Providential Reading: “The Making of a Mind”
If you have had a chance to read either of my two last books–especially the one published in 2008 (Imagination and the Journey of Faith)–viewed here on my Books Page–you’ll know that I think some books that fall into our hands are Providentially sent. That is, not all, but some books–fiction or otherwise–are occasions of Divine grace where we meet God and our deepest selves in the reading. If you have had a chance to read either of my two last books–especially the one published in 2008 (Imagination and the Journey of Faith)–viewed here on my Books Page–you’ll know that I think some books that fall into our hands are Providentially sent. That is, not all, but some books–fiction or otherwise–are occasions of Divine grace where we meet God and our deepest selves in the reading.
Recently, such a book has fallen into my hands, a book that I keep on my breakfast table and dip into on a frequent basis. The title is The Making of a Mind by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Now, if you’ve also happened to read my last book, Flourishing Life (published in 2012), you will recognize the author’s name because Teilhard’s theology was the theological “glue” that held together the theme of that book; that is, that we humans can flourish–no matter what–until the end of our days.
This particular volume is a collection of letters Teilhard wrote to his cousin as he served in the trenches of war during World War I, defending France from German aggression. (If you remember, WWI was the “war to end all wars”–and when it didn’t and when the tragic consequences of the bloodshed began to come to light, both cynicism and nihilism erupted in the social and cultural aftermath–especially on the European scene. Anyway, I digress.)
Teilhard was both a trained scientist (paleontologist) and a Jesuit priest and theologian of some note. His writings foreshadowed contemporary theistic evolution and were condemned finally by the Vatican in his later years. He has since been redeemed in the eyes of the church.
So back to the book. I think you’ll get a flavor of his humanistic theology in the excerpt I quote here. He’s writing to his cousin, Marguerite, a feminist way ahead of her time who is headmistress of a boarding school for girls. Her letters are not published here–only Teilhard’s letters back to her in reply, as he dodges bullets in the trenches as an orderly and chaplain to the troops. At one point, apparently responding to Marguerite’s self-doubts, he says:
As I’ve told you more than once, it seems to me that you’re in a phase of transformation, you’re going through a crisis that will resolve itself one day in the calm and fulfilment of total abandonment to the will of God, when once that will has finally penetrated and won you. Every transformation, however, every maturing, takes time–time which it is physically, organically, impossible to reduce beyond certain limits–time during which you don’t know where you’re going or whether you’ll ever get there–and yet you have to go through it, with your eyes closed, borne up only by trust–I believe that while you’re waiting for God’s hour, the hour of calm and light, you must not allow yourself to sink into the slough of despond, where courage and joy drain away from you. … You must be at peace. You must be untiringly gentle. Don’t be “astonished” by anything, whether your physical exhaustion or your spiritual weakness. Let the “smile,” the reflection of our Lord’s, be both and seen always on your face, whose will it is to work through you, and that he may do so, to replace you ever more and more by himself. You dread the length of your trial … but it’s nearly over already, and even while you are complaining, time is passing, as precious in its sorrows as in its joys. … [In the meantime] you are quite right to confine yourself at first to small efforts, hidden and commonplace. You could give our Lord no better indication of humble and suppliant goodwill than to confine yourself to your own “poor best.” (pp. 69-71; 79)
I love that last phrase. So according to Teilhard’s thinking about this great mystery of human life and transformation, God will perfect us in the end, when God has assumed our all at the end of our days. In the meantime, the best we can do is our own “poor best.” I love the thought because obviously all we can do is our best–poor as it is. And in the end, we trust that will be enough for God.