Cosmic Life

April 24, 1916

Teilhard de Chardin seeks to harmonize his ardent faith with a boundless love for the cosmos. He finds solace in the belief that the incarnation unites all. Thus, surrendering oneself to the cosmic forces and gently guiding them towards good enables all beings to participate in softly unfolding a new era of harmony. Cosmic Life was the first of Teilhard’s extant writings in his characteristic style. Knowing what risks he was exposed to at the warfront, he wrote it as his intellectual testament, and it contains in embryo all that was later to be developed in his thought; the “fire in his vision” which he tried to communicate.

Posthumously published in the 1955 book Writings in Time of War.


There is a communion with God, and a communion with earth, and a communion with God through earth. … and Jacob fought with the angel until day was come.


What follows springs from an exuberance of life and a yearning to live: it is written to express an impassioned vision of the earth, and in an attempt to find a solution for the doubts that beset my action—because I love the universe, its energies, its secrets, and its hopes, and because at the same time I am dedicated to God, the only Origin, the only Issue and the only Term. I want these pages to be instinct with my love of matter and life, and to reconcile it, if possible, with the unique adoration of the only absolute and definitive Godhead.

My starting-point is the fundamental initial fact that each one of us is perforce linked by all the material, organic, and psychic strands of his being to all that surrounds him. Not only is he caught up in a network, he is carried along, too, by a stream. All around us, in whatever direction we look, there are both links and currents. Countless forces of determination hold us in their grip, a vast heritage from the past weighs down upon our present, the thousand and one affinities we are influenced by pull us away from ourselves and drag us towards an end of which we have no knowledge. Surrounded by all these forces that encroach on him, the individual shrinks to an imperceptible centre; we might say that he is no more than an observation post, a sentient focus-point of repulsions and attractions; he makes his choice from among the countless energies that radiate through him; he seeks, casting to and fro; he turns back upon himself and directs himself so that he may breathe in more or less fully according to the direction he takes, the energizing atmosphere that surrounds him, in which he is one single, conscious point. This is the external condition imposed on us: we are, we may say, more outside ourselves in time and space than we are inside ourselves, every second of our lives. The person, the human monad, is, like every monad, essentially cosmic.

Reflective thought, science, history, and the social needs we experience all combine to make us aware of the vast domain of the ‘we that has no significance’ and the ‘we that is in us in spite of ourselves’; but long before that we hear a summons, rising from some hidden depth within ourselves, that calls on us to broaden our self-regard, and realize that in virtue of our immortal souls, we are the countless centres of one and the same sphere, made one [identical] by everything in them that is not part of their incommunicable psychism. We are all interconnected elements of one and the same curve that extends ahead of and reaches back behind us. By reason of some obscure innate affinity, some immanent need to put our hands on what is stable and absolute, we feel germinating in us, or suddenly bursting out, a yearning to exchange the isolation that concentrates us on ourselves for a wider existence and a unity of a higher order; these, we feel, will allow us to share in the totality of all that draws us along and all that we are in contact with. It is in the pantheist aspiration for fusion of all in all1 that we see the immanent side of our cosmic nature, each proving the other, the one imposing itself on our will as irresistibly as the other imposes itself on our intelligence: but in each case only for those who can see and feel.

To make men see and make them feel—that is my first aim: to make an impassioned profession of my faith in the richness and value of the world and so vindicate myself against those who smile and shake their heads when they hear talk of an ill-defined nostalgia for something hidden within us which transcends and fulfils us—to win the day against them by showing them beyond all possible doubt that their self-sufficient individual personality is but a wisp of straw in the grip of forces they seek to shut their eyes to, forces that, when we speak of building up a temple to them, they dismiss as laughable. If man is to come up to his full measure, he must become conscious of his infinite capacity for carrying himself still further; he must realize the duties it involves, and he must feel its intoxicating wonder. He must abandon all the illusions of narrow individualism and extend himself, intellectually and emotionally, to the dimensions of the universe: and this even though, his mind reeling at the prospect of his new greatness, he should think that he is already in possession of the divine, is God himself, or is himself the artisan of Godhead.

I am not directly concerned with science, nor philosophy, nor apologetics. Primarily, I am concerned to express an impassioned vision. I shall limelight—though I shall not go out of my way to condemn—the crisis (always the accompaniment of a new awakening) that is now becoming acute in men’s minds and hearts; simply as an observer in the first place. I shall watch the birth and development, in the depths of individual souls or in the turmoil of the masses, of the cosmic temptation; the homage paid to the golden calf, the incense rising up to the peak of human pride. Although, again, I shall offer hardly any proof, and shall rely simply on its coherence with and correspondence with the Rest, I shall allow another picture to emerge—at first in apparent opposition to the dreams of the Earth, but in reality to complete and correct them—that of the inexpressible Cosmos of matter and of the new life, the Body of Christ, real and mystical, unity and multiplicity, monad and pleiad. And, like a man who surrenders himself to a succession of different melodies, I shall let the song of my life drift now here, now there—sink down to the depths, rise to the heights above us, turn back to the ether from which all things came, reach out to the more-than-man, and culminate in the incarnate God-man.

Nevertheless, a man who is enamoured of truth and reality cannot allow himself to drift indefinitely and confusedly with every breeze that fills and swells his soul. However much he might wish to, it would still be impossible: by a logical necessity that is rooted in things and our view of them, the time comes sooner or later when we must at last introduce unity and organization as the fundamental basis of our own selves—we have to test and select and give an order of precedence to what we love and worship—we have to cast down our idols and allow only one altar to stand in the sanctuary. A choice has to be made, and for no man is it so fraught with indecision and anguish as for the Christian, for the man, that is to say, who kneels before a cross and hears a loved voice call on him to abandon all in order that he may possess all. Does it mean, then, that to be a Christian he must renounce being a man, a man in the full extent and depth of the word, avidly and passionately a man? If we are to follow Christ and share in his heavenly body, must we abandon the hope that every time our efforts succeed in mastering a little more determinism, every time a little more truth is won and a little more progress achieved, we make contact with and begin to make available some small portion of the absolute? If we are to be united with Christ, must we dissociate ourselves from the forward drive inseparable from this intoxicating, pitiless cosmos that carries us along and asserts itself in the mind of each one of us? And is there not the danger that such a dissociation will in some way mutilate those who try to effect it in themselves, cool their ardour and rob them of their strength? That is the problem implicit in life: in any Christian heart there is an inevitable conflict between the divine faith that sustains his hopes as an individual and the earthly passion that is the driving force behind all human effort.

Of all my convictions, none is dearer to me than the conviction that dissociation from everything that makes up the noblest charm and interest of our natural life cannot be the basis of our supernatural growth. If a Christian really understands the inexpressibly wonderful work that is being carried out around him, and by him, in the whole of nature, he cannot fail to see that the excitement and delight aroused in him by ‘awakening to the cosmos’ can be preserved by him not only in the form they take when transposed to a divine Ideal, but also in the substance of their most material and most earthly objects: to do so, he has only to learn to appreciate the value of sacred evolution as an instrument of beatification, and the eternal hopes it contains.

That, above all, is the message I wish to communicate: the reconciliation of God and the world [because it reconciles God and the world.] In what follows I have tried to express, with as clear a view of things as I can achieve, the loyal solution that has given balance and unity to my interior life; and I offer it to those who are chary of accepting Christ, because they suspect him of wishing to besmirch the fair face of the earth to which their love is irrevocably pledged; and I offer it to those, too, who, in order to love Christ, force themselves to turn their backs on what fills their souls to overflowing; and to those, finally, who have been unable to bring together as one the God of their faith and the God of their most ennobling labours, and who grow weary and impatient of a life that is dissipated in misdirected effort.

24 April 1916, Nieuport


Awakening to the Cosmos

A: The Vision

1. The Multitude. The fundamental vision is that of plurality and the multitude, the multitude that surrounds us and the multitude that constitutes us, that is in restless motion around us, and that shelters within us.

For many, many years, in fact since all time, men have had before their eyes all these dust-like agglomerations, the stars in the heavens, the grains of sand in the dunes, the individuals in the crowd: and this was in addition to the necessity the mind cannot escape, when it seeks to define the continuous, of breaking it down into points (in its own image). It was this that made men feel that the universe must be atomic in its constitution. But it was only gradually and as a result of modern science’s continually more subtle investigations, that this intellectual hypothesis was transformed, in a wide section of the world, both above and below us, into a concrete, and often direct, sensory intuition.

Today, it would certainly appear that, even if our perceptions are still irrevocably enclosed within certain limits of greatness and smallness, we can at least flatter ourselves that we have discovered and established experimentally the law of recurrence that governs the structure of the cosmos. The analysis of matter is making us see it as a limitless aggregation of centres taking over and mastering one another in such a way as to build up, by their combinations, more and more complex centres of a higher order.

In what we call the ‘world of matter,’ the crystal or the colloidal particle can be broken down into molecules, the molecules into atoms, the atoms into electrons, and the electrons into some granular ether: while, advancing into a new order of magnitude, the planets represent the electrons of the solar system, which itself is an atom in some gigantic structure whose shape we cannot fathom. There, at each extreme, we meet Pascal’s twin infinities.

Again, in the world of life, society and the polyp break down into individuals, the individual into parts, the parts into cells, the cells into ill-defined granulations, in which the laws of atomic motion and symmetry are involved in and confused with organic differentiation and spontaneity.

When the scientist examines the apparent continuity of material beings, or their disintegration into artificial and accidental fragments, he finds it replaced by a countless swarm of monads that are by nature distinct from one another. Nevertheless, these monads are not rents in the coat without seam which is the universe, since (and here we have the mystery of the cosmos and the secret of matter) both when at rest and when active, in their texture and their development, they are still one and the same thing: and that by reason of the forces that hold them together or arrange them in hierarchical order, and of the common currents that carry them along.

2. Unity in the Ether. The first aspect of this profound oneness of all the elements of the universe is their common ‘rooting’ in the mysterious and pre-eminently cosmic entity that we call the ether.2

In spite of the strange properties that make it as physically real as a block of stone and at the same time as intangible as an abstract limit, physics is inexorably bound to accept the ether. It is the medium that must be posited for the transmission, or even perhaps the dispensing, of ‘transient’ energies,3 to maintain or even to hold in tension the links that attract or repel the particles into which the world breaks down. Moreover, it is the ultimate term at which the cosmic particles are resolved, whether we regard them as eddies produced within a primitive homogeneous fluidity or simply as the countless centres around which one and the same fundamental substance radiates and folds itself. In either case, whether as the primordial stuff of things or as being the universal active medium (like hyle or energeia) it enters into our view of the world, by reason of being by nature the ultimate support of substance and activities, as a reality whose uniform plenitude can admit neither hiatus nor break: either of those would open the door to non-being. The ether is like some great reservoir of elastic fluid that could be twisted again and again without the least rift or break appearing, to isolate from the total mass the individual local realities produced by the twistings, however complex and independent of one another we may conceive them to be. At the same time it is a fluid whose nature is such that we can have no empirical knowledge of it: no natural constitutive part can be distinguished in it, nothing that resembles an atom or a molecule. Force cannot break the continuity of the ether, nor can it be broken down by analysis. We should think of it not as having the texture of a liquid into which the countless hordes of a thousand and one different particles are crowded together, but as the unimaginable state of some centre that is indefinitely extended in space, everywhere the same and yet everywhere different from itself.

Everything in the universe, we must realize, proceeds from the ether, or in the ether.

I can put my hand at random on any element in the teeming multitude and if I confront it with another one, also chosen at random, I am obliged to admit that in both a real inner identity lies hidden—that identity may, no doubt, be completed by an individual and incommunicable immanence, but it is not destroyed by it. It is identity in the ether, whose unique centre, dispersed through all things, is the prime matter—indivisible in spite of its immensity—of all that springs up within the vast cosmos. Like knots spaced out along a cord, or like the folds into which a single curtain falls, or the eddies forming on one and the same surface, everything that moves and lives in the universe represents, in one particular aspect, the modifications of one and the same thing; and every monad, if it looks into itself, can find that thing as the initial point at which all things make contact in their inmost essence.

