Teilhard de Chardin

Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

I stumbled across this quote from Teilhard while reading an essay by Annie Dillard called “Flying in the Middle of Art.” She doesn’t provide the original source, and I googled it and couldn’t find it that way either. So I’m not sure exactly where or when Teilhard said this. And I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s one of those lovely “words” of wisdom, similar to what a Desert Father might offer to his young disciple, that carries its own authority, independent of who said it first or why.

But this statement about purity is provocative precisely because it flies in the face of what the mainstream Christian tradition seems to say about purity. Consider what Thomas à Kempis had to say: “Do not keep company with young people and strangers … Be not intimate with any woman, but generally commend all good women to God. Seek only the intimacy of God and of His angels, and avoid the notice of men.” To be pure requires withdrawing from the world. It ties in with the original sense of the word “holy” — to be set apart. To give ourselves to God suggests we set ourselves apart from the dirt and messiness of creation.

But Teilhard points to a different way, a way I believe was pioneered by Jesus. We do not escape the world in order to keep ourselves unstained, rather, we immerse ourselves in the world in a quest both to find God there and to bring God there. Each of us is the image and likeness of God. As Jesus emptied himself (kenosis) of his divinity to embrace the humanness of the incarnation, so each of us — we who are members of the body of Christ, and who have been given the mind of Christ — are invited to do the same thing: empty ourselves of our own need to be pure, clean, unstained, unsullied, and give ourselves away, embracing the fullness of life in all its messiness and brokenness, not so that we may be conformed to the despair we find around us, but rather that we might bring a different consciousness (the mind of Christ, the consciousness of love) into a world that so desperately needs it.

And as we do this, we find, paradoxically, that our purity lies not in how clean we are but in how loving we are. To be truly loving, we must connect with those we love. Love does not flourish in separation from, but in deeper immersion in, the beloved. And in that, we are healed, we are made whole, we are pure, we are holy.

What do you think? Does this way of thinking about purity and holiness work for you? Why, or why not?

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  1. Carl McColman says:

    My friend Adrian Monogue pointed out on Facebook that this quote comes from chapter 3 of Teilhard’s Hymn of the Universe. That particular book is out of print, but you can also find this quote in the Modern Spiritual Masters Series book Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Writings.

  2. Carl thanks for this post. Thomas Kempis’ is a change from the Christian mystical tradition. The Teilhard quote is more in line with Incarnation and kenosis which is orthodox Christian. The shift to the Kempis spirituality is always in the tradition preached by those who don’t understand the theology well. This goes back to the translation and religious epsitemology questions you and I already discussed in the past so I appreciate your great work in getting good, orthodox mystical thinking out there again.

    Silence, stillness and asceticism is about incarnation — running to the world as I always say — not running from it. The language of “contempt of the world” in monastic and mystical texts are about something different. The “world” is not the lived physical reality we are in. Contempt of “The world” in these texts is a technical phrase to point about approaching physical reality in a sinful way. As Saint Paul says, we are in the world but not of the world. Our mind is of Christ not “of the world”. But Christ wants to be deeper in the world and we as the mystical body of Christ need to be deeper in it. To incarnate. To empty ourselves as it says in Philippians. And we do this by loving silence and service of all.

    Then we are pure as Teilhard discusses and in line with good theology and good religious epistemology.

    Deepest peace.

  3. This totally resonates for me. Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. That doesn’t sound like removing yourself from the messiness of creation. Love can pour from a cracked vessels, and there are cracked vessels everywhere–in the monasteries as well as in the “world.” Seems to me Jesus’s whole point was that we don’t need to change a thing to be loved by God. We just need to give up the idea that we are in charge of our lives–which is a relief–and get out of the way so God can pour his love into us and it can overflow to others.

  4. Yes — this insight is explored by Eckhart Tolle where he discusses “breath awareness” and “inner-body awareness” and by Peter Kingley in his discussion of the ancient Greek notion of “metus” [understood (in a very specialized way) as "common sense"].



  5. Roger Martin+ says:

    The a Kempis quote is very revealing and makes you understand why he was”pushed”so much by the same circles in the RC Church which wanted to keep the masses ignorant

  6. Being enchanted by notions of purity, I am grateful to read your contribution. The spirit of your words point to the paradox of purity, which by its nature cannot be understood with the mind. Anyone who literally pulls away from the ‘impure’ world, quickly realizes those very impurities have withdrawn alongside, initially undetected in the so called ‘virtuousness’ of this act.

    The “deeper penetration”, as this forum very much understands, is not through any effort of the mind, for that deepens us into our delusional ‘virtuous’ notions.

    So it seems to me, living in the world or living away from the world, becomes more a matter of discernment at which same way fits best for reasons that can only be intuited.

    • I agree, Sue… As I was rereading the article and my earlier comment above, I realize how tangential my comments must have appeared (and in some respect were). But in the end, I am making the same point that you are (if I understand you correctly), namely, that we do interpenetrate — we are members, one of another and integrally connected to the whole of creation! What shape this will take in terms of the respective roles of solitude and/or society in our life will take care of itself if we are really in touch with the Way, the Truth, and the Life (i.e. it will all unfold very naturally as we “branches” abide in the “Vine”).

  7. Yeah I totally agree with you Carl!

  8. Awesome post. Living away from this world would mean that we take our love away. People learn to love when they see it modeled. The more we escape from the world, the less love we’ll see.

  9. Carl,

    Noting what I suspect is the dropped word ‘not’ in your final pearl, I find I couldn’t agree more. The level of the tension in the dichotomous facets you highlight is, I think, reflective not only of the disperateness of the Christian traditions, but perhaps the Muslim as well. May we all find the center that allows us to live amid the tension.

  10. I had a conversation this morning with a lady who has spent many years overcoming the injuries associated with domestic abuse. In this conversation, held alone in a church, we discussed the human urge for purity/goodness that rises as a strategy to self-guard against destructive tendencies in our social environment. In principle, I saw that this is based on truth, for when in the grace of Christ consciousness, God’s purity reigns and there ceases to be threatening impurites from a self perspective viewed in the world. The presence of impurity is viewed through the merciful grace of a selfless/fearless love; the presence of impurity ceases, without explanation, to be viewed in fear-based concern.

  11. We are so much in the habit to individuate and personalize that we tend to think that it is “my own” purity. What is the I that is pure? it has to be the Purity of the Absolute which needs to be manifested in the world. The ego, which is my habitual sense of self, will never have pure intentions. Better see it for what it is and pay more attention to the the emptiness and fullness of the Universe. One has to be spiritually developed though, to be able to manifest this absolute purity. It takes much depth and integrity. Can we cultivate a pure soul?That is the reason for the mystical path isn’t it? “deeper penetration into the Universe”.

  12. Of course the real question is “who” is going to penetrate “what”?

    Especially as All of this is Indivisible Conscious Light.

    The language itself is entirely dualistic and violent in its implications.

    But of course the 3 propositions at the root of the Christian world-view are that we are inherently separate from the Living Divine Reality, from the World Process , and from each other (and indeed all presumed to be other, sentient beings.

    The ultimate nature of the world and how it is arising is inherently and tacitly obvious, if you Remain in a state pf total psycho-physical oneness with whatever and all that presently arises.

    To remain in a state of total psycho-physical oneness with whatever and all that presently arises, you must, necessarily and always presently, Realize inherently Love-Blissful Unity with whatever and all that presently arises.

    Separation from the world, or whatever and all that is presently arising, is, unfortunately, precisely the first and constant, and inherently problematic thing done by ALL those who make efforts to find out, or to account for how the world is arising, and What Is its Ultimate Nature.

    Separation or total psycho-physical self-contraction, is the first and always dramatized foundation gesture made by anyone who has a problem, or who is seeking, or who is making an effort to account for anything whatsoever.

    This includes all of the gestures and strategies employed and made famous by all of the various Christian mystics. Which is not to deny that each of them were in their own way remarkable human beings.

    As for Teilhard de Chardin his various writings are highly over-rated.

  13. So glad to have found your blog today. Tweeted.

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