The turn of the twelfth century in Europe opened a period of revolutionary changes in many social, intellectual and cultural domains. Not least in importance among these was a movement of renewal of the marriage institution. Beginning with a concerted attack led by militant bishops on the aggrandizing marriage-politics of the feudal magnates, the reform movement spread rapidly, responding as it did to the long deferred desires of the laymen and women most directly concerned. The result, by the century's end, was a resacralization of the marriage bond, whose legal validity, henceforth, would rest on the freely given consent of the two principals. Women--long subject to the unquestioned rule of fathers or husbands--stood most to gain by this change; women's voices are heard throughout the century, describing their own experience with increasing clarity, and exploring new possibilities for self-determination. Both women and men were led at this time to question not only the legal but the emotional, sexual and spiritual dimensions of marriage as a covenant linking them to God as well as to each other.
The "case," as we might call it, of Peter Abelard and Heloise illustrates the urgency of this question within the whole context of the twelfth-century renaissance. Peter Abelard figures in the history of philosophy as a pioneer whose notably free and systematic application of logic to questions of theology anticipated by over a hundred years the achievement of the scholastics. More widely known to modern readers are his autobiographical Historia calamitatum ('History of my Misfortunes') and the exchange of letters which followed between him and the young Heloise, his pupil, lover, wife and sister in religion. In these writings, philosophical queries and spiritual longings focus on the nature of human and divine love, in an attempt to resolve their shared, personal tragedy.
The Historia calamitatum--ostensibly a letter of consolation to an unnamed friend--recounts Abelard's early philosophical career and his first encounter with Heloise. Born in 1079, the brilliant student of the liberal arts had gone on to win a fearsome reputation as a debater. He had successfully challenged his masters, Anselm of Laon and William of Champeaux, eventually displacing the latter as head of the cathedral school at Notre Dame in Paris. But success, as he writes, "always puffs up fools with pride," and in the event exposed him to a new danger. Around the year 1118, nearing forty years of age, he took on as a student a girl of seventeen or eighteen, Heloise, and they fell in love. "In looks she did not rank lowest," he recalls (with characteristic, naive arrogance), "while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme." To facilitate their meetings, he arranged to take lodging in the house of her uncle, the canon Fulbert, where she also resided. "Need I say more? We were united, first under one roof, then in soul; and so under the pretext of our lessons we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts." Inevitably, Heloise's uncle discovered them, and soon afterwards she found herself pregnant. Abelard sent her to stay with his sister in Brittany until she was delivered. To make amends to her uncle, Fulbert, he agreed to marry her, but stipulated that the wedding be kept secret. She was opposed to this solution: such a marriage would not appease her uncle; it would jeopardize the continuation of his career, she argued, and ultimately betray her own freedom of spirit, the basis of her love for him. They were married, however, despite her objections. Then, fearing public disclosure, Abelard had her placed in a convent in Argenteuil. When Fulbert discovered this move, he concluded that Abelard was seeking simply to rid himself of Heloise, and proceeded to exact a gruesome vengeance: acting on his orders, his servants attacked Abelard one night as he slept, and castrated him.
Recovering from the pain and shame as best he might, Abelard entered the cloister at St. Denis as a monk in 1119, while Heloise took the veil, at his bidding, in the convent at Argenteuil. His career continued to bring him into conflict with all around him, reaching a low point with the condemnation of his treatise, On the Unity and Trinity of God, at the council at Soissons in 1121. In flight from Saint Denis, he took refuge in a remote spot near Troyes; there, with the help of his students, he founded and built an oratory which he dedicated to the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. Shortly thereafter he became abbot at the abbey of St. Gildas in Brittany, where he found undisciplined monks hostile to his reforms, who plotted against his life.
Heloise during this time had struggled to reconcile herself to the religious vocation which she had accepted, not of her own volition as she writes, but at her husband's command. Tormented by grief over their brutal separation, she had nevertheless earned a reputation for wise administration as prioress at Argenteuil. In 1128, however, the convent was taken over as a property of St. Denis, and the nuns were expelled. Abelard then intervened to welcome them to his own oratory of the Paraclete, where Heloise assumed the office of abbess. They remained in contact thereafter, but apparently on a wholly impersonal level, until the moment around 1132 when a copy of his Historia calamitatum found its way into her hands. At this point their correspondence begins.
The authenticity of these four "personal letters," as they are called, has been questioned, inconclusively and perhaps unnecessarily, by modern scholars. It is accepted, at least, that they are not merely personal communications, but rather finished, literary compositions destined for a wide readership. Their Latin style is ornate and studied, set off by complex parallel constructions and elegant inversions of word order. Abelard, especially, tends to buttress his exposition with accumulated Biblical citations. Heloise writes seemingly more spontaneously of very intimate feelings--but even here we sense an element of literariness, associated on her side with the vernacular love poetry of the Troubadours and with the romances of Tristan. Taken together, the letters constitute a philosophical dialogue on love, marriage and spirituality; they offer a searching analysis of a personal, universal experience which has challenged and movedreaders in every age.
The translation which follows is based on the critical edition of the Latin text by J.T. Muckle, "The Personal Letters Between Abelard and Heloise," Mediaeval Studies 15 (1953): 47-94. I have also freely consulted the translation by Betty Radice (Penguin Classics 1974), doubtless the definitive rendering of the letters in modern English.
Etienne Gilson, Heloise and Abelard (London: Hollis and Carter, 1953)
Leif Crane, Peter Abelard (London: Allen and Unwin, 1970)
Georges Duby, The Knight, the Lady and the Priest (Paris: Hachette, 1981).
To her master, or rather her father, husband, or rather brother; his handmaid, or rather his daughter, wife, or rather sister; to Abelard, Heloise.
Recently, my beloved, by chance someone brought me the letter of consolation you had sent to a friend. I saw at once from the heading that it was yours, and was all the more eager to read it since the writer is so dear to my heart. Having lost him in reality I hoped at least to create an image of him from the words. But nearly every line of this letter was filled, I remember, with gall and wormwood, as it told the pitiful story of our entry into religion and the crosses which you, my only love, continue to bear. In that letter you did carry out the promise you made your friend at the beginning, that he would think his own troubles little or nothing, in comparison with yours. First you revealed the persecution you suffered from your teachers, then the supreme treachery of the injury to your body, and then you described the abominable jealousy and violent attacks of your fellow-students, Alberic of Rheims and Lotulf of Lombardy. You did not gloss over what at their instigation was done to your distinguished theological work, or what amounted to a prison sentence passed on yourself. Then you related the plots against you by your abbot and false brethren, the foul slanders spread against you by those two pseudo-apostles, your rivals, and the scandal stirred up among many people because you had acted contrary to custom in naming your oratory after the Paraclete. You went on the incessant, intolerable persecutions which you still endure at the hands of that cruel tyrant and the evil monks you call your sons, and so brought your sad story to an end.
