"In the beginning, there was not coldness and darkness: There was the fire," wrote the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin in The Mass on the World. "The flame has lit up the whole world from within...from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being."
It's been almost half a century since I first read those words in the early 1960s as a young graduate student in physics, but I remember the tingle they sent up my spine, the exhilaration. A world lit up from within! Oh, sure, I knew "fire" was a metaphor, but here was a metaphor that fed my sense of mystery, a flickering effervescence, permanent and ephemeral all at once, so different from the dry and static world of the physics texts. Mass on the world. Mass on the world! Teilhard offered a cosmic vision that resonated with the sensual Catholicism of my youth -- bread, wine, wax, flame, chrism, water, and incense wedded to the adamantine laws of nature I was learning in the classroom. This was the theology I had been waiting for, a God that was indistinguishable from the creation, a God that invited one into the creation, a God that could be approached through the senses -- sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. A God who lit up my physics texts from within.
Then, just a few years later, in 1965, physicists discovered the cosmic background radiation, the whisper of the big bang, the electromagnetic signature of the primeval fire. And Teilhard seemed to have anticipated it. Introibo ad altare Dei,, I will go into the altar of God. That gentle Jesuit mystic offered his Church a vision of divinity that rested well with the unfolding cosmology of the physicists. He died in 1955, in exile, with much of his life's work officially censored by the Church he had served. Near the end of his life, he wrote: "How is it possible that I am so incapable of passing on to others...the vision of the marvelous unity in which I find myself immersed?"