Hymn to Matter” may be one of the oddest-seeming prayers ever penned by a priest. Christians pray to God, to the saints, to the angels perhaps, and sometimes to deceased loved ones. But a hymn to matter? To atoms and rocks, gases and plasma, minerals and stardust? It sounds like idolatry, and indeed as a boy the author of the hymn had such fascination with rocks that he referred to them as “my idols.” He explained, “as far as my childish experience went, nothing in the world was harder, heavier, tougher, more durable than this marvelous substance....” Soon, as he saw iron rust, he learned the impermanence of the hardest substance he then knew, and a spiritual hunger was born within him.
The prayer’s author, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a renowned paleontologist and geologist during his lifetime, became better known after his death as a philosopher of evolution and a spiritual writer. But the Jesuit priest never left his rocks behind. Just as discovery of their flaws had initiated him on a mystic quest for a permanent and universal object worthy of his devotion, so Teilhard believed that without matter—without the resistance, disappointments and challenges matter offered humans—our intellectual and spiritual development as a species would be arrested.
Teilhard’s “Hymn to Matter” praises the stuff of the universe as the harsh schoolmaster of the human spirit. “Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us,” he wrote, “we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God.”
“By constantly shattering our mental categories, you force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of truth,” he wrote. “By overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement [you] reveal to us the dimensions of God.” Matter, as Teilhard would write, is “‘the matrix of spirit’: that in which life emerges and is supported, not the active principle from which it takes its rise.”
Drawing on his personal, intellectual and spiritual itinerary as a natural scientist and priest, Teilhard regarded the recalcitrance of matter and the need for human effort to uncover its secrets as the starting point for spiritual growth. Whereas other Jesuit giants of the 20th century, like Pierre Rousselot, Joseph Maréchal and Karl Rahner, built their philosophical theologies on the mind’s inherent dynamism toward God, Teilhard found the hard effort of learning to be a privileged opening to the divine. The attention the scientist pays to the problem he or she studies is practice for the attention the mystic pays to God. In this discovery, Pierre Teilhard was like another French philosopher, Simone Weil, whose essay “On the Right Use of School Studies” argued that whether it was translating Homer or solving a problem in Euclidean geometry, study fostered the attention essential to prayer. The poised, energetic openness of the questioner possesses a kinship with the reverent, alert readiness of a person before God.
The Asceticism of Attention
In “Hymn to Matter,” Teilhard offered this blessing:
You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate: it is you, matter, that I bless.
Unlike some who believe that once they enter the world of thought they can leave the physical world behind, Teilhard proposed that the human spirit matures in its effort to understand (master and respect) the natural world. That understanding of the physical world, however, comes through a discipline the scientist must endure. Whether nature or human nature is the subject, applying one’s mind to a problem will involve hard effort (including, for a field scientist like Teilhard, physical effort), disappointment and disillusionment. Only then will one find joy in discovery and pleasure in the cumulative growth of understanding.
Insofar as the discipline of science helps us better appreciate God’s creation, Teilhard proposed, it is a kind of asceticism, a spiritual practice with potential to deepen the spiritual life. Traditional spirituality stressed control of the body through simplicity, fasting, chastity and physical discipline. For his part, Teilhard pointed out the discipline inherent in the active life and especially in the application of the mind to learning, a discipline he practiced in fieldwork as well as in museum and laboratory research: identifying and analyzing distinctive facts, classifying and relating findings, posing hypotheses and verifying or disproving them. As we Christians practice the mechanics of learning, our spirits can grow as well. As the élan of the learning mind awakens its particular excitement in the learner, the process of inquiry holds the potential to whet our appetite for the infinite mystery of existence.
One problem that afflicts us today, as it did in Teilhard’s time, is that there is often too little intellectual discipline on the part of those regarded as authorities in the spiritual life. They mistake the whole of faith with its most elementary expressions and regard question-and-answer catechizing as the equal of serious theology. No doubt, as Alfred North Whitehead wrote, religion takes place “at all temperatures” along a scale of human potentialities. Nonetheless, a richer intellectual life can often make for a richer spiritual experience and a profounder theology. Teilhard teaches us not only that the findings of science can add to our religious wonderment, but also that the scientific way of knowing can strengthen the mind’s ascent to God.
