“The Spiritual Power of Matter”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a paleontologist who worked in the second quarter of the 20th century.  He was involved in some of the groundbreaking discoveries of the evidence for human evolution.  He was also a Jesuit priest and a Christian mystic.  His writing displays with great poetic intensity his vision of the mystical dimensions that scientific knowledge was opening for him.

Hymn of the Universe is a collection of his essays written at various times in his life, published posthumously in Paris as Hymne de l’Univers, Editions de Seuil, 1961.  They were translated from the French by Simon Bartholomew and published by Harper & Row in 1965. 

The selection that follows is the third section of that book reproduced in its entirety, pp. 59-71.  (The essay was published again in 1978 by Harcourt as Teilhard himself had suggested: as an appendix to the central essay “The Heart of Matter” in the book of the same title.)  “The Spiritual Power of Matter” was written in 1919 after his service as a stretcher bearer in the French army during WWI.  It represents a stage in his spiritual development that preceded the bulk of his scientific work and the full evolutionary vision elaborated in The Phenomenon of Man.  There are strong echoes in this piece of Henri Bergson, who was immensely popular in those years, particularly in the dualist imagery suggesting that matter is a foil for “spirit” providing an essential resistance without which “spirit” could not achieve its full potential.  I consider those metaphysical underpinnings flawed and untenable.  Nevertheless, I believe they represent a somewhat healthier development beyond the Platonic-Cartesian “substance dualism” (spiritism / mechanistic reductionism) that still dominates our culture after 2500 years.  Many today would benefit from taking a similar transitional step.

But this selection is not metaphysics; it is autobiographical poetry.  It should not be read for its theoretical assumptions but rather for its affective attitude and all-embracing imagery.  As poetry it is metaphor, allegory, myth and intimately personal.  The reader will appreciate the immense step forward in the relationship with the material universe that this extraordinary Christian had taken; and read with an understanding of the times and the state of Roman Catholicism, it can continue to inspire us, almost a century later, as we ourselves in our time and with our lights, seek to plumb the numinous depths of the mystery of matter.

 The Spiritual Power of Matter

And as they went on walking and talking together, behold a fiery chariot and fiery horses parted them both asunder; and of a sudden Elias was caught up by a whirlwind into heaven.  (THE BOOK OF KINGS)

The man was walking in the desert, followed by his companion, when the Thing swooped down on him.

From afar it had appeared to him, quite small, gliding over the sand, no bigger than the palm of a child’s hand — as a pale, fleeting shadow like a wavering flight of quail over the blue sea before sunrise or a cloud of gnats dancing in the sun at evening or a whirlwind of dust at midday sweeping over the plain.

The Thing seemed to take no heed of the two travelers, and was roaming capriciously through the wilderness. Then, suddenly, it assumed a set course and with the speed of an arrow came straight at them.

And then the man perceived that the little pale cloud of vapor was but the center of an infinitely greater reality moving towards them without restriction, formless, boundless. The Thing as it approached them spread outwards with prodigious rapidity as far as his eye could reach, filling the whole of space, while its feet brushed lightly over the thorny vegetation beside the torrent, its brow rose in the sky like a golden mist with the reddening sun behind it. And all about it the ether had become alive, vibrating palpably beneath the crude substance of rock and plants as in summer the landscape quivers behind the overheated soil in the foreground.

What was advancing towards them was the moving heart of an immeasurable pervasive subtlety.

The man fell prostrate to the ground; and hiding his face in his hands he waited.

A great silence fell around him.

Then, suddenly, a breath of scorching air passed across his forehead, broke through the barrier of his closed eyelids, and penetrated his soul. The man felt that he was ceasing to be merely himself; an irresistible rapture took possession of him as though all the sap of all living things, flowing at one and the same moment into the too narrow confines of his heart, was mightily refashioning the enfeebled fibers of his being. And at the same time the anguish of some superhuman peril oppressed him, a confused feeling that the force which had swept down upon him was equivocal, turbid, the combined essence of all evil and all goodness.

