“Getting to Know Teilhard: The Formative Years”

Blog by Louis Savary


Getting to Know Teilhard: The Formative Years

#1 How did Teilhard come to love the earth and matter so passionately?

Then it was that my newly born attraction to the world of “Rocks” began to produce the beginning of what was to be a permanent broadening of the foundations of my interior life . . . . The truth is that even at the peak of my spiritual trajectory I was never to feel at home unless immersed in an Ocean of Matter . . . .

The Heart of Matter[1]

Teilhard learned to love the earth from his father, Emmanuel Teilhard de Chardin. Pierre’s father had a deep love of the earth. He was a highly respected amateur naturalist and an avid fossil seeker. Emmanuel explored the Auvergne, the ancient region of extinct volcanoes in central France. That is where he had lived from childhood.

In Clermont-Ferrand, the capital city of Auvergne, he was a very important man. He had graduated as an archivist-historian from the famous university École des Chartes in Paris and in Clermont-Ferrand held the combined offices of historian, archivist, paleontologist, and permanent secretary of the local chapter of the Academy of Science, Literature, and the Arts. From an early age, while investigating the fossil-rich Auvergne hillsides, Emmanuel had carefully gathered and catalogued many mineral, botanical, and zoological specimens. Over the years he had amassed a very enviable collection of stones, insects, and plants. An extensive array of those items was proudly displayed in a special room in his home. As young Pierre, his son, grew old enough, he often accompanied his father in these explorations. Pierre also spent many quiet hours with his father in his collection room. There, he learned to catalogue the rocks they had brought home from volcanic sites. Fossils were labeled each according to its kind and the spot where it had been found. Pierre’s father taught him the proper scientific names of their finds. Already at age six or seven, Pierre could easily distinguish specimens of magma. He could identify igneous rocks that were intrusive (that cooled slowly under the earth’s surface) and those that were extrusive (that erupted onto the surface and cooled quickly to become small crystals).

I was just like any other child. I was interested especially in mineralogy and biological observation. I used to love to follow the course of the clouds, and I knew the stars by their names . . . . To my father I owe a certain balance, on which all the rest is built, along with a taste for the exact sciences.

Spirit of Fire[2]

  • Can you trace the beginnings of your life or career back to your childhood?
  • Name a few people who helped shape your beliefs about what is important in life?
  • In what positive ways did your father influence the person you have become?

Getting to Know Teilhard: The Formative Years

#2 How did Teilhard come to love God so passionately?


At an age when other children, I imagine, experience their first “feeling” for a person, or for art, or for religion, I was affectionate, good, and even pious; by that I mean that under the influence of my mother, I was devoted to the Child Jesus.

The Heart of Matter[3]

Teilhard learned to love God from his mother. In 1875, Emmanuel Teilhard de Chardin married Berthe Adèle de Dompierre d’Hornoy. Emmanuel was a devout Catholic, so he not only welcomed his new wife’s spirit of prayer and devotion, but also encouraged it. Like many other Catholic families in France, the Teilhard de Chardins kept holy pictures, statues, bibles, rosary beads, votive candles and prayer books in their home. Unlike most other families, the Teilhard de Chardins used these religious objects every day.

During summers, the Teilhard family lived in their countryside home, called Sarcenat, in the small village of Orcines. Each morning, Madame could be seen hurrying to the Church of St Denis to attend early mass. St Denis was the church where Pierre had been baptized. Gossip among the neighboring ladies suggested that Madame Teilhard de Chardin was so devout that she ran her home like a convent.

Pierre’s mother was a mystic with great dedication to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Under her guidance, Pierre’s soul caught fire. Throughout his life, he kept a picture of the Sacred Heart on his desk. Like most mystics, his mother’s image of God was of an unconditional loving Presence. It was different from the “account manager” God that most people seemed to worship. For her, God was the lover who receives everything and forgives everything. Under her guidance, at an early age, her son developed a special intimacy with a beloved God. Later in life, Teilhard wrote,

A spark had to fall upon me, to make the fire blaze forth. And, without a doubt, it was through my mother that it came to me, sprung from the stream of Christian mysticism, to light up and kindle my childish soul. It was through that spark that ‘My universe,’ still but half-personalized, was to become amorised, and so achieve its full centration.

