Drew Christiansen
Lessons on spirit and matter
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Hymn to Matter” may be one of the oddest-seeming prayers ever penned by a priest. Christians pray to God, to the saints, to the angels perhaps, and sometimes to deceased loved ones. But a hymn to matter? To atoms and rocks, gases and plasma, minerals and stardust? It sounds like idolatry, and indeed as a boy the author of the hymn had such fascination with rocks that he referred to them as “my idols.” He explained, “as far as my childish experience went, nothing in the world was harder, heavier, tougher, more durable than this marvelous substance....” Soon, as he saw iron rust, he learned the impermanence of the hardest substance he then knew, and a spiritual hunger was born within him.

The prayer’s author, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a renowned paleontologist and geologist during his lifetime, became better known after his death as a philosopher of evolution and a spiritual writer. But the Jesuit priest never left his rocks behind. Just as discovery of their flaws had initiated him on a mystic quest for a permanent and universal object worthy of his devotion, so Teilhard believed that without matter—without the resistance, disappointments and challenges matter offered humans—our intellectual and spiritual development as a species would be arrested.

Harsh Schoolmaster

Teilhard’s “Hymn to Matter” praises the stuff of the universe as the harsh schoolmaster of the human spirit. “Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us,” he wrote, “we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God.”

“By constantly shattering our mental categories, you force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of truth,” he wrote. “By overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement [you] reveal to us the dimensions of God.” Matter, as Teilhard would write, is “‘the matrix of spirit’: that in which life emerges and is supported, not the active principle from which it takes its rise.”

Drawing on his personal, intellectual and spiritual itinerary as a natural scientist and priest, Teilhard regarded the recalcitrance of matter and the need for human effort to uncover its secrets as the starting point for spiritual growth. Whereas other Jesuit giants of the 20th century, like Pierre Rousselot, Joseph Maréchal and Karl Rahner, built their philosophical theologies on the mind’s inherent dynamism toward God, Teilhard found the hard effort of learning to be a privileged opening to the divine. The attention the scientist pays to the problem he or she studies is practice for the attention the mystic pays to God. In this discovery, Pierre Teilhard was like another French philosopher, Simone Weil, whose essay “On the Right Use of School Studies” argued that whether it was translating Homer or solving a problem in Euclidean geometry, study fostered the attention essential to prayer. The poised, energetic openness of the questioner possesses a kinship with the reverent, alert readiness of a person before God.

The Asceticism of Attention

In “Hymn to Matter,” Teilhard offered this blessing:

You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate: it is you, matter, that I bless.

Unlike some who believe that once they enter the world of thought they can leave the physical world behind, Teilhard proposed that the human spirit matures in its effort to understand (master and respect) the natural world. That understanding of the physical world, however, comes through a discipline the scientist must endure. Whether nature or human nature is the subject, applying one’s mind to a problem will involve hard effort (including, for a field scientist like Teilhard, physical effort), disappointment and disillusionment. Only then will one find joy in discovery and pleasure in the cumulative growth of understanding.

Insofar as the discipline of science helps us better appreciate God’s creation, Teilhard proposed, it is a kind of asceticism, a spiritual practice with potential to deepen the spiritual life. Traditional spirituality stressed control of the body through simplicity, fasting, chastity and physical discipline. For his part, Teilhard pointed out the discipline inherent in the active life and especially in the application of the mind to learning, a discipline he practiced in fieldwork as well as in museum and laboratory research: identifying and analyzing distinctive facts, classifying and relating findings, posing hypotheses and verifying or disproving them. As we Christians practice the mechanics of learning, our spirits can grow as well. As the élan of the learning mind awakens its particular excitement in the learner, the process of inquiry holds the potential to whet our appetite for the infinite mystery of existence.

