When the war came in August, Teilhard returned to Paris to help Boule store museum pieces, to assist cousin Marguerite turn the girl’s school she headed into a hospital, and to prepare for his own eventual induction. Teilhard’s induction was delayed, and his Jesuit Superiors decided to send him back to Hastings for his tertianship, the year before final vows. At Hastings, Teilhard made the “long retreat” or the 30-day silent retreat focused on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola that is a central component of Jesuit training. Undoubtedly, this experience of solitude and spiritual direction was a defining moment on forming Teilhard’s personal relationship with God.
Teilhard is sometimes criticized as being insensitive to suffering and death, both in his theology and his personal correspondence. This criticism is misplaced. Teilhard both witnessed and knew first-hand immense physical and personal suffering, from having six of his siblings die prematurely, to witnessing the carnage of the trenches in World War I to being prohibited from publishing his life’s work of synthesizing traditional Catholic theology with evolutionary biology. Despite this immense personal suffering, he maintained an optimism and healthy perspective that others attribute to insensitivity. Although I did not know Teilhard, I attribute his optimism to a deep relationship with God, tattooed in his spirit by the 30 long retreat. After that experiences, Teilhard was able to view all suffering in light of the ultimate purpose of growing closer to the Cosmic Christ. Teilhard viewed suffering as a potential to accelerate the Kingdom of God:
What a vast ocean of human suffering spreads over the entire earth at every moment! Of what is this mass formed? Of blackness, gaps, and rejections. No, let me repeat, of potential energy. In suffering, the ascending force of the world is concealed in a very intense form. The whole question is how to liberate it and give it a consciousness of its significance and potentialities.
The world would leap high toward God if all the sick together were to turn their pain into a common desire that the kingdom of God should come to rapid fruition through the conquest and organization of the earth. All the sufferers of the earth joining their sufferings so that the world’s pain might become a great and unique act of consciousness, elevation, and union. Would not this be one of the highest forms that the mysterious work of creation could take in our sight?
Could it not be precisely for this that the creation was completed in Christian eyes by the Passion of Jesus? We are perhaps in danger of seeing on the cross only an individual suffering, a single act of expiation. The creative power of that death escapes us. Let us take a broader glance, and we shall see that the cross is the symbol and place of an action whose intensity is beyond expression. Even from the earthly point of view, the crucified Jesus, fully understood, is not rejected or conquered. It is on the contrary he who bears the weight and draws ever higher toward God the universal march of progress. Let us act like him, in order to be in our existence united with him. (“The Significance and Positive Value of Suffering,” quoted in Human Energy, HarperCollins)
The suffering Teilhard described was not an abstract suffering. Unfortunately, the carnage of World War I would soon hit the Teilhard de Chardin family. Two months after Teilhard completed his 30 day Long Retreat, Teilhard learned that his younger brother Gonzague had been killed in battle near Soissons.
Shortly after this Teilhard received orders to report for duty in a newly forming regiment from Auvergne. After visiting his parents and his invalid sister Guiguite at Sarcenat, he began his assignment as a stretcher bearer with the North African Zouaves in January 1915. At his request he was sent to the front and also became chaplain. Teilhard carried the Blessed Sacrament wherever he went, and celebrated Mass in a variety of suboptimal circumstances.
The powerful impact of the war on Teilhard is recorded in his letters to his cousin, Marguerite, now collected in The Making of a Mind. They give us an intimate picture of Teilhard’s initial enthusiasm as a “soldier-priest,” his humility in bearing a stretcher while others bore arms, his exhaustion after the brutal battles at Ypres and Verdun, his heroism in rescuing his comrades of the Fourth Mixed Regiment, and his unfolding mystical vision centered on seeing the world evolve even in the midst of war. In these letters are many of the seminal ideas that Teilhard would develop in his later years.
Through these nearly four years of bloody trench fighting Teilhard’s regiment fought in some of the most brutal battles at the Marne and Epres in 1915, Nieuport in 1916, Verdun in 1917 and Chateau Thierry in 1918. For his bravery Teilhard was awarded the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. Teilhard was much admired by the men of his unit for his friendship, courage, and gallantry. He soon became known as a man who could be relied on in a difficult or dangerous situation. He would go out under a hail of bullets and calmly bring back the dead and wounded. When asked about his exemplary bravery, Teilhard replied: “If I’m killed, I shall just change my state, that’s all”. Teilhard was active in every engagement of the regiment for which he was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1921.
Throughout his correspondence he wrote that despite this turmoil he felt there was a purpose and a direction to life more hidden and mysterious than history generally reveals to us. This larger meaning, Teilhard discovered, was often revealed in the heat of battle. In one of several articles written during the war, Pierre expressed the paradoxical wish experienced by soldiers-on-leave for the tension of the front lines. He indicated this article in one of his letters saying:
“I’m still in the same quiet billets. Our future continues to be pretty vague, both as to when and what it will be. What the future imposes on our present existence is not exactly a feeling of depression; it’s rather a sort of seriousness, of detachment, of a broadening, too, of outlook.”
This feeling, of course, borders on a sort of sadness (the sadness that accompanies every fundamental change); but it leads also to a sort of higher joy . . . I’d call it `Nostalgia for the Front’. The reasons, I believe, come down to this; the front cannot but attract us because it is, in one way, the extreme boundary between what one is already aware of, and what is still in process of formation. Not only does one see there things that you experience nowhere else, but one also sees emerge from within one an underlying stream of clarity, energy, and freedom that is to be found hardly anywhere else in ordinary life – and the new form that the soul then takes on is that of the individual living the quasi-collective life of all men, fulfilling a function far higher than that of the individual, and becoming fully conscious of this new state. It goes without saying that at the front you no longer look on things in the same way as you do in the rear; if you did, the sights you see and the life you lead would be more than you could bear. This exaltation is accompanied by a certain pain. Nevertheless it is indeed an exaltation. And that’s why one likes the front in spite of everything, and misses it.” (The Making of a Mind, p. 205.)
Teilhard’s powers of articulation are evident in these lines. Moreover, his efforts to express his growing vision of life during the occasional furloughs also brought him a foretaste of the later ecclesiastical reception of his work. For although Teilhard was given permission to take final vows in the Society of Jesus in May 1918, his writings from the battlefield puzzled his Jesuit Superiors especially his rethinking of such topics as evolution and original sin.
He was convinced that if he had indeed seen something, as he felt he had, then that seeing would shine forth despite obstacles. As he says in a letter of 1919, “What makes me easier in my mind at this juncture, is that the rather hazardous schematic points in my teaching are in fact of only secondary importance to me. It’s not nearly so much ideas that I want to propagate as a spirit: and a spirit can animate all external presentations” (The Making of a Mind, p. 281).
After his demobilization on March 10, 1919, Teilhard returned to Jersey for a recuperative period and preparatory studies for concluding his doctoral degree in geology at the Sorbonne, for the Jesuit provincial of Lyon had given his permission for Teilhard to continue his studies in natural science. During this period at Jersey Teilhard wrote his profoundly prayerful piece on “The Spiritual Power of Matter.”
[Editor’s Note: I am transitioning this from a Post to a Page. There is an excellent discussion in the Comments section of the original Post which I encourage you to read here.]
Many thanks for providing this easy access route into Fr Teilhard de Chardin’s war experience and theology. I have visited Verdun and seem the marker on the battlefield close to the great memorial and ossuary which notes his service there. I have referenced this website in my new book “Walking on Holy Ground: a Pilgrimage on the Via Francigena and the Western Front from London to Laon” which is now available as an e-book on Amazon. Best wishes Nick Dunne