This little star is hidden away in a locked cemetery chapel, all that remains of a French Jesuit community that decamped to Kent when religious persecution was raging at home. Among its members was a young Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who was to become a stretcher-bearer during the Great War.
He was attached to a North African regiment and stayed with the men, refusing promotion that would have afforded him greater personal safety. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur as ‘an outstanding stretcher-bearer who, during four years of active service, was in every battle and engagement the regiment took part in, applying to remain in the ranks in order that he might be with the men whose dangers and hardships he constantly shared.’ The example of many priest stretcher-bearers helped bring about a reconciliation between state and Church after the war.
He wrote to his cousin Marguerite on Christmas Eve 1915, “I must tell myself, and I think I’ll come to feel it, that no Christmas night will ever have meant more to me than this one I am about to spend on the straw this evening, by the side of men.”
Far from our commercial Christmas, closer to the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
Lord, help us to see the star of wonder that will lead us through this Advent to the straw and hay of Bethlehem.
Jesus had said his kingdom was not of this world, he could not establish the kingdom using any kind of force. For the next several centuries there was little chance of Christians being involved in decision-making – they were being constantly persecuted. Then from being objects of persecution they became part of the establishment in Eastern Roman Empire, with the Decree of Constantine [Edict of Milan 313] – Now came the tendency to believe the empire was the kingdom of God. They saw their role as to obey Christian princes; problems only arose when there were clashes between Popes and Emperors.
The Church in Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World, recognised the findings of Teilhard de Chardin but it soon became evident that this document did not solve all the issues – for instance it does not touch on the value of human work in the world – is technology helping or just keeping us busy? What the Bible tells us and tradition has handed on is in symbolic form, and needs interpretation. We do not know the future in the way we know the past. All that we really know is the demand the future makes on the present. We learn not by looking, but by doing, we are not waiting for the next world to come, but we do feel the need for a new world.
For the Bible the world is not just a place but history itself – it is history always moving towards fulfilment of God’s promises. We must be constantly on the move from a comfortable status quo to a universal better future for everyone – no exclusions. It is not action in the world that must go, but our individual and privileged stake in the present: the privilege of being white where black people have to do menial tasks, the fostering of economic development with larger economies crushing the smaller, the exclusion of the poor from places reserved for the privileged – these are the evils in the world that must pass away.
We will hear more from Austin in a few weeks’ time. WT.
Note what happened to Teilhard de Chardin – a Jesuit scientist specialising in Archaeology. He was captivated by the theory of Evolution and the various ways it might be tested. Because he was a deeply religious man, he felt driven to integrate what he was discovering from the natural sciences with his understanding of salvation in Christ. He meditated deeply on Paul’s writings and early Church commentaries on these. He developed a magnificent vision of the universe and all of history shot through with Jesus Christ. He saw creation, redemption and salvation woven together in the unified process of evolution.
He suggested that through time, inanimate [dead] matter is drawn into such complex patterns that it develops an inner spontaneity and there is a breakthrough into living things. At a further stage – a breakthrough into reflexive self-awareness – human beings. After this, the process of evolution becomes conscious, when we know and project the goals we are striving for and the changes they are trying to make. Looking forward, the next breakthrough must be the immense unity of mankind bound together in relationships of knowledge and love – what he terms the Omega Point.
He next made a bold suggestion – not as a scientist but as a Christian believer – that we have a pre-view of the Omega Point – that the whole world is being drawn towards the second coming of Christ – which will be the breakthrough, the outcome of evolution – the Church, because Jesus is already within history, which is striving towards its fulfilment, concluding with Paul that all things were made in Jesus Christ – who is the pattern of the world from the very beginning. The goal of evolution is the Christification of the world. [His thinking appears in his Phenomenon of Man, though is perhaps more readable in his The Divine Milieu – nature and grace].
When this first saw the light of day it raised concern because it sounded as if God’s self-gift to us is not a necessity for us but utterly free. In the Hebrew Scriptures the relationship between us and God was described in terms of a covenant, binding duties and sometimes as sheer favour shown us by God. Whatever God was bound to was always the result of his promise, having bound himself. The Jewish understanding of covenant always looks back to Creation as the setting-up of the covenant. It seems that God, having created humankind, has bound himself to bring us into his friendship.
Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge, England.
Jesus, arms outstretched, at the start of his earthly life. Statue at Hales Place. The Sacred Heart emblem has been lost from his breast, but the Cross is on his shoulder.
One Sunday after Mass Friends of the Franciscan Study Centre walked to Hales Place Jesuit Chapel in aid of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society’s Big Mile appeal. There we read the following prayer by Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, once a student at the Jesuit College, since demolished.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
Ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Holy Week must have seemed a long and anxious time for Jesus.
Let us bring before him all the impatience, instability, anxiety and incompleteness felt by ourselves and those we love. I ask you to remember especially all of us connected with the Franciscan Study Centre as its mission here in Canterbury comes to an end.