A “Negative Space” Eucharist based on Teilhard’s “Mass on the World” by Cynthia Bourgeault

Eucharist” literally means “thanksgiving”: an offering up of praise and gratitude. Only in recent liturgical usage has the term come to be an accepted synonym for the Mass or Holy Communion.

In 1923, on an geological expedition deep in the Ordos Desert of Mongolia, the newly minted priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin pondered his obligation to offer a daily celebration of the mass – but how to do so in the middle of the desert, with neither bread nor wine (let alone the sacred vessels of the altar) available to him? His solution: the whole earth would become his altar, with the human toil and sufferings of the day to be offered up as his bread and wine.

The result of this profound reflection is Teilhard’s “The Mass on the World.” The original seed of this work actually dates from Teilhard’s stretcher bearer days behind the French lines in World War I, but the work became a lifelong project – and a practice as much as a text. The most complete version (composed at Ordos) is a brilliant, five-part prose poem which you will find in its entirety in The Heart of Matter, Teilhard’s brilliant final autobiographical work. A slightly abridged version of the introductory (“The Offering”) section is included in Ursula King’s anthology, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Writings Selected with an Introduction by Ursula King (Orbis, 2008).

This striking altar based on Teilhard's "Mass on the World," was created by Mary Southard, CSJ, and adorns the Chapel of the Congregation of St. Joseph in LaGrange, IL.

This striking altar based on Teilhard’s “Mass on the World,” was created by Mary Southard, CSJ, and adorns the Chapel of the Congregation of St. Joseph in LaGrange, IL.

In our own times it seems that we have now arrived in strangely parallel circumstances. It’s not that bread and wine are literally unavailable, but the blessing and sharing of bread and wine – one of the few spiritual practices specifically mandated by Jesus – has become so problematic in today’s embattled institutional church that it often feels more like a minefield than a “communion,” let alone a holy one. There are questions of priestly power and control – who can celebrate and who can’t – and increasingly exclusive and rigid rubrics around who can receive and who can’t. On top of that, there is the growing cultural discomfort with the primary symbols themselves – wine is, after all, alcohol, and bread is gluten – and a rising demand for politically correct, chemically appropriate substitutes leaves the former stark simplicity of the communion table now looking like a cafeteria line, filled with a profusion of “self-service” alternatives.

At our most recent Wisdom School on Holy Isle in Scotland, we were dealing with yet an additional layer of complication: the whole island, run by Tibetan Buddhists whose intention is to maintain a uniform, very high planetary vibration, is explicitly “intoxicant free,” communion wine included. Everyone who visits or attends program on the island specifically agrees to this covenant.

So what’s to be done under the circumstances? The obvious solution is simply to use nonalcoholic wine (and gluten free bread) and dispose of the problem for once and for all. But if you’re like me, suspecting that Jesus’ use of transformed substances (wine and bread have both been through an alchemical process that transforms their nature) is both intentional and central to the meaning of the ritual, you don’t mess around with the designated primary symbols quite that lightly.

Sunset in Victoria by Mary-Clare Carder, showing the use of negative (dark) space to highlight the sunset

Sunset in Victoria by Mary-Clare Carder, showing the use of negative (dark) space to highlight the sunset

The alternative: a “negative space” Eucharist based on “The Mass on the World.” (“Negative space,” incidentally, is a term from the art world: it means empty or open space deliberately built into a painting which is not “negative” at all from a compositional standpoint, but essential to the shape, meaning, and overall feel of the whole.)

I have offered this Teilhard mass three times now – at Wisdom Schools at La Casa de Maria in Santa Barbara, Valle Crucis in North Carolina, and Holy Isle in Scotland – and each time the impact has been powerful and utterly clean. It can be done without priests, without bread and wine, and across denominational and even interreligious lines: the only qualification for participation is to be “a member of the human race.” Drawing on the finest of Teilhard’s mystical/evolutionary vision, it touches the heart of the earth and the heart of humanity in a way that is not only fully Eucharistic, but under some circumstances (such as on Holy Isle) even more universal and compelling than its official liturgical counterpart.

At any rate, I pass this on to you for further exploration and experimentation in your own Wisdom circles. At the very least, it’s another simple step forward into bringing Teilhard’s work into more active liturgical use.