This consanguinity of the monads in the ether, which is their common stock and the sap that feeds them all, might perhaps serve to dispel, for philosophical thought, the disturbing illusion of transience: the interaction of material beings takes place by reason of, and at the level of, an identity. It is in any case the physical reason why material beings, to whatever degree of complexity they have risen, still exercise a reciprocal influence on one another in proportion to their specific perfection. Sometimes with a richer, sometimes a poorer organic structure, sometimes more, sometimes less fully illuminated by consciousness or governed by free choice, it is always, if we look deeply enough, the ether that is being attracted or repelled deep within material beings: it is the ether that confronts itself in this thing or that thing, that presses on with them, we may say, towards some hidden end. It is the ether that maintains the uniformity and interaction of determinisms and that ensures the grip of one soul upon another. The monad’s unity of origin is necessarily continued in unity of behaviour, of affinities and growth. It becomes definitively part and parcel of the total development of matter.

This is because the monads of our universe are not simply and solely the centres that emerged within a vast, immobile, homogeneous mass. As happens with the eddies in a river, their birth is accompanied by a more far-reaching movement which not only carries them along beyond themselves but is also, in some way, the actual cause of their emergence. How, exactly, are we to visualize the over-all movement that carries the world of matter along in space, or transforms its interior make-up? Is matter, first and foremost, as the dissipation of energy and the disintegration of atoms would suggest, ‘what breaks down and sinks back’? Are the displacements that shift the stellar system carried out along trajectories that have no common meeting point? Or are they rather the perception, on an extremely small element, of a gigantic eddy that it recommencing, on an enormous scale, the ether’s endless task of folding-in upon itself? Only one thing matters for us here: it is that, in addition to an original identity of the centres and to a network of static (or at any rate permanent) links that holds them together, there are without any doubt large over-all currents that affect the multiplicity of atoms and stars, and through them the common soul of an evolution is infused into the common body of all that has its basis in ether.

And this step brings us to the confines of life.

3. Unity through Life. Nothing would appear to be more isolated, nothing more exclusive of all extra-individual existence, than the living monad.

Souls, immaterial or spiritual, are the type of the complete, of the self-contained, of the autonomous; in our experience and in our thought they represent microcosms. And yet, because of the extreme sensitiveness of their reactions and the deeply penetrative power of their introspection, nowhere can one distinguish more easily than in them the influences and functions and unity of the cosmos, nowhere do they appear more impressive and also more fruitful.

At the origin of the compulsions that subject souls to one another and to things outside them, we meet the inevitable ether. Even though it is still impossible, at our present stage of knowledge, to say exactly what are the relationships that produce the interdependence of these two great and still (so far as we know?) distinct realities, we can be certain that life stems from matter and cannot do without it. Life appeared, and develops, as a function of the whole universe; and therefore, through something in itself, it shares in the universe’s original substantial unity, and in some hidden way is involved in the over-all movement, material in basis, which constitutes the total development of the cosmos. Moreover, in its manifestations and particularly in its lower forms it can hardly be distinguished from the inanimate structures produced by what we call physico-chemical forces. In its external shape, in its internal processes, in its powers of fermentation, and in its readiness to enter into aggregations of a higher order, the monocellular being behaves in many ways like a molecule. Life appears in phenomenal continuity with the network of material determinisms and constructions. When the individualization of organic and conscious monads produces folds in the basic fabric of the cosmos, it does not tear it, any more than does the separation of the atomic centres. Already, through the matter that is common to them, all living beings are but one being.

And it is primarily through their all possessing life that they are welded into one.

Life, we have just said, is in some way an extension of matter. With the elements, it retains some of the habits of matter. It can even, we shall see, copy it and mimic it by making itself mechanical. But it is even more distinct from matter in the particular way of involution by which the monads are born under its influence, and also in the general orientation of the current of increasing perfection along which it carries them. Through this matter that breaks up, and by means of it, life rises, combining the work of external organization that it carries out through individuals with a special internal involution through which there emerges in the heart of matter an increasingly more conscious side. Now, nothing contributes more to the unity of the centres than the common genesis that associates them in their structure and their destiny. We should look more closely at the pages of stone on which is written the history of the transformations of living organisms.

For anyone who can turn over those pages patiently, constantly, and religiously, there emerges from them a vast, luminous, picture. Even some of the most dedicated of those who have been able to read them have been powerless to describe it except in vague, dazzling terms of rays that melt into one another, of a glorious dawn, of an explosive surge; but they are all agreed in recognizing it as a continuity. If we look at it far enough back in the depths of time, the disordered anthill of living beings suddenly, for an informed observer, arranges itself in long files that make their way by various paths towards greater consciousness. Seen from a sufficient distance and in a particular light, individuals (principles, in appearance, of egocentrism and permanence) are recognized as no more than staging-posts in a movement, each individual’s most essential function being to advance that movement a little further; and the very multiplicity of the attempts made to force matter to give way to spontaneity, and to organize it in centres that can be charged with cosmic energies, even that multiplicity is absorbed in the unity of one and the same general direction (of climbing up, we might say, one common gradient)—and that direction or gradient leads towards freedom and light. Many individual lives come to grief, or are trampled underfoot and sacrificed in this pell-mell rush towards the light of day; many false directions lead only to organisms that have no future, stifled in an excess of secondary trappings or paralysed by the mass. In this way whole groups are eliminated or survive only to provide a support for efforts that run parallel with them. These minor checks, however, are of no importance; it is the whole body of work done and success achieved that is paramount. The effort to climb upwards is maintained through and beyond partial checks, and the mysterious, unique, life-sap penetrates and makes its way, surrounded though it is by the inconceivable tangle of mechanical and organic activities. Infallibly, it rises up towards some more efficiently knit nervous system, and above all towards brain, where thought will be able to reflect upon itself instantly and unerringly. Bergson expressed this better, perhaps, than anyone; but all who are really close to life have felt, as he did and long before he did, their souls thrill to his confident belief.

First there is the revelation of the unique matter, and then, even more wonderful, that of the unique soul: first, what the laboratory shows us, and then what nature does; first the ether, and then life. How blind and ‘unhuman’, then, are those who look at the universe and refuse to recognize these things, or who claim to see them and yet remain unmoved by the impact of a vast superabundance in which their whole being is swallowed up. It is not, you see, enough to hear what science has to tell us, and to observe from outside the cosmic currents taking shape, in their individual eddyings or their over-all drifts; it is those currents that make us what we are, it is through us that they run, and we must be able to feel them.

B: Feeling

… And I allowed my consciousness to sweep back to the farthest limit of my body, to ascertain whether I might not extend outside myself. I stepped down into the most hidden depths of my being, lamp in hand and ears alert, to discover whether in the deepest recesses of the blackness within me, I might not see the glint of the waters of the current that flows on, whether I might not hear the murmur of their mysterious waters that rise from the uttermost depths and will burst forth no man knows where. With terror and intoxicating emotion, I realized that my own poor trifling existence was one with the immensity of all that is and all that is still in process of becoming.4

I can feel it: matter, which I thought was most my own, eludes and escapes me. Countless radiations run through me in every direction, and I am, in some way, no more than the place where they meet or conflict with one another. All sorts of hidden influences surround me and penetrate me—emanate, too, from me—bringing with them the echo and repercussions of all that vibrates and moves in the boundless ether. Moreover, all these impacts, all this penetration of the rest into me, are not unjust intrusions which I have the right, if not the power, to repel. When they reach me, they are at home, for it is they that make me what I am.

I can feel, again—and this time much more distinctly—a multitude of the independent and spontaneous—atoms, molecules, cells—in turmoil beneath the unity of my own organic structure. Generally speaking and on the whole, their hierarchically ordered mass serves me faithfully. But each one of them retains its individual affinities with spheres of matter that are not my sphere; and, sooner or later, these sympathies are inevitably expressed in processes of disorganization whose end is ‘the return to dust’.

The result of their activities, when they have been disciplined and completed by my soul, is without doubt a vital force—an aptitude for feeling and evolving—that I can claim as specifically my own: and yet although this force is indeed my own in the sense that it is I who concentrate it and experience it, I am quite unable to pin it down, whether I try to decipher any part either of its past or of its future. Behind the unity it assumes in my consciousness there lies hidden the dense multitude of all the succession of beings whose infinitely patient and lengthy labour has carried to its present stage of perfection the phylum of which I am for a moment the extreme bud. My life is not my own: I know this from the inexorable determinism contained in the development of overpowering emotions, in pain and in death. And I feel this, not only in my bodily members but in the very core of what is most spiritual in my being.

I am, obviously, free. But what does my freedom represent other than an imperceptible point buried in an indeterminate mass of laws and relationships that I cannot, by and large, control? All I can do is shrewdly to make what use I may of them, follow their slant, sail with their wind, appear to master them and bend them to my will—when all I am doing, in fact, is to set them off one against the other. Each one of us can distinguish in the depth of his being a whole system of deep-seated tendencies—a law of his own individual evolution—that nothing can suppress and that persists through every stage of greater perfection. This personal driving force is prior to and higher than free will; it is written into our character, into the rhythm of our thoughts, and into the crude surge of our passions; and it is life’s heritage to us, it is the conscious evidence in us of the vast vital current, one trickle of which forms us, it is our subjection to the great task of development of which we, for one brief hour, are no more than the artisans.

If, as I said before, we step down into ourselves, we shall be horrified to find there, beneath the man of surface relationships and reflection, an unknown—a man as yet hardly emerged from unconsciousness, still, for lack of the appropriate stimulus, no more than half-awake: one whose features, seen in the half-shadow, seem to be merging into the countenance of the world.

No brutal shock, no, nor no gentle caress can compare with the vehemence and possessive force of the contact between ourselves as individuals and the universe, when suddenly, beneath the ordinariness of our most familiar experiences, we realize, with religious horror, that what is emerging in us is the great cosmos.

C: The Call

No man who has once experienced this vision can ever forget it. Like the seaman who has known the intoxicating blue of the South Seas—whatever he be whom the ray has touched upon, whether scientist, philosopher, or humble worker—he lives for ever with his nostalgia for what is greatest, most durable, for the Absolute whose presence and activity around him he has felt for one moment. The flash that opened his eyes remains as a light imprinted deep within them; and he never ceases to thrill to the awareness of contact with the universe. Others may smile at his vain worries and his odd concern to extend man’s consciousness beyond the accepted limits of practical life. But the man with the vision will follow his own road; he knows that many will understand his language and that they are waiting to hear him speak, sorrowful and somehow stunted because hidden aspirations are clamorous within them and they are unable to express them. This, then, is the word that gives freedom: it is not enough for man to throw off his self-love and live as a social being. He needs to live with his whole heart, in union with the totality of the world that carries him along, cosmically. Deeper than the soul of individuals, vaster than the human group, there is a vital fluid or spirit of things, there is some absolute, that draws us and yet lies hidden. If we are to see its features, to answer its call and understand its meaning, and if we are to learn to live more, we must plunge boldly into the vast current of things and see whither its flow is carrying us.


Communion with Earth

A: The Temptation of Matter

When a man has emerged into consciousness of the cosmos, and has deliberately flung himself into it, his first impulse is to allow himself to be rocked like a child by the great mother in whose arms he has just woken. For some this attitude of surrender is a mere aesthetic emotion, for others it is a rule of practical life, a system of thought, or even a religion; but in it lies the common root of all non-Christian pantheisms.

The essential revelation of paganism is that everything in the universe is uniformly true and valuable: so much so that the fusion of the individual must be effected with all, without distinction and without qualification. Everything that is active, that moves or breathes, every physical, astral, or animate energy, every fragment of force, every spark of life, is equally sacred; for, in the humblest atom and the most brilliant star, in the lowest insect and the finest intelligence, there is the radiant smile and thrill of the same Absolute. It is to this Absolute alone that we have to cling, giving ourselves to it directly and with a penetration that can see through even the most substantial determinations of the real, and rejects them as superficial appearances. It is the eastern vision of the blue Lotus, instinct with passion because every tangible beauty is divinized by it, but weighted with matter whose hidden basis, stimulated by that same vision, strives to rise up, to enter into, and to absorb all spirituality.

