20th CENTURY MYSTIC – Teilhard de Chardin

“Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a mystic whose explorations of creation landed him in hot water with his beloved Roman Catholic Church and propelled him toward visions of a cosmos whose very life-blood is Love. 

Published posthumously, Teilhard’s “Le Phenomene Humain” reads more like the work of a progressive 21st century christian theologian or scientest than that of a devoted 20th century Jesuit priest/biologist/palaeontologist. Teilhard paints a poetic vision that modern theologians would call a panentheistic view of the cosmos (pan: all + theo: god = god is in all and all is in god).  

As I work my way through Sarah Appleton-Weber’s translation, “The Human Phenomenon” I am also enjoying Ersula King’s excellent biography “Spirit of Fire”. King is Professor Emerita of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Bristol, and a vice president of the World Congress of Faiths. Her specific areas of expertise are in the life and work of Teilhard. Below you will find her lecture  which provides an excellent overview of Teilhard de Chardin and the “Contemporary Mystic Quest”  (in 5 parts).  Whether you know a great deal about his life and work, or nothing at all, I commend it to you. But beware, it will wet your appetite for more.  


I first discovered Teilhard’s work while completing my undergraduate work in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, when a well-used copy of “The Phenomenon of Man” (Le Phenomene Humain) captured my interest. At the time, Teilhard’s insights were quite a stretch for me and although I finished the book feeling overwhelmed by its complexity, I couldn’t help longing for the day when I might be better able to follow Teilhard beyond the rigid confines of the science versus religion debate toward a more comprehensive approach to understanding the cosmos and our place in it.

Today, in the midst of my sabbatical at UBC, it feels so appropriate that I should once again be consumed by Teilhard, as I luxuriate in Sarah Appleton-Weber’s newer translation: The Human Phenomenon. Lo these many years later, I still feel ill-equipped to grasp the wonders of Teilhard’s vision. But, I am struck by the beauty of his vision of the complex process of unfolding of the universe. 

My comprehension of Teilhard’s work is enhanced by Ersula King’s splendid biography: Spirit of Fire.  King describes his vision as one in which: “love is a spirituality that celebrates the oneness of creation, a spirituality that acknowledges love as the clearest understanding we have of God, of ourselves, of history, and of the cosmos.”

“his vision was one of consuming fire, kindled by the radiant powers of love. It was a mystical vision, deeply Christian in origin and orientation. Yet it broke through the boundaries of traditional orthodoxies — whether those of science or religion — and grew into a vision which is global in intent.”  

In an essay, “The Heart of the Matter” written near the end of his life, Teilhard described this fire at the heart of reality:

“Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight, until a flame all around me, it has become almost 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, the heart, a fire capable of penetrating everywhere, and gradually spreading everywhere.”

Teilhard was a scientist/theologian/philosopher/prophet who remains ahead of his time, whose work continues to push scientists and theologians to move beyond the carefully drawn boundaries of their own disciplines so that they might learn from one another. King explains: “His deepest desire was to see the essence of things, to find their heart, and probe into the mystery of life, its origin and goal. In the rhythm of life and its evolution, at the center of the cosmos and the world, Teilhard believed, is a divine center, a living heart beating with the fiery energy of love and compassion. Now, the heart is really a fleshly reality But the image of this very flesh, this concentration of living, breathing matter, came to symbolize for Teilhard the very core of the spirit.”

The warmth of these summer days at UBC are richly complemented by Teilhard’s fiery vision as I savour this divine consumption.

For those of you unfamiliar with this 20th century Christian mystic the American Teilhard Association provides a brief biography at:  http://teilharddechardin.org/index.php/biography


Today, I began to study the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I have been longing to do this ever since I was first introduced to this 20th century Christian mystic some 25 years ago, when Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing” helped me to look to the Christian mystics, both ancient and modern, to find new ways of connecting to the cosmos.  After many brief encounters with Teilhard’s work in books and articles by some of my favorite theologians, I have longed to spend some time exploring Teilhard’s purported brilliance. I have begun by reading “The Human Phenomenon” (often mistranslated from the French as “The Phenomenon of Man”). I’ve submerged myself in the delights and challenges of this enthralling work until my mind is about to explode (usually just a chapter or two at a sitting) and then I take a break by reading Ersula King’s  riveting biography: “Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin”. It has been a mind blowing day!

So many connections are emerging and I shall endeavor to post them as they escape from the quagmire of ideas that are swirling around in my brain. But as the Sabbath approaches I leave you with this playful tune from Peter Mayer which celebrates this blessed Ordinary Day in a way that complements this mystic moment!