No one, I think, could read or hear it dry-eyed; my own sorrows are renewed by the detail in which you have told it, and increased because you say your perils are still increasing. All of us here are driven to despair of your life, and every day we await in fear and trembling the latest rumors of your death. And so in the name of Christ, who is still giving you some protection for his service, we beg you to write as often as you think fit to us who are his handmaids and yours, to recount the perils in which you are still storm-tossed. We are all that are left you, so at least you should let us share your sorrow or your joy. Those who suffer usually can gain some comfort when the suffering is shared, and any burden laid on several is carried more lightly or removed. And if this storm has quietened down for a while, you must be all the more prompt to send us letters which will be the more gladly received. But whatever you write about will bring us much relief in the mere proof that you have us in mind. Letters from absent friends are welcome indeed, as Seneca himself shows us by his own example when he writes these words in a passage of a letter to his friend Lucilius:
Thank you for writing to me often, the one way in which you can show yourself to me; for I never have a letter from you without the immediate feeling that we are together. If pictures of absent friends give us pleasure, renewing our memories and relieving the pain of separation even if they cheat us with empty comfort, how much more welcome is a letter which comes to us in the very handwriting of an absent friend.¹
'Thank God that here at least is a way of restoring your presence to us which no malice can prevent, nor any obstacle hinder; then do not, I beseech you, allow any negligence to hold you back.' You wrote your friend a long letter of consolation, prompted no doubt by his misfortunes, but really telling of your own. You may have intended to comfort him by the detailed account you gave, but it also greatly increased our own feeling of desolation; in your desire to heal his wounds you have dealt us fresh wounds of grief as well as re-opening the old. I beg you, then, as you set about tending the wounds which others have dealt, heal the wounds you have yourself inflicted. You have done your duty to a friend and comrade, discharged your debt to friendship and comradeship, but it is a greater debt which binds you in obligation to us who can properly be called not merely friends but rather dearest friends, not comrades but daughters, or any other conceivable name more tender and holy.
Neither arguments nor witnesses are needed to demonstrate how great is the debt by which you are bound to us, for even if there were any doubt, and even if all people kept silent, the facts themselves would cry out. For you alone, after God, are the founder of this place, the sole builder of the oratory, the sole creator of this community. You have built nothing here upon another man's foundation.² Everything here is your creation. This was a wilderness open to wild beasts and brigands, a place which had known no home nor habitations of men. In the very lairs of wild beasts and lurking-places of robbers, where the name of God was never heard, you built a sanctuary to God and dedicated a shrine in the name of the Holy Spirit. To build it you drew nothing from the riches of kings and princes, though their wealth was great and could have been yours for the asking: whatever was done, the credit was to be yours alone. Clerks and scholars who came flocking here, eager for your teaching, did all that was necessary; and even those who had lived on the benefices of the Church and knew only how to receive offerings, not to make them, whose hands were held out to take but not to give, became generous and even insistent in making gifts.
And so it is yours, truly your own, this new plantation for God's purpose, but its plants are still very tender and they will need frequent watering if they are to thrive. Through its feminine nature this plantation would be weak and frail even if it were not new; and so it needs a more careful and regular cultivation, according to words of the Apostle: 'I planted the seed and Apollos watered it; but God made it grow.³ The Apostle through the doctrine that he preached had planted and established in the faith the Corinthians, to whom he was writing. Afterwards the Apostle's own disciple, Apollos, had watered them with his holy exhortations and so God's grace bestowed on them growth in the virtues. You cultivate a vineyard of another's vines which you did not plant yourself and which has now turned to bitterness against you, so that often your advice brings no result and your holy words are uttered in vain. You devote your care to another's vineyard; think what you owe to your own.
You teach and admonish rebels without profit, and in vain you scatter diamonds of divine eloquence before pigs. 5 You who spend so much on the stubborn, consider what you owe to the obedient: you who are so generous to your enemies, think what you are to your daughters. Apart from everything else, consider the close tie by which you have bound yourself to me, and repay the debt you owe a whole community of women dedicated to God, by discharging it the more dutifully to her who is yours alone.
How many serious treatises the holy Fathers composed for the instruction and exhortation or even the consolation of holy women, and how carefully they were written, your excellent wisdom knows better than our little learning. And so in the precarious early days of our conversion long ago I was quite surprised and troubled by your forgetfulness, when neither reverence for God nor our mutual love nor the example of the holy Fathers made you think of trying to comfort me, wavering and exhausted as I was by prolonged grief, either by word when I was with you or by letter when I was apart from you. Yet you must acknowledge that you are closely bound to me by the marriage sacrament uniting us, and even more so by the love I have always borne you: it is as everyone knows a love which is beyond all bounds.
You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how in one wretched stroke that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you. Surely the greater the cause for grief the greater the need for consolation, and this no one can bring but you; you are the sole cause of my sorrow, and you alone can grant me the grace of consolation. You alone can make me sad, or bring me happiness or comfort; you alone have so great a debt to repay me, particularly now that I have carried out all your orders so implicitly that when I was powerless to oppose you in anything, I found strength at your command to destroy myself. I did more, strange to say - my love rose to such heights of madness that it robbed itself of what it most desired beyond hope of recovery, when immediately at your bidding I changed my clothing along with my mind,, in order to prove you the possessor of my body and my will alike.
Never, God knows, did I seek anything in you except yourself; I wanted only you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more worthy but sweeter to me will always be the word lover, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, the more I would please you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation. You yourself did not altogether forget this in the letter of consolation I have spoken of which you wrote to a friend; there you recounted some of the reasons I gave in trying to dissuade you from binding us together in an ill-advised marriage. But you kept silent about most of my arguments for preferring love to wedlock and freedom to chains. God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.
