Chapter 2: Christ in the World of Matter
Three stories in the style of Benson1
My friend2 is dead, he who drank of life everywhere as at a sacred spring. His heart burned within him. His body lies hidden in the earth in front of Verdun. Now therefore I can repeat some of those words with which he initiated me one evening into that intense vision which gave light and peace to his life.
‘You want to know,’ he said, ‘how the universe, in all its power and multiplicity, came to assume for me the lineaments of the face of Christ? This came about gradually; and it is difficult to find words in which to analyze life-renewing intuitions such as these; still, I can tell you about some of the experiences through which the light of this awareness gradually entered into my soul as though at the gradual, jerky raising of a curtain.
‘At that time,’ he began, ‘my mind was preoccupied with a problem partly philosophical, partly aesthetic. I was thinking: Suppose Christ should deign to appear here before me, what would he look like? How would he be dressed? Above all, in what manner would he take his place visibly in the realm of matter, and how would he stand out against the objects surrounding him?. . . And confusedly I found myself saddened and shocked at the idea that the body of Christ could stand in the midst of a crowd of inferior bodies on the world’s stage without their sensing and recognizing, through some perceptible change, this Intensity so close beside them.
‘Meanwhile my gaze had come to rest without conscious intention on a picture representing Christ offering his heart to men. The picture was hanging in front of me on the wall of a church into which I had gone to pray. So, pursuing my train of thought, I began to ask myself how an artist could contrive to represent the holy humanity of Jesus without imposing on his body a fixity, a too precise definition, which would seem to isolate him from all other men, and without giving to his face a too individual expression so that, while being beautiful, its beauty would be of a particular kind, excluding all other kinds.
‘It was, then, as I was keenly pondering over these things and looking at the picture, that my vision began. To tell the truth, I cannot say at what precise moment it began, for it had already reached a certain degree of intensity when I became conscious of it. The fact remains that as I allowed my gaze to wander over the figure’s outlines I suddenly became aware that these were melting away: they were dissolving, but in a special manner, hard to describe in words. When I tried to hold in my gaze the outline of the figure of Christ it seemed to me to be clearly defined but then, if I let this effort relax, at once these contours, and the folds of Christ’s garment, the lustre of his hair and the bloom of his flesh, all seemed to merge as it were (though without vanishing away) into the rest of the picture. It was as though the planes which marked off the figure of Christ from the world surrounding it were melting into a single vibrant surface whereon all demarcations vanished.
‘It seems to me that this transformation began at one particular point on the outer edge of the figure; and that it flowed on thence until it had affected its entire outline. This at least is how the process appeared to me to be taking place. From this initial moment, moreover, the metamorphosis spread rapidly until it had affected everything.
‘First of all I perceived that the vibrant atmosphere which surrounded Christ like an aureole was no longer confined to a narrow space about him, but radiated outwards to infinity. Through this there passed from time to time what seemed like trails of phosphorescence, indicating a continuous gushing-forth to the outermost spheres of the realm of matter and delineating a sort of blood stream or nervous system running through the totality of life.
‘The entire universe was vibrant! And yet, when I directed my gaze to particular objects, one by one, I found them still as clearly defined as ever in their undiminished individuality.
‘All this movement seemed to emanate from Christ, and above all from his heart. And it was while I was attempting to trace the emanation to its source and to capture its rhythm that, as my attention returned to the portrait itself, I saw the vision mount rapidly to its climax.
‘I notice I have forgotten to tell you about Christ’s garments. They had that luminosity we read of in the account of the Transfiguration; but what struck me most of all was the fact that no weaver’s hand had fashioned them — unless the hands of angels are those of Nature. No coarsely spun threads composed their weft; rather it was matter, a bloom of matter, which had spontaneously woven a marvellous stuff out of the inmost depths of its substance; and it seemed as though I could see the stitches running on and on indefinitely, and harmoniously blending together in to a natural design which profoundly affected them in their own nature.
‘But, as you will understand, I could spare only a passing glance for this garment so marvellously woven by the continuous co-operation of all the energies and the whole order of matter: it was the transfigured face of the Master that drew and held captive my entire attention.
‘You have often at night-time seen how certain stars change their colour from the gleam of blood-red pearls to the lustre of violet velvet. You have seen, too, the play of colours on a transparent bubble. So it was that on the unchanging face of Jesus there shone, in an indescribable shimmer or iridescence, all the radiant hues of all our modes of beauty. I cannot say whether this took place in answer to my desires or in obedience to the good pleasure of him who knew and directed my desires; what is certain is that these innumerable gradations of majesty, of sweetness, of irresistible appeal, following one another or becoming transformed and melting into one another, together made up a harmony which brought me complete satiety.