One problem that afflicts us today, as it did in Teilhard’s time, is that there is often too little intellectual discipline on the part of those regarded as authorities in the spiritual life. They mistake the whole of faith with its most elementary expressions and regard question-and-answer catechizing as the equal of serious theology. No doubt, as Alfred North Whitehead wrote, religion takes place “at all temperatures” along a scale of human potentialities. Nonetheless, a richer intellectual life can often make for a richer spiritual experience and a profounder theology. Teilhard teaches us not only that the findings of science can add to our religious wonderment, but also that the scientific way of knowing can strengthen the mind’s ascent to God.

An Eye for Rocks—and for God

As a field scientist, Teilhard was reputed to have an exceptional eye for rocks, quickly noting features that escaped the observation of his colleagues and understanding their implications. It is not surprising, then, that whereas the ancient masters of prayer taught about freeing the mind of preoccupation the better to open it to the divine, Teilhard believed that the attention of science to the smallest detail of the physical world made the mind even more capax dei, “radically open to God.” The secret to the spiritual life, as to science, he believed, lies in unremitting attention to details. As we come to appreciate the richness and complexity of the universe, so does our perception grow of the glory of God.

Of course, other spiritual masters also emphasized paying attention to details. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little way,” for example, is about doing with devotion the small things of daily life. Teilhard’s way differs from that of Thérèse or that of the desert fathers, however, in two ways. First, it is about the active life, in which humans exercise their creativity and inventiveness. The creativity of the artist, the problem-solving of the scientist, the inventiveness of the computer engineer, the diagnosis of the physician—all give opportunity to grow in holiness as much as attention to the routines of the monastery or the sacristy.

Second, the attention to details relates especially to intellectual activity and pre-eminently scientific research. Scholarship about the Bible and the classics had held a role in Benedictine spirituality and later in Christian humanism, but science involves active investigation and more than that, revision of earlier ideas. As the mind meets the resistance of the material universe—rocks and atoms, genes and galaxies—“our mental categories” dissolve and “our narrow standards of measurement” are shattered. Research in the natural world weans us from preconceptions to which we would otherwise cling; and as we discover the endless wonders of the universe, the mind opens up to the unimagined dimensions of God.

Asceticism comes in applying ourselves to the learning, letting go of prejudices and obsolete theories and acquiring new skills. At first the development of the students’ minds involves rote learning, but the hope is that the atomic table and DNA become so natural that students can apply them in school exercises, design their own experiments, observe anomalies and finally verify their findings through replication. All stages—rote learning, application, experimentation, examining anomalies, verification—entail discipline. For the self-aware scientist or student, the effort it takes to prove a simple fact offers a hint of the dedication that growth in the spirit also requires. Likewise, for the believer and spiritual searcher, the practice of science should suggest the gradual growth of skills, including intellectual ones, that are entailed in the human cooperation with divine grace.

Moving Upward

In time Teilhard came to see matter in broad terms, not just as the object of physical science, but as everything in life that by giving us resistance helps us to move ahead, whether in knowledge, material progress or spiritual development. In The Divine Milieu he offered an illuminating analogy that is the key to the spiritual appreciation of matter. “It is the slope on which we can go up just as we can go down,” he wrote, “the medium that can uphold or give way, the wind that can overthrow and lift up.” Matter’s proper role is to be the road of sanctification. “Created things are not exactly obstacles but rather footholds, intermediaries to be made use of, nourishment to be taken, sap to be purified and elements to be associated with us and borne along with us” on our journey into light.

Matter is not a static thing. It is the book just read, the hypothesis confirmed or falsified. It is landlines, fax machines, modems and the Apple computer. It is Gandhi’s experiments with truth and the Tea Party movement. It is the past that has brought us forward and the past that has held us back. Matter is the toehold of the spirit in history. That toehold defines two zones:

the zone already left behind or arrived at, to which we should not return, or at which we should not pause, lest we fall back—this is the zone of matter in the material and carnal sense; and the zone offered to our renewed efforts toward progress, search, conquest and ‘divinization,’ the zone of matter taken in the spiritual sense; and the frontier between the two is essentially relative and shifting.

