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Teilhard de Chardin and women

· Guided by his female entourage ·

Most people know Teilhard de Chardin as a scientist and a priest, but few know that he was also a great lover. As a scientist he became famous for his theory of evolution. As a priest and a Jesuit, he offered himself to God without reserve. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1899, he was ordained in 1911 and made his solemn vows in 1918. Despite the trials he had to face during his tumultuous life, he never questioned his original vocation. He remained a priest and a scientist throughout his life. Teilhard saw the universe as a living, dynamic and personal reality. He would often repeat that the universe possesses a spirit, a heart and a face. In the end this face became for him the face of Christ. Inspired by the Eternal Feminine represented by Dante’s Beatrice, Teilhard developed his theology of a unitive principle. He interpreted Beatrice as Mary. This beauty was subsequently to take shape in various women.

As a Jesuit, a priest and a scientist, how did Teilhard de Chardin combine love for God and love for a woman? How did he benefit from this loving experience?

For Teilhard the universe was not a “he” but a “you” who was concerned about “me” and was committed to a dialogue with me. In his L’hymne à la Matière [Hymn to Matter]we read: “I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay moulded and infused with life by the Incarnate Word […]. If we are ever to possess you, having taken you rapturously in our arms, we must then go on to sublimate you through sorrow”. For Teilhard the spiritual ascent was a communion with God through Mother Earth. Faith in the Risen Lord brought him to the notion of the cosmic Christ, full of love and energy to renew the cosmos. In this mystical search Teilhard de Chardin was accompanied, stimulated and in fact even guided by his female entourage.

Dante’s Divine Comedy and Goethe’s Eternal Feminine in the second part of Faust inspired Teilhard to discover the Eternal Feminine. Thomas King wrote in the preface to the Letters: “In March 1918 he finally produced a poetic essay, The Eternal Feminine […]. Teilhard’s essay explains, ‘when a man loves a woman he thinks at first that his love is given to an individual like himself whom he envelops in his power and freely associates with himself’. But soon he is astonished by the violence of the forces unleashed in him, and ‘trembles to realize’ that he cannot be united with the feminine without ‘becoming enslaved to a universal work of creation’. Thus the Feminine was seen as the force that calls man out of himself and into Life. The Gospel recommended virginity, but this did not mean the Feminine was to lose her power. Virginity was not to exile love from a man’s heart ‘on the contrary it is his duty to remain essentially a man’”.

According to Henri de Lubac, the reason why Teilhard changed Beatrice to Beatrix is that he wanted to transform the virginal ideal present in Dante to a most specific Christian Virgin, Mary. The former, vaguely identified, enveloped in a veil as a symbol, cannot reveal the mystery of the Feminine in its purest essence. On the contrary, Our Lady, as Mother of the Incarnate Word, is a real person. Through Mary Teilhard reflected his vocation and the manner in which he had to live his life in consecrated celibacy.

It was only after his long formation that ended in 1911 with his ordination – when he was already 30 and was specializing in paleontology in Paris – that he had his first experience of being in love. This episode was to influence his vision of the Feminine. Marguerite Teilhard-Chambon, a distant cousin of Pierre six months older than him, had also grown up in Clermont-Ferrand. As children they shared many experiences. Marguerite later moved to Paris, where she obtained a licence in philosophy and taught at a well-known school. Their meeting after a long separation became an important stage in Teilhard’s sentimental education. The encounter between the young priest and his cousin was, in all senses, a real encounter of love. Ursula King described the affair in these words: “Teilhard discovered the full force of the ‘feminine ideal’ and of ‘her unalterable beauty’ only when he rediscovered his cousin Marguerite as an adult woman, cultured, with a subtle mind, full of fascination and very kind, endowed with a profound faith and devotion. They met on the eve of the war and fell in love. She was the first to hear him develop his ideas, she was also his first reader, as well as his first critic. There was between them a spiritual and an intellectual collaboration, but Marguerite was also the first woman to love him as a man and it was thanks to her that Teilhard fully found himself. The discovery of his love for Marguerite and her loving response was to change everything. It was the very energy he needed in order for his ideas to ferment and to be fully organized” (Spirit of Fire).

In December 1914 Teilhard was called up. From the front he wrote many letters to Marguerite and realized that celibacy does not exclude a certain intimacy with the other sex. In his praise of the Eternal Feminine he has the woman told: “Those who hear the call of Jesus must not banish love from their hearts. On the contrary they must remain essentially human. You therefore still need me to sensitize your forces and to reawaken your soul to the passion of the divine”. In one of his last books, Le coeur de la matière [The Heart of the Matter] Teilhard said that no one, even if he is dedicated to God’s cause, can find a way towards “maturity and spiritual fullness without some sentimental influence which can sensitize his intelligence and stimulate, at least at the beginning, the forces of loving. Just as he cannot do without light, oxygen or vitamins, no man can do without the Feminine.”

