I recently read that Pope Benedict XVI had nice things to say about Teilhard de Chardin.
“Who’s he?” you ask.
Teilhard was a French Jesuit priest who died at age 73 in 1955. Like most Jesuits, he was an intellectual. A trained geologist and paleontologist, Teilhard excavated and studied early human fossils, including “Peking Man” in 1929. As he explored the earth, he sought to reconcile or merge his scientific understandings with his increasingly spiritual visions of the globe. He coined the term “biosphere” to talk of the earth as a single living organism. He spoke freely of evolution and theorized that the world was evolving toward an “Omega point.” Church fathers weren’t thrilled and censored his work, stopping just short of declaring him a heretic. So, that the pope would praise Teilhard’s vision of the cosmos as a “living host” is quite a leap.
So, why am I writing about Teilhard de Chardin?
Because Teilhard was also one of the 20th century’s most insightful chroniclers of war.
In January 1915, five months after Germany invaded France and days after his younger brother was killed in battle, the young Teilhard, a Jesuit-in-training, was inducted into the Army as a stretcher bearer for the North African Zouaves, a group of French colonial soldiers brought in from Morocco to fight in Europe. Teilhard traded the traditional French blue uniform for North African khaki and his kepi for a fez.
Most of the soldiers Teilhard served with were Muslim, and, despite the religious differences, they loved him. They called him “the honourable holy man” for the way he performed his duties under extreme privation, discomfort, and terrifying artillery attacks. He once said mass on his knees in a shallow muddy trench because standing up would expose him and his men to fire.
All remarked on his oddly calm demeanor in the trenches, especially when under attack. Most attributed it to his bravery. France awarded him several medals, including the most coveted one, the Legion of Honor. Teilhard accepted them but refused a commission as a chaplain. He chose to remain a corporal and litter bearer. “Let me stay with my men,” he pleaded.
In a series of extraordinary letters home to his cousin, Teilhard explained that it wasn’t courage that guided him through the deadly onslaughts of the trenches. Rather, he loved war. At the front, in the midst of terror, he found “a new existence,” one closer to death, closer to oneness, and closer to God.
It’s a disturbing idea, but one worth exploring. Some who have served in combat–like the great Ira Hayes of Flags of Our Fathers fame–didn’t want to leave the front and couldn’t live in the world outside of it. Why is this? In 1917, Teilhard tried to explain it to his cousin:
The front cannot but attract us because it is, in one way, the extreme boundary between what one is already aware of, and what is still in process of formation. Not only does one see there things that you experience nowhere else, but one also sees emerge from within one an underlying stream of clarity, energy, and freedom that is to be found hardly anywhere else in ordinary life – and the new form that the soul then takes on is that of the individual living the quasi-collective life of all men, fulfilling a function far higher than that of the individual, and becoming fully conscious of this new state. It goes without saying that at the front you no longer look on things in the same way as you do in the rear; if you did, the sights you see and the life you lead would be more than you could bear. This exaltation is accompanied by a certain pain. Nevertheless it is indeed an exaltation. And that’s why one likes the front in spite of everything, and misses it.
When I see our veterans at our next breakfast, I’ll think of these words. I’ll wonder if they approximate a feeling, perhaps buried deeply, that keeps our veterans coming back in memory to their war. Perhaps, for some, the unbearable pain and exaltation of that time calls to them. Perhaps that’s why they have to tell stories. I’ll think also of Teilhard’s final thoughts on war’s survivors:
The survivors of the Front retain in their hearts forever an empty place, so great that nothing visible will know any more how to fill it up. Let them say thereafter, to conquer their nostalgia, that it is still possible for them, in spite of appearances, to feel something of the life of the Front happening in them. Let them know it: the superhuman reality which manifested itself to them, among the shell holes and barbed wire, which will now draw itself back completely from the World at peace. It will always live in them, although more hidden. And those who can know it again, and be united there again with it, who can become free of day-to-day existence, are not being egotistical, as before, but religiously, with a will, pursue in God and for God, the great work of creation, and sanctification of a Humanity which is born especially in the hours of crisis, but which can only fulfill itself in peace.