Teilhard the Priest: A Different Kind of Priest
#1 In what ways is Teilhard a different kind of priest?
“Because I am a priest…I would be more widely human and more nobly terrestrial in my ambitions than any of the world’s servants.”
“The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 222Traditionally, the role of the priest was to withdraw from the world to become one with God and, of course, to provide the Eucharist and the other sacraments to the faithful. However, Teilhard was looking for more. As a priest, he challenged himself to become one with God precisely by committing himself “nobly” and directly to help transform the world. When World War I began, instead of becoming a military chaplain serving the troops behind the scenes by offering Mass and hearing confessions, Teilhard chose to serve at the battlefront among the infantry—not as a soldier, but as a stretcher-bearer. In spring 1918, while on leave from the military, Teilhard made his profession of solemn vows as a Jesuit in the Society of Jesus. For Teilhard, this vow-taking ceremony celebrated the culmination of his formation and the total commitment of his life to Christ. It is not surprising then that Teilhard’s thoughts in the ensuing weeks at the battlefront would often return to this solemn commitment and its connection to his priesthood. He writes:
“As far as my strength will allow me, because I am a priest, I would henceforth be the first to become aware of what the world loves, pursues, suffers. I would be the first to seek, to sympathize, to toil; the first in self-fulfillment, the first in self-denial—I would be more widely human and more nobly terrestrial in my ambitions than any of the world’s servants.”
“The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 222This is Teilhard’s clearest description of his role as priest. What is unusual is his desire not simply to be aware of the faithful whom he will serve, but also to be totally aware of what the world loves, pursues, and suffers. Already we see the cosmic expanse of his desires. As a priest, he wanted to share the insights of the noblest human minds on the planet and to dedicate his effort to what those noble minds envisioned as being best for the good of the world. He also knew that his commitment to the priesthood included being the best servant of both God and the World. He saw no conflict in his double commitment to the service of God and to the growth and development of the world. He counsels his fellow priests:
“Remember that over and above the administration of the sacraments, as a higher duty than the care of individual souls, you have a universal function to fulfill: the offering to God of the entire world. Going far beyond the bread and wine the Church has put in your hands, your influence is destined to extend to the immense host of humankind.”
“The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 223Reflection: Do you share with Teilhard his double commitment: to God and to the development of the world?
Teilhard the Priest: The Soldier Priest
#2 Why would a priest want to serve at the front lines in a war?
“At last I’ve had a spell in the trenches; not yet in the heroic trenches where your feet get frozen and bullets rain down, but still in real front-line trenches; right next door to the Boche, where you hear the whistle of shells and the crack of bullets if a head shows over the parapet for too long. I decided that it would be better for me to be seen as much as possible all along the line.”
Letter to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon The Making of a Mind, 50All young Frenchmen were expected to serve in the military during the war. Teilhard’s brothers had already enlisted. When he was conscripted, Teilhard, as a priest, could have chosen to be a military chaplain. But like his brothers, he wished to be involved on the front lines. So, he volunteered instead to serve as a stretcher-bearer. Even though he could not celebrate Mass in the trenches with the infantrymen in the front lines, the soldiers would become his congregation. In the heat of battle, he would be with them and care for them. He would serve there, too, but without having to wield a weapon. Always, he remained conscious that he was a priest. His desire resonates with the words of St. Paul:
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Rom 14:7-9Of course, as a priest, Teilhard still wished to celebrate Eucharist whenever possible. From time to time in local villages, on a day without fighting, he had the opportunity to celebrate Mass in a church or chapel. But he often found himself with infantrymen in forests for days on end without the bread and wine thought necessary for a Eucharistic liturgy. His desire to find a way to exercise his priestly role, alone and in the middle of a forest, inspired him to write a prayer. Taking a new notebook, he began to compose his version of the Eucharist. Some years later, he would edit and expand this prayer into what he called his “Mass on the World.” It would be a Mass that included everyone and everything—the whole world.
