SHORTLY BEFORE his death in 1955, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest-paleontologist, wrote to a friend: "Less and less do I see any difference now between research and adoration." The Heart of Matter , the 13th and final volume of his collected works, amply testifies to his uncompromising singleness of purpose. For Teilhard, all polarities -- science and religion, matter and spirit, body and soul, prayer and work -- are reconciled in what he calls the Cosmic Christ.

While this Christ bears a strong resemblance to the Risen Lord St. Paul encountered on the road to Damascus and to the Apocalyptic Savior St. John described, there is one major difference. Teihard's Christ is the glorious terminus of Matter's evolutionary process, the result of Matter's imperceptible transformation into Spirit.

As protrayed by Teilhard, the Christ of the Universe is a unique confluence of scriptural insights and scientific data. The body of the Lord is the same as the body of the world. The lines of this body do not restrict, but merge with the universe, unifying and gathering it to a greatness. No traditional narrow strip of gold, Christ's halo becomes a vibrating light radiating into infinity. A "fluorescence of Matter" composes his raiment; his transfigured face is illuminated by the "light and colours of all the beauties we know." Such a Christ, Teilhard was convinced, all men would come to acknowledge, worship, and ultimately love.

Like his Cosmic Christ, Teilhard is at immense pains to reach out to everyone. His writings are not dry academic dissertations of abstract principles, but intensely personal hymns of the way in which "the World gradually caught fire for me, burst into flame." His approach is unabashedly autobiographical and exuberant. Teilhard's "Prayer to the Ever-Greater Christ" (echoing the motto of the Jesuits, "To the Greater Glory of God") swells with these rapturous lines:

"A fantastic molecular swarm.... It is in this terrifying granular Energy that you, Lord -- so that I may be able the better to touch you, or rather, who knows? to be more closely embraced by you -- have clothed yourself for me: nay, it is of this that you have formed your very Body."

As this excerpt demonstrates, Teilhard's writing should be particularly appealing to today's reader beause it is marred neither by devotional excesses nor by pietistic narcissism, religion's deadliest foes. Though Teilhard frequently avows his love for Christ and for the world, his piety and tenderness do not intrude artificially into the text. Nor does he cause us to focus undue attention upon ourselves.A barren slogan like "looking our for number one" Teilhard would consider a specious variation of "dwarfism," which he defines as the premature arresting of man's "initial apprehension of the Absolute in the form of the Tangible." Always Teilhard presses us toward the largest possible view, shakes us out of our private moralities, exhorts us to join the "Gospel of Human Effort":

"There is only one way of enthroning God as sovereign over the men of our time: and that is to embrace the ideal they reach out to; it is to seek, with them , the God whom we already possess but who is as yet amongst us , as though he were a stranger to us."

Like other great visionary poets -- Blake, Hopkins, Yeats -- Teilhard engages the reader both intellectually and sensually. Everywhere his prose is studded with images and symbols. In many of the essays here included -- in particular, the previously unpublished "The Heart of Matter" and "The Christic" -- fire is the archetypal symbol of the world's transubstantiation into Christ. Lines such as the following occur on practically every page: "The World has begun... to affect me emotionally as a blaze" and "Christ. His Heart. A Fire: ... with the power to penetrate all things -- and which was now gradually spreading unchecked." For Teilhard, as for Hopkins, nature is a Heraclitean fire, and this poor patch of a world is, in fact, immortal diamond.

In explaining his ecstatic vision of the universe, Teilhard uses language that can be esoteric and clumsily scientific. Sometimes, when casting about for words, he creates coinages from Biblical sources and Greek and Latin roots: noosphere, plermisation, amorization are but a few of his characteristic neologisms. Still, in spite of periodic patches of obscurity, these essays are not intended only for the philosopher, scientist, or theologian; they are within the ken of most lay readers and should prove both engrossing and inspirational.

Teilhard's message of the hope for the world dazzles, and much of it, as expected, eludes our grasp. But we do not sit at the feet of a great teacher because we understand all that he says.We sit, listen, learn, and believe because the teacher believes.