The hurricane was within himself.

And now, in the very depths of the being it had invaded, the tempest of life, infinitely gentle, infinitely brutal, was murmuring to the one secret point in the soul which it had not altogether demolished:

‘You called me: here I am. Driven by the Spirit far from humanity’s caravan routes, you dared to venture into the untouched wilderness; grown weary of abstractions, of attenuations, of the wordiness of social life, you wanted to pit yourself against Reality entire and untamed.

‘You had need of me in order to grow; and I was waiting for you in order to be made holy.

‘Always you have, without knowing it, desired me; and always I have been drawing you to me.

‘And now I am established on you for life, or for death. You can never go back, never return to commonplace gratifications or untroubled worship. He who has once seen me can never forget me: he must either damn himself with me or save me with himself.

‘Are you coming?’

‘O you who are divine and mighty, what is your name? Speak.’

‘I am the fire that consumes and the water that overthrows; I am the love that initiates and the truth that passes away. All that compels acceptance and all that brings renewal; all that breaks apart and all that binds together; power, experiment, progress — matter: all this am I.

‘Because in my violence I sometimes slay my lovers; because he who touches me never knows what power he is unleashing, wise men fear me and curse me. They speak of me with scorn, calling me beggar-woman or witch or harlot; but their words are at variance with life, and the Pharisees who condemn me, waste away in the outlook to which they confine themselves; they die of inanition and their disciples desert them because I am the essence of all that is tangible, and men cannot do without me.

‘You who have grasped that the world — the world beloved of God — has, even more than individuals, a soul to be redeemed, lay your whole being wide open to my inspiration, and receive the spirit of the earth which is to be saved.

‘The supreme key to the enigma, the dazzling utterance which is inscribed on my brow and which henceforth will burn into your eyes even though you close them, is this: Nothing is precious save what is yourself in others and others in yourself . In heaven, all things are but one. In heaven all is one.

‘Come, do you not feel my breath uprooting you and carrying you away? Up, man of God, and make haste. For according to the way a man surrenders himself to it, the whirlwind will either drag him down into the darkness of its depths or lift him up into the blue skies. Your salvation and mine hang on this first moment.

‘O you who are matter: my heart, as you see, is trembling. Since it is you, tell me: what would you have me do?’

‘Take up your arms, O Israel, and do battle boldly against me.

The wind, having at first penetrated and pervaded him stealthily, like a philter, had now become aggressive, hostile.

From within its coils it exhaled now the acrid stench of battle.

The musky smell of forests, the feverish atmosphere of cities, the sinister, heady scent that rises up from nations locked in battle: all this writhed within its folds, a vapor gathered from the four corners of the earth.

The man, still prostrate, suddenly started, as though his flesh had felt the spur: he leapt to his feet and stood erect, facing the storm.

It was the soul of his entire race that had shuddered within him: an obscure memory of a first sudden awakening in the midst of beasts stronger, better-armed than he; a sad echo of the long struggle to tame the corn and to master the fire; a rancorous dread of the maleficent forces of nature, a lust for knowledge and possession . . .

A moment ago, in the sweetness of the first contact, he had instinctively longed to lose himself in the warm wind which enfolded him.

Now, this wave of bliss in which he had all but melted away was changed into a ruthless determination towards increased being.

The man had scented the enemy, his hereditary quarry.

He dug his feet into the ground, and began his battle.

He fought first of all in order not to be swept away; but then he began to fight for the joy of fighting, the joy of feeling his own strength. And the longer he fought, the more he felt an increase of strength going out from him to balance the strength of the tempest, and from the tempest there came forth in return a new exhalation which flowed like fire into his veins.

As on certain nights the sea around a swimmer will grow luminous, and its eddies will glisten the more brightly under the sturdy threshing of his limbs, so the dark power wrestling with the man was lit up with a thousand sparkling lights under the impact of his onslaught.