“To bring Christ, by virtue of a specifically organic connection, to the heart of realities that are esteemed to be the most dangerous, the most unspiritual, the most pagan—in that you have my gospel and my mission.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 220Reflection: How do you attempt to bring Christ to the World?
Teilhard the Priest: His Mass
#3 How did Teilhard celebrate “Mass” when he had no bread and wine?
“For the last three days I have been deprived of saying Mass, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to say it again.” Letter to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon The Making of a Mind, 75
During breaks in the military action, Teilhard would often take up his pen and begin to write. He wrote his essays in longhand, in school notebooks provided by his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon, headmistress of a girls’ school in Paris. Typically, he would make a few copies of each essay by hand. One copy was always entrusted to Marguerite, with whom he carried on a continual correspondence throughout the war. Besides sharing Teilhard’s essays with Teilhard’s sister and a few friends, Marguerite saved her copies as well as the many letters he wrote to her from the battlefront. These essays now fill the 250-page book Writings in Time of War. She also compiled and edited his letters, which are found in The Making of a Mind. Both books give us a deep understanding of Teilhard’s process of personal and professional transformation as he continued to integrate modern science, particularly evolution, into his Christian theology. In his essay “The Priest,” Teilhard describes the setting for the Mass he will celebrate alone in the forest. He envisions the altar not as a small altar like the ones found in a church, but instead as the entire surface of Earth. Since he has neither bread or wine, he offers instead the labors and suffering of the world. And for Teilhard, the true celebrant of his Mass is the Universal Christ. During his time as a stretcher-bearer, Teilhard likely used his essay “The Priest” in personal prayer frequently. He was anxious to know what Marguerite and a few intimate friends thought of it.
“Since today, Lord, I your Priest have neither bread nor wine nor altar, I shall spread my hands over the whole universe and take its immensity as the matter of my sacrifice.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 205Reflection: How and where do you offer your life and that of the whole world to God?
Teilhard the Priest: Discovering the God of Evolution
#4 How did St. Paul’s letters confirm Teilhard’s sense of the Universal Christ?
“You can imagine . . . how strong was my inner feeling of release and expansion when I took my first still hesitant steps into an ‘evolutive’ Universe.” The Heart of Matter, 26While in the seminary, Teilhard often wondered whether his love for Earth and the world was incompatible with the notion of loving God with one’s whole heart. This struggle helped him search for ways to express his synthesis: “Communion with God through Earth.” But a true solution to his dilemma was still to come. Sometime before his ordination, a classmate shared with Teilhard a copy of a newly published book that stunned its audiences in Paris. The book was Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson. The ideas in Creative Evolution eventually triggered Teilhard’s awareness that evolution is not restricted to biology, but could apply to any field of science or thought. This led him to recognize that ours is not a simple, fixed universe, but that from the beginning the universe has been evolving. If this were true, Teilhard reasoned, then Christian theology had to be open to an evolving universe. Searching the writings of St. Paul, he found over thirty passages that are compatible with his growing ideas about a God for Evolution. To Teilhard’s delight, he discovered, in reading the letters of St. Paul, a Cosmic Christ—a Universal Christ—in whom we all live and move and have our existence. Paul clearly recognized that the physical body of Christ on Earth is still developing, still evolving. He wrote this:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit . . . If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 1 Cor 12:12-13, 26-27What a relief to realize that his instincts were on target! He shared his joy with Marguerite.
“And I saw that the dualism in which I had hitherto been enclosed was disappearing like the mist before the rising sun. Matter and Spirit; these were no longer two things but two states or two aspects of one and the same cosmic Stuff, according to whether it was looked at or carried further in the direction in which (as Bergson would have put it) it is becoming itself or in the direction in which it is disintegrating.” The Heart of Matter, 26-27Reflection: Do you realize that you live in an evolving world? How did you come to realize that?
Teilhard the Priest: The Value of Suffering
#5 What value does Teilhard place on human labor and suffering?