We must lean on the things of this world to move us forward or when they give way, we will tumble back. The spiritual appreciation of matter involves both counting on its resistance to hold us as we press ahead and expecting the exertion demanded of us to move upward. Both forces are necessary.

Like mountaineering, the spiritual life requires steady movement upward, Teilhard reflected. Unless the rock climber poised on her toehold moves forward, she will slip and fall back. “That which is good, sanctifying and spiritual for my brother below or beside me on the mountainside, can be misleading or bad for me,” Teilhard advises. “What I rightly allowed myself yesterday, I must perhaps deny myself today.”

How matter functions depends on the route of each person’s spiritual progress. What I make of the questions I face in my work, what I do with the events in my life, the opportunities I make of crises I encounter, all will determine how deeply I will participate (and the degree to which others share) in the divinization our world is undergoing in Christ. Like mountaineering, advance in the spiritual life depends on making upward progress, discovering, as Teilhard did, as we go that the matter of our life is “the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ.”

Listen to an interview with Drew Christiansen, S.J. To read this article in Spanish click here.

Drew Christiansen, S. J., editor in chief of America, prepared earlier versions of this essay for the United Methodist-Catholic Dialogue on Creation, Eucharist and Ecology (2009) and the Star Island Conference of t

Comments

GENEVA HAERTEL | 12/12/2010 - 11:42pm
Compared to the other reviewers, I am not able to comment on where Teihard de Chardin fits in the history of the church or where he ranks among other Jesuits. I do not recall having seen the word "monitum" before I read Father Christiansen's essay. Despite my limited familiarity with theology, I found the article a wonderful source of inspiration for those of us who work as scientists. I liked that way the scientific inquiry process-from the posing of questions to the replication of scientific findings-was characterized as a disciplined process, like that of spiritual growth. It is exciting to think about  the disciplined pursuit of scientific knowledge in the world and the act of prayer.  This essay opens my eyes about my life as a scientist. I want to thank Father Christiansen and America for publishing articles that speak to the scientific community. Thank you to the Jesuits for prodding us to think carefully about our lives.
LARRY | 12/12/2010 - 10:46am
I  deeply appreciated and enjoyed Drew Christiansen's fascinating essay on PierreTeilhard de Chardin's Hymn to Matter, as well as his relating Teilhard's spiritual appreciation of matter to Benedictine spirituality, and even to St. Therese of Lisieux's "little way."  But I was frankly surprised at his not mentioning St. Francis of Assisi as Teilhard's obviously kindred soul.  Francis' Hymn to Creatures, praising God for brother fire, and sister water, and brother Son and sister Moon (or brother Moon and sister Sun, as our German friends' grammar forces them to say) appear as close to Teilhard's Hymn to Matter as anything ever written except, perhaps, Merton's Seeds of Contemplation.
 
Richard T Rodriguez | 12/6/2010 - 12:44pm
What a wonderful grasp of Teilhard's though.  The image of mountain climbing and those to our side and those below us is profound, so too those ahead of us.
6466379 | 12/5/2010 - 9:34am
"On the Slope with Teilhard" what a marvelous essay by AMERICA Editor in Chief, Drew Christiansen, S.J. Teilhard is one of my heroes, along with Francis of Assisi with whom the saintly Jesuit shares community of thought-intent, esch in his own way. To the casual observer they seem so far apart, the poor beggar Francis and the super-great scientist Teilhard. But in heaven I'll bet both are exchanging notes, as they sing together, "Creatures big and small praise the Lord!" which is God's Word to Teilhard's "Hymn to Matter."

For Teilhard it was "Brother Rock" and for Francis of Assisi it was "Sister Moon" another kind of "rock!" Teilhard could say, materiality is "the matrix of spirit" ... "disolving our narrow standards of measurement" ... to "reveal to us the demensions of God!" Francis  of Assisi could say in his Canticle of the Sun, "Be praised my Lord for our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and rules us" ... revealing "the demensions of God."

