Saturday, 17 September 2011

Teilhard’s Litany: (11) The litany and the 'three stories'

Teilhard was in  his early twenties  - that is before he began his theological studies in  Hastings in 1908 when he began to see the Sacred Heart in a new way: a Christ beyond Christ as ‘ a fire with power to penetrate all things.’  He recounts (In the Heart of Matter )  that when he began to see the Sacred Heart in these terms, his spiritual and intellectual life radically changed.   From what he says, it seems to  have been a moment of revelation: a mystical experience when he saw ‘ a mysterious  patch of crimson  and gold delineated in the Saviour’s breast’. (43)    In this crimson and gold patch he ‘found’ what he had been looking for: an escape from the traditional image which was the subject of intense devotion  by Catholics, including his mother.   It was to be the defining moment of his life: the realization that Christ as represented in the Sacred Heart was ‘ a glowing core  of fire, whose splendour embraced ever contour – first those of  the God-Man – and then those of all things that lay within his ambience’.  The Sacred Heart had the properties of energy and fire which could ‘insinuate itself everywhere’ and to be ‘metamorphosed into no matter what’. (p44)   
The Church at Nant-le-Grand 

In a remarkable set of  three ‘stories’ written in (the presbytery at Nant-le-Grand) during the of October 1916  a few weeks before the attack on Douaumont. (The attack proved to be a  futile attempt to re-capture a French fort from the Germans.) In these fascinating stories Teilhard gives us an inspiring vision of how he had come, by then, to see and experience the Sacred Heart and 'Christ in the World of Matter'

He describes the stories – in a letter to his cousin - as  an exercise in ‘imaginative fantasy’ in which he had  ‘put a great deal’ of  him self’. ( Making of a Mind, 135)  How much of himself is not clear  - although what  is clear that he is drawing on deep personal experiences.  Robert Faircy  records that:

I have been told by one of Teilhard's oldest and closest companions  that the 'friend' was really Teilhard, and that the experiences were  true religious experiences of his own.  These, and perhaps  other similar  graces of prayer, lie behind his theological and spiritual writings. ( Faircy,  All Things in Christ,  Fount, 1981.p29

In his letter to his cousin he says that 'And you'll understand, of course, as I told Guiguite, that what I have written is simply imaginative fancy. '   If, as   Faircy suggests , the stories are actually based on personal religious experiences, it is quite understandable that he would send them to an editor as 'simply' stories rather than accounts of personal religious  experiences.  But his cousin would understand that he could not tell an editor the whole truth.  So,  I think Faircy's claim is plausible.  Whatever the truth about their inspiration, it is evident that they convey the strength of Teilhard's mystical sense.  And whatever else we can say there is no doubt but that his vision of the Sacred  Heart as a crimson and gold glow whose fire penetrated all things was a defining episode of his life - as he explains in the 'Heart of  Matter'. 

  The stories explore three key symbols by which we can understand the  relationship  between  Christ and  the world of matter - Christ and the universe.   The first story is an account of  praying before a picture of the Sacred Heart; the second of  an experience during an adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; and the third about an experience whilst carrying a pyx containing the Blessed Sacrament.  

His stories are told as accounts given to him by a soldier who had died in battle.   Teilhard says that they show how ‘the mighty and multiple Universe came to assume ..the form of Christ’.  He says that this sense of the universal Christ came to him (his friend) gradually as a result of a series of experiences.  The light came to him ( his friend) in ‘successive ( intuitive) jerks’  -  like a curtain being raised. So, we can presume that the moment when he first saw the gold and crimson patch  is one of those ‘jerks’ of the curtain – perhaps it was the first jerk. What we read, therefore, is an early attempt by  Teilhard to try and make sense and communicate his mystical experiences of the Sacred Heart, as compared with the more complex version he wrote on his card many years later.  But although in the intervening years Teilhard was to develop and refine his ideas  - in the form we find on the picture of the Sacred Heart - it is important to realize that all his work was to grow out of and build on the kind  experiences which he described as ‘imaginative fantasy’.   

If we want to better understand the litany written on his picture of the Sacred Heart we can do so by looking through the lens of these three stories.  You can read them in Chapter 2 of  Hymn of the Universe. Read HERE.

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