What, in fact, characterizes pantheist and non-Christian views is that the fundamental equivalence they introduce between everything that exists is produced, at the expense of conscious and personal life, for the benefit of the rudimentary and diffuse modes of being found in the lower monads. At first it would appear that in the eyes of the naturalist thinker or the Hindu everything is animated; in reality, everything is materialized. The luminous destiny of things, the paradise of souls they dream of, become one with their dim source; they are absorbed in the fundamental reservoir of homogeneous ether and latent life, from which everything has emerged and by returning to be lost in which it is destined to attain its beatitude. Life is understood and experienced as a function of matter.

… One day, I was looking out over the dreary expanse of the desert. As far as they eye could see, the purple steps of the uplands rose up in series, towards horizons of exotic wildness; again, as I watched the empty, bottomless ocean whose waves were ceaselessly moving in their ‘unnumbered laughter’; or, buried in a forest whose life-laden shadows seemed to seek to absorb me in their deep, warm, folds—on such occasions, maybe,5 I have been possessed by a great yearning to go and find, far from men and far from toil the place where dwell the vast forces that cradle us and possess us, where my over-tense activity might indefinitely become ever more relaxed … And then all my sensibility became alert, as though at the approach of a god of easy-won happiness and intoxication; for there lay matter, and matter was calling me. To me in my turn, as to all the sons of man, it was speaking as every generation hears it speak; it was begging me to surrender myself unreservedly to it, and to worship it.

And why, indeed, should I not worship it, the stable, the great, the rich, the mother, the divine? Is not matter, in its own way, eternal and immense? Is it not matter whose absence our imagination refuses to conceive, whether in the furthest limit of space or in the endless recesses of time? Is it not the one and only universal substance, the ethereal fluidity that all things share without either diminishing or fragmenting it? Is it not the absolutely fertile generatrix, the Terra Mater, that carries within her the seeds of all life and the sustenance of all joy? Is it not at once the common origin of beings and the only end we could dream of, the primordial and indestructible essence from which all emerges and into which all returns, the starting point of all growth and the limit of all disintegration/ All the attributes that a philosophy of the spirit posits as lying outside the universe, do they not in fact lie at the opposite pol? Are they n realized and are they not to be attained in the depths of the world, in divine matter?

Lulled by the voice that charmed more than one wise man, it was thus that my spell-bound heart and my reason, its willing fellow-victim, would speak. It was heathendom’s hour, the time when the song of the Sirens rises up from the nether regions of the universe….

In the exhilaration, then, of these first delights and this first encounter, I may well have believed in the glitter, the sweet scents, the boundless expanses, the bottomless depths, and surrendered myself to matter. I wished to see whether, as the vast hopes aroused in me by ‘awakening to the cosmos’ suggested, I could arrive at the very heart of things; whether, by losing myself in the world’s embrace, I could find its soul. Ardently and with no holding back, I made the experiment, unable to imagine that the true could fail to coincide with the enchantment of the senses and the alleviation of suffering. But I found that the more I allowed myself to drift closer to the centre, ever more diffuse and dilated, of primordial consciousness, the more the light of life was dimmed in me.

In the first place, I felt that I was less a part of society; for matter is jealous and will allow the initiate of its mysteries no witness. Contact with other men is painful to the pantheist, or he tries to see only their collective activities, like the inconsequent movements of a system deprived of freedom. Persons (except when love intervenes) are mutually exclusive through their centres, and the pantheist dreams of forming but one, of being synonymous, with all around him. Thus he isolates himself, and he becomes intoxicated with his isolation. When I recognized that symptom I already suspected that I was becoming less of a person. And yet solitude has its own life-giving virtues. I was not, perhaps, in spite of the lesson of the centuries, taking the wrong road when I allowed myself to stray so far from mankind, depressing, befogging and uninteresting as it is. And so I obediently yielded to the thirst for being alone, and, to find a less irksome life, I made my way into the desert.

What happened, however, was this: by the inexorable logic that links the stages of our activity, a diminution of social contact led, in me, to a diminution of personality. The man who finds his neighbour too heavy a burden must inevitably be weary already of being the burden of his own self. Thus I found myself seeking to cut down the work that every living being must produce if he is to remain himself. I was glad to see my responsibilities reduced; I could feel my cult of passivity being extended to the very limit. Mighty nature is at work for us; she has made it her business to look to the future, to be the guide, to make the decisions, and all we have to do is to surrender ourselves to her guidance: any interference on our part would be wasted labour both for us and for nature. And thus it was in one flash the bewitching voice that was drawing me far from the cities into the untrodden, silent spaces, came through to me. One day I understood the meaning of the words it spoke to me; they stirred the little-known depths of my being, holding out the promise of some great bliss-giving repose; and I knew what it meant when it whispered ‘Take the easier road’.

Already, at the foot of the slope down which the sweet load of matter was drawing me, I could see the swine of Epicurus feeding.

It was then that faith in life saved me.

Life! When trouble lies heaviest upon us, whither shall we turn, if not to the ultimate criterion, the supreme verdict, of life’s success and the roads that lead to it? When every certainty is shaken and every utterance falters, when every principle appears doubtful, then there is only one ultimate belief on which we can base our rudderless interior life: the belief that there is an absolute direction of growth, to which both our duty and our happiness demand that we should conform; and that life advances in that direction, taking the most direct road. I have contemplated nature for so long and have so loved her countenance, recognized unmistakably as hers, that I now have a deep conviction, dear to me, infinitely precious and unshakable, the humblest and yet the most fundamental in the whole structure of my convictions, that life is never mistaken, either about its road or its destination. No doubt, it does not define intellectually for us any God or any dogma; but it shows us by what road we may expect all that are neither delusions nor idols; it tells us towards what part of the horizon we must steer if we are to see the light dawn and grow more intense. I believe this in virtue of all my experience and of all my thirst for greater happiness: there is indeed an absolute fuller-being and an absolute better-being, and they are rightly to be described as a progress in consciousness, in freedom, and in moral sense. Moreover, these higher degrees of being are to be attained by concentration, purification, and maximum effort. I was, then, hopelessly mistaken in what I was just saying; I went completely astray when I yielded to the temptation of matter and relaxed the inner tension of my being in an attempt to enter limitlessly and unquestioningly into the universe. To grow greater in the truth, we must travel with our backs turned to matter and not try to return to it and be absorbed into it.

In the first exhilaration of my immersion in the universe I allowed myself to drift unresistingly towards effortless enjoyment and Nirvana…. Now, like the diver who regains control and masters his inertia, I must make a vigorous effort, reverse my course, and ascend again to the higher levels. The true summons of the cosmos is a call consciously to share in the great work that goes on within it; it is not by drifting down the current of things that we shall be united with their one, single, soul, but by fighting our way, with them, towards some term still to come.

B: Towards Superman

1. First stage: Mastery of the Universe. If we refuse to allow ourselves to be the plaything of the universe’s determinisms and blissfully to sink into the isolation they offer, it does not mean that we cease, in all circumstances, to put our faith in matter, or to believe that when we grasp it we hold the basic cosmic entity. If a man makes up his mind to place the happiness and value of his life in co-operating with the universe’s essential task of producing some absolute, matter can still stand, and so remain until the end, in the foreground of his aspirations and hopes.

In this case, however, matter assumes a very different appearance from that ascribed to it by the philosophy of the lowest degree of consciousness and the least effort. It is no longer seen as the bewitching and voluptuous divinity in whose arms human activity is absorbed simply by a dream—to close one’s eyes and surrender oneself. Now, it takes on a virile aspect, it toughens, and on its forehead there appears the mark of the Sphinx. Its beauty is still captivating, its breast fruitful; but the Mistress, ingratiating and yet dominating, has now been replaced by the disquieting Enigma, by the exciting Force. Matter is now the mysterious betrothed who is won, like the hunter’s prey, in high combat…. And to win her, it is not to the silence of sleep that we must turn, or to the wild empty spaces, but to the busy laboratories of nature or human skill.

As a man who has become alive to the primacy work leans over his retorts or microscope, he sees, intensely illuminated, the potential significance and value of the particle of intelligence and activity he has at his disposal. It is his function to complete cosmic evolution by making the inexhaustible energies at the heart of which he is born ‘work’ as though with a leaven, until all the promise they hold is realized. Who could number the still dormant seeds, the rich potentialities, hidden in matter? The dullest, most inert object, once the appropriate stimulant has been applied to it, and it has been given the sort of complement or contact it needs and awaits, is capable of exploding into irresistible effects or of transforming itself into a nature that is prodigiously active.

As a result of natural contacts or of an instinctive, hidden, work, the Cosmos has already realized one part of its capabilities, giving us the world we know, with its individual substances and shades of life. But how many valuable properties are still to be discovered, that will perfect and transform the present picture of things? For too long, in seeking for health and growth, mankind has confined itself to docile empiricism and patient resignation…. The time has now come to master nature, to make it unlock its secrets, to dominate it, to inaugurate a new phase; in that phase intelligence, which emerged from the universe, will turn back to it, to readjust and rejuvenate it, and make it provide its conscious portion with the full contribution it can make of growth in joy and activity.

We may ask what term is held out as the fruit of such efforts. The scientist’s answer may still be vague, but he has behind him discoveries that have enabled him enormously to increase his power, to transform bodies and methodically to overcome disease. He can envisage a new era in which suffering is effectively alleviated, well-being is assured, and—who knows?—our organs are perhaps rejuvenated and even artificially developed. It is dangerous to challenge science and set a limit to its victories, for the hidden energies it summons from the depths are unfathomable. May it not even become possible to cultivate the brain itself, and intensify at will the power and keenness of thought?6

Borne up by this vast hope of indefinitely increasing his stature and of achieving his own beatification by using matter as a firm purchase-point, man devotes himself with new fervour to an impassioned study of the powers of the universe and becomes absorbed in the quest for the Great Secret. His austere task is enveloped in the mystical glow that lit up the anxious faces of the alchemists, haloed the brow of the Magi, and divinized the bold theft of Prometheus; and, before each new property that is revealed to him, each a new window on the Promised Land, the scientist falls on his knees, almost as though to the revelation of an attribute of God.

2. Second Stage: The Segregation of Mankind. In and through the very effort man puts forth to master and exploit the world, he asserts his relative transcendence, his superiority to the rest of things. He stands out from the confused welter of monads. He learns to turn his attention more closely upon himself, to examine himself more carefully, to concentrate upon his own being and progress the love and concern he had allowed to extend too uniformly over the totality of the universe. First then, he recognizes in his attempts to live cosmically an initial error—an exaggerated cult of passivity amounting to an acceptance of the line of least resistance. He then suspects that his original pantheist attitude must undergo a further correction. The true way to be united with totality is not to squander oneself and spend oneself equally on all beings, but to make one’s impact with all one’s weight and all one’s strength on that specifically favoured point on which the universal effort converges and applies its mass. The essential law of cosmic development is not the egalitarian fusion of all beings, but the segregation that allows a chosen élite to emerge, to mature, and to stand out alone. And, in this case, the coveted fruit that all things work to produce, in which all is summed up and fulfilled, in which all finds joy and pride, is mankind.

It matters little that, for the historian of human origins, man, when he first appears, does not seem worthy of so high a destiny. What though the roads by which he appeared and along which he advanced organically be humble and obscure—so humble and obscure, indeed, that he has much more the air of a common upstart than a predestined leader? What though he seem to have been carried by chance to the biological threshold at which many other phyla, more important that his, faded away or from which they fell back before crossing it? The cosmic importance of a being does not necessarily depend upon whether it is more close or less close to the axis of the fascicle of natural growths.7 Scientists can, indeed, show us how large a part accident has played in our destiny and how we occupy but a marginal position within the group of living beings; but even so we men represent that part of the world that has won through, that in which all the life-sap of a recognizable evolution flows, in which all its efforts are concentrated, towards the break-through that has finally been effected. It is we, without any doubt, that constitute the active part of the universe; we are the bud in which life is concentrated and is at work, and in which the flower of every hope is enclosed. If, then, a man who has heard the summons of the cosmos is to remain faithful to it, he must overcome his repugnance for contact with the mob, for the promiscuity and constraints of cities and the smoke of factories, and, with all his soul, turn back to mankind; for mankind is the object in which, rather than in his own being, he must re-discover himself and to which his love for his own self must be given.

