Praying in Teilhard’s Universe

Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of Saint Francis of Assisi, wrote that Francis did not so much pray as he became a “living prayer.” I think the same could be said of Teilhard de Chardin. What does it mean to be a person of “living prayer?”  And how does such a person live in an unfinished universe?  First of all, prayer is awakening to the fact that I am held in being by God who is the source of my life, the divine ground of my life who is other than me yet at the heart of me. Prayer is God’s breathing in me by which I become part of the intimacy of God’s inner life and God becomes the active living presence of my life.  A person of “living prayer” lives from a deep wellspring of God-centeredness in such a way that, through prayer, God and self are continuously born into a new existence, a new person in Christ.

Teilhard de Chardin, like Francis of Assisi, was a man steeped in prayer whereby his mind expanded into a cosmotheandric solidarity, a oneness with God that flowed from a deep mesh of energies at the core of his life. Through prayer, Teilhard became a stranger to the human sphere of competition, greed and individualism, and found his humanity at home in the cosmos. By saying this, I mean that Teilhard found the truth of his life in the world of matter, the world of physical reality and hence the world of experience.

In his essay on “The Spiritual Power of Matter” Teilhard writes in a lyrical and mystical way of the power of matter in which divinity is hidden. Building on the spiritual stages of purgation, illumination and union, he describes an asceticism of surrender to matter, without which matter seems harsh and stubborn with its blind violent forces of nature.  Teilhard awakens, so to speak, to the power of matter, surrendering himself in faith “to the wind which was sweeping the universe onwards.”[1]  As he begins to see matter more clearly, his mind is illumined, matter reveals itself in its truth, “the universal power which brings together and unites.”[2]  Every single element of the world begins to radiate divine love shining through the everyday stuff of the world. Teilhard claims we must suffer through the harshness of matter in order to know its radiance. He writes: “Raise me up then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, it becomes possible for me in perfect chastity to embrace the universe.”[3] On the highest level of union, Teilhard extols matter as the “divine milieu, charged with creative power. . .infused with life by the incarnate Word.”[4]  He exclaims: “Bathe yourself in the ocean of matter; plunge into it where it is deepest and most violent; struggle in its currents and drink of its waters. For it cradled you long ago in your preconscious existence; and it is that ocean that will raise you up to God.”[5] Only at the highest stage of unitive consciousness does Teilhard come to a deep intuitive knowledge that, in and through matter, God is being born in the world:

A Being was taking form in the totality of space; a Being with the attractive power of a soul, palpable like a body, vast as the sky; a Being which mingled with things yet remained distinct from them; a Being of a higher order than the substance of things with which it was adorned, yet taking shape within them.   The rising Sun was being born in the heart of the world.  God was shining forth from the summit of that world of matter whose waves were carrying up to him the world of spirit.[6]

How did Teilhard arrive at this mystical embrace of matter? Through long periods of contemplative prayer, nourished by solitude in the desert, slowed time, and attention to the movements of the Spirit. Teilhard came to a deep personal awareness that his life and the world of matter were one, a unity held in being by the dynamic love of God incarnating the world into the Christ.

For Teilhard, matter is the incarnating presence of divinity; God is present in matter and not merely to matter.  This core belief is still foreign to Christian ears, for we pray as if God is not “here” but “there,” in heaven, awaiting our attention: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall come my help?” the psalmist writes (Ps 121:1-4).  In prayer we seek to “lift up” our weary spirits from the heaviness of matter, focusing our attention on God above.  But the Christian God is here, in matter.  Prayer is to lead us into the heart of matter.

Do we really believe that “God is present in matter”?  Is matter the same as God?  This would be pantheism and while Teilhard leans in this direction, he is clear that God and matter are not equivalent. Rather, the preposition “in” is key: God is in matter meaning that God is the ultimate horizon, the depth and breadth of matter, other than matter (transcendent) yet intimately present to matter (immanent).  When everything can be said about a particular form of matter, for example, a leaf (green, veined, etc.), we have not exhausted that which really draws us to it, such as its beauty or light.  The ultimacy of this experience of beauty or light, that which cannot be adequately spoken or described, is God.  So when Teilhard speaks of a power in matter, he is speaking of the ultimate power that eludes our ability to grasp or measure it.  Yet it is a power that is deeply experienced and expressed in the language of “awe” or “wonder,” the “dearest freshness deep down things” as the poet Gerard Manlely Hopkins wrote.[7]

Now here is the amazing insight that both Francis of Assisi and Teilhard realized:  the power at the heart of the leaf is the same power at the heart of my life—it is the power of God. I am drawn to the leaf because I am drawn to the truth of my own life—the leaf is a mirror of my deepest self.  The center of the leaf and the center of my life is the same center—God Omega.