‘And always, beneath this moving surface, upholding it and at the same time gathering it into a higher unity, there hovered the incommunicable beauty of Christ himself. Yet that beauty was something I divined rather than perceived; for whenever I tried to pierce through the covering of inferior beauties which hid it from me, at once other individual and fragmentary beauties rose up before me and formed another veil over the true Beauty even while kindling my desire for it and giving me a foretaste of it.
‘It was the whole face that shone in this way. But the centre of the radiance and the iridescence was hidden in the transfigured portrait’s eyes.
‘Over the glorious depths of those eyes there passed in rainbow hues the reflection — unless indeed it were the creative prototype, the Idea — of everything that has power to charm us, everything that has life. . . And the luminous simplicity of the fire which flashed from them changed, as I struggled to master it, into an inexhaustible complexity wherein were gathered all the glances that have ever warmed and mirrored back a human heart. Thus, for example, these eyes which at first were so gentle and filled with pity that I thought my mother stood before me, became an instant later, like those of a woman, passionate and filled with the power to subdue, yet at the same time so imperiously pure that under their domination it would have been physically impossible for the emotions to go astray. And then they changed again, and became filled with a noble, virile majesty, similar to that which one sees in the eyes of men of great courage or refinement or strength, but incomparably more lofty to behold and more delightful to submit to.
‘This scintillation of diverse beauties was so complete, so captivating, and also so swift that I felt it touch and penetrate all my powers simultaneously, so that the very core of my being vibrated in response to it, sounding a unique note of expansion and happiness.
‘Now while I was ardently gazing deep into the pupils of Christ’s eyes, which had become abysses of fiery, fascinating life, suddenly I beheld rising up from the depths of those same eyes what seemed like a cloud, blurring and blending all that variety I have been describing to you. Little by little an extraordinary expression, of great intensity, spread over the diverse shades of meaning which the divine eyes revealed, first of all permeating them and then finally absorbing them all. . .
‘And I stood dumbfounded.
‘For this final expression, which had dominated and gathered up into itself all the others, was indecipherable. I simply could not tell whether it denoted an indescribable agony or a superabundance of triumphant joy. I only know that since that moment I thought I caught a glimpse of it once again — in the glance of a dying soldier.
‘In an instant my eyes were bedimmed with tears. And then, when I was once again able to look at it, the painting of Christ on the church wall had assumed once again its too precise definition and its fixity of feature.’
When he had reached the end of his narrative my friend remained for some time silent and lost in thought, his clasped hands resting in a characteristic attitude on his crossed knees. The light was fading. I pressed a switch, and the lamp on my desk lit up. It was a very pretty lamp; its pedestal and shade were made of diaphanous sea-green glass, and the bulbs were so ingeniously placed that the entire mass of crystal and the designs which decorated it were illumined from within.
My friend gave a start; and I noticed that his gaze remained fixed on the lamp, as though to draw from it his memories of the past, as he began again to confide in me.
‘On another occasion,’ he said, ‘I was again in a church and had just knelt down before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a monstrance when I experienced a very strange impression.
‘You must, I feel sure, have observed that optical illusion which makes a bright spot against a dark background seem to expand and grow bigger? It was something of this sort that I experienced as I gazed at the host, its white shape standing out sharply, despite the candles on the altar, against the darkness of the choir. At least, that is what happened to begin with; later on, as you shall hear, my experience assumed proportions which no physical analogy could express.
‘I had then the impression as I gazed at the host that its surface was gradually spreading out like a spot of oil but of course much more swiftly and luminously. At the beginning it seemed to me that I alone had noticed any change, and that it was taking place without awakening any desire or encountering any obstacle. But little by little, as the white orb grew and grew in space till it seemed to be drawing quite close to me, I heard a subdued sound, an immeasurable murmur, as when the rising tide extends its silver waves over the world of the algae which tremble and dilate at its approach, or when the burning heather crackles as fire spreads over the heath.
‘Thus in the midst of a great sigh suggestive both of an awakening and of a plaint the flow of whiteness enveloped me, passed beyond me, overran everything. At the same time everything, though drowned in this whiteness, preserved its own proper shape, its own autonomous movement; for the whiteness did not efface the features or change the nature of anything, but penetrated objects at the core of their being, at a level more profound even than their own life. It was as though a milky brightness were illuminating the universe from within, and everything were fashioned of the same kind of translucent flesh.
‘You see, when you switched on the lamp just now and the glass which had been dark became bright and fluorescent, I recalled how the world had appeared to me then; and indeed it was this association of images which prompted me to tell you this story.
‘So, through the mysterious expansion of the host the whole world had become incandescent, had itself become like a single giant host. One would have said that, under the influence of this inner light which penetrated it, its fibres were stretched to breaking-point and all the energies within them were strained to the utmost. And I was thinking that already in this opening-out of its activity the cosmos had attained its plenitude when I became aware that a much more fundamental process was going on within it.
