The Shame of Peter Abelard

“You know the depths of shame to which my unbridled lust had consigned our bodies, until no reverence for decency or for God even during the days of Our Lord’s Passion, or of the greater sacraments could keep me from wallowing in this mire.  Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power and tried to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature I often forced you to consent with threats and blows.*  So intense were the fires of lust which bound me to you that I set those wretched, obscene pleasures, which we must blush even to name, above God as above myself; nor would it seem that divine mercy could have taken action except by forbidding me these pleasures altogether, without future hope.” Heloise to Abelard, Letter 5 in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Trans. Betty Radice, Revised edition by M.T. Clanchy (Penguin: London, 2003), p. 81. [Emphasis added]

As if he wanted to surpass Heloise’s shocking statement about loving him more than God, Abelard describes his lustful actions and mistreatment of her in graphic terms.  He clearly understood that he took advantage of the situation.  When they met, he was around 35 and she was in her late teens.  By all accounts, she possessed a great intellect and her letters indicate this fact.  Abelard deflects Heloise’s admission of continued love for him by heaping blame on his own emotional instability and deeds of shame.

Pleading his own unworthiness, Abelard exhorts Heloise to turn her heart toward divine love.  He instructs her to remember Christ’s Passion for the salvation of the world, not theirs for the sake of lusts.   Like the women along the road to Calvary, he wants Heloise to weep for the Son of God:

“Have compassion on him who suffered willingly for your redemption, and look with remorse on him who was crucified for you.  In your mind always be present at his tomb, weep and wail with the faithful women.” Ibid., p. 85.

Abelard wants Heloise to replace the images of their passionate embraces stamped on her heart with the image of Christ’s Passion in her memory.  In so doing, his prescribed meditation reflects that of many twelfth-century theologians.  For example, Bernard of Clairvaux instructed his monks to “preserve without fail the memory of  all those biter things he [Jesus] endured for you.”

To summarize Abelard’s exhortation: Meditate on the crucified Christ.  Turn your sorrow to Him because Jesus “set up the Cross, from which he summons us, as a ladder for us to use.  On this, for you, the only begotten Son of God was killed; he was made an offering because he wished it. Grieve with compassion over him alone and share his suffering in grief.” Ibid., p. 85.          

Following this section, Abelard weds spiritual marriage to the teaching of Christ’s redemption.  This fits with Heloise’s new vocation as a nun, but it also applied to every Christian soul.   He explained to Heloise that Christ had redeemed her with his own blood.  In this way, Christ has demonstrated an inestimable love for Heloise, unlike Abelard’s unbridled lust:

“To him, I beseech you, not to me, should be directed to all your devotion, all your compassion, all your remorse.  Weep for the injustice of the great cruelty inflicted on him, not for the just and righteous payment demanded of me, or rather, as I said, the supreme grace granted us both….Mourn for your Saviour and Redeemer, not for your corrupter and fornicator; wail for the Lord who died for you, not for the servant who lives and, indeed, for the first time is truly freed from death.” Ibid., p. 86.

*The issue of physical abuse here is truly disturbing*

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The Affection of Heloise

“In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet–they cannot displease me, and can scarcely shift from my memory.  Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even sleep.  Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers.  I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost.  Everything we did and also the times and places where we did it are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through them all again with you.” Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4 in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Trans. Betty Radice, Revised edition by M.T. Clanchy (Penguin: London, 2003), p. 68 [Emphasis Added]

Can you believe the abbess of a convent wrote this? Wow.  Memory and Love leave a lasting impression. Emotions often shape who we are and what we believe.  While twelfth-century monks and nuns did write in very emotion-laded ways, these words had more specific meanings.  Affectus can be translated as emotion, but it meant something else to a medieval nun or monk.  In this case the affectus of love is powerful.  It is a disposition or pull of the will toward someone or something.*

Notice that she knows the truth: “I should be groaning over the sins I have committed…” but she can only lament the loss of the love of her life.