For a man's worth does not rest on his wealth or power; these depend on fortune, but his worth is measured by his merits. And a woman should realize that if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one, and desires her husband more for his possessions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale. Certainly any woman who comes to marry through desires of this kind deserves wages, not love; for clearly her mind is on the man's property, not himself, and she would be ready to prostitute herself to a richer man, if she could. This is evident from the argument put forward in the dialogue of Aeschines Socraticus6 by the learned, Aspasia to Xenophon and his wife. When she had proposed it, seeking to bring about a reconciliation between them, she ended with these words: "Unless you come to believe that there is no better man nor worthier woman on earth you will always still be looking for what you judge the best thing of all - to be the husband of the best of wives and the wife of the best of husbands.'
These are saintly words which are more than philosophical; indeed, they deserve the name of wisdom, not philosophy. It is a holy error and a blessed delusion between man and wife, when perfect love can keep the ties of marriage unbroken not so much through bodily continence as chastity of spirit. But what error permitted other women, plain truth permitted me, and what they thought of their husbands, the world in general believed, or rather, knew to be true of yourself; so that my love for you was the more genuine for being further removed from error. What king of philosopher could match your fame? What district, town or village did not long to see you? When you appeared in public, who did not hurry to catch a glimpse of you when you appeared, or crane his neck and strain his eyes to follow you when you departed? Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed. You had besides, I admit, two special gifts with which you could win at once the heart of any woman - your talents for composing verse and song, in which we know other philosophers have rarely been successful. This was for you no more than a diversion, a recreation from the labors of your philosophical work, but you left many love-songs and verses which won wide popularity for the charm of their words and melodies and kept your name continually on everyone's lips. The sweetness of the melodies ensured that even the illiterate did not forget you; more than anything this made women sigh for love of you. And as most of these songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me. Your youth was adorned by every grace of mind and body, and among the women who envied me then, could there be one now who does not feel compelled by my misfortune to sympathize with my loss of such joys? Who is there who was once my enemy, whether man or woman, who is not moved now by the compassion which is my due? Wholly guilty though I am, I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it is done.
What my intention towards you has always been, you alone who have known it can judge. I submit all to your scrutiny, yield to your testimony in all things. Tell me one thing, if you can. Why, after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you that you neither speak to me when you are here nor write to me when you are absent? Tell me, I say, if you can - or I will tell you what I think and indeed the world suspects. It was concupiscence, not friendship which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love. So when the end came to what you desired, any show of feeling you used to make vanished with it. This is not merely my own opinion, beloved, it is everyone's. There is nothing personal or private about it; it is the general view which is widely held. I only wish that it were mine alone, and that the love you professed could find someone to defend it so my grief might subside for a while. I wish I could think of some explanation which would excuse you and somehow cover up the way you hold me cheap. I beg you then to listen to what I ask - you will see that is a small favor which you can easily grant. While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words - of which you have enough and to spare - some sweet semblance of yourself. It is no use my hoping for generosity in deeds if you are grudging in words. Up to now I had thought I deserved much of you, seeing that I carried out everything for your sake and continue up to the present moment in complete obedience to you. It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone, and if I deserve no gratitude form you, you may judge for yourself how my labors are in vain. I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I have done nothing as yet for love of him. When you hurried towards God I followed you, indeed, I went first to take the veil - perhaps you were thinking how Lot's wife7 turned back when you made me put on the religious habit and take my vows before you gave yourself to God. Your lack of trust in me over this one thing, I confess, overwhelmed me with grief and shame. I would have had no hesitation, God knows, in following you or going ahead at your bidding to Hell itself. My heart was not in me but with you, and now, even more, if it is not with you it is nowhere; truly, without you it cannot exist. See that it fares well with you, I beg, as it will if it finds you kind, if you give grace in return for grace,8 small for great, words for deeds. Would that your love were less sure of me, beloved, so that you would be more concerned on my behalf! But as it is, the more I have made you feel secure in me, the more I have to bear with your neglect. Remember, I implore you, what I have done, and think how much you owe me. While I enjoyed with you the pleasures of the flesh, many were uncertain whether I was prompted by love or lust; but now the end is proof of the beginning. I have finally denied myself every pleasure in obedience to your will, kept nothing for myself except to prove that now, even more, I am yours. Consider then your injustice, if when I deserve more you give me less, or rather, nothing at all, especially when it is a small thing I ask of you and one you could so easily grant.
And so, in the name of God to whom you have dedicated yourself, I beg you to restore your presence to me in the way you can - by writing me some word of comfort, so that in this at least I may find increased strength and readiness to serve God. When in the past you sought me out for sinful pleasures your letters came to me often, and your many songs put your Heloise on everyone's lips, so that every street and house echoed with my name. Is it not far better now to summon me to God than it was then to satisfy our lust? I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my only love.
¹Epistulae ad Lucilium 40.1. ²Cf. Romans xv, 20. ³I Corinthians iii, 6. 4 Cf. Jeremiah ii, 21. 5 Matthew vii, 6. 6 Translated by Cicero in De Inventione 1.31. 7 Cf. Genesis xix, 26. 8 John i, 16. Heloise's style here, and her development of the conceit that her heart is with him (or else nowhere) evokes the vernacular lyric tradition: Non enim mecum animus sed tecum erat. Sed et nunc maxime si tecum non est, nusquam est, nusquam est. Esse vero sine te nequaquam potest.
ToHeloise, his dearly beloved sister in Christ, Abelard her brother in Christ.
If since our conversion from the world to God I have not yet written you any word of comfort or advice, it must not be attributed to indifference on my part but to your own good
sense, in which I have always had the highest confidence. I did not think you would need these things, since God's grace has given you all that you might need to instruct the erring, comfort the weak and encourage the fainthearted, both by word and example, as, indeed, you have been doing since you first held the office of prioress under your abbess. So if you still watch over your daughters as carefully as you did previously over your sisters, it is sufficient to make me believe that any teaching or exhortation from me would now be wholly superfluous. If, on the other hand, in your humility you think differently, and you feel that you have need of my instruction and writings in matters pertaining to God, write to me what you want, so that I may answer as God permits me.
Meanwhile thanks be to God who has filled all your hearts with anxiety for my desperate, unceasing perils, and made you share in my affliction; may divine mercy protect me through the support of your prayers and quickly crush Satan beneath our feet. To this end in particular, I hasten to send the psalter you once earnestly begged from me, my sister once dear in the world and now dearest in Christ, so that you may offer a perpetual sacrifice of prayers to the Lord for our many great aberrations, and for the dangers which daily threaten me.