‘From moment to moment sparkling drops of pure metal were forming on the inner surface of things and then falling into the heart of this profound light, in which they vanished; and at the same time a certain amount of dross was being volatilized: a transformation was taking place in the domain of love, dilating, purifying and gathering together every power-to-love which the universe contains.
‘This I could realize the more easily inasmuch as its influence was operative in me myself as well as in other things: the white glow was active; the whiteness was consuming all things from within themselves. It had penetrated, through the channels of matter, into the inmost depths of all hearts and then had dilated them to breaking-point, only in order to take back into itself the substance of their affections and passions. And now that it had established its hold on them it was irresistibly pulling back towards its centre all the waves that had spread outwards from it, laden now with the purest honey of all loves.
‘And in actual fact the immense host, having given life to everything and purified everything, was now slowly contracting; and the treasures it was drawing into itself were joyously pressed close together within its living light.
‘When a wave recedes or a flame dies down, the area which has been covered for a moment by sea or fire is marked by the shining pools, the glowing embers, which remain. In the same way, as the host closed in on itself like a flower closing its petals, certain refractory elements in the universe remained behind, outside it, ill the exterior darkness. There was indeed still something which lit them, but it was a heart of perverted light, corrosive, poisonous; these rebellious elements burned like torches or glowed red like embers.
‘I heard then the Ave verum being sung.
‘The white host was enclosed once again in the golden monstrance; around it candles were burning, stabbing the darkness, and here and there the sanctuary lamps threw out their crimson glow.’
As I listened to my friend my heart began to burn within me and my mind awoke to a new and higher vision of things. I began to realize vaguely that the multiplicity of evolutions into which the world-process seems to us to be split up is in fact fundamentally the working out of one single great mystery; and this first glimpse of light caused me, I know not why, to tremble in the depths of my soul. But I was so accustomed to separating reality into different planes and categories of thought that I soon found myself lost in this spectacle, still new and strange to my tyro mind, of a cosmos in which the dimensions of divine reality, of spirit, and of matter were also intimately mingled.
Seeing that I was waiting anxiously for further enlightenment, my friend went on:
‘The last story I would like to tell you concerns an experience which happened to me just recently. This time, as you’ll see, it was not a question of vision properly so called: it was a more general impression which affected, and still affects, my whole being.
‘This is what happened.
‘At that time my regiment was in line on the Avocourt plateau. The German attack on Verdun was still going on, and fighting was heavy on this side of the Meuse. So, like many priests during battle, I was carrying on me the eucharistic Species in a little pyx shaped like a watch.
‘One morning, when there was an almost complete lull in the trenches, I went down into my dug-out and there, as I withdrew into a sort of meditation, my thoughts very naturally turned to the treasure I was carrying on me, with nothing but the thin gilt of the pyx between it and my breast. Many times already I had derived joy and sustenance from the fact of this divine presence. But this time a new idea dawned on me, which soon drove out all other preoccupations whether of recollection or of adoration: I suddenly realized just how extraordinary and how disappointing it was to be thus holding so close to oneself the wealth of the world and the very source of life without being able to possess it inwardly, without being able either to penetrate it or to assimilate it. How could Christ be at once so close to my heart and so far from it, so closely united to my body and so remote from my soul?
‘I had the feeling that an intangible but invincible barrier separated me from him with whom nevertheless I could hardly be in closer contact since I was holding him in my hands. I fretted at the thought of holding Happiness in a sealed receptacle. I was reminded of a bee buzzing round a pot filled with nectar but tightly closed. And impatiently I pressed the pyx against me, as though this instinctive action could cause Christ to enter more deeply into me. Finally, feeling I could not continue thus any longer, and it being now the hour when I usually said Mass when things were quiet, I opened the pyx and gave myself Holy Communion.
‘But now it seemed to me that in the depths of my being, though the Bread I had just eaten had become flesh of my flesh, nevertheless it remained outside of me.
‘I then summoned to my aid all my powers of recollection. I concentrated on the divine particle, the deepening silence and mounting love of my mind and heart. I made myself limitlessly humble, as docile and tractable as a child, so as not to run counter in any way to the least desires of my heavenly guest but to make myself indistinguishable from him, and through my submission to him, to become one with the members of the physical organism which his soul so completely directed. I went on and on without respite trying to purify my heart so as to make my inmost being ever more transparent to the light which I was sheltering within me.
‘Vain yet blessed attempt!