In a reciprocal awakening of their opposed powers, he stirred up his utmost strength to achieve the mastery over it, while it revealed all its treasures in order to surrender them to him.

‘Son of earth, steep yourself in the sea of matter, bathe in its fiery waters, for it is the source of your life and your youthfulness.

‘You thought you could do without it because the power of thought has been kindled in you? You hoped that the more thoroughly you rejected the tangible, the closer you would be to spirit: that you would be more divine if you lived in the world of pure thought, or at least more angelic if you fled the corporeal? Well, you were like to have perished of hunger.

‘You must have oil for your limbs, blood for your veins, water for your soul, the world of reality for your intellect: do you not see that the very law of your own nature makes these a necessity for you?

‘Never, if you work to live and to grow, never will you be able to say to matter, “I have seen enough of you; I have surveyed your mysteries and have taken from them enough food for my thought to last me forever.” I tell you: even though, like the Sage of sages, you carried in your memory the image of all the beings that people the earth or swim in the seas, still all that knowledge would be as nothing for your soul, for all abstract knowledge is only a faded reality: this is because to understand the world knowledge is not enough, you must see it, touch it, live in its presence and drink the vital heat of existence in the very heart of reality.

‘Never say, then, as some say: “The kingdom of matter is worn out, matter is dead”: till the very end of time matter will always remain young, exuberant, sparkling, new-born for those who are willing.

‘Never say, “Matter is accursed, matter is evil”: for there has come one who said, “You will drink poisonous draughts and they shall not harm you”, and again, “Life shall spring forth out of death”, and then finally, the words which spell my definitive liberation, “This is my body”.

‘Purity does not lie in separation from, but in a deeper penetration into the universe. It is to be found in the love of that unique, boundless Essence which penetrates the inmost depths of all things and there, from within those depths, deeper than the mortal zone where individuals and multitudes struggle, works upon them and moulds them. Purity lies in a chaste contact with that which is “the same in all”.

‘Oh, the beauty of spirit as it rises up adorned with all the riches of the earth!

‘Son of man, 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.’

Standing amidst the tempest, the man turned his head, looking for his companion.

And in that same moment he perceived a strange metamorphosis: the earth was simultaneously vanishing away yet growing in size.

It was vanishing away, for here, immediately beneath him, the meaningless variations in the terrain were diminishing and dissolving; on the other hand it was growing ever greater, for there in the distance the curve of the horizon was climbing ceaselessly higher.

The man saw himself standing in the center of an immense cup, the rim of which was closing over him.

And then the frenzy of battle gave place in his heart to an irresistible longing to submit: and in a flash he discovered, everywhere present around him, the one thing necessary.

Once and for all he understood that, like the atom, man has no value save for that part of himself which passes into the universe. He recognized with absolute certainty the empty fragility of even the noblest theorizings as compared with the definitive plenitude of the smallest fact grasped in its total, concrete reality.

He saw before his eyes, revealed with pitiless clarity, the ridiculous pretentiousness of human claims to order the life of the world, to impose on the world the dogmas, the standards, the conventions of man.

He tasted, sickeningly, the triteness of men’s joys and sorrows, the mean egoism of their pursuits, the insipidity of their passions, the attenuation of their power to feel.

He felt pity for those who take fright at the span of a century or whose love is bounded by the frontiers of a nation.

So many things which once had distressed or revolted him — the speeches and pronouncements of the learned, their assertions and their prohibitions, their refusal to allow the universe to move — all seemed to him now merely ridiculous, non-existent, compared with the majestic reality, the flood of energy, which now revealed itself to him: omnipresent, unalterable in its truth, relentless in its development, untouchable in its serenity, maternal and unfailing in its protectiveness.

Thus at long last he had found a point d’appui, he had found refuge, outside the confines of human society.

A heavy cloak slipped from his shoulders and fell to the ground behind him: the dead weight of all that is false, narrow, tyrannical, all that is artificially contrived, all that is merely human in humanity.

A wave of triumph freed his soul.