We have indeed many examples as evidence of the high position in the eyes of God and his saints which has been won by the prayers of the faithful, especially those of women on behalf of their dear ones and of wives for their husbands. The Apostle observes this when he bids us pray continually.1 We read that the Lord said to Moses 'Let me alone, to vent my anger upon them,2 and to Jeremiah 'Therefore offer no prayer for these people nor stand in my path.' 3 By these words the Lord himself makes it clear that the prayers of the devout set a kind of bridle on his wrath and check it from raging against sinners as fully as they deserve; just as a man who is willingly moved by his sense of justice to take vengeance can be turned aside by the entreaties of his friends and forcibly restrained, as it were, against his will. Thus when the Lord says to one who is praying or about to pray, 'Let me alone and do not stand in my path,' 4 he forbids prayers to be offered to him on behalf of the impious; yet the just man prays though the Lord forbids, obtains his requests and alters the sentence of the angry judge. And so the passage about Moses continues: 'And the Lord repented and spared his people the evil with which he had threatened them.'5 Elsewhere it is written about the universal works of God, 'He spoke, and it was.'6 But in this passage it is also recorded that he had said the people deserved affliction, but he had been prevented by the power of prayer from carrying out his words.
Consider then the great power of prayer if we pray as we are bidden, seeing that the prophet won by prayer what he was forbidden to pray for, and turned God aside from his declared intention.
Here Abelard cites passages from scripture concerning prayer and the special power of prayers by women. His letter then concludes:
But if the Lord delivers me into the hands of my enemies so that they overcome and kill me, or if by whatever chance I enter upon the way of all flesh while absent from you, wherever my body may lie, buried or unburied, I beg you to have it brought to your burial ground, where our daughters, or rather, our sisters in Christ may see my tomb more often and thereby be encouraged to pour out their prayers more fully to the Lord on my behalf. There is no place, I think, so safe and beneficial for a soul grieving for its sins and desolated by its transgressions than that which is specially consecrated to the true Paraclete, the Comforter, and which is particularly designated by his name. Nor do I believe that there is any place more fitting for Christian burial among the faithful than one located among women dedicated to Christ. Women were concerned for the tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ, they came ahead and followed after, bringing precious ointments,7 keeping close watch around this tomb, weeping for the death of the Bridegroom, as it is written: 'The women sitting at the tomb wept and lamented for the Lord.' And there they were first reassured about his resurrections by the appearance of an angel and the words he spoke to them; later on they were found worthy both to taste the joy of his resurrection when he twice appeared to them, and also to touch him with their hands.
Finally, I ask this of you above all else: at present you are over-anxious about the danger to my body, but then your chief concern must be for the salvation of my soul, and you must show the dead man how much you loved the living one by the special support of prayers chosen for him. Live, fare you well, yourself and your sisters with you, Live, but I pray, in Christ be mindful of me.
1I Thessalonians v, 16. 2Exodus xxxii, 10. 3Jeremiah vii, 16, loosely quoted. 4Exodus xxxii, 10. 5Exodus xxxii, 14. 6Psalm xxxiii, 9 7Cf. Mark xvi, 1. Letter 3.
To her only one after Christ, she who is his alone in Christ.
I am surprised, my only love, that contrary to custom in letter-writing and, indeed, to the natural order, you have put my name before yours in the heading of your letter, so that we have woman before man, wife before husband, handmaid before master, nun before monk, deaconess before priest and abbess before abbot. Surely the right and proper order is for those who write to their superiors or equals to put their names before their own, but in letters to inferiors, precedence in order of address follows precedence in rank.
We were also very surprised when instead of bringing us the healing balm of comfort you increased our desolation and made the tears to flow which you should have dried. For which of us could remain dry-eyed on hearing the words you wrote toward the end of your letter: 'But if the Lord delivers me into the hands of my enemies so that they overcome and kill me . . . '? My dearest, how could you think such a thought? How could you give voice to it? Never may God be so forgetful of his humble handmaids as to let them outlive you; never may he grant us a life which would be harder to bear than any form of death. You should be the one to perform our funeral rites, you should commend our souls to God and send ahead of you those whom you assembled for God's service - so that you would no longer need to be troubled by worries for us, and you would follow after us the more gladly and you were freed from concern for our salvation. Spare us, I implore you, master, spare us words such as these which can only intensify the existing unhappiness we feel; do not deny us before death the one thing by which we live. 'Each day has trouble enough of its own'1 and that day, shrouded in bitterness, will bring with it distress enough to all it comes upon. 'Why is it necessary,' says Seneca, 'to summon evil'2 and to destroy life before death comes?
You ask us, my love, if you chance to die when absent from us, to have your body brought to our burial-ground so that you may reap a fuller harvest from the prayers we shall offer in constant memory of you. But how could you suppose that our memory of you could ever fade? Besides, what time will we have then for prayer, when extreme distress will allow us no peace, when the soul will lose its power of reason and the tongue its use of speech? Or when the frantic mind, far from being resigned, may even (if I may say so) rage against God himself, and provoke him with complaints instead of placating him with prayers? In our misery then we shall have time only for tears and no power to pray; we shall be hurrying to follow, not to bury you, so that we may share your grave instead of laying you in it. If we lose our life in you, we shall not be able to go on living when you leave us. May we not even live to see that day. The mere mention of your death is death to us. What will the reality of that death be like if it finds us still alive? God, grant we may never live on to perform this duty, to render you the service which we look for from you alone; in this may we go before, not after you! And so, I beg you, spare us - spare her at least, who is yours alone, by refraining from words like these. They pierce our hearts with swords of death, so that what comes before is more painful than death itself. A heart which is exhausted with grief cannot find peace, nor can a mind preoccupied with anxieties genuinely devote itself to God. I beseech you not to hinder God's service to which you specially committed us. Whatever has to come to us bringing with it total grief we must hope will come suddenly, without torturing us far in advance with useless apprehension which no foresight can relieve. This is what the poet has in mind when he prays to God: May it be sudden, whatever you plan for us; may man's mind Be blind to the future. Let him hope on in his fears.3
But if I lose you, what have I left to hope for? Why continue on life's pilgrimage, for which I have no support but you, and none in you save the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you and denied even the joy of your presence which from time to time could restore me to myself? O God - if I dare say it - cruel to me in everything! O merciless mercy! O Fortune who is only ill fortune, who has already spent on me so many of the shafts she uses in her battle against mankind that she has none left with which to vent her anger on others. She has emptied a full quiver on me, so that henceforth no one else need fear her attacks, and if she still had a single arrow she could find no place for a wound. Her only dread is that through my many wounds death may end my sufferings; and though she does not cease to destroy me, she still fears the destruction which she brings on. Of all wretched women I am the most wretched, and amongst the unhappy I am unhappiest. The higher I was raised when you preferred me to all other women, the greater my suffering over my own fall and yours, when I was thrown down; for the higher the ascent, the heavier the fall. Among great and noble women, whom did fortune ever place higher or as high as she placed me? Whom did she then cast down and destroy with a similar grief? What glory she gave me in you, what ruin she brought upon me through you! Violent in either extreme, she showed no moderation in good or evil. To make me the saddest of all women she first made me blessed above all, so that when I thought how much I had lost, my consuming grief would match my crushing loss, and my sorrow for what was taken from me would be the greater for the fuller joy of possession which had gone before; and so that the happiness of supreme ecstasy would end in the supreme bitterness of sorrow.
