Friday, July 06, 2012

A universe on fire

I glanced up from my keyboard to see the spine of a book that has been sitting quietly on my shelf all these many years -– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's Hymn of the Universe, a slim compendium of the great paleontologist's mystical writings.

I take it down and browse. Here are the underlinings and marginal brackets from half a century ago. I was a young man, caught up in a deeply intellectual Catholicism –- a very European Catholicism –- and enchanted by Teilhard, by his passion, by his spirituality, by his love of science. Here, it seemed to me, was a way to reconcile the two great energies of my life, science and faith.

Teilhard was an evolutionist. He saw a universe evolving from a primeval fire. Radiant, blazing.
In the beginning was Power, intelligent, loving, energizing. In the beginning was the Word, supremely capable of mastering and moulding whatever might come into being in the world of matter. In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness: there was the Fire.
His universe is a universe of matter and energy, physical matter and energy, the matter and energy of the physicist. But it is more than that. It is matter and energy that embodies an awesome potentiality. "The whole universe is aflame," he exalts.

The image of fire runs through Teilhard's book like blood courses through the body. Nothing cold, or solid, or damp. Everything is in flux. Everything is becoming. "Let the starry immensities therefore expand into an ever more prodigious repository of assembled suns." His desire to immerse himself in the great unfolding, the blazing, continuing creation, is unquenchable.

And I was swept along.

Teilhard wedded his cosmic vision to Christianity, as did that other Jesuit poet/mystic Gerard Manley Hopkins. One senses, however, that they struggled within that constraint. Their fierce engagement with the world was too expansive to be bound by any merely human dogma. Christian imagery was fodder for their creativity; it was also a parochial limitation.

I soon enough left the Christology behind, but I see now as I peruse Hymn of the Universe that I owe a great debt to Teilhard. It was he who set the cold, dry equations of my physics texts alight. It was he who alerted me to the intensity and immensity of the great unfolding. It was he who kindled the fires that still illuminate my universe.