“That Christ may enter deeply into us we need alternately the work that widens our being and the sorrow that brings death to it.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 209For Teilhard, all human experience is of two kinds: activities and passivities. Activities are the things we choose—our intentional labors. Passivities are the things done to us—things over which we have no control, difficult things that we must undergo and the sufferings we endure. These include unwelcome experiences, such as sickness, death, loss, rejection, failure, abuse, prejudice, defamation, and all other forms of diminishment. During his time on the battlefields of World War I, Teilhard was confronted not only with his own passivities, but also those of the world around him. Wherever he looked, suffering and death surrounded him. Rather than seeing these as obstacles to growth, he realized that he could unite the sufferings of his world with the sufferings of Christ. Although it is best to avoid suffering when possible, Teilhard realized that not only is suffering an essential part of life, what we suffer is capable of being divinized. When we unite our suffering with that of the crucified Jesus, we participate in the healing of the world. Certainly, he must have felt that when found himself immersed in the horrors of the War. For Teilhard to internalize the suffering of the world is perhaps even more important than action since the compassion one feels in the process will serve to move one to ever more authentic action. It was so important to him that during the Offertory of his Mass, Teilhard’s gifts were symbols of the activities and the passivities of the whole world. These were his bread and wine being transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. He encouraged his fellow priests who were serving in the war to understand the value of their suffering:
“Never have you been more priests than you are now, involved as you are and submerged in the tears and blood of a generation—never have you been more active—never more fully in the line of your vocation.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 223Reflection: Have you learned to redirect your experience of suffering toward the healing of the body of the universal Christ?
Teilhard the Priest: Communion with the Universal Christ
#6 How did Teilhard the priest come to view the Eucharist liturgy as a cosmic event?
“Permeating the whole atmosphere of creation, God encompasses me and lays siege to me.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 210When Teilhard was celebrating Mass in the forest without the bread and wine usually assumed needed for this ritual, he instead transcended these symbols. And all at once the Bread and Wine came alive for him.
“The Bread takes hold of me and draws me to itself. That small host has become for me as vast as the world, as insatiable as a furnace. I am encircled by its power. It seeks to close around me.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 215Teilhard is aware of the Universal Christ in his midst. He says:
“I see your flesh extend throughout the entire universe, there to be mingled with it and so extract from it all the elements that can be made to serve your purpose. There is not a single atom that does not pay tribute to your totality, even though that be the prelude to its own destruction.”On that special day, Teilhard met Christ alive in the Universe. Yet he knew that tomorrow, Christ would grow because of our efforts and sufferings of today—as we strive to transform our lives and the world itself into Christ. Tomorrow, the Universal Christ will become a bit more manifest in the world. At the end of time, there will be one Body and one Spirit in love. For Teilhard, the Incarnation will not be complete until every particle of the universe becomes fully alive in Christ. Teilhard clearly accepts his personal role and responsibility for fostering the continued health and growth of the Universal Christ. He prays to the one who fills the Universe:
“I kneel before the universe that has imperceptibly become your adorable Body and your divine Blood. I prostrate myself in its presence. I recollect myself in that universe. The world is filled by You! O universal Christ, true foundation of the world, I worship you. I am lost in the consciousness of your plentitude permeating all things.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 210Reflection: Can you imagine including some of the cosmic dimension that Teilhard incorporated into his Mass into your celebration of the liturgy?
Teilhard the Priest: The Liturgy as a Cosmic Event
#7 How did Teilhard’s Mass challenge him in life?
“That small, seemingly lifeless Host has become for me as vast as the world, as insatiable as a furnace. I am encircled by its power.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 215Now when Teilhard looks at the Host in his hands during a Eucharistic celebration, he envisions the Universal Christ who contains the entire created world as it is today. He hears Christ asking him to open his heart and mind and make a fundamental choice. He rises to the challenge. First, he allows the divine to flood into the universe through him. Then he allows the Universal Christ to flow into himself. Receiving the Eucharist is not only a communion between himself and Christ. It is also a communion with all humanity and all of nature. In receiving the host, Teilhard agrees to fulfill his part in the task of creating a loving union with all.