After Marguerite, Teilhard formed deep relationships with Léontine Zanta, Ida Treat, Lucille Swan, Rhoda de Terra, Claude Rivière, Jeanne Mortier and other women, but he never deviated from his goal: every love for a woman is for God and with God and must ultimately converge in God. His love for every woman was a relationship “on three terms: the man, the woman and God”. In Teilhard this triangular form of love or love-in-three was the principle of love not only for himself and for religious, but for all humanity. “Soon there will only be God for you in an entirely virginalized universe. In me it is God who awaits you”.

Let us now look at the marvellous friendship which bound Teilhard and Lucille Swan, and the price he paid to preserve that relationship. They met for the first time in Beijing in 1929. Their honeymoon in the Forbidden City was to last for 12 years. Teilhard deployed his creative powers extensively, thanks to his conversations with Lucille. Their correspondence, which began in 1932, continued for 23 years. This American woman’s death overturned his principles of love-in-three.

Lucille was a sculptor and divorcee who had only just arrived in Beijing from Iowa. She met Teilhard at the home of Dr Grabau, an American geologist, in the autumn of 1929. Teilhard was 48 years old. Lucille, nine years younger. They became good friends. In 1932 Lucille made her first bust of Teilhard. They continued their long conversations in her studio, while he was posing as a model. In the autumn of that year, Teilhard left for France and was away for six months. From the ship he wrote his first letter to Lucille (30 August 1932). In the following year he went to the United States and the letters became more frequent, at intervals of six or 13 days. Lucille kindled an intense flame in him which burned for all the years of his maturity. His family, his friends and his future admirers only came to know the force of their mutual love, their intimacy and their commitment, their separation, their disappointment and their suffering many years after they had both died. Indeed, theirs was far more than a simple friendship. Not only did they share the same ideas but also life, down to the smallest details.

In 1950, at the age of 69 Teilhard wrote The Heart of the Matter, his autobiography, which ends with “nothing in me developed except under a woman’s gaze and influence”. He sent Lucille a copy of the book, saying “For about 20 years you have been helping me rise towards God, ever warmer and more luminous”. Lucille, however, was not only Teilhard’s work companion but became a part of his personality. “You have become part of my deepest life” (17 July 1936). Teilhard’s mystical journey had been facilitated by the help of a woman who had accompanied him: Lucille. She was a woman who needed love and dared to love. Her agony began when they developed a more profound relationship of love. While Teilhard was dreaming of a journey of virginity or of love-in-three which led to convergence, Lucille was seeking something more. “Friendship is undoubtedly the loftiest form of love, and also the most difficult. My instincts as a woman are so strong. Learning to control this love is so difficult”.

A year after the end of the Second World War Teilhard returned to Europe. From Paris he made various journeys to New York and to South Africa. In December 1951 he emigrated to the United States and settled there definitively. In that decade it was Rhoda de Terra who remained constantly beside Teilhard, both in Paris and in New York, and also during the two visits to South Africa. Her constant presence beside him sparked a dreadful crisis in Lucille. After Teilhard’s heart attack in 1947, Rhoda gradually became his nurse and secretary. When Teilhard moved to the United States in December 1951 he was very weak but always exceedingly busy with academic research. From time to time Lucille went to New York to see him. Teilhard asked her to reduce her visits and to write and telephone him less often because he felt too weak. At the same time Rhoda was constantly beside him, completely supplanting Lucille, or so it seemed. Teilhard was fully aware of the suffering he caused in the people he had loved. Thomas King wrote: “In Paris, in 1954, Teilhard reread the end of The Heart of the Matter. He began to cry, ‘remembering all the Beatrices full of reproaches whom he had involuntarily wounded’. Lucille was one of them”.

A few days later Teilhard collapsed in the street in New York while out for a stroll. At the hospital he asked for Lucille. She arrived immediately and reassured him of her love. Subsequently Teilhard returned to the Jesuit residence from which he wrote a letter thanking her: “Let us converge, you and I, courageously and joyously, towards the new face of God that draws both of us to him. In his last letter to Lucille (30 March 1955), he said “I really need your presence, your influence in my life [...]. We are always here one for the other”. On the evening of Easter Sunday in 1955, 10 April, Teilhard died while he was speaking to several guests at Rhoda de Terra’s home in New York.

Teilhard de Chardin’s intellectual creativity had need of affection in order to mature. His experience of love with Marguerite was a source of new ideas that flowed into important articles during the war, including the timeless Eternal Feminine. According to this theory, chaste people also have the possibility of living a loving experience with God and with the other sex. Love-in-three, profound and chaste, fits in here. For Teilhard a chaste or virginal love would release a new Fire from Matter. It was a sort of energy. Virginal love was a superior stage of human love. After Marguerite, Teilhard was to meet other women. Their warmth and fascination were infused, drop by drop, into the blood of his dearest ideas. 

Bosco Lu

The Conference

We are publishing excerpts from the lecture given by Fr Bosco Lu, a Chinese Jesuit, at a conference on Teilhard de Chardin which was held in Beijing in October 2003. The text was published in the Nouvelle Revue Théologique (126, 2004, pp. 177-203).




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 21, 2020