moment the vast and horrible thing may break in through the cracks—the thing we try hard to forget is always there, separated from us by a flimsy partition: fire, pestilence, storms, earthquakes. Or the unleashing of dark moral forces—these callously sweep away in one moment what we have laboriously built up and beautified with all our intelligence and all our love.
That is merely the first paragraph, however. In the second he offers his response—quintessentially Teilhardian—as he takes refuge in that intimate, pan-eucharistic presence of Christ, sensed through the eyes of faith:
Since my dignity as a man, O God, forbids me to close my eyes to this—like an animal or a child—that I may not succumb to the temptation to curse the universe and him who made it, teach me to adore it by seeing you concealed within it. O Lord, repeat to me the great liberating words, the words which at once reveal and operate: Hoc est corpus meum [this is my body]. In truth, the huge and dark thing, the phantom, the storm—if we want it to be so, is you! Ego sum, nolite timere (“It is I; do not be afraid.”] The things in our life that terrify us, the things which threw you yourself into agony in the garden, are, ultimately, only the species or appearance, the matter of one and the same sacrament.
For Teilhard, faith is not a matter of assent to a rationally derived set of doctrines and principles. It is first and foremost an action—an “operative” as he calls it—which is set in motion when one steps up to the plate and looks squarely in the face of reversal and evil through the radiance of that experienced Christic reality. My own spiritual teacher, the monastic hermit Brother Rafe, called this stance a “wager:” if the premise is true, you will live it into action. Rather than trying to do faith from the “top down,” by first convincing yourself of the logical plausibility of the argument in question, begin from the “bottom up,” by acting in alignment with it, and see what happens next!
There is a certain “Heisenberg” quality at work in all this, Teilhard so much as admits in his brilliant reflection on faith in The Divine Milieu. The quality of our presence does indeed impact the overall energetic field, with the results measured not so much in the sphere of outcome as in the overall “quickening” (he calls it “sur-animation”) of the relational field itself. Events are not necessarily transformed, but meaning is transformed. When subjected to the softening and harmonizing energy of faith, the hard edges of physical reality soften, become more supple, come into responsivity and coherence: “Chance is seen to be order, success assumes incorruptible plenitude, suffering becomes a caress of God.” (DM, 111)
“ But if we hesitate,” he continues, “the rock remains dry, the sky dark, the waters treacherous and shifting —or in other words, the universe continues to appear indifferent, disconnected, and unresponsive —“and we may hear the voice of the Master, faced with our bungled lives: ‘O men of little faith, why have you doubted…?’ ”
It is the universal Christic presence—already seeded into the universe through the incarnation, catalyzed in the Paschal Mystery, and personally activated through faith— that sets up the feedback loop whereby even in the midst of overwhelming oppositionality and despair, we can still set our sights on and draw sustaining energy from that pole star of Christ-Omega—“in quo omnnia constant,” as Teilhard’s most cherished scriptural citation would have it: “in whom all things hold together.”
Perhaps this is what Teilhard means by “harnessing the energy of love.” In our own times, it is surely our best shot—perhaps our only shot—for doing something that does not merely compound the darkness. Teilhard’s conviction that faith is not something that we have but something that we do is perhaps the best antidote possible to the despair and distrust that paralyze so much of our post-modern moral resolve. It is a call to step out of the boat onto the ocean of love and discover—all our fear and skepticism to the contrary—that the water really does hold us up.