In this quote we read Heloise, the abbess of a convent, describe the memory of her love for her husband  and its effects on her in sexual terms.  He was a famous theologian and philosopher: Peter Abelard.  They had a torrid love affair when he was her teacher.  She eventually became pregnant. To please her family, they were secretly married.  Peter taught at the early twelfth-century cathedral school in Paris and this was a problem for them. 

As master at a cathedral school, Peter held status as a cleric and celibacy was becoming quite important at that time.  Heloise’s family decided that a secret marriage was not good enough, so a few of the family members castrated Peter Abelard.  She became a nun at his insistence and he became a monk, but remained a significant (and controversial) theologian.  Later she became an abbess of a monastery, the Paraclete, which Peter helped establish and supported.

In the same letter she acknowledges her hypocrisy and lack of virtue in her soul.  While her outward behavior comported to the monastic ideal, she confesses the memory of sensual affections with her husband.  Without the intention of loving God, Heloise, explains that her religious behavior is vanity.  In fact, she explained that Peter, her husband and former teacher, was her real love and inspiration:

“At every stage of my life up to now, as God knows, I have feared to offend you rather than God, and tried to please you more than him.  It was your command, not love of God, which made me take the veil.  Look at the unhappy life I lead, pitiable beyond any other, if in this world I must endure so much in vain, with no hope of future reward.” Ibid., 69.

*William of St Thierry, The Nature and Dignity of Love, trans. Thomas X. Davis (Cistercian: Kalamazoo, 1981), 47.

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The Honorable Cross

“Every action of Christ and all His working of miracles were truly great and divine and wonderful, but of all things the most wonderful is His honorable cross.  For by nothing else except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has death been destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, and power given us to despise the things of this world and even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God, and we made children and heirs of God.  By the cross all things have been set right.” John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith, Bk 4, Chap. 11., trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., The Fathers of the Church vol. 37 (New York 1958), p. 349-350.  [Emphasis added] 

John of Damascus (d. 749) wrote this work on the Christian faith and against heresies (false teachings) in the eighth century.  This particular chapter on the Lord’s cross demonstrates how early medieval Eastern theologians praised Christ’s redemption and venerated the images and relics of the Cross. However, John lived under Muslim rulers who rejected and attacked the Christian teaching on the Cross and Resurrection.

John defended this teaching against Muslim critics in another work, On Heresies, in which he identified Muslims as Ishmaelites or Saracens.  He, then, seeks to refute the main teachings of Mohammed, whom he identified as a heretic (false teacher).  Especially, John defends the practice of venerating the cross against Islamic accusations of idolatry:  “They…accuse us of being idolaters, because we venerate the cross, which they abominate.” John of Damascus, On Heresies, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., The Fathers of the Church vol. 37 (New York 1958), pp. 156.

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True Law and Genuine Justice

“For there is a fellowship that is extremely widespread, shared by all with all (even if this has often been said, it ought to be said still more often); a closer one exists among of those of the same nation, and one more intimate still among those of the same city.  For this reason our ancestors wanted the law of nations and the civil law to be different: everything in the civil law need not be in the law of nations, but everything in the law of nations ought also to be a part of the civil law.  We, however, do not have the firm and lifelike figure of true law and genuine justice: we make use of shadows and sketches.  I wish we would follow even those! For they are drawn from the best examples of nature and truth.” Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Duties III. 69. eds. and trans. M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins (Cambridge 1991), pp. 126.

Here Cicero expresses the Stoic idea that human beings share a common nature.  However, he does note that people of the same nation or city are closer in fellowship with one another.  Natural law rests in the minds of human beings by nature.  Civil laws are the precepts established by the ancient Romans (or Athenians) that seek to put natural law into practice.  Yet, similar to the inhabitants of Plato’s allegorical cave, citizens in this world only have ‘shadows and sketches’ of natural law.

