Cyrus Lane (seated) as the title character and Maev Beaty star in the De Chardin Project.The De Chardin Project - November 20 – December 14, 2014 Photos by Michael Cooper

Teilhard De Chardin and human transcendence

  • November 29, 2014

The third and most ambitious staging yet of playwright Adam Seybold’s play The De Chardin Project begins with an image of sin. Fr. Teilhard De Chardin, played by Cyrus Lane, wakes up on a bare, black stage beside a broken tea cup. He doesn’t know where he is or how he got there and he can make out nothing of his surroundings except the broken china.

The Jesuit in his black suit and Roman collar is disoriented and distressed. He is soon joined by an interlocutor (Maev Beaty) who emerges from the stage floor. De Chardin demands an explanation from this new, unnamed person but his questions are answered with questions that only make his position even more confusing.

He is disoriented, lost and the only thing he can identify with certainty is broken.

The conversation turns to death and De Chardin’s confusion only grows. From that point the interlocutor sends De Chardin and the audience on a ghost-of-Christmas-past recounting of De Chardin’s life.

However, that opening image of the broken cup and darkness stays with us throughout the play. Sin becomes the subject, directly or indirectly, of every conversation and situation that follows. Through the horror of trench warfare at Verdun in the First World War, his grasping at the infinite in a lecture on faith and science, the blanket of silence thrown on him by Vatican officials and his own order, his exile in China, his discovery of Peking Man and his continued exile in New York City, De Chardin wrestles with sin as he seeks the infinite.

This is not sin in some simplistic, fundamentalist sense. Though a woman comes along to offer De Chardin an alternative (at once rejected) to his lonely life as a Jesuit in exile, sin in this play is not a childish equivalent of sex. This is sin that pervades everything — original sin. It breaks communion, isolates, leaves us with no direction home and ends in death. In this case, sin is what we might describe as the human condition.

What Seybold gets so very right about De Chardin is that the Jesuit’s great scientific and mystical mind would not accept life circumscribed by sin. De Chardin believes in the Resurrection and that being human is all about transcendence. He saw the infinite where most merely see matter. As he struggled for the truth in science he did not accept simple matter or inevitable death as a final answer.

In the Mass On The World, perhaps the most significant piece of Catholic mystical writing from the 20th century, De Chardin offers up matter in eucharistic sacrifice.

“Because, my God, though I lack the soul-zeal and the sublime integrity of your saints, I yet have received from you an overwhelming sympathy for all that stirs within the dark mass of matter,” De Chardin wrote on Easter Sunday, 1923 in China. “Because I know myself to be irremediably less a child of heaven than a son of Earth; therefore I will this morning climb up in spirit to the high places, bearing with me the hopes and the miseries of my mother; and there — empowered by that priesthood which you alone (as I firmly believe) have bestowed on me — upon all that in the world of human flesh is now about to be born or to die beneath the rising sun I will call down Fire... Fire, the source of being.”

Like almost every mystic in Catholic history, De Chardin was treated to all the suspicion, aversion, incomprehension and condemnation the Church hierarchy could muster. But he would not betray himself or his Church.

This is a kind of heroism which cannot be easily dramatized. The Theatre Passe Muraille production under director Alan Dilworth fully realizes the drama of De Chardin’s life of prayer. A great deal of its success rests with Beaty, who plays a dozen characters and never once slides into caricature. It’s a virtuoso turn from an established, reliable actress in Toronto and at the Stratford Festival.
One generation will know Lane’s voice from their Resident Evil games, another from his appearances in Shakespeare at Stratford. With only De Chardin himself to worry about, Lane has less to do than Beaty. But he does it well.

This is an ambitious play that understands and respects the core issues of religious life — poverty, chastity and obedience — and does not fear the essential ideas of Christianity: incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. That’s a lot to pack into 90 minutes in a darkened theatre with two actors. But it is 90 minutes to spark the imagination of anyone who has ever prayed and sensed they were on the edge of the infinite.

The De Chardin Project runs until Dec. 14 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Ave., Toronto. Tickets at

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