• Group gathered in a circle;

• “Mass on the World” text from King (p. 80-81);

• Two readers (reader 1, “priest,” reads paragraphs 1-3, 6-7; reader 2, “deacon,” reads paragraphs 4-5, 8). Ideally, the two readers are sitting opposite from each other.

In my own version of this ceremony, I have found it highly effective to read the text over the music “Essence” by Peter Kater. This single, free-flowing piece of white music somehow dialogues poignantly with the Teilhard text and draws the whole event into an integrated liturgical experience, not just a recitation (note: the piece is longer than the Mass itself: just use as much of it as you need and fade to silence when the recitation is finished; it accommodates easily).

At the end of paragraph 6 (“Once upon a time…the world borne ever onward in the stream of universal becoming…”), reader stands, and invites all in circle to do likewise.

At the invocation in paragraph 7 (”Receive, O Lord, this all-embracing host which your whole creation, moved by your magnetism, offers to you at this dawn of a new day”) all raise their hands above their head, making their own oblation. Position is held for two minutes or so in silence, and while deacon reads the final paragraph. At the last words of this paragraph, “Lord, make us one,” all in the circle are invited to join, separately and/or in unison.

Then priest/reader sits and all sit. Music fades, meditation follows for as long as is desired.

Give it a try and share your feedback. My blessings to you!

~ Cynthia

11 replies
  1. mjph
    mjph says:

    Having participated / offered this mass earlier today with the author and 400 others, I can say with great confidence that it is a powerful prayer Of thanksgiving that can only be a product of all.that.is yearning to pray through us all, always and forever. Amen.

  2. Carolyn Ash
    Carolyn Ash says:

    Ash Wednesday 2016

    Today our Wisdom Circle celebrated the Mass on the World using the version in Ursula King’s book Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Selected Writings, as Cynthia suggested. Several months ago we decided it might be a nice way to mark Ash Wednesday and commence our journey into Lent.

    Our group meets monthly to read, mark, and inwardly digest the Gospel of Thomas. For today, we set Thomas aside and turned our attention to Teilhard. Some of us have read a bit of his work, but none of us knows a lot about him or how he came to his deep and mystical understandings of unity of all things.

    Our customary format is to do lectio divina as part of our gathering, and today’s lectio focused on two paragraphs (4 and 5) from the Mass on the World. It is a long, dense passage for lectio and yet each of us gathered rich and deep meaning for ourselves. The experience also steeped us in Teilhard’s words and contemplative spirit.

    We then said the Mass on the World, each of us reading a paragraph. We used Peter Katar’s Essence to accompany the reading. We were all moved by Spirit’s flow through this fertile and poetic piece that stitches us into the tapestry of all creation. And so, we have stepped into Lent in the glow of the light from “the outermost fringe of the eastern sky” with our souls “laid widely open to all the forces which in a moment will rise up from every corner of the earth and converge upon the Spirit.”

  3. Clay Masters
    Clay Masters says:

    I found this article after reading the final chapter, “Eucharist,” in your book The Wisdom Jesus. Parts of me feel strongly connected to elements of the Eucharist formed by my Roman Catholic upbringing. The idea of instantiation in the book along with your ideas here challenge traditional approaches to the Eucharist, but also raise important questions for Christians in liturgical settings. Two questions that I am currently thinking about ask why do we need a “priest” to preside over a Eucharist and what becomes of consecration of the elements? Even if the symbols open the door to the heavenly banquet as you say in your book, must they change somehow in order to do so? These are my liminal thoughts right now. I am sure that the wisdom Christ will clear up the important questions in time. I really appreciate your work and your book!

  4. Jane McKenna
    Jane McKenna says:

    Learning to draw an object in space means also drawing the space that surrounds and touches and gives up it’s own emptiness for the object to exist. “If you want to draw that thing stop looking at it and consider the whole picture plane” was the teaching in drawing class. Japanese flower arranging considers this too! How ethereal and beautiful, quite drawn to this richness, hope to be able to engage with this with Wisdom compatriots.

  5. Elizabeth parnis
    Elizabeth parnis says:

    Does my heart good to read this from Cynthia. Mass on the world has always drawn me and now when in a church it feels sterile to be closed off from Nature. What to do? I don’t know,

  6. Jerry
    Jerry says:

    A friend just passed this article to me. I have said for years that the Communion was one of the only things Jesus said was a necessary part of worship service. How wonderful to see it confirmed. We have just started a Meet Up group in Alexandria, VA “In my Name” It is based on the idea that we can worship Jesus, use his writings and do it directly with layers of history and rules and regulations. At our first meeting, we broke bread together. What a wonderful experience.

