Celebration on the Altar of the World

Well, friends, my decades-long obsession with revision has reached a new extreme. I’ve shamelessly messed with another author’s work. Is this even allowed?

When my mother died, her study group was preparing to read Teilhard’s Divine Milieu. I picked up her beat-up paperback copy just as I began a two-year formation program in contemplative Christianity. One day my teachers used the beginning paragraphs of Teilhard’s Mass on the World to open a period of silent prayer. Soaring language, earthy reverence, our group’s collective yearning, and the potency of my mother’s spiritual legacy washed through me; I couldn’t stop weeping. Never before had liturgy touched me so deeply.

Teilhard de Chardin was a scientist, paleontologist, philosopher, and Jesuit priest; born in France in 1881, he served as a stretcher-bearer during WWI and over the course of his career taught and conducted research in England, Egypt, China, and the U.S. He participated in the discovery of Peking Man. But at heart he was a mystic, and his sweeping recognition of divine unfolding within evolution was so radical, church authorities in Rome forbade him to teach theology, banned his books, and banished him to China. Teilhard’s vision, that matter is spiritually potent and evolution a progression toward consciousness, is to this day treated by mainstream Christianity with skepticism.

I think it’s brilliant.

When Teilhard was serving in the trenches, unable to celebrate a traditional Mass for lack of bread and wine, he instead said “a Mass on all things,” lifting himself up “beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself.” He made the whole earth his altar on which he placed the “labors and sufferings of the world.” Years later, on an expedition on the Yellow River, he again took up the practice and wrote The Mass on the World. Teilhard had the audacity to revise the Catholic Mass—even worse, to reimagine Christ’s body and blood as evolving earth and suffering humanity. No wonder his work was censored. 

Even so, my experience of Teilhard’s personal Mass was so tremendous, I felt baffled that no one ever used it. So I read it in full—and found it heady, verbose, disorganized, patriarchal, and way too long. What?! No wonder my teachers read only a few paragraphs. That’s when my revision fingers started itching. Could I re-render the liturgy, lending it economy, flow, inclusivity and functionality while preserving Teilhard’s soaring language and incarnational theology? Better yet, could I layer in my own reverence for the divine feminine principle within creation? I imagined myself as a translator, making accessible to contemporary (and often disenfranchised) Christians a dimension of our mystical heritage that too often remains hidden.

The project has been unlike anything I’ve done before. Rewriting someone else’s prose is an audacious exercise, especially if its author was a brilliant mystic. But I figure Teilhard would approve. We’re both revising the tradition we’ve inherited to more fully praise the life and light infusing creation, here and now, with what we’re been given. Not only that:  By practicing revision, we become active agents of creation’s unfolding. Teilhard would say that’s what we humans were made for.

– Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

PS: You’re invited to experience this Celebration with us at Eye of the Heart Center’s upcoming sunrise event: