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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Mario Cuomo and French philosopher: one tie that binds

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo is said to have

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo is said to have admired French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Credit: UPI

I never met former Gov. Mario Cuomo. And, unlike several of my colleagues, never observed him, closely or from afar, while working as a reporter either.

But the mention of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest-naturalist-philosopher, included in some remembrances of Cuomo may provide some gossamer of a link.

Cuomo is said to have admired Teilhard, who, to my Catholic high-school self, seemed a rebel of a priest whose nonconforming ideas made sense.

In a series of publications, Teilhard -- who taught physics and chemistry in Cairo and later spent several years working in China -- wrote about humankind and science and spirituality with the view that the three were inseparable.

"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience," is one of his more popularly quoted observations.

Could that help explain why Cuomo remained famously calm when his state plane made an emergency landing in 1988 after the cabin filled with acrid smoke?

In the 1920s, when Teilhard began to write down his ideas, they appeared to defy the orthodoxy of the time; in the 1970s, when I first read them, Teilhard's insistence that ordinary living and ordinary work could be harnessed toward extraordinary goals seemed a righteous reflection of those times.

And, it seems to me -- after a weekend's re-examination of passages coaxed from memory by others' remembrances of Cuomo -- a call to action that reverberates to this day:

"Every man must build -- starting with the most natural territory of his own self -- a work, an opus, into which something enters from all the elements of the earth," Teilhard wrote in The Divine Milieu.

"He makes his own soul throughout his earthly days; and at the same time, he collaborates in another work, in another opus, which infinitely transcends, while at the same time it narrowly determines, the perspectives of his individual achievement: The completing of the world."

The priest, who was born in France in 1881 and died in New York City on Easter Sunday in 1955, goes on: "God, in all that is most living and incarnate in him, is not far away from us. Rather, he awaits us in every instant in our action, in the work of the moment. There is a sense in which he is at the tip of my pen, my spade, my brush, my needle -- of my heart and of my thought."

Since his death on New Year's Day, Cuomo -- a lawyer, teacher, community organizer and three-term governor -- has continued to garner tributes from people who knew him, from friends and once-ardent enemies alike.

Mine comes from a distance, via this newly discovered mutual admiration for a priest -- who once wrote to his superior, " . . . I feel you must resign yourself to taking me as I am . . ."

Mario Cuomo, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once urged, made his own soul throughout his life and his work.

May he rest in peace.

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