And he felt that henceforth nothing in the world would ever be able to alienate his heart from the greater reality which was now revealing itself to him, nothing at all:

neither the intrusiveness and individualist separatism of human beings (for these qualities in them he despised) nor the heavens and the earth in their height and breadth and depth and power (for it was precisely to these that he was now dedicating himself for ever).

A deep process of renewal had taken place within him: now it would never again be possible for him to be human save on another plane. Were he to descend again now to the everyday life of earth — even though it were to rejoin his faithful companion, still prostrate over there on the desert sand — he would henceforth be forever a stranger.

Yes, of this he was certain: even for his brothers in God, better men than he, he would inevitably speak henceforth in an incomprehensible tongue, he whom the Lord had drawn to follow the road of fire. Even for those he loved the most his love would be henceforth a burden, for they would sense his compulsion to be forever seeking something behind themselves.

Because matter, throwing off its veil of restless movement and multiplicity, had revealed to him its glorious unity, chaos now divided him from other men. Because it had forever withdrawn his heart from all that is merely local or individual, all that is fragmentary, henceforth for him it alone in its totality would be his father and mother, his family, his race, his unique, consuming passion.

And not a soul in the world could do anything to change this.

Turning his eyes resolutely away from what was receding from him, he surrendered himself, in superabounding faith, to the wind which was sweeping the universe onwards.

And now in the heart of the whirling cloud a light was growing, a light in which there was the tenderness and the mobility of a human glance; and from it there spread a warmth which was not now like the harsh heat radiating from a furnace but like the opulent warmth which emanates from a human body. What had been a blind and feral immensity was now becoming expressive and personal; and its hitherto amorphous expanses were being moulded into features of an ineffable face.

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.

The man fell to his knees in the fiery chariot which was bearing him away.

And he spoke these words:

HYMN TO MATTER

‘Blessed be you, harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock: you who yield only to violence, you who force us to work if we would eat.
‘Blessed be you, perilous matter, violent sea, untamable passion: you who unless we fetter you will devour us.

‘Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.

‘Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards or measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.

‘Blessed be you, impenetrable matter: you who, interposed between our minds and the world of essences, cause us to languish with the desire to pierce through the seamless veil of phenomena.

‘Blessed be you, mortal matter: you who one day will undergo the process of dissolution within us and will thereby take us forcibly into the very heart of that which exists.

‘Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us, we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.

‘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.

‘You I acclaim as the inexhaustible potentiality for existence and transformation wherein the predestined substance germinates and grows.

‘I acclaim you as the universal power which brings together and unites, through which the multitudinous monads are bound together and in which they all converge on the way of the spirit.

‘I acclaim you as the melodious fountain of water whence spring the souls of men and as the limpid crystal whereof is fashioned the new Jerusalem.

‘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.

‘Sometimes, thinking they are responding to your irresistible appeal, men will hurl themselves for love of you into the exterior abyss of selfish pleasure-seeking: they are deceived by a reflection or by an echo.

‘This I now understand.

‘If we are ever to reach you, matter, we must, having first established contact with the totality of all that lives and moves here below, come little by little to feel that the individual shapes of all we have laid hold on are melting away in our hands, until finally we are at grips with the single essence of all subsistencies and all unions.

‘If we are ever to possess you, having taken you rapturously in our arms, we must then go on to sublimate you through sorrow.

‘Your realm comprises those serene heights where saints think to avoid you — but where your flesh is so transparent and so agile as to be no longer distinguishable from spirit.

‘Raise me up then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, purified, it becomes possible for me to embrace the universe.’

Down below on the desert sands, now tranquil again, someone was weeping and calling out: ‘My Father, my Father! What wild wind can this be that has borne him away?’

And on the ground there lay a cloak.

Jersey, 8th August 1919

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4 comments on ““The Spiritual Power of Matter”

  1. Bob Willis says:

    Tony,

    I was in my second year of philosophy studies. A notice came out from Rome that we Jesuits were not to read the writings of a fellow Jesuit, Fr. de Chardin. His thinking was, it intoned, dangerous. So I went to our librarian and asked for his latest book, The Phenomenon of Man. The illustrious official growled back, “You can’t read that; it’s in hell!”

