Ursula King is an outstanding theologian and one of the best scholars to study the thought and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit and paleontologist, who lived for many years in China. Teilhard de Chardin wrote about a new vision of the universe as a living reality, a cosmic body, where matter and energy evolve into life and consciousness, and where the evolutionary process converges in a kind of super-consciousness that he called the “Omega Point.” Church authorities forbade him to publish his writings on these matters. He died in New York on Easter Sunday, 1955.
From Ursula King’s book, Towards a New Mysticism: Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions (Seabury, 1980), I learned that Teilhard, as a Jesuit seminarian, had a certain interest in India, and even considered asking his superiors to send him to the city of Tiruchirapalli, in the south-eastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Eventually, the Jesuits sent Teilhard to China, and he was very happy there. He worked with Chinese paleontologists in the study of the fossil remains of an early hominid, a species called Sinanthropus, about which he wrote several scholarly articles, published in the best peer-reviewed journals of Paleontology (which, I’m sure you guessed, is the scientific study of fossils).
Why does Teilhard’s early desire to go to India, and specifically the city of Tiruchirapalli, interest me? Because that was the city near which a French priest from Lyon, Jules Monchanin, founded an Ashram, as a place where he and like-minded persons might live, meditate, and seek a convergence between Christianity and Hinduism. At this Ashram I have lived for some time and have written about it in the book entitled Ashram Diary.
The city of Tiruchirapalli (let’s shorten this name to “Trichy”, as the Indians themselves do) was a place where the Jesuits of France had worked for many years and established an important school, where Hindus could study alongside Christians, without being obliged to embrace Christianity. In other words, the Jesuits had given up on proselytism, hoping that the Hindu boys, after earning their degree, would remember the Jesuits favorably and live peacefully alongside their Christian classmates. One of the greatest Hindu teachers of our time, Swami Chidananda of the Divine Life Society in Rishikesh, studied with the Jesuits in the other great city of Tamil Nadu, Chennai (formerly Madras). His are the hands that hold mine, in the photo at the top of this post.
Trichy and Madurai, another city in this part of India, were organized as a Catholic prelature, a kind of diocese, by Pope Gregory XVI, in 1838. Pope Gregory was the last pope who was a monk, and he belonged to the same order in which I made my monastic vows. A hundred years later, another pope gave Trichy its own bishop, not a French Jesuit but a native-born Indian priest by the name of James Mendonça. Bishop Mendonça welcomed into his diocese the priest from Lyon, Jules Monchanin, and later the bishop invited a young Benedictine monk, Henri Le Saux, to join Monchanin in living an ashram life very similar to that lived by the Hindu monks. He encouraged the two French monks to take Indian names, wear orange robes, make retreats at Hindu ashrams, and to build their chapel in the form of a small temple, like those that dotted the Tamil Nadu countryside.
Monchanin had met Teilhard de Chardin in 1925, a few years before he left for India. Teilhard was taking a break from his work in China and was staying in Lyon with a lay friend, Victor Carlhian. At dinner one evening two other guests were present: the physician René Biot and his theological advisor Jules Monchanin. Dr. Biot and Fr. Monchanin invited Teilhard to give a talk on Sinanthropus and evolution for the study group they had organized. The group was quite open to new ideas, both from science and from Asian cultures.
Monchanin and Teilhard corresponded briefly after that, but when Monchanin left for India, they remained indirectly in touch through their common friend, Henri de Lubac, also a Jesuit. Teilhard did spend three months in India in 1935, and later he briefly visited Burma (now called Myanmar), Indonesia, and Japan. Ursula King found a number of letters and unpublished writings of Teilhard de Chardin that showed his interest in, and knowledge of, the spiritual heritage of the Asian peoples, among whom he spent the best years of his life as a scientist.
Teilhard did not read a great quantity of texts on Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc., but his reading in these traditions was guided and supported by his day-to-day interaction with the Chinese people. As a scientist, convinced of the truth of evolutionary biology, he criticized what he saw as a tendency of Asia’s greatest masters to turn away from the world in search of a disembodied Absolute. At the same time, he realized that the Catholic Church itself had not risen to the challenge of the modern world and its scientific advances, and he acknowledged that humanity’s thirst for truth also found positive reinforcement in the wisdom of Asia’s spiritual traditions.
In later entries here, and on my YouTube channel, I want to develop some parallels between Teilhard de Chardin’s scientific and philosophical thought and Jules Monchanin’s total immersion in India’s wisdom heritage.