Moreover, to add to my indignation at the outrage you suffered, all the laws of equity in our case were reversed. For while we enjoyed the pleasures of an uneasy love and abandoned ourselves to fornication (if I may use and uglier but more expressive word) we were spared God's severity. But when we amended our unlawful conduct by what was lawful, and atoned for the shame of fornication by an honorable marriage, then the Lord in his anger laid his hand heavily upon us, and would not permit a chaste union though he had long tolerated one which was unchaste. The punishment you suffered would have been proper vengeance for men caught in open adultery. But what others deserve for adultery came upon you through a marriage which you believed had made amends for all previous wrong doing; what adulterous women have brought upon their lovers, your own wife brought on you. Nor was this at the time when we abandoned ourselves to our former delights, but when we had already parted and were leading chaste lives, you presiding over the school in Paris and I at your command living with the nuns at Argenteuil.. Thus we were separated, to give you more time to devote yourself to your pupils, and me more freedom for prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, both of us leading a life which was holy as well as chaste. It was then that you alone paid the penalty in your body for a sin we had both committed. You alone were punished though we were both to blame, and you paid all, though you had deserved less, for you had made more than necessary reparation by humbling yourself on my account and had raised me and all my kind to your own level - so much less then, in the eyes of God and of your betrayers, should you have been thought deserving of such punishment. What misery for me - born as I was to be the cause of such a crime! Is it the general lot of women to bring total ruin on great men? Hence the warning about women in Proverbs: 'But now, my son, listen to me, attend to what I say: do not let your heart entice you into her ways, do not stray down her paths; she has wounded and laid low so many, and the strongest have all been her victims. Her house is the way to hell, and leads down to the halls of death.'4 And in Ecclesiastes: 'I put all to the test. . . I find woman more bitter than death; she is a snare, her heart a net, her arms are chains. He who is pleasing to God eludes her, but the sinner is her captive.' 5
It was the first woman in the beginning who lured man from Paradise, and she who had been created by the Lord as his helpmate became the instrument of his total downfall. And that mighty man of God, the Nazarite whose conception was announced by an angel,6 Delilah alone overcame; betrayed to his enemies and robbed of his sight, he was driven by his suffering to destroy himself along with his enemies. Only the woman he had slept with could reduce to folly Solomon, wisest of all men; she drove him to such a pitch of madness that although he was the man whom the Lord had chosen to build the temple in preference to his father David, who was a righteous man, she plunged him into idolatry until the end of his life, so that he abandoned the worship of God which he had preached and taught in word and writing.7 Job, holiest of men, fought his last and hardest battle against his wife, who urged him to curse God.8 The cunning arch-tempter well knew from repeated experience that men are most easily brought to ruin through their wives. So he directed his usual malice against us too, and when he could not destroy you through fornication he tempted you with marriage doing evil through good since he could not do evil through evil. At least I can thank God for this: the tempter did not prevail on me to do wrong of my own consent, like the women I have mentioned, though in the outcome he made me the instrument of his malice. But even if my conscience is clear through innocence, and no consent of mine makes me guilty of this crime, too many earlier sins were committed to allow me to be wholly free from guilt. I yielded long before to the pleasures of carnal desires, and merited then what I weep for now. The sequel is a fitting punishment for my former sins, and an evil beginning must be expected to come to a bad end.
For this offence, above all, may I have strength to do proper penance, so that at least by long contrition I can make some amends for your pain from the wound inflicted on you; and what you suffered in the body for a time, I may suffer, as is right, throughout my life in contrition of mind, and thus make reparation to you at least, if not to God. For if I truthfully admit to the weakness of my unhappy soul, I can find no penitence whereby to appease God, whom I always accuse of the greatest cruelty in regard to this outrage, and by opposing his dispensation, I offend him more by my indignation than I placate him by making amends through penitence. How can it be called penitence for sins, however great the mortification of the flesh, if the mind still retains the will to sin and is on fire with its old desires? It is easy enough for anyone to confess his sins, to accuse himself, or even to make external amends by mortifying his body. But it is very difficult to tear the soul away from desiring its dearest pleasures. Quite rightly then, when the saintly Job said 'I will speak out against myself,' that is, 'I will loose my tongue and open my mouth in confession to accuse myself of my sins,' he added at once 'I will speak out in bitterness of soul.9 St Gregory comments on this: 'There are some who confess their faults aloud but in doing so do not know how to groan over them - they speak cheerfully of what should be lamented. And so whoever hates his faults and confesses them must still confess them in bitterness of spirit, so that this bitterness may punish him for what his tongue, following his mind's judgment, accuses him.10 But this bitterness of true repentance is very rare, as St Ambrose observes, when he says: 'I have more easily found men who have preserved their innocence than men who have known repentance.11 The pleasures of lovers which we cultivated together were too sweet to displease me, and can scarcely fade from my memory. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them reawakened desires. Not even when I sleep am I spared these illusions. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd fantasies of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that I think more on these turpitudes than on my 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 are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through it all again with you. Even in sleep I know no respite. Sometimes my thoughts are betrayed in a movement of my body, or they break out in an unguarded word. In my utter wretchedness, that cry from a suffering soul could well be mine: 'Miserable creature that I am, who will free me from the body doomed to this death?12 Would that in truth I could go on: 'The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.' This grace, my dearest, anticipated your need: a single wound of the body by freeing you from these torments has healed many wounds in your soul, and where God seems most to be an adversary he has in face proved himself kind: like an honest doctor who does not shrink from giving pain if it will bring about a cure.