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Studies Burdensome to Youth

One may wish to be learned in old age, but it is not easy to achieve this unless we have nurtured learning in ourselves from our earliest years with zealous effort.  So we need to prepare in youth those consolations which can bring delight in honorable old age; studies which are burdensome to youth will be pleasant relaxations to age.  In this sense they are truly great bulwarks, whether we seek a remedy against sloth or solace in the face of worry and care. Piero Paolo Vergerio, “Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth,” in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, p. 316. [Emphasis added]

The learning one obtains in youth brings consolation in one’s old age.  This is a reason why memorization at the grammar stage of learning lays the foundation for higher cognitive skills: logic and rhetoric.  In our youth this learning seems like drudgery, but without it no one can read or enjoy philosophy in one’s old age.

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The Happiness of Deceit

“But they say it is an unhappy thought to be deceived.  To this I say no, for the unhappiest thought is not to be deceived.  For those who think that the happiness of a man can be found in things as such could not be further from the truth; this resides in opinion.  For nothing can be clearly known, since human affairs are so obscure and varied, a fact already stated correctly by my colleagues, the least impudent of the known, philosophers.  Or if there is something that can be known, it is usually something that will hinder the enjoyment of life.  Finally, the mind of man is so constructed that it is far more susceptible to accepting falsehoods than realities.” Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, in The Essential Erasmus, trans. John P. Dolan (New York, 1964), 133. [Emphasis added]

Here Erasmus’s personification of Folly describes how most people would prefer to be deceived than to know the truth.  Folly had just described how flattery rules human discourse.  As was often the case, Erasmus used this opportunity to attack bad preachers and theologians. Then, Folly gave an example of how most prefer falsehood to truth:

“If anyone wants to make a convincing and easy test of this, let him go to church and listen to the sermons.  If something worthwhile is being said, everybody sleeps, or yawns, or is ill at ease.  But if the bawler–I made an error, I meant to say prater–as often happens, begins some old wives’ tale, then everybody awakens, straightens up, and listens attentively.” [Ibid.]

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Devout Adoration

“We revere him in the manger, we revere him on the gibbet, we revere him in the tomb.  Devoutly do we acknowledge that he was a tender child for our sake, and blood-stained for our sake; we revere him, pallid for our sake, buried for our sake.  Devoutly do we adore the Saviour’s infancy along with the wise men, devoutly do we embrace him along with the holy Simeon, as we receive your mercy in the midst of your temple.” Bernard of Clairvaux, “On the Lord’s Birthday, Sermon Five” in Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season  (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 2007), p. 125. [Emphasis added]    

In this sermon for Christmas Day, Bernard of Clairvaux connects Christian devotion to the Christ-child to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.  This excerpt demonstrates how an increased focus on Christ’s humanity expanded in the 12th century.  With his exhortation to devoutly adore the events in the Christ-child’s life, Bernard sought to inspire devotion to the divine Redeemer of sinful humanity.  Read how he described the Redeemer in his famous Sermon on the Song of Songs:

“How sweet it is to see as man the Creator of humanity.  While he carefully protected nature from sin, he forcefully drove death from that nature also.  In taking a body he stooped to me, in avoiding sin he took counsel with himself, in accepting death he satisfied the Father….He took to himself a true body but only the likeness of sin, giving a sweet consolation to weak men in the one and in the other hiding a trap to deceive the devil.  To reconcile us to the Father he bravely suffered death and conquered it, pouring out his blood as the price of our redemption.” Bernard of Clairvaux, “Sermon 20. 3” in Song of Songs I (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1971), p. 149. [Emphasis added]

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Rhabanus on Rhetoric and Preaching