For me to contemplate a leaf, therefore, is not simply to withdraw into myself and think about myself; the leaf is not an incentive to find God.  Rather the leaf is God present to me in all its simplicity and beauty.  As I contemplate the leaf, I contemplate the source of my life.  Contrary to the Neoplatonic journey to the One, I do not leave the world of matter to seek God; on the contrary, the world of matter begins to take hold of me.  The God of the leaf recognizes the God in me because the God in me is the same God in the leaf. Hence the more I surrender to the power of my own materiality, my embodied existence in which God dwells, the more I am drawn to God in the leaf and the tree and the clouds and the wind. My body and the body of the world are one, and God is shining through this unfolding unity.

This deeply personal presence of God in matter is what the Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus called haecceitas or the “thisness” of everything. God is in “this” pebble, “this” atom, “this” bird, or “this” person. The “thisness” of everything that exists is the ineffable center of each particular thing, a center of divine presence inaccessible to “the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will” because this “little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God,” as Thomas Merton wrote.[8]  From this center, God knows me and sees me even when I do not know or see myself.  So too, God knows the tree in its treeness and the flower in its flowerness and this being known by God is God contemplating himself in the beauty of each created form, in “this tree” or “this flower.”  As a tree is known by God, so too does it know God in its own existence simply by being a tree, and in being itself, the tree radiates divine love which is the ineffable goodness of its own beingness.

In a similar way, God contemplates God’s life in me and this gaze of divine love, this being known by God in the deepest center of my self, is the ground of my existence.  Hence, it is not I who contemplates God; rather God is contemplating me.  Meister Eckhart wrote:  “the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”[9] God sees himself in me as I come to see myself in God. The perceiver and the perceived are indissolubly one in the universe, in Teilhard’s view.

Prayer is the energy of awakening to this radical presence of God.  It is the breathing of God’s Spirit in me that awakens me to the reality of my own existence.  As I awaken to my own reality, I awake to the reality of the whole of which I am part, the whole that is the universe itself. Although I am drawn to that which I cannot grasp, I am drawn to that which already holds me in the depth of my own beingness. As I am pulled into the power of God, my mind is filled with light and my being expands.  Such is the power of contemplation.

Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg describes the Spirit as a field in which one’s particular being exists. Each person is like a particle in a relational field in which the Spirit unifies the various fields of energy. If this analogy holds true, then the particularity of my existence depends on my energies of relatedness. Prayer expands my field of energies so that the more deeply I am related to God, the more expansive are my relationships which energize and unite, and thus contribute to the work of evolution. Teilhard identified human energy as that increasing portion of cosmic energy, which is influenced by the centers of human activity.  While small in comparison with the vastness of the universe, human energy has the capacity to animate and organize into greater levels of complexity.  In this way, prayer is the energy of evolution because human energy is structurally related to cosmogenesis.

Teilhard’s vision of contemplation and evolution is a movement beyond the ego, a surrendering of self to the power of matter.  Matter invites one to let go of the self and hand oneself over to an attractive power beyond the self. I do not leave the world to find God; rather God is the power of matter into which I am pulled. From the heart of matter, God calls to the heart of the contemplative, and from the heart of matter, the contemplative is drawn to see more deeply because matter radiates truth, and in truth, matter finds its meaning.  Matter calls to matter; heart calls to heart. To contemplate God Omega is to enter into matter. As matter takes hold of me and I surrender myself to it, something new breaks open in me, a creative freedom to become something more with matter; and becoming something more in and with matter is becoming my true self, at home in the universe.

Teilhard reframes contemplation within a new paradigm of evolutionary consciousness. As the universe is being formed, the human person is being formed, and as the human person is being formed, so too the universe is being formed. God is the ineffable power of love who is within every aspect of created existence and the future of that which exists.  To give oneself over to the power of God is to give oneself over to the power of matter, and to give oneself over to the power of matter is to give oneself over to God. God is truly one with creaturely existence, its creative power, so that as the creature forms and changes, so too does God. Evolution is the rise of God in such a way that God is revealed as evolution progresses.  In this respect, the fullness of revelation has yet to be, for God will be fully revealed only at the highest stages of consciousness toward which evolution is oriented.

Teilhard’s views on contemplation and evolution are radical and revolutionary.  They disrupt our platonic other-worldly religious practices and challenge our stifled individualism and isolationism.  One has only to see how monastic life formed and influenced the Church to realize that contemptus mundi (contempt for the world) or fuga mundi (flight from the world) are not only dead ends but turn back the cosmic process of evolution toward devolution or fragmentation.  Teilhard instead ushers in a truly incarnational perspective on contemplation in a world of energizing matter.  Faith and hope in God and the world becomes faith and hope in God through the world.

Martin Laird writes that, for Teilhard, the contemplative is like a sacred door opening on to the universe by which God passes through and spreads God’s radiance throughout the entire universe.[10] Contemplation opens my eyes widely to the ineffable depth of matter, a penetrating gaze that gets to the truth of reality. I become “one in heart” with the wind, the moon, the stars and all the chaotic movements of life where God is dynamically creating, energizing and attracting toward more life. Entering into this oneness is a constant movement from my partial, isolated self to a selfless self or that fragment of the whole called “my life” which, at the highest level of contemplation, is the life of the whole.

Why should we practice contemplation as a form of life?  To build the earth, which means to continue the work of creation through faith and hope in this evolving God-world.  For Teilhard, faith in God is faith in the world.  To believe and to have hope is to become one with the world. His incarnational approach to contemplative action means that there is more to building the earth than activism alone. The Christian builds the earthbyacertainqualityormannerofactivity, a way of being in the world where matter is constantly forming and reorganizing itself on new levels of conscious existence.

Laird uses the term “contemplative energetic” to describe the contemplative evolutionary person in which contemplation is integrated with human activity.[11]   Contemplation and action are mutually related, subject to each other, structurally related components of the rise of human energy. The contemplative is one in whom the sap of the world, the energy of matter, flows; the one who embodies a zest for life.  The contemplative is a centrating energy of compassion and unity.

Teilhard has constructed a vision in which the human person is vitally related to the formation of the dynamic universe. Contemplation is the process whereby human energy expands and consciousness is maximized. This maximization of consciousness is the expansion of love-energy meshed with the energies of the cosmos. The more contemplation centers the human person in God, the more human consciousness rises and extends the fundamental vital process of evolution through the energies of love.   Matter then organizes, physically and psychologically in more complex ways of greater centration and unity:  love attracts, unites and transforms. Contemplation is the building up of the contemplative energetic who centrates, animates, and organizes the universe around a unified center of love, drawing matter into greater levels of unity expressed in the emergence of Christ.

This Teilhardian view of contemplation is complementary to that of Bonaventure and Franciscan spirituality on the whole. Whereas for Thomas Aquinas contemplation is an inner activity of divine union whereby one expresses the fruits of divine union in the world, a reflective act, for Bonaventure contemplation is an ascent into divine love whereby one hands oneself over in the act of contemplation. Stated otherwise, contemplation is the act of handing oneself over to God.  Hence one is led through suffering and death into matter’s dark brilliance of divine light. I think this is what Teilhard perceived as well in his “Hymn to Matter”:

I bless you matter and you I acclaim: not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you, debased, disfigured—a mass of brute forces and base appetites—but as you reveal yourself to me today, in your totality and your true nature. . . .
I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay moulded and infused with life by the incarnate Word. . . .
Raise me up then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, it becomes possible for me in perfect chastity to embrace the universe.[12]

To live with an evolutionary spirit, Eric Jantsch wrote, is to let go and to engage in new structures of relationship. Contemplative prayer grounds us in this letting go process, as we engage in a world of change and complexity. For Teilhard contemplation is to see God in everything, to see that God is calling to us from the world of matter.  How we respond in love will matter to the future of God.

Reflection:
Teilhard de Chardin wrote his essay, the “The Spiritual Power of Matter,” on August, 8, 1919.  If the Church and world had accepted Teilhard’s incarnational spirituality in which contemplation and evolution are synergistic to the fecundity of life, would we have a global warming crisis today?

Notes

[1]   Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe, trans. Simon Bartholomew (New York:  Harper & Row, 1965), 67.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid., 70, emphasis added.

[4]  Ibid., 70.

[5]   Ibid., 65.

[6]  Ibid., 68.

[7]  See the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” https://poets.org/poem/gods-grandeur

[8]  See Thomas Merton, “Le Pointe Vierge,” in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York:   Image, 1968), 158.

[9]   Meister Eckhart, “Sermon IV-True Hearing,”

[10]  Martin Laird,  “Contemplation:  Human Energy Becoming Divine Energy,” The Teilhard Review and Journal of Creative Evolution 21.2 (1986):  39-40.

[11]   Laird, “Contemplation:  Human Energy Becoming Divine Energy,” 40.

[12]  Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn to the Universe, 68 – 70.

155 Total Articles

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