His Universe

Book cover
Teilhard's Massby By Thomas M. King, S.J.Paulist Press. 192p $17.95 (paperback)

Thomas King, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, has written a fine book deeply rooted in his lifelong meditation on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, his fellow Jesuit, whom he approaches above all as a priest, and as a scientist with a priestly calling. The introduction clearly explains King’s selective hermeneutical approaches in presenting Teilhard’s ardent faith and mystical experience, his scientific work and methodology and some central elements of his thought.

Four explanatory chapters full of rich description are followed by a close commentary on Teilhard’s inspiring text The Mass on the World, written in 1923 in the Ordos Desert in China. The commentary also refers to an earlier version of this Mass, the essay The Priest, developed in the trenches of World War I and written down in 1918. King’s book is perhaps best summed up by the title of its third Appendix, To pray as Teilhard prayed. Beautifully written and persuasively argued, its greatest power and strength lie in inviting readers to follow Teilhard in the celebration of his cosmic Mass by learning to offer the joyous and painful becoming of the world, its processes of growth and diminishment, in daily prayer to God.

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There is much to ponder and much to puzzle about in this book. Was it penned in one go, or were its essays written for different occasions? The first chapter uses Teilhard’s priesthood as the central focus for a presentation of the major highlights of his life and work. Outline drawings of Teilhard and his collaborator in China, Père émile Licent, and photographs in black and white, here and in the following chapters, add vividness to the description. The only factual error, not unique to King but shared by other writers, is found on page 6, where Teilhard is described as stretcher bearer in a Moroccan regiment during World War I. Recent research by Maurice Ernst has conclusively shown that Teilhard belonged to a Tunisian regiment, attached to a Moroccan brigade.

Questions arise also about two photos. One is entitled Teilhard offering Mass before the Battle of Douaumont, October 1916 (page 10 and back cover). The accompanying text states more cautiously that the priest in this photo is unidentified, but many people see it as Teilhard, whereas the captions affirm that this is in fact Teilhard. I remain unconvinced of this, since there is no clear likeness at all. Another photo is described as Teilhard in India, 1924, but Teilhard was in China in 1924 and did not go to India until 1935.

The next two chapters, The Transformation of the World in Science and in the Mass and The Scientific Work of Teilhard While Writing The Mass on the World,’ provide interesting aspects of Teilhard’s phenomenology and geographical, geological and palaeontological details, but mention little about science. It is puzzling that King continues to refer to Teilhard’s greatest work as The Phenomenon of Man when this has now been superseded by a new, more faithful translation, under the title The Human Phenomenon.

The Mass and the Salvation of the World, offers an attractive and inspiring interpretation of the philosophy, theology, and spirituality of Teilhard. Thomas King, one of the great connoisseurs of Teilhard’s oeuvre, knows his way around the intricacies and complex details of Teilhard’s writing. Still, others might perceive different meanings and contexts for some of the very same texts and experiences of Teilhard.

King’s book offers an unmatched close reading of The Mass on the World that mixes meticulous attention to detail and extensive academic references with fervent prayer and devotion. Yet the result is somewhat uneven, whether in the length or shortness of chapters, the depth of discussion, the power of insight and explanation or the academic data included, as distinct from those left out. King is at his strongest when explaining the powerful, dynamic attraction of Ignatian and eucharistic spirituality, which also deeply shaped Teilhard de Chardin. But he is on much less secure footing when he speaks about Teilhard’s experience of the East or his understanding of eastern religions, especially Buddhism.

King’s literary, symbolic and mystical interpretation of Teilhard’s experience and writing is full of beauty and dazzling flashes (like Teilhard’s own lyricism, especially in his early writings, to which The Mass of the World belongs). It is intriguing, though, that Teilhard is presented as an individualist and idealist, without mention of his important views about personalization and socialization, his global and planetary vision of the earth and his views of the future of the human communityideas that lead straight to Thomas Berry’s ecological worldview. The greatest surprise in the book, though, is the complete lack of attention to Teilhard’s creative, great visionary concept of the noosphere, which also emerged during the early 1920’s, at the same time that The Mass of the World was being written. It is a biological, social, cultural and spiritual vision, which also has considerable bearing on interpreting the cosmic body of Christ, to which King has dedicated many admirable passages.

The extensive silences in King’s book are most puzzling. In spite of a one-and-a-half-page bibliography of books by other authors, important scholarly works on similar topics by others are not even mentionednot even the work of such fellow Jesuits as Thomas Corbishley, Robert Faricy, James A. Lyons and James Skehan, who have also written extensively and movingly on spirituality, prayer, the sacred heart and the cosmic Christ in Teilhard. Moreover, a greater contextualization of The Mass would have been welcome, first in terms of China itself, then in terms of the concrete world of today with its diversity and religious pluralism, and our newly emerging sense of the web of life. Non-Catholic readers would also need more general contextual explanations than are given here.

The book contains neither name nor subject index, and has several minor printing errors (necessary French accents are missing, for example).

While I acclaim the beauty and wisdom of Teilhard’s Mass, and admire its author for the subtlety of its spiritual vision, I remain convinced that there is still more to be said on The Mass on the World.

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