Teilhard de Chardin arrived in China for the second time in 1926. At first, he was utterly miserable in China. Teilhard felt he had been exiled to a remote wilderness and that he was going to be unable to achieve his life’s goal of using the knowledge from science to make Christian theology and Christianity itself stronger.
Between June and August 1926, Teilhard traveled with Licent across the provinces of Shansi and Kansu, within the range of Chinese Tibet. In November 1926, being unable to preach or publish his theology in Paris, Teilhard began writing The Divine Milieu, which, along with The Phenomenon of Man (or The Human Phenomenon, depending on the translation used), is one of his two most comprehensive writings. As Teilhard wrote to his cousin Marguerite:
“I have finally decided to write my book on the spiritual life. I mean to put down as simply as possible the sort of ascetical or mystical teaching that I have been living and preaching so long. . . I am being careful to include nothing esoteric and the minimum of explicit philosophy . . . I want to write it slowly, quietly – living it and meditating on it like a prayer.”
Unlike some of Teilhard’s other writings such as The Phenomenon of Man which were written for both Christian and non-Christian audiences, The Divine Milieu was clearly intended as a theological work. In it, Teilhard frequently uses Christian terminology such as God, Christ and Our Lord. It is joyful, hopeful, and full of enthusiasm, as any Christian spirituality should be. It expresses a love for nature, a delight in scientific discoveries, a rejoicing in human progress, and an underlying almost childlike trust in a benevolent universe evolving in the unconditional love of a benevolent and all-loving and all-forgiving God.
Teilhard de Chardin chose the expression “the divine milieu” to describe the diffuse presence and influence of God at all levels of created reality, and in all areas of human existence. One can think of it as a field of divine energy that has one central focus (God) from which everything flows, is animated and is directed.
Teilhard de Chardin has two goals with The Divine Milieu, both of which were deeply influenced by his Ignatian training. First, in the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a belief among some Catholics and other Christians that in order to be “holy” one had to devote himself or herself to purely religious activity and that secular work had no lasting value. Teilhard de Chardin, consistent with the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things”, wanted to demonstrate that secular work (including his own scientific work) was an integral element of creation and the Incarnation, so that for religious reasons, Christians should be committed to whatever work they were doing and offering it up for the service of God. Teilhard wants to show how all of our human activities and efforts toward personal growth and human progress can be used to help the growth and development of the Body of Christ. Not only are our efforts useful in this regard, but they are also somehow necessary. Even though we perform these actions as ordinary human beings, and they look like ordinary human actions, they are simultaneously being transformed in the divine milieu and become actions done in, with, and through Christ.
Second, Teilhard de Chardin wanted to capture the universal influence of Christ through God’s Incarnation in the world. Teilhard used the writings of St. Paul and St. John the Evangelist to capture the full cosmic understanding of the incarnation that transcended beyond the Incarnation in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the course of a few centuries, human understanding of the universe changed from a geocentric single-planet universe to a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies and an infinitely large number of planets. Teilhard wanted our understanding of God to similarly expand from the “Old Man in the Sky” concept of early centuries to the incredible Mind that could create such a large, organized and beautiful universe. For Teilhard “the great mystery of Christianity is not exactly the appearance, but the transparence, of God in the universe. Yes, Lord, not only the ray that strikes the surface, but the ray that penetrates, not your Epiphany, Jesus, but your disphany”. As Teilhard stated:
“Across the immensity of time and the disconcerting multiplicity of individuals, one single operation is taking place: the annexation of Christ to His chosen; one single thing is being made: the Mystical Body of Christ, starting from all the sketchy spiritual powers scattered throughout the world. . . Our salvation is not pursued or achieved except in solidarity with the justification of the whole ‘body of the elect’. In a real sense, only one man will be saved: Christ, the head and living summary of humanity. Each one of the elect is called to see God face to face. . .
Our individual mystical effort awaits an essential completion in its union with the mystical effort of all other men. The divine milieu which will ultimately be one in the Pleroma, must begin to become one during the earthly phase of our existence . . .
To what force is it given to merge and exalt our partial rays into the principal radiance of Christ? To charity, the beginning and the end of all spiritual relationships . . . It is impossible to love Christ without loving others . . . And it is impossible to love others (in a spirit of broad human communion) without moving nearer to Christ.”
Teilhard de Chardin finished his draft of The Divine Milieu in early 1927. Teilhard sent a copy to his provincial in Lyons, France. The Jesuit review committee and Teilhard’s provincial approved it for publication. Teilhard then sent it to Fr. Pierre Charles, a friend and professor in Louvain. Fr. Charles gave it to two colleagues who reviewed the book for publication in the Jesuit journal Museum Lessianum. The Jesuits recommended minor revisions to Teilhard, which he agreed to make, and it appeared that The Divine Milieu was going to be published soon.
In October 1927, Teilhard de Chardin’s superiors granted him a one year leave to return to France. During his return, confident of imminent publication, Teilhard preached retreats based on The Divine Milieu and showed a preliminary manuscript to students. One of them stayed up all night copying it by hand. Unfortunately, the anticipated approval never came as the Roman authorities stepped in stopped its publication.
Teilhard would have frequent correspondence with Church authorities and make numerous revisions to The Divine Milieu over the next 25 years. However, the seminal work would not be published until 1957, two years after Teilhard’s death.