The Heart of Matter[4]


  • What was the image or nature of God that you were taught, directly or indirectly, by your parents?
  • Who introduced you to the spiritual life? (Not merely the person that taught you to say your prayers.)
  • Do you have any images or symbols that help foster your spiritual life?


Getting to Know Teilhard: The Formative Years

#3 Who made Teilhard realize how different he was from other boys?


However far back I go into my memories (even before the age of ten) I can distinguish in myself the presence of a strictly dominant passion: the passion for the Absolute.

“My Universe”[5]

Pierre was quite different from his older brother Alberic and from other typical boys. Alberic Teilhard de Chardin was born five years before Pierre, and was the first child of Emmanuel and Berthe Adèle. He was named Alberic after his maternal grandfather. Unlike Pierre, who was quiet and reflective, Alberic was noisy and outgoing. He enjoyed fishing and hunting with his father. He rode horses. He probably had one of the first two-wheeled bicycles. He kept his own hunting rifle and had his own hunting dog. Pierre refused to possess either rifle or have a dog. When restless at home, Alberic enjoyed chasing his younger sisters and cousins around the house, and pulling their long braids.

Alberic attended the same Jesuit collège, Notre Dame de Mongré in southern France, where his father had studied years before. Five years later, Pierre was to attend the same Jesuit school. (In late 19th century France, an eleven-year-old entered a five-year collège, which spanned our middle school and high school.) Although Alberic was short in stature, he played in various competitive sports, including the rough-and-tumble sport of rugby. While Alberic always played to win, Pierre was never competitive or considered “athletic.”

Pierre showed keen interest in their father’s love of fossil-collecting and got to spend much time with him. It is likely that the competitive Alberic became jealous of his younger brother enjoying much of their father’s attention.

Alberic loved to travel and dreamed of visiting far off countries. He eventually joined the French Navy and, as a young naval officer in his 20s, was assigned as attaché to French dignitaries and ambassadors, which fulfilled his dream of traveling all over the world.

The more I think about it, the more clearly I see that I would be psychologically incapable of making the least effort [in any activity] if I were unable to believe in the absolute value of something in that effort.

“My Universe”[6]


  • Who among your family and friends made you realize that you were different from them?
  • Describe the elements of contrast between you and that other person.

Getting to Know Teilhard: The Formative Years

#4 Who taught Teilhard about the value of suffering?


Human suffering, the sum total of suffering poured out at each moment over the whole earth, is like an immeasurable ocean. But what makes up this immensity? Is it blackness, emptiness, barren wastes? No, indeed: it is potential energy. Suffering holds hidden within it, in extreme intensity, the ascensional force of the world.

“The Meaning and Constructive Value of Suffering”[7]

Pierre’s younger sister, Marguerite Marie, admired him and taught him the power of suffering. Apparently, everyone called her Gugite (Gigi), except her father, who always called her Marguerite Marie (1883-1936). She was less than two years younger than Pierre. He was her favorite sibling, and she always wanted to do what he did. In a photo of the Teilhard de Chardin children, she appears to be as tall as Pierre.

As she got a bit older, she began to show an interest in exploring matter. It seems likely that in following Pierre around, she spent some time with him when he was cataloguing fossil specimens for their father. She showed little interest in the dull black and grey rocks that fascinated Pierre, but rather favored collecting the more colorful butterflies, beetles, and a variety of insects.

In her early teens, Gigi contacted a serious disease that was never clearly diagnosed. It kept her in pain and bedridden during most of each year, until she died at the age of thirty-one.