Thanks to the mastery of matter that he has been working to achieve, man of the laboratory and the factory has already, as we have seen, been assisting most effectively the continued progress and success of the development of the cosmos, as canalized by the human stock. Other completely different factors, much more directly appropriate to the special needs of new developments, must also be distinguished and made use of: the factors that belong to the social and moral order.

From the social point of view, the human monad presents itself to an observer, whether he examines it from the outside or from within, as a sort of molecule or cell essentially destined to be integrated in a higher structure or organism. Not only is the nourishment of numerous material perceptions and assimilations indispensable to its make-up; if it is to attain its full development it must also be complemented by other monads similar to itself. It can be completely itself only by ceasing to be isolated. Like molecules whose coming together stimulates dormant properties, so human beings fertilize and complete one another by making contact; and the association necessary to the multiplication of the human race is no more than a lower and extremely feeble prototype of the rich developments produced by the intercourse of the souls. As particular positions and functions are assigned in the body to the cells, so, in society, the skills of individuals are defined and distributed, and provide one another with mutual support. Childish though it is to exaggerate the analogies with the organic presented by social groups, it is equally superficial to see in them only the arbitrary and contingent. Although they never produce a network sufficiently close-knit and unified for us to be able to speak of a true collective soul, yet the interrelations of men represent an essential, cosmic, work ‘of nature’; they are an indispensable link in the series by which the universe moves towards its perfection. To co-operate in their establishment is much more than a superficial occupation, a pleasant or supererogatory pastime: it is truly to contribute one’s effort to the fundamental work that has determined the movement of the universe ever since the beginning; it is to forward life’s further developments.

So far as one can guess, the developments to be expected are primarily of the intellectual and moral order. The impression one gets is that after having been completely occupied for a long time in the work of constructing organisms, life is only now beginning to see to its internal dispositions; it is concentrating its attention and care on advances and refinements of a finally perfected consciousness. At present, evolution is continuing much more through improvements of the psychological order than through organic transformations. It is the same ontological effort still being pursued, but in a new phase and at a new level. What direct physical links exist in depth between souls, making them all share fully in the ontological advances realized by any one of them? By virtue of what reactions of spirit on matter does any progress in interior illumination and rightly ordered will make itself felt in all being and in the whole species, and so complete and perfect them organically? What new state of existence will eventually be produced by cultivation of the soul and harmonizing of social energies? It seems almost nonsensical to formulate these questions and the hypotheses they imply. As happens when we try to form some sort of picture of the very first origins of life or of mankind, so the mere attempt to give exact form to the aspirations that centre on the ultimate flowering of our race is sufficient to make them appear ridiculous. This, however, is very far from proving that the presentiments behind our aspirations are mistaken.

Those who hold firmly to their belief in human progress are, in fact, a numerous body. We may smile at their naïveté, and quote against them the disquieting evidence of men’s conflicts and maliciousness, but they persist in their hope. They believe that to accept that mankind is simply drifting and coming to nothing, to deny that any promise is alive in it, is to despair of grasping any absolute in the universe, is to recognize that the cosmos is empty, its summons a falsehood, and life impotent and deceptive. Such a fraud, they say, cannot be reconciled with the most profound assurances life offers us. Under the combined efforts of science, morality, and association in society, some super-mankind is emerging; and it is very probably in the direction of Spirit that we should look, if we wish to know what form it will take.

3. Third Stage: The Liberation of Spirit. As man advances in consciousness of his value as a person and of the real worth of the social groups in which he is integrated, so he ceases to find satisfaction in matter. When he first awoke to the cosmos, he had eyes and hands only for the immediate, solid, treasures that come to us, tangibly apprehended, with the earth. Now his attention is being drawn to, and his ambitions are concentrated upon, that specially flavoured position to which he is introduced by a mysterious, laborious process of segregation (the combined work of nature and his own industry); he is beginning, therefore, to look down on the first object of his cosmic passion. Intellectually and emotionally the promises offered by matter have ceased to be paramount. He is tending to see in matter only an obstacle; it is becoming a dead-weight, a husk to be discarded as he journeys on. And the reason for this is that it is dim, heavy, passive, loaded with suffering, evil—while progress moves toward the light, to ease, and freedom, and blessedness, and purification of being…. The significance and value of the world’s work may well lie in spiritualizing matter, or, if matter is found to be impatient of such transformation, in eliminating it. This is the new idea that is gradually warming to life in every high-minded, loyal, soul; it first attracts it, and finally wins it over.

A number of considerations, drawn from the order of experience, are at first introduced to support this brilliant hope. They allow one to believe that the reduction of Spirit to matter is not impossible, and is, indeed continually taking place; in consequence, transition from one to the other in the reverse direction is equally possible. Every activity, by reason of its very functioning, is encumbered with mechanisms which facilitate the execution of further acts but at the same time reduce and act as a brake on spontaneity. Even the most conscious act soon succumbs to the burden of habit; the habit passes from the psychic make-up into ‘acquired’ reflexes; and some acquired reflexes may well, perhaps, pass in turn into the general stock of hereditary characteristics transmitted from one generation to another. For example, the automatic instinct of insects, so astonishingly blind and exact, would seem to be simply the survival of former spontaneous processes; of old, these had been both exuberant and varied but for centuries now they have been channelled into the easiest and most satisfying directions. In this group of living creatures, their original ‘freedom’ has become so loaded with organic reflexes that it has almost disappeared and has been replaced by a group of ‘tropisms’. Everything in matter that is passive and ‘material’—its linkages, its determinisms, its inertia, its unconsciousness—may possibly be the result of a similar secondary transformation, a pseudomorphosis, by which primordial ‘omni-spontaneity’ was converted into mechanical obedience and routine. One is tempted to believe that this is so, if one notes that besides materialization by habit there can also be, exaggerating it, materialization by sheer numbers.

This also is a fact known by our daily intimate experience. Simply as a result of numerical magnitude, a particular inertia is developed in collective groups: certain constants and certain laws are produced in them, that can give a total sum of free options (provided it be sufficiently large) the overall appearance of a system of determinisms. There is nothing so difficult to transform, nothing that takes so long if you try to make it evolve, and nothing so troublesome to hold in check, as a multitude. Plurality throws a veil of lifelessness over the individuals it groups together. It forces the whole they form to take on the apparent characteristics of matter. The rigour and regularity of physical laws have no firmer support beneath us than the very multiplicity of the elementary effects that our perceptions synthesize. And above us, we feel, the large communities (racial, national, etc.) of which we are the atoms, absorb and dominate us; they do this through higher streams of influence which are, no doubt, born from the confluence of our own tendencies and passions, although, since they originate from a centre much more immense than ourselves, we cannot master them.

Matter, a deposit that is slowly formed in the tissues of our soul, or a solid block bound together by the cohesion of our individual personalities, constantly tends to catch up on us and to re-form above us. And this proves that by making an effort in the opposite direction we can force it to withdraw, and so win back ground from the unconscious and inevitable and even, maybe, re-animate all things.

Idealist thinkers offer us hope that this dream may indeed be realized. Matter, they tell us, in which a crude philosophy would see the support of all that exists and the stuff of which it is made, cannot subsist by itself; for matter is simply transience and multiplicity, while being, on the other hand, is essentially immanence and unity. The keystone of the universe, the centre of all interconnexions, without which the world collapses, disintegrates and vanishes, is the intellectual monad, the only monad that subsists in its perfect simplicity. History, no doubt, shows us an advance in the opposite direction: in the phenomenal development of time, the less conscious preceded the appearance of the more conscious…. That order, however, reflects only a subjective point of view; it represents an evolution, in relation to our own particular position, of the ontological conditions of our being. We reach back into the past, in phyletic series, just as in space the continuous disintegrates into atoms, and just as freedom is broken down into determinisms, or intuition into logical processes. We should not, however, be deceived by analytical illusions. The truth about the way in which things are constituted is this: Everything that exists has a basis of thought, not a basis of ether. Necessarily, then, consciousness has everywhere the power to re-emerge, because everywhere it is consciousness, dormant or ossified, that persists.

Thus, the verdict of philosophical thought confirms the hints suggested by experience, and enables us to envisage the increasing possibility of the spiritualization of the universe. Through a mental drive sui generis combined with a better organization of the forces that link monads together, the individual can cooperate in causing consciousness and flexibility to re-emerge in the multitude of atoms and the multitude of men, in both inorganic and living matter, and in social matter. This is his cosmic task: and it will lead mankind to freedom and happiness.

When final harmony at last reigns universally, resolving conflicts and cleavages, correcting baneful tendencies and unlawful contacts, illuminating the depths of all things, then suffering and mischance and gloom will no longer disfigure the regenerated cosmos. Everything that was simply a hard, secondary, crust, every false or reprehensible relationship, all physical and moral evil, all the evil part of the world, will have disappeared: what remains will have flowered again, and Spirit will have absorbed matter.

4. Fourth Stage: The Peace the World gives. When man has reached this supreme point in the purification of his views and the widening of his desires, he halts and turns back upon himself. Weary of his own instability and insignificance, he has left his home to hasten in search of the absolute element in the universe, the element that calls for his worship. Now that he has found a direction in life, now that he has met the Divinity that his being was confusedly yearning to dedicate itself to, then, enriched by what he has found, he returns to the hidden shelter of his own heart and looks around. Has his aged, weary, heart at last found new youth? Is the hunger of his heart at last filled and satisfied? Is his anxious heart now at peace? What change is there in the man who has allowed the cares of, and consciousness of, the cosmos to form part of his interior life?

What such a man sees first of all is that his level of egoism has dropped. It is not that he no longer loves himself (which would be absurd), nor that he loves himself less (which would be pernicious) but that he loves himself in a different and better way. Ever since he saw the swarming of the multitudes and recognized the flow of the cosmic current, the petty well-being of his own person has ceased to appear to him the central concern of the universe, and is no longer of paramount importance to him. He no longer believes now that he is the only person in the world, there to enjoy himself and grow greater. Countless others, all around him, also have the right to be happy and successful. He sees them struggling on all sides; and he can discern, infinitely more important than any private undertakings, the development of a vast work that calls for all his good will and fills him with enthusiasm. He has, quite literally, shifted the axis of his life outside himself; he has, one might say, de-centred himself; in some way it is no longer himself that he cherishes in himself, but the great thing of which he is a constituent particle and an active element; it is the immanent Goddess of the World that rests her foot on him for a moment, to rise, with his support, a little higher still.

Indolence and lack of interest, then, have given way in him to a burning zeal to seek for the truth and a disciplined, eager, concern for progress. Grandis labor instat.(translation) No time must be lost, and no opportunity missed. However trifling it be, part of life’s ultimate success depends upon the diligence with which I examine the world and make it more perfect in my own self. Awareness of this task spurs me on, and at the same time consoles me for my insignificance and obscurity.

Hitherto, the paltriness of my life and the contempt of my fellow-men used to be irksome to me. Until quite recently, not to be known or to be misunderstood, seemed an intolerable disappointment, and the fear of it paralysed my activity. But now that the true measure of things has been made clear to my soul, I am free. Why, before I act, should I be concerned to know whether my effort will be noticed or appreciated? Why should I feed my appetite for action with the empty hope of prestige or popularity? The only reward for my labour I now covet is to be able to think that it is being used for the essential and lasting progress of the universe. If I have faith in life, I believe that the world records everything good and useful that is done in it; it notes and assimilates to itself every movement and every impulse that is fitted to harmonize with its own becoming, of whose real goodness there can be no doubt. My life may be unknown, monotonous, commonplace, boring, hidden from all men’s eyes … but I shall carry out its duties in the consciousness that I am effectively collaborating in the absolute evolution of Being. Lowly atom though I am, I shall fulfil an imperceptible function as such with a heart as all-embracing as the universe.

Even when I am confronted by suffering, my vision of the cosmos will justify me in remaining unmoved.

Observed in isolation, pain is inexplicable and hateful; but as soon as we attribute to it its proper place and role in the cosmos, we can read its features and distinguish its smile. It is pain that, by stimulating beings to react against conditions that are inimical to their full development, forces them to leave unprofitable roads; it stimulates them to undertake fruitful work and induces them to attain common harmony and to adapt themselves to one another in such a way as to avoid conflicts that injure and encroachments that reduce them. It is pain again that, by detaching man from lower delights, forces him to seek joy in considerations and objects that ‘worm and rust do not consume’, that makes his soul return to the higher reaches of being, and keeps the vital pressure continually at work against the present limits of his development. It is pain, finally, that automatically punishes any transgressions of life’s laws, and sees to it that they are expiated. Suffering stimulates, spiritualizes, and purifies. The converse, and at the same time the complement, of the appetite for happiness, it is the very life-blood of evolution; since, through suffering, it is the cosmos that wakens in us, I shall see suffering come without distress or fear.

Such, then, is the peace that the world gives. The responsibility for, and joy in, a great tangible value to be fostered, have transfigured my life.

5. Fifth Stage: The Soul’s Lament. At the very moment when I was flattering myself that I had at last found an unshakable foundation of imperturbability, and an ultimate end that would soothe and polarize all my anxious aspirations, at that very moment I heard a long lament rising up from within me, the lament of my sacrificed soul, mourning the hopes it had for itself and that are now no more.

In the religion of divine evolution, the person counts for nothing. A passing eddy in the over-all current, no sooner formed than it vanishes, a graver first carefully sharpened and then thrown aside as soon as it is blunted, the individual has no importance and no future except in relation to the general progress. He can regard himself only as an ephemeral value; and the love he filches for his personal use and happiness is a sort of dissipation of the main energy. To find the Absolute on earth, the soul has had to renounce all that constituted the dignity and charm of its life. And this saying is so hard that, as we know, when the time comes for bearing the burden of a real sacrifice, no man can open his ears to it.

Nothing, then, it would appear, or practically nothing, will be left of the precious temple I have lovingly built and embellished in myself throughout a whole lifetime. Of all my concern to perfect and refine and adorn myself, of all the exquisite purity and delicacy that charmed and delighted me in those I love, nothing would remain for me, and nothing be preserved for them. Lost in the confused mass of our generation, one wave in a long series of waves thrown into the attack upon super-humanity, it would be our fate to succumb; we would have no consolation except that we had fallen that others might be more fortunate; we would see nothing of the victory, nor cold we even be certain that a victory was infallibly being prepared. Could there, indeed, possibly be such an obliteration of what is supremely vibrant and moving in the human heart?

If, again, the whole of my labour were harvested, if the whole of my suffering were meaningful and fruitful, if all the betterment achieved by my work were made permanent and handed on, then I might perhaps be able to take comfort. All that was best of me would survive in the lasting evidence of my passage, for in it would be preserved and made eternal all the effective value of my life…. Unhappily, whatever may be said, very little of what a man thinks and knows and wills, very little of his own personal value, succeeds in becoming exteriorized, and still less of such good seed as is produced falls upon fertile ground. There are mistakes, and waste, and breakdowns. Much effort is thrown away, and much suffering is completely barren. If I rely only on the cosmos to guard my treasure, I shall be profoundly disillusioned; for its wastage is colossal, and its yield minute.

What, moreover, is that part of me that can be exteriorized? Neither the scent nor the colour constitutes the flower; and it is the flower, my feeling tells me, that is the treasure I carry within me. Little by little, I have seen unfold in the depths of my being this mysterious flower that I recognize as my own incommunicable personality; I have loved it with passion, because of all the care I had given to protecting and embellishing it, and even more because of all that I could discern in it that was greater than myself and existed before myself. And now it is this so loved monad that I see doomed to disintegration; to lose those inexpressible enchanting characteristics that determine its individuality; to disappear, practically without trace, sacrificed, even to annihilation, to some hypothetical, faceless Divinity.

Could I but know for certain that some fragment of the Absolute that momentarily circulates in my being, is held there, is perpetuated there, and so preserves me for eternal life! … Prophets of pantheism have risen up to promise me, in the name of some astonishing metempsychosis, that my soul will persist throughout different forms of association assumed by the universe. But all they have offered me is the persistence and the survival of a monad that cannot recognize itself from one stage of its being to another; and it is the thread of my conscious person, of my enriched memory, of my enlightened thought, that I long to see prolonged, without break, and for ever.

If, then, the word is not to be heard on earth, may it come down from heaven: the word that, integrating into one synthesis the yearnings of the soul and the demands of the universe, will reveal to us by what mysterious organic union of the extreme terms, individual aspirations can be fulfilled in the realization of the whole!


Communion with God

A: The World of Souls

The sovereign charm of Christianity is that it is above all a religion of persons, the religion of souls. Whereas the worshippers of earth, in their search for a stable and permanent Godhead, can look only towards a Becoming, or a collectivity, or some extremely simple lower term of matter, the Christian believes that he holds within himself an immortal substance, an incorruptible fruit which is the object of every process and every proliferation in the universe. The term he awaits for the world is not some distant hypothetical superhumanity: in each one of the souls that is born from it, and then takes flight, the cosmos is incessantly fulfilling its finest hopes. The cosmos is no more than an impermanent stem that can wither away: all that it can contain of Absolute is to be found in the souls that gather it up, give it stability and then, when death harvests them like ripe fruit, carry it with them; souls, for whom nothing in heaven or upon earth is too beautiful and precious; souls, the quintessence of the perfections developed by natural life, and the seat of the inexpressible amplification effected by sanctification.

So speaks the voice of Christianity, and it would seem that to hear it an intensely pure joy should invade and possess my heart. And yet the very first thing I find is that the sense of peace that comes with the promise of immortality is mixed with a deep distrust. I have tasted too deeply the joy of expanding my being to the dimensions of all that lives to be able henceforth to confine myself to the limits of my own self; I have been too conscious of the thrill of universality in my soul, to accept a bliss that leaves me in isolation. Do not the promises of Christianity mean the end of cosmic hopes? Does not the primacy of the monad tarnish and destroy the mysterious charms of the Pleiad? If we are to have the happiness of knowing that we are Some Thing, must we not give up the heady euphoria of feeling that we are enveloped by, traversed by, drawn along by Another Thing, vaster and more important than ourselves?

We may take heart, for such fears are vain. Here as elsewhere, all the highest and most legitimate ambitions entertained by the heart of man are respected and satisfied a hundredfold by Revelation. For the believer whose eyes have seen the light, souls are not formed in the world as discontinuous and autonomous centres, nor do they so leave it. Even more fully and more blissfully than in any human pantheist dream, sanctified monads are atoms immersed in, nourished by, and carried along by one and the same unfathomable primitive substance; they are elements that are combined and given a special character by a network of intimate interconnexions, in order so to constitute a higher unity. While Christianity is a supremely individualist religion, it is at the same time essentially a cosmic religion, since, when the Creation and the preaching of the Gospel have completed their work, Christianity discloses to us not simply a harvest of souls but a world of souls.

If we look at this world, we see that the fundamental substance within which souls are formed, the higher environment in which they evolve—what one might call their own particular Ether—is the Godhead, at once transcendent and immanent, in qua vivimus et movemur et sumus—in whom we live and move and have our being. God cannot in any way be intermixed with or lost in the participated being which he sustains and animates and holds together, but he is at the birth, and the growth and the final term of all things. Everything lives, and everything is raised up—everything in consequence is one—in Him and through Him.

Worthily to describe the rapture of this union and this unification, the pantheists’ most impassioned language is justified, whether unspoken in the heart or given expression by the tongue: and to that rapture is added the ecstatic realization that the universal Thing from which everything emerges and to which everything returns, is not the Impersonal, the Unknowable and the Unconscious, in which the individual disintegrates and is lost by being absorbed: it is a living, loving, Being, in which the individual consciousness, when it is lost, attains an accentuation and an illumination that extends to the furthest limit of what is contained in its own personality. God, who is as immense and all-embracing as matter, and at the same time as warm and intimate as a soul, is the Centre who spreads through all things; his immensity is produced by an extreme of concentration, and his rich simplicity synthesizes a culminating paroxysm of accumulated virtues. No words can express the bliss of feeling oneself possessed, absorbed,8 without end or limit, by an Infinite that is not rarefied and colourless, but living and luminous, an Infinite that knows and attracts and loves.

Souls are irresistibly drawn by the demands of their innate powers, and still more by the call of grace, towards a common centre of beatitude, and it is in this convergence that they find a first bond that combines them in a natural Whole. The paths they follow inevitably meet at the term of the movement that carries them along. Moreover, grace, which introduces them into the field of divine attraction, forces them all to exert an influence, as they proceed, upon one another; and it is in this relation of dependence, which is just the same kind as that which links together material systems, that there lies the so astonishingly ‘cosmic’ mystery (we might also say the phenomenon) of the Communion of Saints.

Like particles immersed in one and the same spiritual fluid, souls cannot think or pray or act or move, without waves being produced, even by the most insignificant among them, which set the others in motion; inevitably, behind each soul a wake is formed which draws other souls either towards good or towards evil.

There is an even more striking similarity with the organisms that life on earth forms and drives, in mutual interdependence, along the road of consciousness, in that souls know that the evolution of their personal holiness reaches its full value in the success of a global task that goes beyond and is infinitely more important than the success of individual men.

There is this difference, however: under the influence of natural evolution, community of work produces only a Whole whose texture is divergent, so that its parts can pull away and disintegrate at the whim of all sorts of accidents or impulses; again, the group of living beings that are the most united in their destiny, that is to say the human group, has not (or not yet?) advanced beyond the stage, in its unification, of an organized collectivity. On the other hand, souls that have attained holiness can envisage at the term of their development and confluence a solidarity of a very different nature.

Grace, in fact, is more than the common environment or overall current by which the multitude is bound together into the coherence of one solid whole or one single impulse. For the believer, it represents, quite literally, the common soul that brings them under the infinitely benign domination of a conscious mind. The Communion of Saints is held together in the hallowed unity of a physically organized Whole; and this Whole—more absolute than the individuals over which it has dominion, in as much as the elements penetrate into and subsist in God as a function of Him and not as isolated particles—this Whole is the Body of Christ.

B: The Body of Christ

Minds that are afraid of a bold concept or are governed by individualistic prejudices, and always try to interpret the relationships between beings in moral or logical terms, are apt to conceive the Body of Christ by analogy with human associations; it then becomes much more akin to a social aggregation than to a natural organism. Such minds dangerously weaken the thought of Scripture and make it unintelligible or platitudinous to thinking men who are eager to trace out physical connexions and relations that are specifically cosmic. They unjustifiably diminish Christ and the profoundly real mystery of his Flesh. The Body of Christ is not, as some unenterprising thinkers would have us believe, the extrinsic or juridical association of men who are embraced by one and the same benevolence and are destined to the same reward. It must be understood with boldness, as St. John and St. Paul and the Fathers saw it and loved it. It constitutes a world that is natural and new, an organism that is animate and in motion, one in which we are all united, physically and biologically.

The exclusive task of the world is the physical incorporation of the faithful in the Christ who is of God. This cardinal task is being carried out with the rigour and harmony of a natural evolution.

At the source of its developments an operation was called for, transcendent in order, to graft the Person of a God onto the human cosmos, under conditions that are mysterious but physically governed. This would give immanence to, or ‘immanentize’, in our universe the principle around which a predestined body of the chosen is to achieve its segregation. Et Verbum caro factum est. This was the Incarnation. From this first and fundamental contact between God and the human race—which means in virtue of the penetration of the Divine into our nature—a new life was born: an unlooked for magnification and ‘obediential’ extension of our natural capabilities—grace. Grace is not simply the analogous form found in a number of different immanencies, the life, uniform and at the same time multiple, shared by living creatures. It is the unique sap that starts from the same trunk and rises up into the branches, it is the blood that courses through the veins under the impulse of one and the same Heart, the nervous current that is transmitted through the limbs at the dictate of one and the same Head: and that radiant Head, that mighty Heart, that fruitful Stock, must inevitably be Christ. Through grace, through that single and identical life, we become much more than kinsmen, much more, even, than brothers: we become identified with one and the same higher Reality, which is Jesus Christ.

Christ could, no doubt, be content, exercising no more than a collective spiritual influence, thus to give life to the human cells that prolong him, mystically, through the universe: but he does more. By means of sacramental communion he consummates the union of the faithful in Himself through an individual and integral contact of soul with soul, flesh with flesh; he instils even into the matter of their being, side by side with the imperative need to adhere to the mystical Body, a seed of resurrection. Christ, as does all life, anticipates our desires and efforts: in the first place through the Incarnation, and then through the Eucharist, he organizes us for himself and implants himself in us. But, again as all life does, he demands the co-operation of our good will and our actions.

