The Dead Beat: Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest who tried to reconcile science and religion

Teilhard, who died in 1955 at the age of 73, is buried in a small private cemetery on the grounds of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA); those grounds were owned until 1970 by the Society of Jesus, the formal name of the Jesuit order. (photo by Jeremiah Horrigan)

No one dies without leaving a story for us to discover and savor. The Dead Beat intends to search out, find and report those stories. The story may reside in a survivor’s heart or a victim’s last words. It may be legend or it may be fact. It may be recorded in stone or on yellowing newsprint. It may warm the heart or break it. It may explain a lifetime or illuminate a single moment in that lifetime. It may tell us more about the living than the dead, more about ourselves and the way we live than the way that others have died. 

He was a man ahead of his time: a Jesuit priest, a paleontologist and a philosopher whose writings tried to reconcile science and religion. It’s a battle that goes on today and may never be resolved. But when the history of that battle is written, the name of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin will loom large.

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Teilhard, who died in 1955 at the age of 73, is buried in a small private cemetery on the grounds of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA); those grounds were owned until 1970 by the Society of Jesus, the formal name of the Jesuit order. The main building of what had been the order’s novitiate, St. Andrew-on-Hudson, is now the CIA’s Roth Hall.

The cemetery has a simple, solemn look that can only be compared to Arlington National Cemetery, though on a much smaller scale. Uniform rows of several hundred bleached-white marble headstones stand in close-order rows. The headstones all carry basic information: the date of birth and date of death, the information rendered in Latin.

Despite the cemetery’s uniformity, Teilhard’s headstone was easy to find last week; it was the only one graced by a Christmas wreath. A dozen or so small stones also rested atop the headstone: a practice with ancient Jewish roots that may reflect Teilhard’s ecumenical appeal.

A Bearsville couple have been instrumental in keeping Teilhard’s teachings alive locally. More about Jaqueline and Pierre Francois in a bit.

Teilhard is sometimes called the Father of the New Age: a description that relies on his optimistic view of the world and where mankind was bound. If that sounds like a dubious honor, here’s what a hard-headed Catholic intellectual and author of her day had to say him: “It is doubtful,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, “if any Christian of this century can be fully aware of his religion until he has seen it in the cosmic light which Teilhard has cast upon it.”

Author William Peter Blatty said that he modeled the character of Father Merrin, the elderly priest/paleontologist played by his lookalike, actor Max von Sydow, in the screen adaptation of Blatty’s best-seller, The Exorcist, on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. More recently, Teilhard’s reputation has been polished by such eminent authorities as Pope Francis. (Archives des jésuites de France)

By all accounts, the modesty of Teilhard’s final resting place perfectly suited his personality. That modesty, and his ability to withstand the relentless questioning and censoring of his writings by his religious superiors, were sorely tested throughout his life. He may have been the quietest, most obedient religious rebel of the last century.

Teilhard was a young priest when he witnessed World War I as a stretcher-bearer. He was later awarded the Legion of Honor for his valor. It was on the battlefield, he later wrote, that he had his first “meeting…with the Absolute.”  His religious, not to say spiritual and perhaps mystical, life never waned as he became more and more fascinated with exploring the origins of man through the twin lenses of his Christianity and science.

In the years following the war, religion and science were thought, by both camps, to be antipathetic, to say the least. Teilhard begged to differ. It was his contention, written in several books over the ensuing decades, that mankind was fated to spiral toward a final point of “divine unification” that he called “the Omega Point.” He argued (and none of his superiors agreed) that this Omega Point resembled the Christian Logos – Christ – who drew all things to him, who, in the words of the Nicene Creed, was “true God from true God.”

Teilhard’s magnum opus, The Phenomenon of Man, was finally published after being banned by the Church and even his usually-more-liberal Jesuit superiors during his lifetime. Years later, as the ’60s rolled through Western culture and anything mystical found a home in the minds and hearts of young people searching for new ways, his book became an underground classic. More exactly, the saintly Teilhard joined the decade’s panoply of rebellious cultural heroes. In 1967, no less an authority than bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a popular TV evangelist, called Teilhard “the spiritual genius of the 20th century.”

Teilhard made his way into the culture without many people noticing: Author William Peter Blatty said that he modeled the character of Father Merrin, the elderly priest/paleontologist played by his lookalike, actor Max von Sydow, in the screen adaptation of Blatty’s best-seller, The Exorcist, on Teilhard. More recently, Teilhard’s reputation has been polished by such eminent (not to say infallible) authorities as both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Bearsville residents Pierre Francois and his wife Jacqueline discovered and fell in love with Teilhard’s works more than a decade ago. Pierre, who died last summer, was director of International Education at SUNY-New Paltz during the 1970s; Jacqueline has taught French at SUNY and at high schools throughout the region.

Jacqueline Francois has become a student of Teilhard’s teachings, which are preserved and studied by several international societies such as the Teilhard Project: groups devoted to keeping his work alive. “It was incredible what he accomplished, despite being censored all his life,” she said last week.

The couple launched an effort, on the 60th anniversary of his death, to arrange a visit to his gravesite by Pope Francis. They cited Teilhard’s “profound love of God and a profound love of the natural elements of the Earth” as reasons for commemorating the priest. Such a visit, they said, would also provide “compensation for all that Father Teilhard endured during his lifetime.” “The visit was not to be,” Jacqueline said.

Teilhard has returned to what her husband called “the natural elements of the Earth,” and that’s what she intends to cultivate, happily, at the priest’s gravesite. For more than a decade, she and her husband have tended Teilhard’s grave. It was she who placed the Christmas wreath that will lie there until she refreshes the site with a springtime arrangement.

On her husband’s memorial card, Jacqueline has included the couple’s favorite quotation of Teilhard’s, a quotation written in 1936 that gives a sweet, small indication of the man’s thoughts and the reason why those thoughts have survived for so long: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

No one dies without leaving a story for us to discover and savor. The Dead Beat intends to search out, find and report those stories. The story may reside in a survivor’s heart or a victim’s last words. It may be legend or it may be fact. It may be recorded in stone or on yellowing newsprint. It may warm the heart or break it. It may explain a lifetime or illuminate a single moment in that lifetime. It may tell us more about the living than the dead, more about ourselves and the way we live than the way that others have died.

There is one comment

  1. (Msgr.) Andy Varga

    Thank you for a beautiful article, especially as our parish is presenting on March 25 a one-day Lenten retreat on Teilhard and the Divine Milieu given by Sr. Kathleen Deignan, CND, PhD, Professor of Religious / Environmental Studies at Iona College.

    FYI: The headstone of every Jesuit is engraved identically. The middle line, “Ingressus,” records the date that he entered the Society. Thus, whether a Jesuit is ordained a priest or not, they are all equals in terms of having professed their vows.

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