She and Pierre wrote to each other regularly throughout her short life. He sometimes sent her drafts of his writings, before he sent them to his cousin Marguerite. In mutual trust, as brother and sister, they shared with each other everything that really mattered in their lives. In a letter to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon, he wrote:

Yesterday, I sent Gigi the Milieu mystique so that she can send it on to you when she’s read it. I’d have liked you to have been the first to see it—the more so that you are certainly the person who will understand me best. I thought I rather owed it to Gigi to start with her.[8]

As part of his Jesuit training, Pierre was assigned to teach science in a collège run by Jesuits in Cairo, Egypt. During this period, Pierre wrote many letters to his family. He often addressed parts of these letters to Gigi, mentioning by name different species of exotic insects he had found in exploring Egypt. He even prepared some of these specimens and mailed them to her in her sick bed at Sarcenat.

Despite her debilitating illness, Marguerite Marie found ways to serve the needy in France. She was the president of the Catholic Union of the Sick, a network of prayer and mutual support for the sick. In a Preface to a book about Marguerite-Marie (Gigi), Teilhard wrote:

O Marguerite, my sister, while, dedicated to the positive forces of the Universe, I was running the continents and the seas, passionately busy watching all the hues of the Earth rise, you, motionless, lying, were silently metamorphosing into light, deep within yourself, the worst shadows of the World. In the eyes of the Creator, tell me, which one of us will have had the better part?”


  • Did you have a childhood companion (a family or friend) whose company you enjoyed?
  • What interests did you share?
  • Did you keep in touch in later life?

Getting to Know Teilhard: The Formative Years

#5 Who modeled for Teilhard the art of spiritual dedication?


Ever since my childhood, the need wholly to possess some “absolute” was the axis of my entire inner life . . . . This predilection will seem curious, but I can assure you that it was with me continuously. From those very first days I had an irresistible (and at the same time vitalizing and soothing) need to rest continuously in Some Thing that was tangible and definite; and I looked everywhere for this beautiful object.

The Heart of Matter[9]

Pierre’s older sister, Françoise, taught him how to live a dedicated life. Of all the Teilhard children, Françoise (1879-1911), was her own person. Two years older than Pierre, she was an intellectual and an avid reader. Françoise showed little interest in the novels other girls her age were reading. Even from an early age, she preferred serious books, history, biographies, philosophy. The consistent image we have of her is seated, totally engrossed in a heavy book.

We know that she took care of Pierre, in his childhood, as a “second mother.” “I am convinced,” said a friend, “that his two sisters, after their mother, made the most penetrating first impressions on Pierre Teilhard.”

Françoise entered the Little Sisters of the Poor in 1903. This move was a real spiritual battle, a battle that she fought with the help of her brother Pierre. It was to Françoise that Pierre, as a young Jesuit novice, said to her regarding her decision to enter religious life: “You look at your crucifix the wrong way around, it is not only the cross that you must see, it is Jesus Christ who is on it.

Once she made her decision, she would say: “You must give yourself to God in three suitable ways: generously, simply, and cheerfully.[10] She was assigned to missionary work in China. She became the superior of a convent there. Shortly before Pierre’s priestly ordination, she succumbed to smallpox.

When I was writing The Universal Element, I remember some things Françoise said to me—when she was already a Little Sister—about the unique and beatifying importance that the reality of God has assumed in her life—and I felt that I understood that we were fundamentally much more like one another than I had thought before. The only thing was that she was following a road where the realities of this world were more effaced or left behind than happens with me.

Making of a Mind[11]


  • Was anyone in your youth a model of dedication?
  • Name a few people in your childhood whom you admired for their positive qualities, such as generosity, kindness, peacefulness, caring for others?

Getting to Know Teilhard: The Formative Years

#6 Did Teilhard have a soulmate?


Having set out, from childhood, to discover the Heart of Matter, it was inevitable that one day I would find myself face to face with the Feminine. The curious thing is only that in this case, the encounter waited until I was thirty years old before it happened.”

The Heart of Matter

In his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon (1880-1959), Pierre found a soulmate.

Pierre’s father and Marguerite’s father were first cousins, close in age. Their two families lived near one another in Clermont-Ferrand. Their children spent much time together there and also in their various summer homes. Marguerite, the eldest child of the Teillard-Chambons, was closest in age to Pierre, about five months older than him. She was also close to his sisters Françoise (who was a year older) and Marguerite-Marie (who was three years younger).