But for me, youth and passion and the experience of pleasures which were so delightful intensify the torments of the flesh and longings of desire, and the assault is the more overwhelming as the nature they attack is the weaker. Men call me chaste; they do not know what a hypocrite I am. They consider purity of the flesh a virtue, though virtue belongs not to the body but to the soul. I can win praise in the eyes of men but deserve none before God, who searches our hearts and loins13 and sees in our darkness. I am judged religious at a time when there is little in religion which is not hypocrisy, when whoever does not offend the opinions of men receives the highest praise.
And yet perhaps there is some merit and it is somehow acceptable to God, if a person whatever his intention does not offend the Church in his outward behavior, does not blaspheme the name of the Lord in the hearing of unbelievers nor disgrace the Order of his profession among the worldly. And this too is a gift of God's grace and comes through his bounty - not only to do good but to abstain from evil - though the latter is vain if the former does not follow from it, as it is written: 'Turn from evil and do good.14 Both are vain if not done for love of God. 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 habit of religion. Look at the unhappy life I lead, wretched beyond any other, if in this world I must endure so much in vain, with no hope of future reward. For a long time my pretence deceived you, as it did many, so that you mistook hypocrisy for piety; and therefore when you commend yourself to our prayers you ask me for what I expect from you. I beg you, do not feel so sure of me that you cease to help me by your own prayers. Do not suppose me healthy and so withdraw the grace of your healing. Do not believe I want for nothing and delay helping me in my hour of need. Do not think me strong, lest I fall before you can sustain me. False praise has harmed many and taken from them the support they needed. The Lord cries out through Isaiah: 'O my people! Those who call you happy lead you astray and confuse the path you should take.15 And through Ezekiel he says: 'Woe upon women who hunt men's lives by sewing magic bands upon the wrists and putting veils over the heads of persons of every age.16 On the other hand, through Solomon it is said that 'The sayings of the wise are sharp as goads, like nails driven home.17 That is to say, nails which cannot touch wounds gently, but only pierce through them. Cease praising me, I pray you, lest you acquire a base reputation for flattery or the charge of telling lies, or the breath of my vanity blows away any merit you saw in me to praise. No one with medical knowledge diagnoses an internal ailment by examining only outward appearance.
What is common to the damned and the elect can win no favor in the eyes of God: of such a kind are the outward actions which are performed more eagerly by hypocrites than by saints. 'The heart of man is deceitful and inscrutable; who can fathom it?'18 And: 'A road may seem straightforward to a man, yet may end as the way to death.'19 It is rash for man to pass judgement on what is reserved for God's scrutiny, and so it is also written: 'Do not praise a man in his lifetime.'20 By this is meant, do not praise a man while in doing so you can make him no longer praiseworthy. To me your praise is the more dangerous because I welcome it. The more I am captivated and delighted by it, the more anxious I am to please you in everything. I beg you, be fearful for me always, instead of feeling confidence in me, so that I may always find help in your solicitude. Now particularly you should fear, now when I no longer have in you a remedy for my incontinence. I do not want you to exhort me to virtue and summon me to the fight, saying 'Power comes to its full strength in weakness'21 and 'He cannot win a crown unless he has kept the rules.'22 I do not seek a crown of victory; it is sufficient for me to avoid danger, and this is safer than engaging in war. In whatever corner of heaven God shall place me, I shall be satisfied. No one will envy another there, and what each one has will suffice. Let the weight of authority reinforce what I say - let us hear St Jerome: 'I confess my weakness, I do not wish to fight in hope of victory, lest the day comes when I lose the battle. What need is there to forsake what is certain and pursue uncertainty?'23
1Matthew vi, 34. 2Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium, 24.1. 3Lucan, Pharsalia, 2, 14-15. 4Proverbs vii, 24-27. 5Moralia, 9.43. 6Samson, in Judges xiii, 3. 7I Kings xi, 1-8. 8Job ii, 9-10. 9Cf. Job x, 1. 10Moralia, 9.43. 11De paenitentia, 2.10. 12Romans vii, 24. 13Psalm viii, 10. 14Psalm xxxvii, 27. 15Isaiah iii, 12. 16Ezekiel xiii, 18. 17Ecclesiastes xii, 11. 18Proverbs xiv, 12; xvi, 25. 19Proverbs xiv, 12; xvi, 25. 20Ecclesiasticus xi, 28. 212 Corinthians xii, 9. 222 Timothy ii, 5. 23Adversus vigilantium, 16.
To the bride of Christ, from the servant of the same.
The whole of your last letter is given up to a recital of your misery over the wrongs you suffer, and these, I note, are on four counts. First you complain that contrary to custom in letter-writing, or indeed against the natural order of things, my letter to you put your name before mine in its greeting. Secondly, that when I ought to have offered you some remedy for your comfort I actually increased you, distress and made the tears flow which I should have checked. This I did by writing 'But if the Lord delivers me into the hands of my enemies, so that they overcome and kill me . . .' Thirdly you gave vent to your old continual complaint against God concerning the manner of our entry into religious life and the cruelty of the act of treachery performed on me. Lastly, you set your self-accusations against my praise of you, and urged me earnestly not to presume to praise you again. I have decided to answer you on each point in turn, not so much to justify myself, as to teach and encourage you, so that you will more willingly grant my own pleas as you find me less to blame in my own, and be less ready to refuse me when you see me less deserving of reproach.
