Birds in the Wind: How Their Story Ended

By John Kotre

“We are two wild birds on the Mother Earth.” (Credit: MandrillArt, pixabay)

In 1934, early in his relationship with the artist Lucile Swan, Teilhard de Chardin responded to a “glorious” letter of hers.  “You have entered more deep than ever, as an active seed, the innermost of myself,” he wrote.

Then came a caution.  “Keep free of myself, if possible, Lucile, in having me. . . .  We are two wild birds on the Mother Earth.  Maybe, for years, our paths are going to run close to each other.  Maybe, also, the wind is going to separate our external ways.”  He doesn’t belong to himself, he says.  He belongs to God.   

What was it like for a woman to hear that coupling of “having” Teilhard and “keeping free” of him?  What was it like to give herself up to that wind?  Lucile’s journal and letters that were lost or never sent give voice to a story with a remarkable ending.

“I want you so terribly, and I am trying so hard to understand and incorporate into my being your philosophy, your views on life,” Lucile wrote in her journal early on, but “I can’t have you.  Not really, so I must learn your way of having each other.”

The two were living in Peking at the time.  When Teilhard was away from the city, Lucile sent letters that were full of warmth, longing, and belief in “P.T.,” her “Precious Teilhard.”  But there were others she chose not to send.  Like this one:

Pierre, your God seems so cold, so far away.  Am I all wrong in thinking that I could help you to feel Him more warmly by giving you a deep and constant human love? . . .

It is when I want some human, some warm response from you and day after day it does not come.  Then that terrible feeling of aloneness and of losing you gets more than I can stand, and then I realize that I am not losing anything—because I never had it. 

When Teilhard was in Peking, he spoke constantly with Lucile of what was being “born between us,” especially his master work, The Human Phenomenon.  By the time he finished that book, World War II had begun and the Japanese were occupying the city.  Lucile remained as long as she could but eventually left for the United States, hoping Teilhard would follow.  But he did not.  Letters she wrote were lost in the mail, including one she sent at war’s end:

Pierre Dearest,
Do please write me soon and [tell] me that it is still the same!!  My whole heart is here for you if you want it. . . .  I would like so much to give you such beauty, such happiness that it would make all you do more rich and strong and vital. . . .  My greatest wish is that I shall be able to work with you again.

Teilhard would return to France and, in 1948, come to New York for an engagement with the American Museum of Natural History.  It had been six-and-a-half years since Lucile had seen her “dearest,” so she came to the city to greet him.  But another woman was waiting at the dock that day, and it was with her, not Lucile, that Teilhard left.

Several months later Lucile “went off the deep end” in a face-to-face talk with Teilhard—and then apologized, but only in a letter never sent:

You say you have not changed toward me, but of course that is not the truth, though you may believe.  I assure it is not true.  You say you cannot help what happened.  Does that mean there is no such thing as free will?  Are we just victims of fate to be thrown here and there as chance decides?

In 1953, exiled from France by his church, Teilhard took up residence in New York.  Lucile was living nearby and their relationship endured, still buffeted by contrary winds.  She was in her sixties now, he in his seventies, growing frail and prone to attacks of anxiety and depression.

She:  Oh, Pierre, I wish we could be at least at ease with each other! . . .  If it is all too difficult for you, at least let us not stop on a note of accusations and confusion.  There has been too much creative beauty in the past.

He:  If, just now, meetings are too disturbing, there are always letters.

She:  I place my hands upon your head and give you my deep and loving blessing.

He:  Write me everything you are doing, because I should like to keep in touch with you and telephoning seems to be still straining my nerves.

She:  My love for you will always be something special; but believe me it is neither demanding nor possessive.

In December of 1954, Teilhard went for a walk, became ill, and fell to the ground.  Rushed to his doctor, he asked for Lucile.  He needed to know that she loved him.  Lucile came at once and assured him that she did.  Four months later, on Easter Sunday, 1955, he fell again, this time fatally.

Their final letters had been filled with tenderness. 

She:  You know I have found Peace and it is the thing I long for you more than anything else–the real Peace of God’s presence. . . . 
P.S.  If it would be easier not to see me, tell me.

He:  We know, both of us, that we “are always here” for each other. . . .  God bless you for all you gave and give me!

Wild birds at sunset. (Credit: public domain, pixabay)

And so Lucile released Teilhard to the wind.  After his death she treasured the time they had spent together and the letters she had saved.  “The privilege of knowing and having the friendship of this great man continues to be the most important part of my life.”

Adapted from John Kotre, The Women He Knew: Portraits from the Life of Teilhard de Chardin (2024).

© 2024 John Kotre. Do not use / reprint without permission.

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