You had need of me in order to grow; and I was waiting for you in order to be made holy.I have written often here of Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest, mystic, anthropologist, and an intellectual hero of my youth. I am no longer as taken with his Christocentric theology, but I still stand in awe of what he was trying to do -- to drag the Church kicking and screaming into the 20th century. For his trouble he was silenced and exiled, protesting in a letter, "If only Rome would start to doubt herself at last, a little!"
His greatest legacy, it seems to me, was his attempt to redeem matter from the contempt in which it was held by official theology, which -- caught up in an unnatural philosophical dualism -- placed matter over and against the divine. Matter/spirit, natural/supernatural, body/soul: Has ever a philosophical concept led to such strife and mischief?
Near the end of his life, Teilhard 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?"
One of the most moving of Teilhard's essays is "The Spiritual Power of Matter" in The Hymn of the Universe. Those who denigrate science for its supposed commitment to "Godless materialism" -- and they are many -- could do well to read these allegorical pages, in which Teilhard envisions the evolving universe of matter lit up from within by a redeeming power that is not be be separated from its corporeal embodiment. It is matter -- for Teilhard, divine matter -- who speaks the line with which I began this post.
When Teilhard spoke the words of consecration, "This is my body," he was not invoking a magical transubstantiation, but rather acknowledging liturgically "the beauty of spirit as it rises up adorned with all the riches of the earth." We are flesh and blood, through and through, in our most profound essence, says Teilhard; without matter we do not exist. And, he adds, it is our responsibility as religious creatures to make matter holy.
(This post originally appeared in November 2007.)