“Since by virtue of my consent, I shall have become a living particle of the Body of Christ, all that affects me must, in the end, help in the growth of the total Christ. Christ will flood into me and over me, me and my cosmos.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 216Teilhard wished to feel Christ’s “activity coming ever closer.” He sensed Christ’s “presence growing ever more intense, everywhere around [him].” Not only did he welcome the presence of Christ within him, but he also felt the Christ presence in “his cosmos,” in the world around him. In receiving the Eucharist, Teilhard wished to welcome and experience both forms of Christ’s presence: the one within and the one without, which surrounded him on every side. As Teilhard considered how to allay Christ’s spiritual hunger and thirst, he realized something startling: Christ is also hungering for His own fulfillment. The Universal Christ needs the food only we humans can provide. He says to Christ, “To allay your hunger and quench your thirst, to nourish your body and bring it to its full stature, you need to find in us a substance which will be truly food for you.”
For Teilhard, the food Christ needs to nourish the growth and development of his Universal Body consists in this: Teilhard must liberate the spirit in himself as well as in the cosmos. This will require human effort.
“I pray that this brief and limited contact with the sacramental species may introduce me to a universal and eternal communion with Christ, with his omni-operant will and his boundless mystical Body. An inexhaustible and universal communion is the term of the universal consecration. I cannot, Lord, evade such massive power: I can only yield to it in blissful surrender.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 218Reflection: What responsibilities do you accept and renew when you receive the Eucharist?
Teilhard the Priest: Teilhard’s Fire
#8 When did Teilhard realize his vocation to proclaim an evolving Universal Christ?
“In obedience to the law that governs every plenitude in a universe that is still multiple and exteriorized [diffuse], I must spread abroad the fire you have imparted to me.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 218Teilhard announces his unique vocation very clearly in the final section of “The Priest,” written in 1918. He claims he has a unique vocation; to present to the world, not simply a mystical Body of Christ, but also a very physical one—a planet-sized, cosmic-sized organic body in continual evolution. He writes, “And now, my God, that in and through all things you have made me one with you, I no longer belong to myself.” In “The Priest,” Teilhard includes a section called “The Apostolate.” This section begins with a quote from scripture: “What can I give in return to the Lord?” He spells out his answer in the opening quotation of “The Priest”:
“Every priest, because he is a priest, has given his life to a work of universal salvation. I must spread abroad the fire you have imparted to me.”
Teilhard was aware of the special character of his vocation:
“I feel that this duty has a more immediate urgency for me, and a more exact meaning, than it has for many others—many far better than I. The various regions, nations, social groupings, have each their particular apostles. I for my (very lowly) part, would wish to be the apostle—and, if dare be so bold—the evangelist—of Christ in the universe.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 219This is Teilhard’s mission. It is an evolutionary mission whose message is meant for absolutely everyone. He spells it out again in a sentence, every word of which is emphasized in italics:
“To bring Christ, by virtue of a specifically organic connection, to the heart of realities that are esteemed to be the most dangerous, the most unspiritual, the most pagan—in that, you have my gospel and my mission.”He wished all could hear this message and take it to heart.
“If only they could understand that, with all its natural richness and its massive reality, the universe can find fulfillment only in Christ; and that Christ, in turn, can be attained only through a universe that has been carried to the very limit of its capabilities.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 220And Teilhard lived his mission to the full. Despite the official church’s rejection and prohibition of his message, he continued to write and speak about the integration of Christ’s Good News with the universality of evolution. Only after his death did that message, in the form of hundreds of unpublished articles and letters, burst forth on a waiting world.
“Through my thinking, through the message I bring, through the practical activity of my whole life, I would wish to disclose and make known to [all] the bonds of continuity that make the cosmos of our restless ferment into an ambience that is divinized by the Incarnation, that divinizes by communion, and that is divinizable by our cooperation.” “The Priest” Writings in Time of War, 219Reflection: Have you ever attempted to spell out in writing the essence of your unique vocation?