Ursula KING. Spirit and Fire, the live and vision of Teilhard De Chardin (Revised). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Publications, 2015. pp. 258. $26.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-114-0. Reviewed by Francis BERNA, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA 19141.
Exiled by his Jesuit Order to the United States, Teilhard de Chardin longed to visit his native France. And so he embarked on a journey to Paris and his roots. With Père Leroy as a companion he stopped in Sarcenat where he insisted on walking alone through the old family house. Other stops included the park where he wandered as a boy and the family grave. Before leaving he remarked “I shall never see Sarcenat again” (225). Teilhard would die on Easter Sunday of the following year.
This pilgrimage to the place of his birth included another important stop. He visited the prehistoric caves of Lascaux for the first time in his life. Here he marveled at the beautiful and earliest known human paintings. Thus he not only walked the woods where he first collected rocks. He also walked in one of the early cradles of the human race, a place that stood as a symbol of his life’s work as a scientist.
Ursula King writes of his passing, “His life had been a splendid adventure of the spirit; his death was the seal on a life lived from the depths of the Christian faith, nourished by hope, and transformed by love – warm human loves…” (234). With this end in mind, King offers a wonderfully written biography that tells the story of Teilhard’s life, explains some of the essential tenets of his thought, and the abiding faith that enabled him to hold fast through so many trials and disappointments.
The text unfolds by carefully following the timeline of Teilhard’s life. King makes solid transitions from one chapter to the next. She incorporates extensive quotations from the letters of the priest-scientist and other lesser known sources. She also draws on other scholarly materials as well as his collected works. The margins of most every page include photographs and other quotations which encourage the reader toward a more meditative reading of Teilhard’s life.
The author captures well the passion with which de Chardin lived. That passion serves as the source for her title “Spirit and Fire.” Whether as a stretcher bearer in World War I, on a scientific excursion where he was the only Catholic, in his early encounters with Muslim students, or in the conversations with agnostic friends, this faithful Catholic relished each experience. He pondered unification in differentiation, identified by King as a “Pan-Christic Mysticism.”
King likewise captures the “spirit and fire” of Teilhard’s close relationships with a good number and variety of women. She includes selections from his letters that express love of great depth for several different women which gets taken to a new level by his fidelity to his vow of celibacy. King likewise describes the fine friendships he maintained with colleagues in the academy as well as his Jesuit brothers.
Right up to the end, this remarkable man held fast to the words “forward and upward.” He continued to ponder, review, and develop some of his earlier writings. He kept searching for a spirituality and sense of holiness fully connected with the world. Pierre Leroy, a good friend, visited Teilhard at Christmas, 1954. Leroy perceived his friend’s loneliness and suffering. At the same time, while walking together on the streets of New York, de Chardin spoke as if he had found what he sought for his whole life. King writes, “Teilhard suddenly stopped and told him that he finally felt he now lived permanently in the presence of God” (227). One cannot help but be reminded of Ignatius of Loyola’s powerful experience captured through the Spiritual Exercises, “I know God.”
In her revision of the text Ursula King incorporates the most recent scholarship like the work of Sr. Kathleen Duffy, Teilhard’s Mysticism, Seeing the Inner Face of Evolution as well as the scholarship of Sr. Ilia Delio. Likewise the author provides an updated bibliography that includes wide variety of electronic sources along with helpful suggestions for further study. Finally, her postscript outlines the impact of de Chardin through the present, as well as the importance of his vision for the future. “Far from being outlived and passé, Teilhard’s innovative ideas and powerful spiritual vision will attract further waves of interest during the twenty-first century” (242). Whether a novice or more studied in the work of Teilhard anyone interested in exploring a passionate vision for the earth along with the recounting of a life that brought together serious scientific inquiry and a searching faith should read this book.