In addition to their Auvergne roots and common holidays, Pierre and cousin Marguerite discovered that they were both animated by a deep spirituality. As a result of their intimate friendship during childhood, the young Marguerite may have at times fantasized that she and Pierre would become more than friends. However, when he decided to join the Jesuits, she remained most supportive to him. When he took his priestly vows as a Jesuit, she took a vow to remain single and to dedicate her life to teaching.

She grew to become a beautiful woman, sensitive, cultured, and brilliant. She attended university in Paris and was one of the first women to be awarded a master’s degree in literature (agrégé in Lettres) at the age of 23 in 1904. She devoted herself to teaching young girls and became principal at one of the largest school for girls in Paris. She also authored several books and became quite influential in the fullest education of women. When Teilhard came to Paris after his ordination to the priesthood, she introduced him to the intellectual life of Paris.

The letters written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Marguerite Teillard-Chambon during the World War, published under the title The Making of a Mind show how much he counted on her viewpoint. “My thought is still trying to find itself and once again I am seeking to clarify it by talking with you…you will tell me what you think.

It is very likely that Pierre Teilhard owed her a lot because she played an essential role with him throughout his life. Pierre Teilhard noted in his diary on February 14, 1917: “Who knows me except Marg?”

Pierre once wrote to her trying to describe the evolving nature of their lifelong relationship:

This is why we must strive, through our personal efforts, to secure support in good and solid friendships, to guard ourselves from infirmities of body and soul . . . but if God intervenes to wean our hearts, to turn by force, on Him alone, the appetite for happiness and reciprocal love which He has aroused in us during happy years of youth, then we must not complain about it.

Don’t be angry with Our Lord if He wants to make you more than what you call “a simple Christian.” Because your action must be far-reaching, it must emanate from a heart that has suffered: this law is gentle, in fact . . . .

The Making of a Mind


  • Do you know of any people who are soulmates?
  • What special qualities do you notice about them, individually and when they are together?

Getting to Know Teilhard: The Formative Years

#7 How did the young Teilhard spend his summers?


It would be difficult for me to work out again, or at least to explain in some detail, the complicated story in which, at that time in my life the various threads were formed and began to be woven together into what was one day to become for me the fabric of the Stuff of the Universe.

The Heart of Matter[12]

As soon as school was out, the Teilhard de Chardin family moved to their summer home, named Sarcenat. It was there in the foothills of ancient volcanoes where some of the threads of young Pierre’s life were “formed and began to be woven together.”

The stately Sarcenat, with its turrets, stood out in the small country village of Orcines, which lay about five miles from their winter home in the city of Clermont. We may assume that the family moved there annually in the late spring, since Pierre was born at Sarcenat on May 1, 1881, and baptized in the nearby Orcines church.

Life at Sarcenat was quite regulated. Teilhard and his siblings ate breakfast together with their governess. Their breakfast would be a simple one of fresh bread or biscuits with jam, and milk or cocoa to drink.

Informal education was part of their morning. The governess would teach them to speak languages other than French, usually German or English. Their father tutored them in Latin, since it was the language of the church. Their mother taught them the catechism. Everyone was encouraged to read. The Teilhard home would have plenty of books, magazines, and newspapers.

Afternoons were free for reading, games, and outdoor activities in the open countryside. Nearby were volcanoes to explore. Digging for fossils in the agate-rich volcanic foothills was a favorite hobby for Pierre and his father. Alberic preferred hunting and fishing with his father.

Everyone ate dinner together at six o’clock. After an hour of free time, the family and staff gathered for prayer in the dining room at eight o’clock. Since electric lighting was not available before the beginning of the 20th century, bedtime began soon after prayers.

Teilhard’s daily life at Sarcenat was centered on two things, God and the World of Matter.

The whole problem of my interior life, and all that gives it value and delight, has consisted, and still consists, in knitting together in myself the influences that radiate from each of the two Centers, God and the World—or to put it more exactly, in making them coincide.