“According to the statements of teachers, rhetoric is the art of using secular discourse effectively in the circumstances of daily life.  From this definition rhetoric seems indeed to have reference merely to secular wisdom.  Yet is is not foreign to ecclesiastical instruction.  Whatever the preacher and herald of divine law, in his instruction, brings forward in an eloquent and becoming manner; whatever in his written exposition he knows how to clothe in adequate and impressive language, he owes to his acquaintance with this art. Whoever at the proper time makes himself familiar with this art, and faithfully follows its rules in speaking and writing, needs not count it as something blameworthy.  On the contrary, whoever thoroughly learns it so that he acquires the ability to proclaim God’s word, performs a good work.”  Rhabanus Maurus, “Education of the Clergy,” in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, p. 252. [Emphasis added] 

Rhabanus Maurus played a significant role in the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century.  He became abbot of the monastery at Fulda in 820s and was Archbishop of Mainz for about eleven years before his death in 856.  He wrote biblical commentaries, a famous poem on Christ’s cross, and works on pedagogy.  In this present work he explained how the seven liberal arts provided the foundation for the education of Christian clergy.  In this quote we read his description of the use of rhetoric by preachers.

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An Infallible Truth

“It is an infallible truth that no person is righteous unless he believes in God, as stated in Rom. 1 [:17]: ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’  Likewise, ‘He who does not believe is condemned already” [John 3:18] and dead.  Therefore, the justification and life of the righteous person are dependent upon his faith.  For this reason all the works of the believer are alive and all the works of the unbeliever are dead, evil, and damnable, according to this passage: ‘A bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’ [Matt. 7:18-19].” Martin Luther, “Proceedings at Augsburg 1518,” Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 270 [Emphasis added] 

On October 31, 1518 Martin Luther returned to Wittenberg from a meeting in Augsburg.  Approximately two weeks earlier he had stood before the papal legate, Cardinal Thomas Cajetan.  There Luther had refused to recant his teachings on indulgences, grace, and faith unless Cajetan could convince him to do so on the basis of Holy Scripture.  In the quote above Luther explained what he had said to Cajetan regarding the nature of faith in relation to grace, salvation, and good works.  Here we see Luther asserted what had become the central issue of debate: justification by faith.  He continued:

“Faith, however, is nothing else than believing what God promises and reveals, as in Rom. 4 [:3], ‘Abraham believed God, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness’ [Cf. Gen. 15:6].  Therefore the Word and faith are both necessary, and without the Word there can be no faith, as in Isa. 55 [:11]: ‘So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.” Ibid., 271.

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Making Friends

“Next, at fixed hours time should be given to certain definite reading.  For haphazard reading, constantly varied and as if lighted upon by chance does not edify makes the mind unstable; taken into the memory lightly, it goes out from it even more lightly.  But you should concentrate on certain authors and let your mind grow accustomed to them.” William of St Thierry, The Golden Epistle I. xxxi. 120., trans. Theodore Berkeley (Spencer, MA: Cistercian, 1971), p. 51.

The twelfth-century monk and theologian, William of St Thierry, wrote this work as a guide for the spiritual life of monks.  In this section, he instructs novices (those new to the monastery) on the monastic way of life.  These chapters describe how monks practiced reading the Bible.  Following this section, William continued:

“The Scriptures need to be read and understood in the same spirit in which they were written.  You will never enter into Paul’s meaning until by constant application to reading him and by giving yourself to constant meditation you have imbibed his spirit.  You will never understand David until by experience you have made the very sentiments of the psalms your own.  And that applies to all Scripture.  There is the same gulf between attentive study and mere reading as there is between friendship and acquaintance with a passing guest, between boon companionship and chance meeting.” William, Golden Epistle I. xxxi. 121, Ibid., pp. 51-52. [Emphasis added]

William compares reading texts properly to friendship.  One must not read too quickly or only be introduced to the text as if to a temporary guest.  Friendships rest on getting to know each other over a long period of time.  William explains to young monks that the Scriptures must become like a friend to them.  In this way they will become ‘imbibed’ with the spirit of the text and truly understand its true meaning.

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