About six years ago I was staying near Ramanashram in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu in Southern India—the place where the great saint and teacher of Advaita Vedanta, Ramana Maharshi, spent most of his life. Studying the teachings of Ramana, I felt simultaneously a powerful pull to what he was laying out, and also a push, a tension in myself. Working with Ramana’s method of self-inquiry, with the question “Who am I?” I had one of the most powerful nondual seeings of my life. The whole rational, dualistic apparatus in my brain just shut down, and I looked at a stranger and saw myself, saw that this other was me and that at the same time there was no “I.” The boundary lines of my normal perception simply dropped out. This lasted for a few timeless moments, and suddenly I was back in my limited self with the old lines and boundaries back in place.
And so I knew in a profound way, if only through a glimpse, the truth of what Ramana was saying. I am not, at the deepest level, the limited self that I typically imagine myself to be. At the same time, I was profoundly uncomfortable with his constant teaching, “You are not the body.” I might not only be the body, I might not be limited to the body, but I am this body, something in me kept saying. There is something profoundly important about our manifestation in these forms. Wrestling with this tension, I went to bed.
The next morning I rose early and made the trek up Arunachala, the holy mountain where the ashram sits, stopping to listen to a monk chant his morning prayers along the way. The whole time I felt a profound unease with what seemed like a disembodied spirituality. After I reached the top, something prompted me to walk back down the mountain a different way. I found myself arriving right smack in the middle of town, surrounded by the colors, sounds, and smells of the market, children playing, an elephant in the temple courtyard, everything bursting with life. I felt an overwhelming sense that this was where God was happening, that God had poured God’s self out into matter, as matter, to know God’s self through the beauty and diversity of creation. We are too these bodies! my inner voice shouted.
I made my way back to the ashram, to the quiet side of the mountain, and wandered into the library, looking for a book. I was certainly not looking for a Christian book. Something on Hinduism, maybe Buddhism. But my eye, almost against my will, fell on a title along a spine that read The Hymn of the Universe by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I pulled the book off the shelf, read the first few words, and my whole being glowed with recognition. I devoured the first section, The Mass on the World.
Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest and paleontologist who worked to wed evolutionary thought with Christian theology in the depths of his own mystic’s heart. Finding himself in the steppes of Asia without bread or wine or altar to celebrate the Mass, he wrote: “I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world.” He prayed, “Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body.” I saw the spices and fresh fruits in the market, the elephant at the temple, the children playing.
He sang: “For me, my God, all joy and all achievement, the very purpose of my being and all my love of life, all depend on this one basic vision of the union between yourself and the universe. Let others, fulfilling a function more august than mine, proclaim your splendours as pure Spirit; […] I have no desire, I have no ability, to proclaim anything except the innumerable prolongations of your incarnate Being in the world of matter; I can preach only the mystery of your flesh…” Matter was not a distraction from God, but the very outworking of the life of God in form: a cosmic Incarnation.
Reading Teilhard’s words, my heart sang with his. What I found in his Hymn was a profound spiritual love of matter, of body and form; it was the balance I so desperately needed to complement Ramana. This was not a nonduality that said the world is illusion, that said “You are not the body.” This was a nonduality that said, “You are the body of God.” Teilhard struck right at the heart of a tension felt by spiritual seekers throughout history, and one that I was certainly feeling: a pull between a spirituality that is all about swimming back “upstream” to a rarefied, nondual awakening (with little relation to the world and the body), and a spirituality that is about fully embracing life in form, duality and diversity.
Teilhard felt this tension in himself between the classical mystical pull towards the “Absolute” and his deep love for matter and the Earth, and he found that these seemingly contradictory “upward” and “downward” currents could be reconciled and united in a forward movement: that of an evolving universe. In a static universe (or worse, as some traditions have it, a degenerative universe), it makes perfect sense that the goal of the spiritual journey is to swim back “upstream” to God. But in an evolving and converging universe, the goal shifts dramatically: our spiritual work is not about escape, but instead about driving the whole creation forward toward that which is becoming.
Teilhard saw this forward movement at the heart of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation—God becoming flesh and form in Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation, however, was not an isolated, one-time event, but rather a vast, unfolding process, initiated in Jesus and continuing as an emerging, awakening collectivity—an expanding, organic Body of Christ that individuals are incorporated into. In this light, Christianity becomes not a path of ascent or return to God, but a path flowing out from God, as God flows more and more fully into form.
While the New Testament authors could not have framed this movement in evolutionary terms, Teilhard found in them a profound sense of the forward momentum that drove his own vision. St. Paul spoke of the whole creation “groaning in labor pains” as it worked to bring forth something new and glorious, “the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-22). Teilhard stepped in and connected the evolutionary dots. Charting the course of evolution, he saw the development of a geosphere (the planet), a biosphere (organic life), and finally the emergence of what he called the noosphere—from the Greek nous, or mind—a sphere of conscious awareness, which finds its greatest outlet and expression in humanity. For Teilhard, the next phase of evolution would be primarily within the noosphere, and it was here that he located the work of Christ: the initiation of a new phylum of love within the consciousness of the planet, unfolding as the deepening incarnation of God. This energy of love, Teilhard believed, would drive the noosphere into its next evolutionary leap: the “christification” of the human species.
For Teilhard, the whole movement was towards a convergence on what he called “Christ-Omega” or the “Omega-Point.” The deeply personal, intimate, nondual center of the universe, what we might call the “Heart of God”— revealed for Teilhard in the life of Jesus—was also the point of convergence towards which the whole planet was moving. Again, he turned to the words of St. Paul: “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will, […] a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:8-10): a convergence of spheres, a coincidence of opposites, the union of the human and divine in the unfolding Body of Christ. This convergence he identified with what has traditionally been called the “Second Coming of Christ”—Christ’s coming in fullness and glory through the noosphere of the planet.
Today we might identify this next evolutionary phase as the emergence of “nondual consciousness” at increasing levels within the noosphere: a deepening, lived awareness of the profound unity at the heart of existence (what I caught a glimpse of back at Ramanashram). This will not, however, be a dissolution out of matter and back into a pre-existent unity, but a movement forward, towards something new: an ultimately global expression of conscious unity in matter. Teilhard saw that for the first time in planetary history, evolution (heretofore operating unconsciously) had become conscious of itself in and through the human species. Now evolution is ours to guide, and our conscious efforts to advance the growing phylum of love within the life of our planet will determine our future.
Teilhard wrote towards the end of his life, “I can see quite clearly that the reason I can have influence does not come at all from what I have ‘invented,’ whatever that may be, but simply from the fact that I have found myself ‘resonating’ in the right way to a certain vibration, a certain human and religious note, which is now in the air everywhere.” Our invitation is to move into this resonance, to move into the growing phylum of love, to dance between duality and nonduality, between “I am my body” and “I am the Body of God.” And so I pray: May the deepening Incarnation of the Heart of God, through us, flow into form.