What you call the unnatural order of my greeting, if you consider it carefully, was in accordance with your own view as well as mine. For everyone knows, and you yourself have shown, that in writing to superiors one puts their name first. You must understand that you became my superior when you began to be my lady on becoming the bride of my Lord.; witness St Jerome, who writes to Eustochium 'This is my reason for writing "my lady Eustochium". Surely I must address as "my lady" her who is the bride of my Lord.'1 It was a happy exchange of your married state, for you were previously the wife of a poor little man, and now are raised to the bed of the King of kings. Your privileged position sets you not only over your former husband but over every servant of that King. So you should not be surprised if I commend myself in life as in death to the prayers of your community, seeing that it is normally accepted that wives would be better able than their households to intercede with their husbands, being ladies rather than servants. As an illustration of this, the Psalmist says of the queen and bride of the King of kings: 'On your right stands the queen'2 as though clearly stating that she is nearest to her husband and close to his side, and moves forward with him, while all the rest stand aside or follow behind. The bride in the Canticles, an Ethiopian (such as the one Moses took as a wife)3 rejoices in the glory of her special position and says: 'I am black but lovely, daughters of Jerusalem; therefore the king has loved me and brought me into his chamber.' And again, 'Take no notice of my darkness, because the sun has discoloured me.'4 In general it is the contemplative soul which is described in these words and especially called the bride of Christ, but your outer habit indicates that they have a particular application to you all. For that outer garb of coarse black clothing, like the mourning worn by good widows who weep for the dead husbands they had loved, shows you to be, in the words of the Apostle, truly widowed and desolate and such as the Church should be charged to support.5 The Scriptures also record the grief of these widows for their spouse who was slain, in the words: 'The women sitting at the tomb wept and lamented for the Lord.'
Abelard digresses here, multiplying scriptural citations in a discussion of the color black, the color of the religious habit, appropriately worn by those who seek monastic solitude. The letter then continues:
If I have distressed you by mentioning the dangers which threaten me or the death I fear, it was done in accordance with your own request, or rather, entreaty. For the first letter you wrote me has a passage which says: "And so in the name of Christ, who is still giving you some protection, we beg you to write as often as you think fit to us who are his handmaids and yours, to recount the perils in which you are still storm-tossed. We are all that are left to you, so at least you should let us share your sorrow or your joy. Those who suffer usually can gain some comfort when the suffering is shared or removed." Why then do you accuse me of making you share my anxiety when I was compelled to do so by your own insistence? When I am suffering in despair of my life, would it be fitting for you to be joyous? Would you want to be partners only in joy, not grief, to join in rejoicing without weeping with those who weep?6 There is no wider distinction between true friends and false than the fact that the former share adversity, the latter only prosperity.
Say no more, I beg you, and cease from complaints like these which are so far removed from the true heart of love! Yet even if you are still offended by this, I find myself placed in such danger and daily despair of life that it is proper for me to take thought for the welfare of my soul, and to provide for it while I may. Nor, if you truly love me, will you find my forethought hateful. Indeed, had you any hope of divine mercy being shown me, you would be all the more anxious for me to be freed from the hardships of this life, as you see them to be intolerable. At least you must know that whoever frees me from life will deliver me from the greatest suffering. What I may afterwards incur is uncertain, but from how much I shall be freed is not in question. Every unhappy life is happy in its ending, and those who feel true sympathy for the anxieties of others want to see these ended, even to their own loss, if they really love those they see suffer and think more of their friends' advantage than of their own. So when a son has long been ill a mother wants his suffering to end even in death, for she finds it unbearable, and can more easily face losing him than having him share her misery. And anyone who specially enjoys the presence of a friend would rather have him happy in absence than present and unhappy, for he finds suffering intolerable if he cannot relieve it. In your case, you are not even permitted to enjoy my presence, unhappy though it is. Unless the provision you would make for me is for your own benefit, I cannot see why you should prefer me to live on in great misery rather than be happier in death. If you see your advantage in prolonging my miseries, you are proved an enemy, not a friend. But if you hesitate to appear in such a guise, I beg you, as I said before, to cease your complaints.
However, I approve of your rejection of praise, for in this very thing you show yourself more praiseworthy. It is written that 'He who is first in accusing himself is just'7 and 'Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.'8 May it be in your soul as in your written words! If so yours is true humility and it will not vanish because of my words. But be careful, I beg you, not to seek praise when you appear to shun it, and not to reject with your lips what you desire in your heart. St Jerome writes to the virgin Eustochium on this point, among others: 'We are led on by our natural evil. We give willing ear to our flatterers, and though we may answer that we are unworthy and an artful blush suffuses our cheeks, the soul inwardly delights in its own praise.'9 Such artfulness Virgil describes in wanton Galatea, who sought what she wanted by flight, and by feigning rejection led her lover more surely towards her:
She flees to the willows yet wishes first to be seen.10
Before she hides she wants to be seen fleeing, so that the same flight whereby she seems to reject the youth's company ensures that she obtains it. Similarly, when we seem to shun men's praise we are directing it towards ourselves, and when we pretend that we wish to hide lest anyone find something to praise in us, we are leading the unwary on to give us praise because in this way we appear more worthy of it. I mention this because it is a common occurrence, not because I suspect such things of you; I do not doubt your humility. But I want you to refrain from speaking like this, so that you do not appear to those who do not know you well to be seeking fame by shunning it, as Jerome says. My praise will never make you puffed up, but will summon you to higher things, and the more eager you are to please me, the more anxious you will be to embrace what I praise. My praise is not a tribute to your piety which is intended to heighten your pride. We should not believe our friends' approval any more than our enemies' abuse.
Let us come at last to what I have called your old continual complaint, in which you presume to blame God for the manner of our entry into religion instead of glorifying him as you rightly should. I had thought that this bitterness of heart at what was so clear an act of divine mercy had long since disappeared. The more dangerous such bitterness is to you in wearing out body and soul alike, the more pitiful it is and annoying to me. If, as you claim, you are striving to please me in everything, if at least you do not wish to torment me, but rather seek to please me in the greatest way, you must get over this rancor, which prevents you from pleasing me or ever attaining bliss with me. Can you bear that I should reach it without you - I, whom you declare yourself ready to follow into Hell itself? Seek piety in this at least, lest you cut yourself off from me who am hastening, you believe, towards God; be the more willing to do so because the place where we are to come is blessed, and our companionship will be the more welcome for being happier and more holy. Remember what you have said, recall what you have written, namely that in the manner of our conversion, when God seems most to have seen my adversary, he has clearly shown himself kinder. For this reason - if your transports of grief will listen to reason - you must accept that his will is salutary to me, and eventually to both of us. You should not grieve because you are the cause of so great a good, for which you must not doubt you were specially created by God. Nor should you weep because I have to bear this, except when our blessings through the martyrs in their sufferings and the Lord's death sadden you. If this had happened to me justly, would you find it easier to bear or would it distress you less? In fact if it had been so, the result would have won approval for my enemies, while my guilt would have brought me into contempt. And in that case no one would condemn what was done or feel compassion for me.
