Spiritual Reading 16

16. Teilhard de Chardin

We tirelessly and ceaselessly search for Something, we know not what, which will appear in the end to those who have penetrated to the very heart of reality.

-Teilhard de Chardin

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit paleontologist and naturalist/mystic who died in 1955. He distinguished between the tangential energy of increasing diversity in nature and the radial energy of increasing within-ness in nature and in all of us. Evolution occurs as both energies work together, a merger of the natural and the mystical. Teilhard de Chardin saw divine consciousness as the deepest “within,” the interior reality of all creation, immanence. In this interiority is an urge to move toward more and more transcendence. The Sacred Heart reveals that the within-ness of God is love and that our within-ness, our soul, is love too if only we would allow it become activated.

Teilhard wrote: “We are evolution looking at itself and conscious of itself.” Withinness is mirror-like since it refers to how consciousness becomes aware of itself, as big an event as the arrival of the first atom. Evolution is heading toward ever-deepening withinness. That was his luminous metaphor of the Sacred Heart of God in the universe.

Teilhard de Chardin made a significant contribution to the forming of a mature devotion to the Sacred Heart. He rescued it from sentimentality and superstition and integrated it into his electrifying vision of the universe. He describes his thrilling and sublime vision of the Sacred Heart in The Heart of Matter (Harvest, 1976). Devotion to Sacred Heart gave Teilhard de Chardin “a sense of the solidity of Christ…the immersion of the divine in the corporeal… a glowing core of fire… able to insinuate itself everywhere… to make love of the cosmic milieu….” The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the alchemical vessel in which fiery transformation happens.

The fire image of the mystics was expanded and enriched by Teilhard within his new cosmology. As we have seen, there are indeed many precedents for this metaphor. The Gospel of St. Thomas presents Jesus as saying: “He who nears me nears the heart of the fire.” In the Litany of the Sacred Heart is the invocation: “Glowing furnace of love.” Images of the Sacred Heart show a perpetual flame arising from its center. Fire burns away the selfish ego so that our basic goodness, our true nature as love, can shine through. This is an ancient theme in many religious traditions. The pagan mystic and philosopher, Plotinus (d. 270) writes in his Enneads VI 9:9: “We all have the vision that may be of him [God] and of ourselves but it is of a self made for splendor, brimful of intellectual light, become that very light, pure, buoyant, unburdened, raised to Godhood… all aflame.” The fire in the heart of God is the same fire that burns in us once we have the interior vision that lets us acknowledge divinity within ourselves and design our lives accordingly.

When St. Paul says that “our God is a consuming fire,” we see again a metaphor for the dismantling of ego-centeredness. Christ’s heart can become the fiery center of ourselves and in that alchemical blaze the ego is transformed to the gold of humility and generosity. Our spiritual practice is thus to turn our ego energy into compassion for others not at the cost of personal esteem but as a fruit of it. This prayer of St. Margaret Mary states the connection well: “O divine fire… consume me and I will not resist…. Your lively flames make those live who die in them…. I adore you most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Inflame my heart with the divine love with which your own is all on fire.” Fire is associated with hell but in the context of mystical revelations, fire is about love. The Sacred Heart is a divine pledge that the world will not end by fire but be reborn in it.

For the ancient Greeks and Egyptians healing was caused by light and fire. This may best resemble Teilhard’s mystical sense of the fire of the Sacred Heart that brings light and healing to the world. This same fire is a light within us that lets us see through the gross appearances in the world to the transpersonal life deep within all things. Teilhard was blessed with that kind of vision. Virginia Woolf tells of it in The Waves: “Things are losing their hardness; now even my body lets the light through.” In his poem The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross, writes similarly: “I went out into the world with no other light except the one that was burning in my heart.” The Upanishads say: “A self-luminous being resides in the lotus of the heart, surrounded by the senses, and is the Light of our intelligence.” We keep noticing similar realizations in all traditions, confirming a collective truth.

On Pentecost, the apostles and Mary gathered in their grief about Jesus being gone from their midst while at the same time trusting that he was risen. The Holy Spirit then came upon them in tongues of fire. Fire follows grief and trust, two hallmarks of personal relationships and of our spiritual life too. We grieve our failings, our losses, and our wounds. The fire of zeal to share the good news happened to Mary and the apostles in the context of these human predicaments. They brought to others the fruits of their own life story and the grace of fire from the Spirit of love opened it in a new way.

Teilhard wrote: “Throughout my life, through my life, the world has, little by little, caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost completely luminous from within.... Such has been my experience in contact with the earth, the diaphany of the divine at the heart of the universe on fire.… Christ, his heart a fire, capable of penetrating everywhere, and gradually, spreading everywhere.... Our spiritual being is continually nourished by the countless energies of the tangible world.”