by Raymond Devine
Kathleen Duffy, SSJ, Ph.D., author and professor of physics at Chestnut Hill College, explores the life of struggle faced by Jesuit priest, scientist, and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in her second book on his life and work, “Teilhard’s Struggle: Embracing the Work of Evolution.”
The genesis of “Teilhard’s Struggle,” set to release on April 24, arose one evening a few years ago when Sister Kathy was reading at an annual summer retreat. It was while reading an essay by Teilhard titled “The Spiritual Power of Matter” that she felt it told of a profoundly transformative experience that seemed to foretell his life of struggle.
“The essay is dramatic, filled with scriptural references to the patriarchs and the transfiguration of Jesus, and makes clear the transformative nature of struggle for the one who struggles but also for the world,” Sister Kathy said. “Despite the dramatic nature of the experience, or perhaps because of it, he freely committed himself to what was being asked, a life of struggle that would cut him off from companions who would never understand what he was trying to say.
“It gifted me with a desire to plumb the depths of Teilhard’s spirituality and to formulate for myself a new and more positive view of struggle.”
Teilhard was born in France in 1881; he was one of 11 children. His childhood anticipated his later scientific approach to the natural world as he roamed his parent’s estate collecting stones, fossils, and other bits and chunks of natural history. While in boarding school around the age of eighteen, he wrote his parents to tell them of his wish to become a Jesuit. Shortly thereafter he entered the novitiate at Aix-en-Provence in 1899. Teilhard was ordained in August 1911.
World War I interrupted his Jesuit work when Teilhard entered the army in 1914 as a stretcher-bearer. He was present at some of the heaviest and most depressing fighting and, as a result, was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1921. Through his paleontology work in Egypt, he discovered shark teeth never before seen and was rewarded by having that species of shark named “Teilhardia.” As a paleontologist, he also worked on the team that extracted Piltdown Man from rock strata. Through continued and parallel scholarship, he developed a deep understanding of the geology of the Eocene Period, earning a doctorate.
On review, Teilhard’s life contained success but also a robust, even overwhelming, measure of difficulties and struggle. In his childhood he experienced anxiety over his own frailty and the impermanence of things. Between 1902 and 1914, he lost two brothers and two sisters to illness and war.
In his adult years, Sister Kathy said, Teilhard “confronted living in exile in a foreign culture, struggling to develop intimate relationships with women while remaining faithful to his commitment to celibacy, dealing with great physical, intellectual and psychological pain, and learning to speak his truth to power.”
Sister Kathy hopes that her book presents a new example for this sometimes confounding time in history.
“Most of us yearn for peace, security, and serenity,” she said. “That was appropriate in a static world. But in an evolutionary world, change is the order of the day. Teilhard is modeling a new way to understand the creative role of struggle in evolution — struggle to engage in honest dialogue, struggle to instill the fire of love in a world ravaged by war, struggle to move toward what is best for human family and for our earth community.”
Sister Kathy’s 2015 book, “Teilhard’s Mysticism: Seeing the Inner Face of Evolution,” explores Teilhard’s essay “The Mystical Milieu.” In the book, she outlines Teilhard’s mystical path through what he describes as the “five circles.” She said she included a lot of modern science in the book because science was a fundamental part of Teilhard’s spirituality.
Even though “Teilhard’s Struggle: Embracing the Work of Evolution” hasn’t officially released yet, Sister Kathy already knows what project she wants to work on next.
“I want to continue to explore even more deeply Teilhard’s early works, written while he was a stretcher-bearer in World War I,” she said. “It was during that time that he began to formulate his synthesis, and so his wartime essays are fresh, often quite mystical, and always daring, given the tenor of the church in his day.”
“Teilhard’s Struggle: Embracing the Work of Evolution” will release on April 24. It is available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2Gaecld.