Truth … Ablaze: Teilhard in the Trenches of WWI

This quote from paleontologist/priest/mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin arose from his transcendental experiences as a stretcher bearer and chaplain in the trenches during World War I. “Truth has to appear only once, in one single mind, for it to be impossible for anything ever to prevent it from spreading universally and setting everything Ablaze.” It was the concluding line in The Christic which he wrote in March 1955, a month before his death, noting that his fundamental vision had not changed in 40 years.

Teilhard’s six years in the fiery crucible of war are documented in The Making of a Mind: Letters From a Soldier-Priest 1914–1919 to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon. In 1915 he wrote about the 2nd Battle of Ypres which occurred near that Belgian city on the front lines. “Fundamentally, I’m glad to have been at Ypres. I hope I shall have emerged more of a man and more of a priest. And more than ever I believe that life is beautiful, in the grimmest of circumstances — when you can see God, ever-present, in them.”

There were five different grim Battles of Ypres where mustard gas was used for the first time. The 3rd Battle was recreated in the movie 1917 with graphic depictions of what it was like to fight for survival in the trenches. In Nostalgia for the Front Teilhard later described the surreal experience of life and death as being unusually compelling for him, “This feeling of a plentitude of being and of something more than human that I’ve often experienced at the front and that I fear I’ll miss after the war.”

Miraculously, Teilhard risked his life rescuing the wounded from No Man’s Land in over 80 battles, but never had a single wound or day of illness. Ursula King writes in his biography Spirit of Fire that the North African soldiers in his regiment called him Sidi Marabout which means in Arabic “a saint blessed by divine favor” and protected by Baraka which means divine grace. It was in this cauldron of spiritual turmoil that he began his most influential writings about the Cosmic Christ who he experienced in a mystic transcendent vision.

Teilhard describes how his mystical experience began in this passage from Christ in the World of Matter. “I was thinking: Suppose Christ would deign to appear here before me … my gaze had come to rest without conscious intention on a picture of Christ offering his heart to human beings … 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.”

Challenged by the ineffability of his vision he provided this description of “the transfigured face of the Master that drew and held captive my entire attention … there shone, in an indescribable shimmer or iridescence, all the radiant hues of all our modes of beauty … innumerable gradations of majesty, of sweetness, of irresistible appeal … that beauty was something I divined rather than perceived … the very core of my being vibrated in response to it, sounding a unique note of expansion and happiness.”

As the experience came to its climactic conclusion Teilhard made this dramatic observation while gazing into the pupils of Christ’s divine eyes. “I stood dumbfounded. For this final expression, which had dominated and gathered up unto 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 again — in the glance of a dying soldier.”

He must have gazed into the dying eyes of dozens of soldiers, some of whom may have been American, referred to as “doughboys.” The horrifying hardships endured by these young men was considered “hell on earth.” “Trench warfare was associated with death, disease, mutilated limbs and the fear that the next enemy bullet had your name on it. Trench existence meant fighting more than the Germans; the continual cold and mud and relentless rain, lice, rats, maggots, insects and hunger. And ongoing fear.”

“Life consisted of death in a thousand forms — of rifle and machine-gun fire, of artillery barrages, of woods and shattered trees, broken bodies, cries of the wounded, tiny gouges of earth as home, a candle in a tin can for a stove, a thirst never assuaged, a body never clean, the same clothes, filthy and lice-infested, bowels tortured by foul rations and relieved in stinking slit trenches, cold nights without blankets, hot days in wool uniforms, everywhere the stench of dead-the complete, awful, humiliating sordidness of combat.”

“No man who has not experienced the ordeal of battle, can understand … what it is like for the men coming out of battle after perhaps, three or four days and nights of continuous fighting, plastered with mud, scratched and cut by wire and shell splinters, lame and stiff from the water of shell holes in which they have spent the nights, half dazed from shell-shock and loss of sleep, half sick, and frequently burned from poisonous gas and depressed by the loss of comrades whom they have seen killed or wounded about them.”

Two million doughboys were sent to Europe and 200,000 never came back. My maternal grandfather Robert Floyd was burned on the legs by the dreaded mustard gas in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, the final and bloodiest conflict of WWI. Recently, while reading It Didn’t Start with You by Family Constellation therapist Mark Wollyn, I discovered that my restless legs syndrome (RLS) of 20 years may be an inherited trauma related to Grandpa’s experience of it not being safe to fall asleep in the trenches many decades ago.

I had heard the family story of Grandpa’s war injury, but it never occurred to me that it might have any relation to my most frustrating chronic health issue which has been recalcitrant to every holistic remedy imaginable. He never talked about the war much and was a light sleeper suggesting that he may have had mild shell shock which was the term for PTSD in WWI. My RLS started in 2002 just after the trauma of 9/11 put the whole country into a trance of fear making me wonder if it triggered my epigenetic time bomb.

It was also the year I learned EFT as a treatment for PTSD, and I have previously tapped on several childhood medical traumas which I thought might underlie the RLS without success. I am now tapping on my emotional connection to Grandpa’s terror in the trenches in hopes of finally feeling that it is safe to fall asleep. As I was investigating the possible connections between my RLS and WWI, my brother Peter reminded me of another family story I heard about when I was younger but had long since forgotten.

Dorothea Frederick Floyd, Robert’s wife, had a brother Clarence who was killed 1 day after the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, as one of the last casualties of the War to End All Wars. The family suspected he was fragged by friendly fire for being of German descent. Wollyn notes that sometimes healing occurs just through the awareness of these ancestral traumas. With my family’s WWI legacy fully revealed, perhaps I can instead emulate Teilhard’s saintly example of being protected by divine grace!

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