We give him this essential collaboration by exerting an effort actively to become assimilated, by lovingly submitting our own autonomy to His: this assimilation lies in loving-kindness and humility, in community of suffering, by which the Passion of Calvary is continued and completed, but above all in charity, that wonderful virtue which makes us see and cherish Christ in every man and so enables us to forward, in the ‘immediacy’ of a single act, the unification of all in One.

We may be tempted to believe, and may perhaps be told, that in the course of this painfully acquired communion, all we are doing is simply to bring about moral beauties in our souls and a superficial resemblance to God, similar to those improvements through which, in social life, men who attach importance to their personal cultural development, are accustomed to better their natural personality. Nothing could be more mistaken. Our efforts have an impact that is far more permanent and profound. When our activity is animated by grace it is as effective and ‘creative’ as life, the Mother of Organisms, and it builds up a Body in the true sense of the word. This is the Body of Christ, which seeks to be realized in each one of us.

The mystical Body of Christ should, in fact, be conceived as a physical Reality, in the strongest sense the words can bear. Only so can the great mysteries and the great virtues of religion, only so can Christ’s role as mediator, the importance of Communion, and the immense value of charity, assume their full significance; only so can the Person of the Saviour retain its full hold on our minds and continue to provide the driving force our destinies demand.

To this faith, Jesus, I hold, and this I would proclaim from the house-tops and in all places where men meet together: that You do more than simply stand apart from things as their Master, you are more than the incommunicable splendour of the universe; you are, too, the dominating influence that penetrates us, holds us, and draws us, through the inmost core of our most imperative and most deep-rooted desires; you are the cosmic Being who envelops us and fulfils us in the perfection of his Unity. It is, in all truth, in this way, and for this that I love you above all things.

Caught in the flames of a seemingly self-contradictory desire, I thirsted, Lord, to become more my own self by emerging from myself; and it is you who, faithful to your promise, quench my thirst with the living Water of your precious Essence, in which he who loses himself finds his soul and the soul of all other men made one with his own.

Already, when I contemplated your Godhead, I had the rapture of finding a personal and loving Infinite; and the association of those words held such sweetness for me that to repeat them seemed a bliss to which there would be no end; it was like the single note produced by the Angel’s viol, of which St. Francis never wearied. And now I know more: the very multitude of my race comes to life in your humanity; the breath that gives solidity and harmony to its scattered elements is not a Spirit whose higher nature is disconcerting to us, it is a human soul that feels and vibrates as I do; it is your very soul, Jesus. I know, too, that, in a supreme condescension to my yearning for activity and change, you offer me this higher, definitive, world which you concentrate and shelter in Yourself, but you offer it unfinished, so that my life may draw sustenance from die intense satisfaction of, in some small way, giving You to Yourself. Here, then, is the one thing that matters, absolute and tangible, that I dreamed of assigning as an objective and ideal to all my human efforts: it is the Kingdom of God, whose realization we have to work for, and which we have to win. Your Body, Jesus, is not only the Centre of all final repose; it is also the bond that holds together all fruitful effort. In you, side by side with Him who is, I can passionately love Him who is becoming. What more do I need for final peace to spread through my soul, in a way for which I could never have hoped, satisfying even its most apparently impossible aspirations for cosmic life?

There is one thing more, Lord: just one thing, but it is the most difficult of all, and, what is worse, it is a thing that you, perhaps, have condemned. It is this: if I am to have a share in your kingdom, I must on no account reject this radiant world in the ecstatic delight of which I opened my eyes.

C: The Stumbling-Block of the Kingdom of Heaven

Like snowy peaks floating, almost unreal, over the mist, their bases gradually disclosed by a gentle breeze, so the heavenly Jerusalem was first seen in the clouds of heaven and then established its foundations on earth. Through the mediation of Christ, the supernatural cosmos exposed its roots, closely woven into our universe. It was in our world that die Saviour germinated: and he grows again and reaches his full stature through the continuation of our humble labours and our patience. That providence should so often condescend to our immanent concern for perfection and happiness should, one would imagine, satisfy to the full and disarm all our demands. Unhappily, that is far from being so; for, however terrestrial and human the Body of Christ may be, however deeply it may have been implanted in our cosmos and our life, it still appears at first alien to the world : it develops in the world but as though, one might say, it were not there.

If we are to prepare for ourselves the joy of breaking its treacherous spell, we must not be afraid of testing, in all sincerity, the effect upon our minds of this prospect (or should we say illusion?).

God has made good will the basis upon which our supernatural growth is founded. The pure heart, the right intention, are the organs of the higher life towards which, it would appear, all the soul’s hopes are directed: the fundamental principle in the building up of the Body of Christ is making use of the subjective moral value of human acts. In the domain of morality the Divine and the Terrestrial meet and are fused into one.

There can be no doubt but that this is a most heartening concept. Since man is always the master of his intention, nothing can rob the least of his actions of the supreme and vital value of merit. In all circumstances, and through all our activity, we can dedicate ourselves to the work of universal salvation. Nothing could be a greater solace. Unhappily, as we all realize, there is another, and a more awkward, side to this ordered arrangement, in that it almost entirely neglects the matter of the act, its natural value and effectiveness. It is, no doubt, immensely consoling that the ’success* factor should become of secondary importance, but at the same time it contains a great danger and a great weakness. Once we accept that principle, what will give fire to our struggle, whence will come the fruitful anguish of the quest for truth? Only the moral content of things matters: and there is no fixed relation between that content and their cosmic quality—or rather there is often an inverse ratio.9

Such in fact, is the Christian estimate, paradoxical though it be, of suffering: not only is evident, tangible, failure classed as accidental mishap, but it can even be regarded as preferable to actual success, on the ground that failure offers a wider basis for sanctification than success. No doctrine is more eminently in harmony with the teaching of the Gospels than the primacy of humility and suffering. There can be no possible doubt but that Christ took the road of abnegation, detachment and renunciation, and that his disciples must follow him. The road along which his Kingdom makes progress is the way of relinquishment, of blood and tears—the way of the Cross. It is thus, as though through a painful metamorphosis—a whole life being born from a whole death—that the divine cosmos germinates from the ruins of the old earth.

This can mean only one thing, that Revelation satisfies the form of our cosmic aspirations by offering them an unhoped-for entry into a world that is endowed with entirely new and ideal properties, but at the same time it does, in fact, bitterly disappoint our thirst for the Absolute, by affirming that the initial object of its ardent desire is secondary, useless and even damnable. The supernatural organism—and the divine Kingdom—develop through human progress, and at the same time independently of it or, what is much more disconcerting, in rupture with it. In consequence, they tarnish the flower of progress, or kill it completely. Whether the terrestrial world achieves its success, or whether it ends in failure, I shall equally well attain the term of my own development—even more certainly, maybe, if failure is the answer. This is how things appear to be ordered: shocking to the unbeliever, and disconcerting for the Christian, too, since the latter is unwilling to abandon his hope of contributing through the work he does as a man and through his material conquests to the building up of some κτήμα ές άεί.

If only such a Christian could believe that it was only his sensibility that was affected, if only he could say to himself that his distress was simply a nostalgia for the terrestrial horizons to which his soul is attached, as one is attached to the walls and familiar sounds of the old home one first knew—in that case he would cheerfully make the sacrifice asked of him. Obedient to the stern laws that govern all Becoming, he would have the strength, in order to rise higher, to say goodbye to lower and more easily tapped sources of pleasure. Unhappily, however, his anguish lies deeper. It is not simply the heart that suffers and protests, it is the mind that cannot understand.

The mind cannot see that there can be a grave conflict in the eminently harmonious and comprehensive work of sanctification, that a deep rift can open up between heaven’s design and the earth’s most noble ambitions. Christ, it is true, cursed the world … but his curse fell on the self-sufficing world, the indolent pleasure-seeking world, and not on the world that works and raises itself to greater perfection—on the world of selfish enjoyment, and not on the world of disinterested effort. The latter carries further the Creator’s impulse and so cannot merit God’s hatred; it lives and progresses, without any doubt, in faith in a future that is immanent in it. Of the two or three natural dogmas that mankind, after long centuries of debate and after ceaseless critical examination, is now definitely establishing, the most categorical and the dearest to us is certainly that of the infinite value of the universe and its inexhaustible store of richness. ‘Our world contains within itself a mysterious promise of the future, implicit in its natural evolution.’ When the newborn mind surveys the grandeurs of the cosmos, those are the first words it falters; and that is the final assertion of the scientist as he closes his eyes, heavy and weary from having seen so much that he could not express.

Supposing, then, that I, in the name, I claim, of my religion, am so bold as to snap my fingers at this great hope which is the idol of my generation, what words shall I use if I am to be under- stood by nine-tenths of my fellow-men? What a pitiful figure shall I cut besides those men who fight so fiercely for life, whose bold persistence, again and again condemned a priori though it be by a certain school of knowledge or of prayer that unenterprisingly refuses to be committed, invariably ends in bringing about the triumph of human science and of human power? With men all around me, I shall be an isolated individual, an eccentric, a deserter, rapidly diverging from the only truly active and living branch of mankind. I shall be degraded, less than a man, working without conviction, or ardour or love.

I still, it is true, have this resource (and it is a duty, too), to co- operate in the world’s temporal progress ‘in order to do the Will of God’, ‘to exalt the Church’, ‘to confound the unbelievers’. But these various motives are terribly uninspiring, distant, and indirect compared with the sharp spur so urgently applied by the necessity ‘to succeed’ in order ‘to be’. It is all very well to point out to me that there is a divine precept to make the earth bear fruit, but if you then go on immediately to add that the fruits my labours should produce are in themselves worthless and perishable, that the world has been given to me, as the wheel to the caged squirrel, in order to keep me busy in vacuo, what fire can you expect to animate my good will? If I am to devote myself ardently and sincerely to the work of the cosmos, if I am to be able to compete on equal terms with the children of the earth, I must be convinced not only of the merit of what I do but of its value. I must believe in what I am doing.

And in fact, whether I want to or not, I do so believe. When I am working in a laboratory, I believe in science. When I am fired by enthusiasm for a war between two cultures, I believe in a superman, and I am grateful to God for making it possible for me to expose myself to a ghastly death in order to win the day for an ideal of civilization. And in so believing, I do not feel that I am denying my faith in Christ or in any way detracting from the absolute love I have sworn to him. On the contrary, I feel that the more I devote myself in some way to the interests of the earth in its highest form, the more I belong to God.

That I should feel this so strongly can only mean that, in spite of any misinterpretation of words or principles, there can be a reconciliation between cosmic love of the world and heavenly love of God. In my own action and in that of all Christians, through the harmonious collaboration of nature and grace, the cult of progress and the passion for the glory of God are in actual fact reconciled. There must, then, be a formula for expressing this rationally. Somewhere there must be a standpoint from which Christ and the earth can be so situated in relation to one another that it is impossible for me to possess the one without embracing the other, to be in communion with the one without being absorbed into the other, to be absolutely Christian without being desperately human.

Such a standpoint may be found in the domain of the great unexplored Mystery, wherein the life of Christ mingles with the life-blood of evolution.


Communion with God through Earth

A: The Cosmic Christ

By grace, Jesus Christ is united to all sanctified souls, and since the bonds that link souls to him in one single hallowed mass end in Him and meet in Him, and hold together by Him, it is He who reigns and He who lives; the whole body is His in its entirety. Souls, however, are not a group of isolated monads. As the ’cosmic view’ specifically shows us, they make up one single whole with the universe, consolidated by life and matter. Christ, therefore, cannot confine his body to some periphery drawn within things; though he came primarily, and in fact exclusively, for souls, he could bring them together and give them life only by assuming and animating, with them, all the rest of the world; through his Incarnation he entered not only into mankind but also into the universe that bears mankind—and this he did, not simply in the capacity of an element associated with it, but with the dignity and function of directive principle, of centre upon which every form of love and every affinity converge. Mysterious and vast though the mystical Body already be, it does not, accordingly, exhaust the immense and bountiful integrity of the Word made Flesh. Christ has a cosmic Body that extends throughout the whole universe: such is the final proposition to be borne in mind. ‘Qui potest capere, capiat’.

