Teilhard de Chardin entered the Jesuit novitiate in France in March 1899. Teilhard’s training as a Jesuit provided him with the thoughtful stimulation to continue his devotion both to scientific investigation of the earth and to cultivation of a life of prayer. Here he further developed the ascetic piety that he had learned in his reading at home. Teilhard entered the Jesuits at a time of high conflict between the Catholic Church and the government of the French Third Republic. According to Robert Speaight: “Every religious institution in France was at this time a redoubt of orthodoxy and, almost necessarily, of political reaction. Militant atheism was not only in the air, but in the government.” The French government passed the 1901 Law on Associations, which resulted in many hardships for Catholic institutions. Tens of thousands of clerics, including the Jesuits, choose to leave France for the English island of Jersey.
However, prior to leaving France, Teilhard took his first vows as a Jesuit in March 1901. He wrote to his parents:
“At last I’m a Jesuit . . . if you only knew the joy I feel now that I have at least given myself completely and forever to the Society, particularly at a time when it is being persecuted.”
Teilhard was remain faithful to his vows to the Society of Jesus and the Catholic Church, sometimes at great personal cost.
Around this time Teilhard’s family suffered a series of tragedies. In September 1902, his eldest brother, Albéric, a naval officer, died of tuberculosis. Around this time, his younger sister Marguerite-Marie (also known as Guigite) became permanently bedridden after an attack of pleurisy. Two years later his sister Louise died of meningitis at the age of 12. During this period of tragedy, Teilhard momentarily turned his gaze away from the world towards the meaning of life and suffering. Teilhard indicates that but for Paul Trossard, his former novice master who encouraged him to follow science as a legitimate way to God, he would have discontinued those studies in favor of theology.
Teilhard spent the next three years (1905-1908) teaching physics and chemistry at the Jesuit college of St. Francis in Cairo, Egypt. Teilhard’s naturalist inclinations were developed through prolonged forays into the countryside near Cairo studying the existing flora and fauna and also the fossils of Egypt’s past. While Teilhard carried on his teaching assignments assiduously he also made time for extensive collecting of fossils and for correspondence with naturalists in Egypt and France. His collected Letters from Egypt reveal a person with keen observational powers. In 1907 Teilhard published his first article, “A Week in Fayoum.” He also learned in 1907 that due to his finds of shark teeth in Fayoum and in the quarries around Cairo a new species named Teilhardia and three new varieties of shark had been presented to the Geological Society of France by his French correspondent, Monseur Prieur.
From Teilhard’s letters during his period in Egypt, suggest that Teilhard was starting his intellectual and spiritual synthesis of science and revealed truth. According to Robert Speaight:
“If Teilhard thought about these matters, he does not say so. His piety finds an unforced expression in devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the Sacred Heart. Although he is sometimes called upon for a sermon, he would rather teach than preach. The impression throughout is of a searching eye and sympathetic heart rather than a questing mind. But these appearances were deceptive. Behind the world of physics he felt the essential matter of his childish dreams and now, in the spring of his vocation, he vowed that he would ‘force the secret of its mysterious gravity.’ “
These ideas would begin to germinate when Teilhard returned to England to continue his theological studies.