    My sister was in her undergraduate studies at nearby Gonzaga (in Spokane). She got a copy in its bookstore and had it to me by the next weekend. As we were going into our annual eight-day retreat, I had to attend the sonorous droning of meditation points; the rest of the time I read Chardin! What a treat that was!–the kind of retreat that could only be termed an advance!

    For the last five years, as you know, I have been battling lymphoma. It has swept over me with a whirlwind, hot and burning and all-consuming. At first the temptation was to lie down and let it absorb me: I was not big enough for the combat. Gradually, I got up and did battle. I wanted to escape the hot embrace. With time, I have come to see that both the embrace and the battle are the very means of becoming more me. I am even, at times, able to pray, “Raise me up, then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, purified, it becomes possible for me to embrace the universe.”

    Whatever the path, whatever the fight, I hope for the day when my cloak lies alone yet one with and on the ground. Bob

    • tonyequale says:

      Bob,

      Thanks for your very moving reflections. Some say life and death are the same thing. I can understand why they might say that. But it must be a metaphor for our ability to embrace reality, for from a literal point of view they are not. It’s good to fight for life and refuse “to go gently into that dark night.” And it’s good to surrender when it’s time. There’s a time for everything under the sun.

      Tony

  2. rharding0728 says:

    Hi Tony.
    I am much delayed in responding: 1.Having severe computer issues. 2 Found myself unwittingly caught up in a WordPress account. Pushed the wrong buttons I guess. My previous comment on Nice Guy Francis came out only as a “like” and I have no idea what happend to the text. 3. Maybe it was a chance remark you left about my project that has been a WIP for many years, now being in need of attention. Happily, I have finished most of the text writing and the meditation slides and have the whole thing roughed out, waiting for my daughters and sister to add much needed technical and organizational finess.
    That alone has eaten up about 4 weeks of constant attention. More good news is that my computer issues have been resolved.
    In the mean time, you have dealt a whole new hand and upped the ante.
    Funny that when I finished reading the Francis thing, I was responding (in my lost commentary) in terms of trusting in the evolutionary process to do its work and our real challenge is to mindfully watch, ecourage other spectators to observe and respond as they see fit, but above all, I think, trust that the process will work in its own way even if a mutation is the only answer.
    Evolution is nothing if not unpredictable, at least in our current state of scientific advancement. I totally respect what so many thinkers have contributed to the dialogue, especially your determined effort to wake up the sleeping giant of today’s over-churched, faithful to the message, believers.
    I began thinking about de Chadin for the first time in years. I was rather taken by his ideas when I was a young seminarian, but could not make good use of them in the climate I was immersed in. That was in the early 60,s and I was concerned about being a good son of the church. OY.
    In the end, the change will happen and only the universe itself will know why and how. I’m focused on a whole different deck of cards, guess, hoping to enjoy the game itself, realizing that it is a game and the language of the game is not always understood, even by the most gifted players.
    With what little I do have, I guess I’m all in. Dick H.

    • tonyequale says:

      Dick, hi!

      I’m reading these days on the Arian dispute that initiated “Catholicism,” and I have been struck by what an innovation the homoousios was. Against the background of our formation which froze tradition and turned it into revelation itself, it was kind of shocking to see how cavalier fourth century theologians were about creating new ways of talking about “God.” As I read on I realized that “God” was very secondary to their prime concern — the Church … which is another way of saying “themselves.” The recent 50 year rejection of Vatican II displayed the same attitude. Doctrine is secondary in itself. It’s important only because it symbolizes what we think about ourselves. So doctrine must change (evolve) not because we are now finally in possession of the “truth,” but because we need to assert that “religious truth” serves us, we don’t serve it. “The Sabbath was made for man … ” That is definitely a different concept of “Church” than the one we learned at our mother’s knee.

      Tony

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