First China Trip and Mass on the World (1923-1924)

Teilhard de Chardin on the Mongolian plateau in 1924. It was around this time he wrote "The Mass on the World".
Teilhard de Chardin on the Mongolian plateau in 1924. It was around this time he wrote “The Mass on the World”.

Teilhard de Chardin set sail for his first trip to China in Spring 1923.  He landed at Shanghai and proceeded to travel by train to Tientsin, a coastal city some eighty miles from Peking where Emile Licent, S.J., had built his museum and housed the fossils he had collected in China since his arrival in 1914.

The two French Jesuits were both outstanding scientists and developed a solid working relationship.  However, Teilhard and Licent never became close friends due to differences in social, spiritual and intellectual temperments.  Licent, a northerner, knew the Chinese country and language very well and was a skilled negotiator with the locals.  Licent was very independent in his work. He was primarily interested in collecting fossils rather than interpreting their significance.   Moreover, he was a spiritual stranger to mystical intuitions.  Teilhard, on the other hand, was more outgoing; he enjoyed conversational society in which he could relate his geological knowledge to a wider scientific and theological sphere.  Teilhard was a deep mystic who felt compelled to translate his experiences in an intellectual manner.

Almost immediately after his arrival Teilhard de Chardin made himself familiar with Licent’s collection and, at the latter’s urging, gave a report to the Geological Society of China. In June 1923 Teilhard and Licent undertook an expedition into the Ordos desert west of Peking near the border with Inner Mongolia.  The journey was an arduous one, with rough physical conditions and a harsh summer climate.  It was during this journey that Teilhard de Chardin completed is famous “Mass on the World“, which is a mystical masterpiece.  The opening lines from Mass on the World capture the heart of Teilhard’s Christian devotion:

“Since once again, Lord — though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.

Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail. I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labour. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits.

My paten and my chalice are the depths of a soul laid widely open to all the forces which in a moment will rise up from every corner of the earth and converge upon the Spirit. Grant me the remembrance and the mystic presence of all those whom the light is now awakening to the new day.

One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life. One by one also I number all those who make up that other beloved family which has gradually surrounded me, its unity fashioned out of the most disparate elements, with affinities of the heart, of scientific research and of thought. And again one by one — more vaguely it is true, yet all-inclusively — I call before me the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity; those who surround me and support me though I do not know them; those who come, and those who go; above all, those who in office, laboratory and factory, through their vision of truth or despite their error, truly believe in the progress of earthly reality and who today will take up again their impassioned pursuit of the light.

This restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts even of those whose faith is most firm: it is to this deep that I thus desire all the fibres of my being should respond. All the things in the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish; all those too that will die: all of them, Lord, I try to gather into my arms, so as to hold them out to you in offering. This is the material of my sacrifice; the only material you desire.

Once upon a time men took into your temple the first fruits of their harvests, the flower of their flocks. But the offering you really want, the offering you mysteriously need every day to appease your hunger, to slake your thirst is nothing less than the growth of the world borne ever onwards in the stream of universal becoming.

Receive, O Lord, this all-embracing host which your whole creation, moved by your magnetism, offers you at this dawn of a new day.

This bread, our toil, is of itself, I know, but an immense fragmentation; this wine, our pain, is no more, I know, than a draught that dissolves. Yet in the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted — and this I am sure of, for I sense it — a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out, believer and unbeliever alike:

‘Lord, make us one.’”

In March 1924, Teilhard de Chardin wrote an essay “Mon Universe” which expands on his vision of the Eucharistic Presence:

“We must say that the initial Body of Christ, his primary body, is confined to the species of bread and wine.  Can Christ, however, remain contained in this primary Body? Clearly, he cannot.  Since he is above all the Omega, that is, the universal ‘form’ of the world, he can obtain his organic balance and plenitude only by mystically assimilating . . . all that surrounds him.  The Host is like a blazing hearth from which flames spread their radiance.  Just as the spark that falls into the heather is soon surrounded by a wide circle of fire, so, in the course of centuries, the sacramental host — for there is but one Host, ever growing greater in the hands of a long succession of priests — the Host of bread, I mean, is continually being encircled more closely by another, infinitely larger, Host, which is nothing but the universe itself — the universe gradually being absorbed by the universal element. . . The matter of the sacrament is the world, through which there spreads, so to complete itself, the superhuman presence of the universal Christ. The world is the final, and the real, Host into which Christ gradually descends, until his time is fulfilled. . . Nothing is at work in creation except in order to assist, from near at hand or from afar, in the consecration of the universe.”

These sentiments would eventually become incorporated as part of mainstream Catholic theology through the writings of Pope Benedict XVI and other leading theologians. 

In April 1924, Teilhard de Chardin and Licent set out for their second expedition to Gobi,  north of the Ordos.  This expedition was not as successful with either new essays or new fossils as was the earlier one.  In September 1924, Teilhard was able to visit his sister’s grave in Shanghai and from there return to Paris.  Little did he know that he would run into his first major confrontation with the Church hierarchy over Teilhard’s ideas on original sin.

Robert Speaight, “The Life of Teilhard de Chardin
Thomas M. King, S.J., “Teilhard’s Mass”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Making of a Mind; Letters From a Soldier Priest”
JimDo public website
American Teilhard Association
Wikipedia

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