All saints are totally Catholic - Francis of Assisi is the only one publicly proclaimed as such by the Church. Tielhard is also totally Catholic and as such many proclaim him as do I. Some think he is "misleading." I think he is a faithful servant of God awed by the mystery of God, the God he tried to understand and explain.   He prayed to die on Easter Sunday, the one day that totally authenticates Catholicism. He did die on Easter Sunday in NYC in 1955. Teilhard, a man of great Faith!
Charles Erlinger | 12/4/2010 - 3:33pm
Ref the following quote from the warning:

"For this reason, the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries as well as the superiors of Religious institutes, rectors of seminaries and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers."

I would have thought that since the teaching of critical thinking is synonymous with a university and, I would have assumed, a seminary, that those would be the last places that the Church would have singled out for special efforts to "protect the minds."  In fact, the university and seminary level is not where the teaching of critical thinking should start.  I know of extended learning programs that start that effort at the elementary level.
edward ayres | 12/4/2010 - 5:15am
Yes,monitum's,warnings.Both Henri De Lubac and Teilhard received such.De Lubac received one ,among others,for his book in 1962 on Teilhard. Talk about "the slow work of God,' in 1965  at the solemn concluding sesion of the Thomastic Congress de Lubac was asked to speak 'sympathetically' about Teilhard. The invitation was extended at the express wish of Pope Paul VI. Both De Lubac and Teilhard stayed and prayed during their troubles with the church. It is a good thing that Holy Mother the Church.like all mothers, has more than one breast for sustanance.
Jerry Felty | 12/3/2010 - 7:53pm
I haven't read much by Teilhard but I like that he didn't let the mysteries of creation dissuade him in his belief of the Creator. In fact, it apparently reinforced his belief. I bought a card in the gift shop when I was on retreat at The Abbey of Gethsemani because I liked the quote attributed to him. It says, "Above all, trust in the slow work of God." I framed it and hung it where I'd be sure to take daily notice. It's very encouraging during those times when I feel like my spirtitual progress is non-existent. I enjoyed the article for it provided me with some rich details of his life. As a field scientist he spent his life observing the slow work of God.
we vnornm | 12/3/2010 - 4:21pm
It is a very moving experience to visit Teilhard's grave in the St. Andrew's Jesuit Seminary, now cared for by the Culinary Institute of America, in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Just to the West flow the waters of the Hudson-the ageless wonder of water containing sturgeon fish whose DNA survived many of the eras Teilhard studied, the blueprint of these creatures whose ancestors swam these same waters while Tyranousarus and prey scampered around the landscape nearly unchanged, reminders of a form of life mostly disappeared since the emergence of mammals 65 million years ago-and as the "salt line" of the ocean water sometimes reaches this far uptide, looking at the high bluffs across the river shows the tremendous power of the water to create a sheer cliff, while simultaneously being gentle enough to carry the miniscule life code in the protoplasm of tiny creatures who survive into the future.

The "exhortation" noted above is not an order or command; Teilhard's discovery of Christ's immanence in the matter and energy of even the smallest parts of the universe is an inspiration to all. Perhaps I will bring a group of students to visit Teilhard's grave next semester. The site is especially beautiful in early Spirng.

bill van ornum

bill van ornum
LEONARD VILLA | 12/3/2010 - 2:52pm
When I was reading this and saw this hymn to rocks, I looked up the monitum:

On June 30, 1962, the Holy Office issued a monitum (warning) regarding the writings of Father Teilhard de Chardin. In 1981 the Holy See reiterated this warning against rumors that it no longer applied. Following is the text of both the monitum and the 1981 statement:

"Several works of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, some of which were posthumously published, are being edited and are gaining a good deal of success.

"Prescinding from a judgement about those points that concern the positive sciences, it is sufficiently clear that the above-mentioned works abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine.

"For this reason, the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries as well as the superiors of Religious institutes, rectors of seminaries and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers.