Teilhard's Struggle

Embracing the Work of Evolution

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Kathleen Duffy
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , April
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Teilhard’s Struggle: Embracing the Work of Evolution, Kathleen Duffy SSJ (Sisters of St. Joseph) argues that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s life can be defined by struggle: that Teilhard suffered much, mentally, spiritually, and physically. But he responded to his struggles with the grace, patience, and benevolence of a saint. Duffy idealizes Teilhard as an exemplary human being and Christian. That bias on her part, however, should not keep the interested reader from exploring this book.  

As an introduction to Teilhard, it is not as accessible as many other very fine book-length introductions to his theology and spirituality. Duffy often appears to be writing for a specialized audience: fellow Teilhardians and other members of her order. In fact, in the acknowledgements, these are the two groups whom she especially thanks. Hindering its usefulness as an introduction is Duffy’s habit of discussing key events in Teilhard’s life several times throughout the book. If the reader doesn’t have a working knowledge of Teilhard’s biography, this could lead to confusion.

But this book is still useful. It explores in some depth the struggle that Teilhard had with the Jesuit Order and with powerful figures in the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic Church. Teilhard wrote essays about religion and science, the Incarnation, cosmic origins, and significant Scripture passages from the New Testament books by St. John and St. Paul. On all of these topics, and many others, Teilhard attracted the criticism of fellow Jesuits, and especially the wrath of Jesuit general and hardliner Vladimir Ledochowski. But Teilhard also had allies in his struggles, fellow Jesuits as well as lay people in various disciplines who read unpublished copies of his essays and books and encouraged him at moments when he felt anxious and depressed.

Also, this book candidly examines Teilhard’s relationships with women. He exchanged letters with a cousin, Marguerite, while serving as a stretcher bearer in the French Army during World War One. According to Duffy, they remained devoted to one another for years after the war. Other female correspondents/friends included Ida Treat, Leontine Zanta, and Rhoda de Terra. But he was closest to Lucile Swan, an artist whom he met while in China. They became intimate, but he remained chaste, as his vows demanded. Duffy writes that Swan wanted physical intimacy and romantic love from their relationship, but Teilhard would not give these to her.

Finally, the entire book is a meditation on one of Teilhard’s essays, “The Spiritual Power of Matter” (1919). In Teilhard’s thought, matter is divinized, as creation makes its inevitable way upward into higher spiritual unity. Duffy shows how that fundamental insight, both theological and mystical, unwound in the struggles that Teilhard endured. Unlike other Christian mystics who retreated from daily life and the cares of this world, Teilhard engaged with the world, the realm of Matter, not only in his scientific work as a geologist and paleontologist, but also as a priest, friend, and confidante.

If you choose to read this book, I suggest you read the final chapter first. There Duffy explains quite well what she means by struggle in Teilhard’s life. This chapter, perhaps in revised form, should have been at the beginning of the book. If you start at the beginning, you may have to read several chapters before you pick up the theme of struggle. If you start with the last chapter, then the rest of the book makes sense.

About the Reviewer(s): 

W. Michael Ashcraft is Professor of Religion at Truman State University.

Date of Review: 
February 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathleen Duffy is Professor of Physics at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.


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