‘Still the host seemed to be always ahead of me, always further on in a more complete concentration and opening out of my desires, further on in a greater permeability of my being to the divine influences, further on in a more absolute limpidity of my affective powers. By my withdrawal into myself and my continual purification of my being I was penetrating ever more deeply into it: but I was like a stone that rolls down a precipice without ever reaching the bottom. Tiny though the host was, I was losing myself in it without ever being able to grasp it or to coincide with it: its centre was receding from me as it drew me on.
‘Since I could never reach the inmost depths of the host, it struck me that I might at least manage to grasp it by its whole surface. For that surface was very smooth and very small. I tried therefore to coincide with it externally, to correspond exactly to its contours.
‘But there a new infinity awaited me; which dashed my hopes.
‘When I tried to envelope the sacred particle in my love, so jealously that I clung to it without losing an atom’s breadth of precious content with it, what happened was, in effect, that each touch produced a new differentiation, a new complexity, so that each time I thought to have encompassed it I found that what I was holding was not the host at all but one or other of the thousand entities which make up our lives: a suffering, a joy, a task, a friend to love or to console. . .
‘Thus, in the depths of my heart, through a marvellous substitution, the host was eluding me by means of its own surface, and leaving me at grips with the entire universe which had reconstituted itself and drawn itself forth from its sensible appearances.
‘I will not dwell on the feeling of rapture produced in me by this revelation of the universe placed between Christ and myself like a magnificent prey. I will only say, returning to that special impression of "exteriority" which had initiated the vision, that I now understood the nature of the invisible barrier which stood between the pyx and myself. From the host which I held in my fingers I was separated by the full extent and the density of the years which still remained to me, to be lived and to be divinized.’
Here my friend hesitated a moment. Then he added:
‘I don’t know why it is, but for some time now I have had the impression, as I hold the host in my hands, that between it and me there remains only a thin, barely-formed film. . .
‘I had always,’ he went on, ‘been by temperament a pantheist".3 I had always felt the pantheist’s yearnings to be native to me and unarguable; but had never dared give full rein to them because I could not see how to reconcile them with my faith. Now, since these various experiences (and others as well) I can affirm that I have found my interest in my existence inexhaustible, and my peace indestructible.
‘I live at the heart of a single, unique Element, the Centre of the universe and present in each part of it: personal Love and cosmic Power.
‘To attain to him and become merged into his life I have before me the entire universe with its noble struggles, its impassioned quests, its myriads of souls to be healed and made perfect. I can and I must throw myself into the thick of human endeavour, and with no stopping for breath. For the more fully I play my part and the more I bring my efforts to bear on the whole surface of reality, the more also will I attain to Christ and cling close to him.
‘God, who is eternal Being-in-itself, is, one might say, everywhere in process of formation for us.
‘And God is also the heart of everything; so much so that the vast setting of the universe might be engulfed or wither away or be taken from me by death without my joy being diminished. Were creation’s dust, which is vitalized by a halo of energy and glory, to be swept away, the substantial Reality wherein every perfection is incorruptibly contained and possessed would remain intact: the rays would be drawn back into their Source, and there I should still hold them all in a close embrace.
‘This is why even war does not disconcert me. In a few days’ time we shall be thrown into battle for the recapture of Douaumont: a grandiose, almost a fantastic exploit which will mark and symbolize a definitive advance of the world in the liberation of souls. And I tell you this: I shall go into this engagement in a religious spirit, with all my soul, borne on by a single great impetus in which I am unable to distinguish where human emotions end and adoration begins.
‘And if’I am destined not to return from those heights I would like my body to remain there, moulded into the clay of the fortifications, like a living cement thrown by God into the stone-work of the New City.’
Thus my dear friend spoke to me, one October evening: he whose soul was instinctively in communion with the life, the one life, of all reality and whose body rests now, as he wished, somewhere in the wild countryside around Thiaumont.4
Written before the Douaumont engagement (Nant-le-Grand, 14 October 1916)
1. Pere Teilhard sometimes called these stories histoires, sometimes cont es, written in the manner of Benson: a story about mysticism by R. H. Benson had made a lasting impression on him. (cf I.e Milieu Divin, Engl. trans. p.124.) (Ed.’s note.)
2. In these stories, too intimate in character for the author not to feel the need to disguise his identity, the ‘friend’ is clearly himself (Ed.’s note.)
3. Taking ‘pantheism’ in a very real sense, indeed in the etymological sense of the word (En pasi panta Theos, i.e., in St Paul’s phrase, God ‘all in all’) but at the same time in an absolutely legitimate sense: for if in the last resort christians become ‘one with God’ this unity is achieved not by way of identification, God becoming all things, but by the action — at once differentiating and unifying — of love, God being all in all, which latter concept is strictly in accord with christian orthodoxy. (Author’s note.)
4. Thiaumont, a farm near Douamont. (Ed.’s note.)