Review by RENEE HAYNES
HYMN OF THE UNIVERSE, by Pierre Tei!hard de Chardin. Translated by Simon Bartholomew (Collins, 18s.).
"UNTIL you can sing and
laugh and rejoice in God as misers do in gold and kings in sceptres you will never enjoy the world aright", wrote Traherne 300 years ago. This sense of immediate gladness in Creator and creation, which has so long flowed underground. wells up again at last through these writings of Teilhard de Chardin.
The Old Testament was full of it. St. Francis of Assisi gave voice to it in The Canticle of Brother Sun. The Anglican liturgy has never quite lost it, with the regular reading of the Benedicite: "0 all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever", magnify Him in "snow and ice, frosts and dew, mighty wind fulfilling His word", praise Him in seeing that all these things as well as "holy men and humble of heart" are part of the universe to be transfigured by understanding.
Elsewhere, in both sacred and secular contexts, this glad. ness seems for the most part to have sunk into the sand, with the multiplication of the exact sciences as part of schooling. The concurrent rise of industrialism set men "thirsting for well-being" as de Chardin notes, and for safety, rather than for
more abundant life.
In the Medium vitae, the wellorganised predictableness of urban routines, the balance begins to be redressed oddly enough, by the writers of science fiction (that first fusion of Sir Charles Snow's Two Cultures, craving and fulfilling the need to realise our true situation in the vast and awe-inspiring panorama of all that is. To quote again, this time from the Pensees: "Lord Jesus . .. it is you that my brother men, even those who do not believe, sense and seek through the magic immensities of the cosmos". Within the Church too there has been a certain withdrawal towards safety; not material safety, but spiritual safety against disturbing ideas, as if an understanding of created things were no more than a distraction from the worship of God, at best irrelevant to religion. This has sometimes brought into being a defensive specialised, agoraphobic atmosphere of intolerably sweet cosiness, with cushions embroidered with the Sacred Heart in woolwork, and windows shut against spring tides of air. Of course, these have never been wholly or successfully shut—witness the work of such writers as Baron von Mtge! and Soeur Hissbeth de la Trinity, absorbed in thought and wonder, accepting the unknowable, seeking no shelter from strangeness. Not until now though has the note of the Benedicite been struck by someone in whom the gift of contemplation co-existed with a definite scientific discipline, a cornbination enabling him to know intellectually as well as to recognise in living experience the extraord
Mary complexities of creation.
"Blessed be you, universal matter. immeasurable time . . . triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations, you who by overflowing or dissolving our narrow categories of measurement reveal to us the immensity of. God". And again: "I acclaim you, matter, changed with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay moulded and infused with life by the Incarnate Word."
Teilhard de Chardin wrote of course, not only as scientist and mystic but as a precise thinker, recalling one sharply to the necessity of examining current assumptions so easily breathed in like fog to blacken the lungs. Perhaps I may be allowed to cite three penetrating remarks. "To decide whether the evolutionary process is selfexplanatory, or whether it dewands for its explanation a progressive and continuous act of creation on the part of a first Mover; this falls within the domain not of physics but of metaphysics." "Thinkers are mistaken who imaRine they can prove man's nature to be purely material simply by uncovering ever deeper and more numerous roots of his brine on earth . . they merely show how spirit :mingles with and acts upon the world of matter like a leaven." Last, on the difference between humans and animals: "BeinRs en
dowed with self-awareness . . be come capable of rising into a new sphere of existence . . . Certainly
animals know, but they cannot know that they know, otherwise
they would long ago have multi plied inventions . . . Hence a whole domain of reality is closed to them . Reflexive consciousness .. . is a difference not merely of degree, but of kind."
The hook should be read and re-read, slowly and reflectively, its thought is sometimes unfamiliar and usually highly concentrated. Not all its lights will shine back from our mirrors. since de Chardin's mind was formed in the mould of French thought, which is much more abstract than our own. But its recurrent longing for "the Presence which hovers about us, nameless and impalpable, indwelling all things" is, like that Presence, independent of all things including patterns of culture. A great debt of gratitude is due to the compilers of these writings, many of which are drawn from unpublishedwork. The volume shows both the fulfilment of its author's desire "to be the apostle . . of Christ in the universe" and his surprising kinship with the unlearned Francis, most vividly recognisable in his "blessed be death", which "surrenders us completely to God". In a sensitive preface, Mr. Bartholomew discusses the difficulties of translation, and particulady those involved in handling the language of poetry and attempting to 'make the same communication of reality" as did the original words. For the most part he has succeeded magnificently in conveying the quivering splendour, the complex exactitude of de Chardin's vision.
There are, however, one or two instances in which, absorbed in
the original French, he has forgotten the resonance in English of certain words. Thus "utilise" instead of use, recalls technical reports; "plastic" tends to convey an image of tooth-brush handles rather than the sense of "malleable." And—but this may be an obscurity in the original—it is difficult to understand just what is meant by "a revelation of the universe placed between Christ and myself like a magnificent prey". Whose prey? Incidentally, there is an odd mistake on page 25, in a translation from Latin. Forte does not mean "happily" but "by chance" or "perhaps". Is the archaic "haply" what he has in mind?
But these are small points. For the most part what must have been an extraordinarily difficult job has been triumphantly tarried out.
EASTER marks the tenth anni
versary of the death of Pierre
Teilhard de Chardin. the French Jesuit, and later this month Burns and Oates will publish a study of his life and work by Claude Cuenot.
In May, Collins plan to publish The Making of a Mind, a sellection of Teilhard's letters written to his cousin when he was a stretcher-bearer during the 1914-18 war. Also lined up for publication are two paperbacks. Mercier Press ore issuing Teilhard de Chardin Explained, by Joseph V. Kopp.
Dorton, Longman and Todd have in tRe press Teilhard de Chardin: A Pilgrim of the Future, a symposium by writers of oil denominations about his life and achievements.