Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters From a Soldier-Priest [1914-1919]

Translated from the French ‘Genèse d’une pensèe’ by Renè Hague, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1961 (1965 in English edition).

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In addition to an author’s published work, and perhaps biographies; or nowadays, blogs and websites dedicated to an author, or even by an author, the reader who dedicates much of her reading to dead authors sometimes has another mode of communication by which to understand an author’s published work, the letter.

For writers who lived in an age when letter writing was part of daily communication and discussion, correspondence can be especially illuminating. In the case of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who as a Jesuit priest and paleontologist/geologist his letter writing was prolific, consisting of several collections: to his parents, to friends, and those of his travels, which are journal entrees.  The collected correspondence by his cousin, Marguerite Teilhard-Chambon, covers his wartime experience as a stretcher-bearer, 1914-1918, in World War I. Whether or not one can say if these letters are an approximate starting point of Teilhard’s later work, I cannot say, but indeed, they give insight into his thought and how the War continued to shape his vision of the world.

Teilhard was 34 when he went to the front as part of the 8th regiment of Moroccan light infantry (p.41).  The letters to his cousin span the entire length of the War and are mostly intact with minor editing exceptions and the loss of some letters by Marguerite.  Marguerite Teilhard-Chambon, who during Teilhard’s time in the War was the director of a boarding school for girls, and who was an energetic correspondent often seeking advice, expressing her concern for Teilhard or commenting on his manuscripts, compiled the letters at the end of her life with the intention of publishing them in order to contribute to the understanding of Teilhard’s thought.  Upon her death they were entrusted to the publishers Bernard Grasset, Paris. In the preface we learn Marguerite nearly took herself out of the correspondence completely in an effort to focus only on Teilhard. The publishers, however, thought it best to preserve intact, wherever possible, the relationship between the two. It is quite apparent that Teilhard not only cares very much for Marguerite, but that he also values her intellect and trusts her with his own struggles and hopes. The publishers also relate that Marguerite’s letters to Pierre Teilhard are missing and assumed to have been lost by Teilhard during his extensive travels. Although, the compilation is a one-sided correspondence, nonetheless their content gives a strong sense of a relationship that was intellectually and emotionally reciprocal.  These letters are neither rough drafts of some of Teilhard’s work nor quaint correspondences to a beloved cousin; they are rather an entry point into Teilhard’s emerging thought that is shaped by his lived experience and understanding of it; for in the intense trauma and crisis of the War here we see a man who was very much fully present to all around him, to his responsibility as stretcher-bearer, and to his family and friends.

Indeed these letters are filled with seeds that contain the future germination of Teilhard’s developed thought. As such they ought to be read in addition to Teilhard’s formal work, but not instead of it.  I say this not just because it is tempting to read Teilhard’s letters instead of his work, which is dense and sometimes difficult to access. His letters give insight not just to his thought, but how he actively experiences the influences on his thought.  Imagine, a priest stretcher-bearer in World War I looking out upon the ruins, the flames and misery, and not believing we have reached the apocalypse or not feeling rather despondent towards religion! In fact, his belief in the need for religion is proven to his mind as necessary in the harsh realities of the battlefield; not rejected. Teilhard did not look upon the War as an evil to be condemned. Rather, it was the necessary work to which he was led, even if he could only play a small part in it:

“Every minute, flares lit up the line, followed by salvoes of gun-fire. To crown our misfortunes, it was raining and one had to make one’s way, with a casualty on one’s back, along a muddy winding communication trench, in which we could move only in single file. A dozen times I thought we’d never reach the end and would have to give up. Finally, however, plastered with mud, we managed to get our man out: but I can assure you that we were relieved to pass him on to some of our fellows in the support line. This episode made me appreciate the courage shown by the troops who spend days and nights under this hail of fire, which I have never more than passed through, and who charge into the thick of it. — I know that on the other hand they have the excitement of battle; but all the same I felt very small compared with those men.

….

He understood his responsibility as a responsibility to God. And, for Teilhard, God is in the matter of all things. God is a Cosmic God.

“And more than ever I believe that life is beautiful, in the grimmest circumstances — when you look around God is always there.  … If we believe that this struggle between two civilizations is worth men sacrificing to it their individual lives… “(p. 55-56).