For all its apparent modernity, this Gospel of the cosmic Christ, in which the salvation of our own times may very well lie, is indeed the word handed down from heaven to our forefathers, it is the new treasure stored, with foresight, side by side with the ancient riches. If we read Scripture with openness and breadth of mind, if we reject the timid interpretations of the narrow common-sense that is ready to take the words of Con- secration literally (because faith obliges us to do so) but in all other contexts looks for the meaning with the least impact, we shall find that it speaks in categorical terms. The Incarnation is a making new, a restoration, of all the universe’s forces and powers; Christ is the Instrument, the Centre, the End, of the whole of animate and material creation; through Him, everything is created, sanctified, and vivified. This is the constant and general teaching of St. John and St. Paul (that most ‘cosmic’ of sacred writers), and it has passed into the most solemn formulas of the Liturgy: and yet we repeat it, and generations to come will go on repeating it, without ever being able to grasp or appreciate its profound and mysterious significance, bound up as it is with understanding of the universe.

With the origin of all things, there began an advent of recollection and work in the course of which the forces of determinism, obediently and lovingly, lent themselves and directed themselves in the preparation of a Fruit that exceeded all hope and yet was awaited. The world’s energies and substances—so harmoniously adapted and controlled that the supreme Transcendent would seem to germinate entirely from their immanence—concentrated and were purified in the stock of Jesse; from their accumulated and distilled treasures they produced the glittering gem of matter, the Pearl of the Cosmos, and the link with the incarnate personal Absolute—the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen and Mother of all tilings, the true Demeter … and when the day of the Virgin came to pass, then the final purpose of the universe, deep-rooted and gratuitous, was suddenly made clear: since the days when the first breath of individualization passed over the expanse of the Supreme Centre here below so that in it could be seen the ripple of the smile of the original monads, all things were moving towards the Child born of Woman.

And since Christ was born, and ceased to grow, and died, everything has continued in motion because he has not yet attained the fullness of his form. He has not gathered about Him the last folds of the garment of flesh and love woven for him by his faithful. The mystical Christ has not reached the peak of his growth—nor, therefore, has the cosmic Christ. Of both we may say that they are and at the same time are becoming: and it is in the continuation of this engendering that there lies the ultimate driving force behind all created activity. By the Incarnation, which redeemed man, the very Becoming of the Universe, too, has been transformed. Christ is the term of even the natural evolution of living beings;10 evolution is holy. There we have the truth that makes free, the divinely prepared cure for faithful but ardently moved minds that suffer because they cannot reconcile in themselves two almost equally imperative and vital impulses, faith in the world and faith in God.

B: The Holiness of Evolution

1. The Hand of God Upon Us. ‘The world is still being created, and it is Christ who is reaching his fulfilment in it’. When I had heard and understood that saying, I looked around and I saw, as though in an ecstasy, that through all nature I was immersed in God. The whole inextricably tangled and compressive network of material interconnexions, the whole plexus of fundamental currents once again confronted me, just as it did when first my eyes were opened; but now they were animated and transfigured, for their dominance, their charm and their appeal, all beyond number or measure, appeared to me in a glow of illumination and I saw them hallowed and divinized in both their operation and their future. ‘God is everywhere’, St. Angela of Foligno said, ‘God is everywhere’.

During the godless crisis into which I was flung by my initiation into the cosmos, after the first revelation of my involvement in the world and of my being carried along by it, I relaxed in a sort of sensual abandonment, the instinctive reaction of an autonomy that is exhausted by its own limitations and impotence. Unhappily, the Divinity that I had then thought to discern, was a temptress, bringing dissolution in her train; her alluring face masked a lack of thought and an empty heart.

Now, I am coming again to see the possibility of allowing myself to follow my first impulse without any danger of diminishing my personality or of finding that what I am grasping is a phantom. Every exhalation that passes through me, envelops me or captivates me, emanates, without any doubt, from the heart of God; like a subtle and essential energy, it transmits the pulsations of God’s will. Every encounter that brings me a caress, that spurs me on, that comes as a shock to me, that bruises or breaks me, is a contact with the hand of God, which assumes countless forms and yet always commands our worship. Every element of which I am made up is an overflow from God. When I surrender myself to the embrace of the visible and tangible universe, I am able to be in communion with the invisible that purifies, and to incorporate myself in the Spirit without blemish.

God is vibrant in the ether; and through the ether he makes his way into the very marrow of my material substance. Through Him, all bodies come together, exert influence upon one another and sustain one another in the unity of the all-embracing sphere, the confines of whose surface outrun our imagination.

God is at work within life. He helps it, raises it up, gives it the impulse that drives it along, the appetite that attracts it, the growth that transforms it. I can feel God, touch Him, ‘live’ Him in the deep biological current that runs through my sod and carries it with it.

God shines through and is personified in mankind. It is He to whom I lend a hand in the person of my fellow-man; it is His voice I hear when orders come to me from those who have authority over me—and again, as though in a further zone of matter, I meet and am subject to the dominating and penetrating contact of His hand at the higher level of collective and social energies.

The deeper I descend into myself, the more I find God at the heart of my being; the more I multiply the links that attach me to things, the more closely does He hold me—the God who pursues in me the task, as endless as the whole sum of centuries, of the Incarnation of his Son.

Blessed passivities that intertwine me through every fibre of my body and my soul; hallowed life, hallowed matter, through whom, at the same time as through grace, I am in communion with the genesis of Christ since, when I obediently lose myself in your vast folds, I am immersed in God’s creative action, whose Hand has never ceased, from the beginning of time, to mould the human clay that is destined to constitute the Body of his Son—to your sovereign power I swear allegiance; I surrender myself to you, I take you to myself, I give you my love. I am happy that Another should lead me and make me go whither my own will would not take me. I bless the vicissitudes, the good fortune, the misadventures of my career. I bless my own character, my virtues, my faults … my blemishes. I love my own self, in the form in which it was given to me and in the form in which my destiny moulds me. What is more, I strive to guess and anticipate the lightest breezes that call to me, so that I may spread my sails more widely to them. I would have my soul become a monad, flexible and obedient, transparent to the Will of God with which nature is charged and impregnated through and through.

… And in this first basic vision we begin to see how the Kingdom of God and cosmic love may be reconciled: the bosom of Mother Earth is in some way the bosom of God.

2. The Wrestling with the Angel. We are not, however, simply nurslings rocked and suckled by Γαία μητήρ, Mother Earth. Like children who have grown up, we must learn to walk by ourselves and give active help to the mother who bore us. If, then, we make up our minds to accept wholeheartedly the manifestations of the divine will registered in the laws of nature, our obedience must make us throw ourselves into positive effort, our cult of passivities must ultimately be transformed into a passion for work. What, we now see, we have to do is not simply to forward a human task but, in some way, to bring Christ to completion; we must, therefore, devote ourselves with still more ardour, even in the natural domain, to the cultivation of the world.

The Revelation of the cosmic Christ had made our hearts more vividly conscious of how much we are bound up with our contact with tilings. Now, it is with added urgency that there echoes in our ears the Voice that summons us to master the secrets and energies of the universe and to dominate it. If the Kingdom of God is to come about, man must win the sovereignty of the earth.

To establish the truth of this statement it would not, strictly speaking, be essential to define in what way the world’s progress towards perfection, whether natural or achieved through human skill, can truly contribute to the plenitude of Christ. Since immanent progress is the natural Soul of the cosmos, and since the cosmos is centred on Christ, it must be accepted as proved that, in one way or another, collaboration with the development of the cosmos holds an essential and prime position among the duties of the Christian. It is in one single movement that nature grows in beauty and the Body of Christ reaches its full development.

It is, nevertheless, essential to the precision of our work and the delight we take in it, that we should try to define more exactly some of the factors responsible for this coincidence and some of the lines along which it runs. We must find out what can be the absolute residual elements in the cosmos which are destined to be incorporated in the celestial edifice; in what way the segregation of the elect into a hallowed mass may be influenced by the discoveries of pure science, of physics or history; and how, apart from the growth of supernatural merits, Christ is realized in Evolution.

A first answer, very modest and yet, if fully understood, one of urgent importance, is as follows: more than any other man, the Christian is attached to the work of the cosmos, in as much as that work is necessary if the world is to endure. Let us, for a moment, put it at the lowest. Let us admit that in itself the material, biological and social stock on which individuals mature, is liable to wither away entirely. Let us admit, too, that its fruits must continue indefinitely to be produced in a similar form common to all, no profound transformation having henceforth the power to introduce any variation into the human species. In that case the cosmos has no value other than that of a seed-bed or training ground in which, through scientific examination and contemplation of created beings, the soul, ’in a practice run’ improves and sharpens its faculties, and uses lower objects to learn how to choose and love. But even so, this stock, this centre of culture, must endure and remain fresh and green as long as Heaven continues to call for saints; and this it cannot do without great heat and great tension. Like every moving body, the world holds together only through its driving force and momentum. Were the multitude of monads it contains to check the ferment of their activities, their industry and their natural exploration, the world would crash like an aircraft whose engines fail. We Christians sometimes ask ourselves anxiously what good purpose is served by our long spells of laboratory work, our endless digging into everything that conceals a mystery. We should take comfort. We are exhausting ourselves in at least keeping the earth going until the Body of Christ is consummated.

In truth, however, it would not be enough to ensure the harmony of creation and to encourage us to continue our efforts, if the useful purpose served by the natural products of our labours were no more than this work of maintenance. Let us admit, again, that, in its stock, the cosmos can perish, leaving no residue. Who can prove to us that the immortal persons, detached from it in the course of centuries, are not subject to some absolute natural development, that the original small, tart, berries will not be succeeded by plumper and more delightful fruit? Man, through his spiritual soul, steps up into a new ontological and biological level. Who can assure us that no slope rises up from that level, giving access to modes of life we have never dreamt of? Natural evolution, we were saying, seems now to be fully occupied with what concerns the soul. From being organic and predominantly determined it has become predominantly psychological and conscious; but it is not dead, nor has its reach even been shortened. There are some particularly ancient psychic elements, such as the mutual love of man and woman, in which we can already appreciate the width and richness, the complexity and purity, which the work of time has succeeded in giving to the primitive kernel of a feeling that was instinct with brutish sensation…. Who knows what astonishing species and natural gradations of soul are even now being produced by the persevering effort of science, of moral and social systems—without which the beauty and perfection of the mystical Body would never be realized?

Supposing we carry our human ambitions to their furthest limit: hitherto we have refused to admit that anything absolute in the cosmic stock, from which mature souls are detached, will endure. What pusillanimity of concept made us do so, what right had we to? In its dogmas and sacraments, the whole economy of the Church teaches us respect for matter and insists on its value. Christ wished to assume, and had to assume, a real flesh. He sanctifies human flesh by a specific contact. He makes ready, physically, its Resurrection. In the Christian concept, then, matter retains its cosmic role as the basis, lower in order but primordial and essential, of union; and, by assimilation to the Body of Christ, some part of matter is destined to pass into the foundations and walls of the heavenly Jerusalem. Whence, then, will be drawn this privileged and chosen matter which is to serve the new earth? Are we to see in it no more than a by-product of sanctification, developed by a reflux of grace upon the perishable envelope of souls? Maybe. But why, which is more natural, should not the purified substance of risen organisms owe some part of its perfections to the accumulated co-operative efforts of progress and evolution? The cosmic mind, although it cannot prove it to itself, is deeply attached to this hope, which gives it the joy of feeling that there is an incorruptible element in even the terrestrial side of its works. By thus allowing nature to take a further step forward it at least achieves a result that is worth the work put into it. The same result could no doubt have been achieved by a godless man, but what does that matter? The unconscious does indeed collaborate with life. From another point of view, philanthropy, which is an entirely natural and secular virtue, can readily be transformed in its entirety, both acts and object, into divine charity. In the same way, if concern for progress and the cult of the earth, are given as their final end the fulfilment of Christ, why should not they be transformed into a great virtue, as yet unnamed, which would be the widest form of the love of God, found and served in creation?

