PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN (1881-1955)
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born at Sarcenet on 1 May 1881. Sarcenet lies in the rugged country of the Auvergne in Central France, and from the house in which he was born can be seen the vast plain of Clermont and the foothills of the Puy Mountains. He was the fourth of eleven children, and grew up in an atmosphere in which the traditions of family life meant a great deal. In his letters he acknowledges the great debt which, all his life, he owed to both his father and mother. His father took great pleasure in teaching his children to understand and appreciate natural history, and it was on long walks that Pierre developed a strong feeling for the material world. This strong feeling, which increased throughout life, was thus born in childhood. One other dominant feeling from these years, which was also to persist through life, was his feeling for the necessity for durability. Both these factors were to reappear constantly in his writings.
He went to the Jesuit College at Villefranche, where he seems to have been a good, though not outstanding pupil. On completion of his studies there, he decided to enter the religious life and entered the Society of Jesus. His studies progressed normally until 1902, when his community, in common with other religious orders, was expelled from France, and took refuge in Jersey. The period in Jersey was an important one for him. He studied Scholastic Philosophy and became familiar with it, though he never adopted its spirit. He had time to think, and, whenever he had the chance, he gave some time to what was becoming his main interest, geology. In 1905, on the completion of his studies, he was sent for three years to the Holy Family College in Cairo, to teach chemistry and physics. He was able to devote some time to geology and published his first scientific paper. He delighted in the East, as he saw it, and little dreamt of the many years he was to spend in China and other Eastern countries. At this stage in his development he had little interest in man. It was nature, in all its richness and diversity, which attracted him. From Egypt he was sent to England to complete his studies for the priesthood, and it was there that a fuller and more satisfying view of the world forcibly impressed itself upon him.
His thought became directed towards the philosophy of the person, and he now saw the world as a vast whole making its way towards a supreme personality. In future he would no longer seek salvation in abandonment, but in active participation in the building up of the world. Soon after his ordination he was caught up in the 1914 -1918 war and served throughout the war as a stretcher-bearer, receiving the Military Medal and the Legion of Honour. In 1919 he returned to his scientific career and to his lifetime's work. He studied at the Natural History Museum in Paris and received his doctorate in 1922. Somewhat unwillingly, for it was a purely academic post, he became Professor of Geology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, during which time his mind wandered constantly to the East. However, his influence in Paris soon became felt, both as a geologist and through his other lectures, in which the novelty and daring of his thought made a great appeal to the enthusiasm of young people eager to learn.
Unexpectedly, however, he was now called to the Far East. Père Licent, another Jesuit, had been working in China and Mongolia building up a centre of scientific research. He asked his superiors for assistance and Teilhard agreed to join him. He arrived in Tientsin in May 1923 and worked for a year before returning to Paris. A great ordeal awaited him on his return. Errors of theological interpretation had crept into a note he had written on his new vision of the universe, and his superiors, already alarmed by thc boldness of his philosophical views and their influence on the young, forbade him to teach. Deeply wounded but submissive, he returned to China, where he felt increasingly at home, especially when he left Tientsin for the more intellectual atmosphere of Peking.
The greater part of the next thirty years of his life were to be spent in China, broken by a number of visits to France and Europe, several expeditions in India, and a number of visits to America. The war between China and Japan made his work more difficult, but the greatest strain on him was brought about by the second world war. Not only was he away from Europe and his beloved France, but even his own work was extremely limited. In the end, however, it turned out that these years were to be the most fruitful of all, for he had time to write and to think. He returned to France in 1946, but soon suffered a heart attack which delayed a tour he was due to make to South Africa, in order to study human remains found there. In 1951 he was elected a member of the Academie des Sciences, and soon after that he went to live in New York as a member of the Wenner Gren Foundation. His last visit to Paris was in 1954. From these visits he always derived great spiritual benefit, but, owing to the restrictions imposed by his superiors, he cut short his visit and returned to New York. There he died from a sudden stroke on 10 April 1955. The day was Easter Sunday.