An Eye for Rocks—and for God
As a field scientist, Teilhard was reputed to have an exceptional eye for rocks, quickly noting features that escaped the observation of his colleagues and understanding their implications. It is not surprising, then, that whereas the ancient masters of prayer taught about freeing the mind of preoccupation the better to open it to the divine, Teilhard believed that the attention of science to the smallest detail of the physical world made the mind even more capax dei, “radically open to God.” The secret to the spiritual life, as to science, he believed, lies in unremitting attention to details. As we come to appreciate the richness and complexity of the universe, so does our perception grow of the glory of God.
Of course, other spiritual masters also emphasized paying attention to details. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little way,” for example, is about doing with devotion the small things of daily life. Teilhard’s way differs from that of Thérèse or that of the desert fathers, however, in two ways. First, it is about the active life, in which humans exercise their creativity and inventiveness. The creativity of the artist, the problem-solving of the scientist, the inventiveness of the computer engineer, the diagnosis of the physician—all give opportunity to grow in holiness as much as attention to the routines of the monastery or the sacristy.
Second, the attention to details relates especially to intellectual activity and pre-eminently scientific research. Scholarship about the Bible and the classics had held a role in Benedictine spirituality and later in Christian humanism, but science involves active investigation and more than that, revision of earlier ideas. As the mind meets the resistance of the material universe—rocks and atoms, genes and galaxies—“our mental categories” dissolve and “our narrow standards of measurement” are shattered. Research in the natural world weans us from preconceptions to which we would otherwise cling; and as we discover the endless wonders of the universe, the mind opens up to the unimagined dimensions of God.
Asceticism comes in applying ourselves to the learning, letting go of prejudices and obsolete theories and acquiring new skills. At first the development of the students’ minds involves rote learning, but the hope is that the atomic table and DNA become so natural that students can apply them in school exercises, design their own experiments, observe anomalies and finally verify their findings through replication. All stages—rote learning, application, experimentation, examining anomalies, verification—entail discipline. For the self-aware scientist or student, the effort it takes to prove a simple fact offers a hint of the dedication that growth in the spirit also requires. Likewise, for the believer and spiritual searcher, the practice of science should suggest the gradual growth of skills, including intellectual ones, that are entailed in the human cooperation with divine grace.
In time Teilhard came to see matter in broad terms, not just as the object of physical science, but as everything in life that by giving us resistance helps us to move ahead, whether in knowledge, material progress or spiritual development. In The Divine Milieu he offered an illuminating analogy that is the key to the spiritual appreciation of matter. “It is the slope on which we can go up just as we can go down,” he wrote, “the medium that can uphold or give way, the wind that can overthrow and lift up.” Matter’s proper role is to be the road of sanctification. “Created things are not exactly obstacles but rather footholds, intermediaries to be made use of, nourishment to be taken, sap to be purified and elements to be associated with us and borne along with us” on our journey into light.
Matter is not a static thing. It is the book just read, the hypothesis confirmed or falsified. It is landlines, fax machines, modems and the Apple computer. It is Gandhi’s experiments with truth and the Tea Party movement. It is the past that has brought us forward and the past that has held us back. Matter is the toehold of the spirit in history. That toehold defines two zones:
the zone already left behind or arrived at, to which we should not return, or at which we should not pause, lest we fall back—this is the zone of matter in the material and carnal sense; and the zone offered to our renewed efforts toward progress, search, conquest and ‘divinization,’ the zone of matter taken in the spiritual sense; and the frontier between the two is essentially relative and shifting.
We must lean on the things of this world to move us forward or when they give way, we will tumble back. The spiritual appreciation of matter involves both counting on its resistance to hold us as we press ahead and expecting the exertion demanded of us to move upward. Both forces are necessary.
Like mountaineering, the spiritual life requires steady movement upward, Teilhard reflected. Unless the rock climber poised on her toehold moves forward, she will slip and fall back. “That which is good, sanctifying and spiritual for my brother below or beside me on the mountainside, can be misleading or bad for me,” Teilhard advises. “What I rightly allowed myself yesterday, I must perhaps deny myself today.”
How matter functions depends on the route of each person’s spiritual progress. What I make of the questions I face in my work, what I do with the events in my life, the opportunities I make of crises I encounter, all will determine how deeply I will participate (and the degree to which others share) in the divinization our world is undergoing in Christ. Like mountaineering, advance in the spiritual life depends on making upward progress, discovering, as Teilhard did, as we go that the matter of our life is “the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ.”