In virtue, therefore, of his faith, the Christian is justified in claiming a place among those who work for the greatest advancement of the earth; and the soul he brings to that work will be ablaze with the fire that inspires the conqueror. To the Christian, too, for all his renunciation and detachment and humility, it is of vital importance, it is a matter of life or death, that the world should succeed in its enterprise, even in its temporal enterprise. Only a moment ago the believer saw in Nature above all the enveloping arms of God, his creative Hands that mould…. Now he combines the spirit of abandonment with the spirit of domination, and in order to obey he strips for the fight; although in his heart he secretly bows down before matter, he engages it in a duel that will continue until the consummation of all time—Jacob’s wholehearted struggle against a grip that he worships.

3. The Meaning of the Cross. A price has to be paid for the struggle. The earth groans in travail with Christ. Omnis creatura ingemiscit et parturit—like a wagon that creaks and grinds, progress advances painfully, bruised and tearful.

One might at first be deceived by the mistaken views of pagan pantheism and believe that to adhere to the cosmic doctrine is simply to pass from a narrow and commonplace self-love to a wider and more subtle egotism—a neat way of encompassing more enjoyment with less risk. Nothing could be less true.

If he is to act in conformity with his new ideal, the man who has determined to admit love of the world and its cares into his interior life finds that he has to accept a supreme renunciation. He has sworn to seek for himself outside himself, in other words to love the world better than himself. He will now have to realize what this noble ambition will cost him.

In the first place he must, in any case, work to drive things, and his own being, up the steep slope of liberation and purification, he must discipline or conquer the hostile forces of matter, of the forest and of the heart—he must bring about the victory of duty over attraction, of the spiritual over the senses, of good over evil…. The multitude of the dead cry out to him not to weaken, and from the depths of the future those who are waiting for their turn to be born stretch out their arms to him and beg him to build for them a loftier nest, wanner and brighter.

He may perhaps have to accept the role of the imperceptible atom which loyally, but without honour, carries out the obscure function for which it exists, to serve the well-being and balance of the Whole. He must agree to be, some day, the fragment of steel on the surface of the blade that flies off as soon as a blow is struck, the soldier in the first wave of the attack, the outer surface, made use of and sacrificed, of the cosmos in activity.

He must often, unhappily, resign himself to not being made use of, to disappearing without having been able to contribute his effort, or say what he has to say—to quitting life with a soul tense with all that adverse circumstances have not allowed him to exteriorize.

He must even (and this is harder to bear than any stifling repression or obscurity) have to admit to himself that he is unusable and ineffectual.

In an organism as vast as the universe any amount of goodwill and countless resources remain unused, and a host of failures is the price that has to be paid for a few successes. The obscure, the useless, the failures, should take joy in the superiority of the others whose triumph they lend support to or pay for. All this is indeed hard. The world, and subjection to the world, and the duty of serving the world, are hard to bear, like a cross; and it was to force us to believe this that Christ wished, overlooking all the highways of the earth, to rise up in the form of the Crucifix, the symbol in which every man could recognize his own true image.

We should like to be able to doubt this, to hope that suffering and wickedness are transitory conditions of Life, to be eliminated some day by science and civilization; but we must be more realistic and have the courage to look existence in the face. The more subtle and complex mankind becomes, the more numerous the chances of disorder and the greater their gravity; for one cannot build up a mountain without digging a great pit, and every energy has equal power for good and for evil. Everything that becomes suffers or sins. The truth about our position in this world is that in it we are on a Cross.

Now, Christ did not wish his distressful figure to be no more than a warning permanently dominating the world. On Calvary He is still, and primarily, the centre on which all earthly sufferings converge and in which they are all assuaged. We have very little evidence about the way Our Lord tests His mystical Body, in order to take delight in it, but we can get some idea of how he can gather to himself its sufferings; and the only way, even, we can appreciate the immensity of his Agony is to see in it an anguish that reflects every anguish ever experienced, a ‘cosmic’ suffering. During his Passion, Christ felt that he bore upon his soul, alone and battered, the weight of all human sorrows—in a fantastic synthesis no words can express. All these he took to himself, and all these he suffered.

Further, by admitting them into the domain of his consciousness, he transfigured them. Without Christ, suffering and sin would be the earth’s ‘slag-heap’. The waste-products of the world’s activities would pile up into a mountain of laborious effort, efforts that failed, efforts that had been ‘suppressed’. Through the virtue of the Cross this great mass of debris has become a store of treasure: man has understood that the most effective means of progress is to make use of suffering, ghastly and revolting though it be.11

The Christian experiences suffering just as other men do. As others, so must he do his best to lessen and alleviate it, not only by humble prayer but also through the efforts of an industrious and self-confident Science; but when the time comes when suffering is inevitable, then he puts it to good use. There is a wonderful compensation by which physical evil, if humbly accepted, conquers moral evil. In accordance with definable psychological laws, it purifies the soul, spurs it on and detaches it. Finally, acting as a sacrament acts, it effects a mysterious union between the faithful soul and the suffering Christ.

If it is undertaken first in a disposition of pliant surrender, and continued in a spirit of conquest, the pursuit of Christ in the world culminates logically in an impassioned enfolding, heavy with sorrow, in the arms of the Cross. Eagerly and wholeheartedly, the soul has offered and surrendered itself to all the great currents of nature. When it reaches the term of all that it has gone through and when at long last it can see things with a mature eye, it realizes that no work is more effective or brings greater peace than to gather together, in order to soothe it and offer it to God, the suffering of the world; no attitude allows the soul to expand more freely, than to open itself, generously and tenderly—with and in Christ—to sympathy with all suffering, to ‘cosmic compassion’.

4 The Place of Hell. By involving himself in evolution, Christ has brought its resources and mechanism to their acme of perfection and fruitfulness. Everything, everything without exception, even suffering and misfortune, can, in the order of salvation, be of service to the monad of good will. Omnia co operantur in bonum—‘all things work together for good’.

Following the laws that govern every process of becoming, and in particular every form of segregation, the Genesis of the mystical and cosmic Body, though theoretically possible without any loss, is yet accompanied, in fact, by a dissipation of energy and life for which countless mortal and venial faults are responsible. Why must this be so?

What is more, the sinister and frightening loss of the damned—a permanent loss, mark you—recurs—freely, on our side, and yet with all the marks of an organic inevitability. Why, again, must this be so?

The man who has strengthened and trained his powers of insight in his intuition of the cosmos, of its global harmony and its demands, may not be able, it is true, to answer those questions; but it will be no shock to him to find that here, as elsewhere, a hell is the natural corollary of heaven, and he will learn to dread it.

Let us pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, you truly contain within your gentleness, within your humanity, all the unyielding immensity and grandeur of the world. And it is because of this, it is because there exists in you this ineffable synthesis of what our human thought and experience would never have dared join together in order to adore them—element and totality, the one and the many, mind and matter, the infinite and the personal; it is because of the indefinable contours which this complexity gives to your appearance and to your activity, that my heart, enamoured of cosmic reality, gives itself passionately to you.

I love you, Lord Jesus, because of the multitude who shelter within you and whom, if one clings closely to you, one can hear with all the other beings murmuring, praying, weeping….

I love you because of the transcendent and inexorable fixity of your purposes, which causes your sweet friendship to be coloured by an intransigent determinism and to gather us all ruthlessly into the folds of its will.

I love you as the source, the activating and life-giving ambience, the term and consummation, of the world, even of the natural world, and of its process of becoming.

You the Centre at which all things meet and which stretches out over all things so as to draw them back into itself: I love you for the extensions of your body and soul to the farthest corners of creation through grace, through life, and through matter.

Lord Jesus, you who are as gentle as the human heart, as fiery as the forces of nature, as intimate as life itself, you in whom I can melt away and with whom I must have mastery and freedom: I love you as a world, as this world which has captivated my heart; and it is you, I now realize, that my brother-men, even those who do not believe, sense and seek throughout the magic immensities of the cosmos.

Lord Jesus, you are the centre towards which all things are moving: if it be possible, make a place for us all in the company of those elect and holy ones whom your loving care has liberated one by one from the chaos of our present existence and who now are being slowly incorporated into you in the unity of the new earth.

To live the cosmic life is to live dominated by the consciousness that one is an atom in the body of the mystical and cosmic Christ. The man who so lives dismisses as irrelevant a host of preoccupations that absorb the interest of other men: his life is projected further, and his heart more widely receptive. There you have my intellectual testament.

24 April 1916. Easter Week.
Fort-Mardik (Dunkirk).

The following passage is written on a loose sheet attached to the manu- script notebook:

Nota. Cosmic Life describes the aspirations and formulates the practical activities of a concrete life. If one tries to bring out the presuppositions and principles it is based on, one finds that it introduces a completely new orientation into Christian ascetical teaching.

In ‘classical’ interpretations, suffering is fast and foremost a punishment, an expiation; its effectiveness is that of a sacrifice: it is born of a sin, and makes reparation for the sin. It is good to suffer, in order to master oneself, conquer and free oneself.

In contrast with this view, suffering, according to the general line followed by Cosmic Life and the ideas it puts forward, is primarily the consequence of a work of development and the price that has to be paid for it. Its effectiveness is that of an effort. Physical and moral evil are produced by the process of Becoming: everything that evolves has its own sufferings and commits its own faults. The Cross is the symbol of the arduous labour of Evolution—rather than the symbol of expiation.

These two points of view can obviously be reconciled, if, for example, we admit that the natural consequence of the Fall of Man was to return Mankind to its connatural setting of progress and work ’by the sweat of its brow*. (And, in that case, it is notewordiy that, as far as appearances go, the Fall leaves no mark at all, since its visible penalty is contained in Evolution, with Expiation coinciding with Work.)

… Even so, there is a great difference of emphasis between expiatory ascesis and the ascesis underlying ‘cosmic life’.

… And I would have been dishonest not to point this out.

17 May 1916


  1. In a considerable number of later writings (in particular Panthéisme et Christianisme, 1923) Teilhard expresses this more exactly, by distinguishing the two meanings of the word and the aspiration it stands for: the pantheism he rejects is that which is normally meant by the term, and the pantheism he accepts is that which he describes. In The Universal Element, in Le Milieu Divin, and elsewhere it is simply ‘pantheism’ that he rejects.

  2. ‘Ether’ is a term that belongs to a stage of scientific thought now left behind. It is generally realized that science since the famous Michelson experiment and Einstein’s theories, scientists have abandoned the notion of the ether, useful though it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This, however, is of only minor importance for that part of Teilhard’s views on the cosmos (in this instance, the unity of the cosmos) that he develops here.

  3. Cf. Creative Union, E. ‘Transience. True Matter,’ where Teilhard goes back on this view.

  4. Cf. Le Milieu Divin, where Teilhard returns to this theme.

  5. The qualification of ‘maybe’, and later of ‘I may have believed’, should be noted. Teilhard is indicating that the personal tone of this analysis should not be taken literally, but is partly a literary device. Other instances of this will be found later.

  6. Although Teilhard had at this time already developed the idea that man has the duty of consciously and deliberately forwarding the progress of evolution, he had not yet, in considering that co-operation, arrived at his final concept of the centration of the noösphere. Cf. The Phenomenon of Man, Book Four.

  7. Teilhard’s later palaeontological studies brought him to a contrary view: he believed in the axial position of man in the tree of life. See, for example, The Phenomenon of Man, Chapter XI of The Vision of the Past.

  8. The ms. reads absorber (absorb): when altering the latter part of the sentence, Teilhard forgot to substitute the past participle absorbé for the active verb.

  9. The problem treated here, of the Christian value of temporal action, was later to be one of the basic themes of Le Milieu Divin. It is, one might say, the transposition into an evolving universe of the classic notion of the ‘duty of state’.

  10. Once the universe (nature) is an evolution, we may say with regard to evolution what St. Thomas, speaking of the supernatural, said with regard to nature: Non est aliquid naturae, sed naturae jinis—it is not something that belongs to nature, but nature’s (final) end.

  11. This new approach would seem to derive, in the first place, from the discovery that the universe is an evolution. So long as it was thought to be invariable (‘What has been will be’, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’) the duty of state appeared to be static, and, since it is often unpleasant, it could be regarded as primarily an expiation. As soon, however, as we become aware of an evolution, a development that tends to depend more and more upon ourselves, then an aspect of effort, of conquest and construction enters into the duty of state. It can become an inspiration, the Christian seeing it as realizing a necessary condition for the Kingdom of God.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Document Options
Find out more