    I have been on a spiritual quest through Seminary courses in Spirituality, Henri Nouwen Society and books, and just finished “The Cloud of Unknowing”

    This article put many things together I will see how I can relate to your program.

    Thank you so much


  7. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    Having also been part of this mass on Holy Isle, it was the most sacred beautiful and holy – for me it is hard to put into any more words. I felt blessed, loved, felt the beauty of everyone who was part of it, a simply holy and beautiful mass. Thank you Cynthia for your extraordinary teachings, and sharing amazing wisdom. It was and is transforming.

  8. Cynthia Bourgeault
    Cynthia Bourgeault says:

    Thanks, Gus and Di, for your thoughtful comments, and Gus, for your “eyewitness” confirmation. I hadn’t known of “Ma” before, but yes, this describes it perfectly.

  9. Gus MacLeod
    Gus MacLeod says:

    Having taken part in the Teillhard mass on Holy Isle earlier this month, I can attest that it was indeed powerful and utterly clean. The quality of attention, intention and presence in the room along with the antiphonal voices speaking Teillhard’s words and the beautiful, pellucid music of Peter Kater combined to create something spacious, timeless and scared. The concept of negative space – and the Japanese aesthetic equivalent ‘ma’ – is to the point.

    Quoting Lauren Prusinski (Valparaiso University, Indiana): ‘Ma’ represents a beauty in emptiness or formlessness, something that cannot be conveyed by a tangible object or through description. The beauty of ma lies in the difficulty of depicting it. Though the artist cannot present an overt sense of its beauty, ma’s ambiguity gives it its beauty and timeless quality, allowing it to transcend cultural and spatial boundaries…… ma creates a boundless feeling that must be traced in relation to the environment in which it lies. An observer cannot simply see its presence and call it ma. Rather, the observer must observe all aspects of the surroundings and feel the beauty that lies in the spaces that are unoccupied by material objects or living things. It cannot be captured and identified by a stationary moment.

    My experience of the Teillhard mass on Holy Isle echoes this: the spaciousness; the mystery of what it was that was created and from what; that it could be both fleeting and timeless; these were all extraordinary qualities.

    Length of time depends upon our ideas.
    Size of space hangs upon our sentiments.
    For one whose mind is free from care,
    A day will outlast the millennium.
    For one whose heart is large,
    A tiny room is as the space between heaven and earth.

    (from “The Roots of Wisdom: Saikontan”)

  10. Di Shearer
    Di Shearer says:

    I responded to my friend who passed the link to me, that I had ‘wrestled with the issues’ Cynthia raises and ‘compromised’ on some. Having experienced separately in spirituality contexts both a high Mass and the simplest of Protestant practices, I used ‘grape juice’ against my better judgment and ‘gluten free bread’ again aware that grain and alchemical process are not present. But the part of the article I most appreciated was the power play between who can conduct a Eucharistic service and who can’t and who can receive communion and who can’t. As one who grew up Baptist, and grew into small ‘c’ ‘catholic’ stances, one who knows the ‘call’ of God to ministry and finds that ‘call’ not recognised by officialdom, I am left with no alternative but to use the ‘negative space’ and combine it with the best I know of a Christ who offered bread and wine to Judas, as much as to his other faithful and faithless disciples. Thank you, again. Every blessing to all who look to the God who is ever coming towards us.

  11. Di Shearer
    Di Shearer says:

    I was interested to have this link passed on to me by a member of the congregation in which I celebrated as lay person a bread breaking, whole making eucharistic service on Sunday evening. The service drew on elements of the Mass on the World and a Holy Communion rite at an open table. Working with both Cynthia’s writing and that of Teilhard de Chardin, particularly as interpreted by Sr Ilia Delio, I encouraged those gathered to pray with the labours and suffering of the world, and their own. The total text of Mass on the World seems too much for many to take in at one sitting, so I’m planning to move on to the ‘fire’ aspects of the Mass when I next take the service. it was a thrill this morning to hear of someone attending a Eucharist and experiencing a ‘bolt’ of light and life. Around the Globe, we echo: “Lord, make us one”.

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