It is not only Teilhard’s literary and biblical sense that frames much of what he sees, but too his love and his intense sense of wonder, as a geologist, in the very matter of life. His studies in geology and paleontology grounded his spiritual understanding in a world that is on the move, and that has a timeline that includes its cosmic beginnings and its slow and steady evolution; his spiritual life lifted the matter he studied to its future, its transcendental ending point.

When Teilhard looks out on the world in turmoil, he finds among the destruction man united and less dispersed.  While in its manifestation any war is horrific, nevertheless, there is the sanctification of an act that goes beyond oneself: men giving their lives, and falling to the ground are bound together in a common understanding of what is good. These men give up their egos and become one with the world.  Teilhard’s conception of things, in my view, retains a certain mythic understanding of events occurring in his time as those events are not just part of political conflicts, but rather a part of evolution and advancement that is beyond matter. It is very much in line with Joseph Campbell’s comparative studies of myth: the dead on the battlefield; their bodies literally enriching the earth. This is not to say that Teilhard’s thought was primitive or that he could easily justify war, but rather that his consciousness was not of a personal nature. He was able to detach from the individual sense of living for oneself, and think about life as something beyond himself and his own life, but at the same time he knows he and all others are fully implicated in the evolutionary process that is happening now.

His letters are most interesting when he must balance a concern for the particular: his own individual needs, his cousins preoccupations running a school for girls, the demands of the War and his Jesuit vows with his spiritual move toward God and therefore towards a less egocentric way of thinking. The War was not a place where he saw the decay and destruction of the body with disgust or to the contrary where he acknowledges the illusion of peace and begins to pursue material wealth. Neither does he seek refuge in theological dogma. For Teilhard, the War was an event which opened his mind, soul and body to God: to creation and evolution, and to the present and future.

“What is going to emerge from this ghastly struggle? It’s more and more the crisis, the desperately slow evolution of a rebirth of Europe. Yet could things move any more quickly? … We must offer our existence to God, who neither wastes nor spoils, but rather makes use, better than we could ever anticipate, of the struggle in which we are enveloped. If I said that I didn’t feel any weariness, I wouldn’t be speaking the truth” (p.73).

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All of life, whatever it is we encounter, it is all, as Teilhard’s letters suggest, transformational. In the end, he truly believes we are going somewhere:

“But what positive, progressive, precise end are we to assign to human efforts? In what natural direction are we to advance? To what tangible end should we unite, all of us?” (p.181).

It appears, for Teilhard, his questions are indeed the answer:

“I can’t believe that the world was given to man simply to keep him busy, as if it were a wheel to turn (p. 181)”

These questions are not moments of doubt but rather moments of exaltation; of awe that yes there is an advance towards something. For this reason his urgency lies not in its uncovering the exact reasoning behind the event — for the exact reason he is willing to accept as not given yet — but where his reasoning leads him to is to man and in the unification of the human effort to cooperate in the evolutionary process:

“… we must seek a way to co-ordinate the dispersed effort of human beings” (182).

The danger here, I believe, is misconstruing Teilhard’s thought as an ends-justifies-means Christianity, that is, of Christianity once again becoming tyrannical: unification as Christians, period. Unification as One homogenous thing/thought is the near enemy of making an united effort. Although, Teilhard does suggest that we have evolved to Christianity and therefore Christianity will lead us onward…, what I believe he is emphasizing is the New Testament, the Gospels and, as it were, the content of Christianity, which, in the form of Christ, is love. Anything but love would be egotistical and therefore would not advance us as a civilization. Abandoning the earth, our world and all its inhabitants is not of Teilhard’s thought, especially since his spiritual thought was always infused with his scientific knowledge. His is not a Christianity that forgets matter. His love for the world is present throughout his letters, and becomes especially apparent when his regiment is to leave the forest of Compiègne:

“What is certain is that we’re going to leave the forest: and I foresee that I’ll miss its enveloping shelter which makes me so tangibly and immediately aware of our immersion in a tangle of living entities. (p. 213)

Somehow Teilhard saw the beauty that was possible within the conflict of World War I. His regard for those who sacrificed their lives is evident throughout his letters. This is not a man who thought some people were worth so little they could be sacrificed. Sacrifice is quite the opposite. It follows from Myth and Religion: only what is greatly valued can be sacrificed.

Clearly, Teilhard’s Christianity is a matter of life and death. As he writes:

“Nature makes us want to die, so that we may see what lies within her” (214)

For Teilhard, who was a scientist and a Jesuit priest, the Earth proves the existence of God… and one might say, God could not be otherwise.

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