My Universe[13]


  • What do you remember most about summer times in your childhood?
  • Did your family do things together? Did you attend church services as a family?

Getting to Know Teilhard: The Formative Years

#8 What was life like for the young Pierre in the city during the school year?


These old houses with their cellar-like entrances, their huge staircases, cold and damp, and their somber, lofty rooms, were a grim setting for our childhood. But they never stopped us from playing—the terrible boys . . . wild and noisy, the girls more sedate. . . . If, as sometimes happened, they caught one of us by surprise, plaits were pulled and there would be tears. However, the arrival of a nice treat with jam and oranges soon restored peace.

Marguerite Teillard-Chambon The Teilhard de Chardin Album[14]

During the fall and winter, the Teilhard de Chardins lived near the Teillard-Chambons in Clermont-Ferrand. The town was the proud capital of the Auvergne region, in the center of France. The city’s train station marked the last stop on the Paris-Clermont line. In the 1880s, the ride to Paris took about three hours.

Clermont’s cathedral, a short walk from the Teilhard home, was the center of the diocese. Children of both families attended the cathedral’s grammar school. There they learned the four Rs, Reading, (w)Riting, (a)Rithmetic, and Religion.

Many older homes and buildings in Clermont—and even its strange-looking black medieval basilica of Our Lady, Notre Dame du Port—were constructed of the area’s plentiful black granite, cut from some of the many ancient volcanoes spread throughout the region.

Clermont enjoyed ancient lineage that could be traced back to the Roman armies, and a major French diocese of the medieval church. Despite its long history, the civic leaders of Clermont were modern thinkers. Among them was Marguerite Teillard-Chambon’s father. He was instrumental in seeing that his town in 1900 was the first in Europe where people could travel throughout the city in electric streetcars.

During Pierre’s grammar school years, France watched the completion of the 1,000-foot-tall Eiffel Tower and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. The Teilhards certainly attended the centennial festivities in Paris.

For many years, Paris had been and remained the intellectual, social, and cultural capital of the Western World. The sprawling city was the preferred site of international expositions and world’s fairs, where the latest scientific inventions were introduced. Paris claimed to publish as many as eighty newspapers, some daily, many weekly, and fewer monthly. Many of them artfully displayed photos, drawings, and cartoons. Newspapers and magazines made their way from Paris to the Clermont-Ferrand train station. Many were available in the Teilhard home or in the home of their cousins.

The Chardins descended from a line of French aristocracy among the Bourbon royalty. Even though they accepted Pope Leo XIII’s request for the French nobility to rally to the Republic, the men in the family still walked proudly erect, manifesting their royal lineage.

I am doing my best just now to recapture and express my feelings, as a child, toward what I have called, later on, la sainte Matière (holy matter), a rather delicate and critical point, since it is unquestionably out of these early contacts with the “essence” of the World that my whole internal life has sprung and grown.

from Letters to Two Friends[15]


  • What or who in your childhood helped build your self-esteem or your sense of self?
  • What are some positive memories you have of your school life?
  • Did you have any memorable teachers?

[1] Heart of Matter, 20.

[2] Quoted in Ursula King, Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin, 6.

[3] Heart of Matter, 17.

[4] Heart of Matter, 41.

[5] Heart of Matter, 197.

[6] Ursula King cites this quote as coming from the essay “My Universe,” but I cannot find it there.

[7] Teilhard de Chardin: Pilgrim of the Future, 23-26.

[8] Making of a Mind, 200.

[9] Heart of Matter, 77 n2.

[10] Memoirs of Marguerite Teillard-Chambon. Family archives. Reported in “Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Feminine.” Talk given by Marie Bayon de la Tour at The American Teilhard Association’s Annual Meeting (online), June 12, 2021.

[11] Making of a Mind, 288.

[12] Heart of Matter, 21.

[13] Heart of Matter, 200.

[14] Jeanne Mortier and Marie-Louise Aboux, eds. Teilhard de Chardin Album, 15

[15] Letters to Two Friends, 214. Cited in The Heart of Matter, 77, n2.