However, it may relieve the bitterness of your grief if I prove that this came upon us justly, as well as to our advantage, and that God's punishment was more rightly directed against us when we were married than when we were living in sin. After our marriage, when you were living in the cloister with the nuns at Argenteuil and I came one day to visit you privately, you know what in my uncontrollable lust I did with you there, actually in a corner of the refectory, since we had nowhere else to go. You know, I say, how shamelessly we behaved on that occasion in so hallowed a place, dedicated the most holy Virgin. Even if our shameful behaviour was ended, this alone would deserve far heavier punishment. Need I recall our first fornication and the wanton impurities which preceded our marriage, or my supreme act of betrayal, when I deceived your uncle about you so disgracefully, at a time when I was living with him under his own roof? Who would not judge me justly betrayed by the man whom I had first shamelessly betrayed? Do you think that the momentary pain of that wound is sufficient punishment for such crimes? Or rather, that so great an advantage was fitting for such great wickedness? What wound do you suppose would satisfy God's justice for the profanation such as I described of a place so sacred to his own Mother? Surely, unless I am much mistaken, not that wound, which was wholly beneficial, was intended as a punishment for this, but rather the daily unending torment I now endure.
You know too how when you were pregnant and I took you to my own country you disguised yourself in the sacred habit of a nun, a pretence which was an irreverent mockery of the religion you now profess. Consider, then, how fittingly divine justice, or rather, divine grace brought you against your will to the religion which you did not hesitate to mock, so that you should willingly expiate your profanation in the same habit, and the truth of reality should remedy the lie of your pretence and correct your falsity.
And if you would allow consideration of our advantage to be an element in divine justice, you would be able to call what God did to us then an act not of justice, but of grace. See then, my beloved, see how with the nets of his mercy the Lord has fished us up from the depth of this dangerous sea, and from the abyss of what a Charybdis he has saved us, although we were unwilling, from shipwreck, so that each of us may justly cry out: 'The Lord takes thought for me'.11 Think and think again in how many great perils we were, and from how many the Lord rescued us; tell always with the deepest gratitude how much the Lord has done for our souls. Comfort by our example any unrighteous who despair of God's goodness, so that all may know what may be done for those who ask with prayer, since such benefits are granted sinners even against their will. Consider the lofty design of God's mercy for us, the compassion with which the Lord directed his judgement towards our chastisement, the wisdom whereby he made use of evil itself and mercifully set aside our impiety, so that by a wholly justified wound in a single part of my body he might heal two souls. Compare our danger and manner of deliverance, compare the sickness and the medicine. Look at what we deserved and marvel at the pity he felt toward us.
You know the depths of shame to which my unbridled lust had dedicated 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 as much as you could, and tried to dissuade me, since your nature was weaker 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 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 hope of remission. And so it was wholly just and merciful, although by means of the supreme treachery of your uncle, for me to be diminished in that part of my body where the power of lust resided and which was the sole cause of those desires, so that I could increase in many ways; in order that this member should justly be punished for all its wrongdoing in us, and expiate in suffering the sins committed for its delight, so that I might be cut off from the slough of filth in which I had been wholly immersed in mind as in body. Thus I could become more fit to approach the holy altars, now that no contagion of carnal impurity would ever again call me away from them. How mercifully did he decide that I should suffer so much only in that member whose loss would further the salvation of my soul without defiling my body nor preventing any performance of my duties! Indeed, it would make me readier to perform whatever can be honorably done by setting me free from the heavy yoke of carnal desire.
So when divine grace cleansed rather than deprived me of those vile members which are called 'the parts of shame' because of their indecent use, and have no proper name of their own, what else did it do but remove what was dirty in order to preserve perfect purity? Such purity, as we have heard, certain sages have desired so eagerly that they have mutilated themselves, so as to remove entirely the shame of desire. The Apostle too is recorded as having begged the Lord to rid him of this thorn in the flesh, but he was not heard.12 The great Christian philosopher Origen provides an example,13 for he was not afraid to mutilate himself in order to put out completely this fire within him, as if he understood literally the words that those men were truly blessed who castrated themselves for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake,14 and believed them to be truthfully carrying out the Lord's command about offending members, that we should cut them off and throw them away;15 and as if he interpreted as historic fact, not as a mystery, that prophecy of Isaiah in which the Lord prefers eunuchs to the rest of the faithful: 'The eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, and choose to do my will I will give a place in my own house and within my walls and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.'16 Yet Origen is seriously to be blamed because he sought a remedy for guilt in punishment of his body. True, he has zeal for God, but a misguided zeal,17 and he is guilty of homicide through his self mutilation. Men think he did this either at the suggestion of the devil or in grave error but, in my case, through God's compassion, it was done by another's hand. I do not incur blame, I escape it. I deserve death and gain life. I am called but hold back; I persist in crime and am pardoned against my will. The Apostle prays and is not heard, he persists in prayer and is not answered. But truly the Lord takes thought for me.18 I will go then and tell how much the Lord has done for my soul.19
Come, too, my inseparable companion, and join me in thanksgiving, you who were made my partner both in guilt and in grace. For the Lord has remembered also your own salvation; indeed, he has you much in mind, for by a kind of holy presage of his name he marked you out to be especially his when he named you Heloise, after his own name, Elohim. In his mercy, I say, he intended to provide for two people in one, the two whom the devil sought to destroy in one; since a shortly before this happened he had bound us together by the indissoluble bond of the marriage sacrament. At the time I desired to keep you whom I loved beyond measure for myself alone, but he was already planning to use this opportunity for our joint conversion to himself. Had you not been previously joined to me in marriage, you might easily have clung to the world when I withdrew from it, either at the suggestion of your relatives or in enjoyment of carnal delights. See then, how much the Lord was concerned for us, as if he were reserving us for some great ends, and was indignant or grieved because the talents for literary learning which he had entrusted to us were not being used to glorify his name; or as if he feared for his humble and incontinent servant, because it is written, 'Women make even the wise forsake their faith.20 Indeed, this is proved in the case of the wisest of men, Solomon.21 How great an interest the talent of your own wisdom pays daily to the Lord in the many spiritual daughters you have borne for him, while I remain totally sterile and labor in vain among the sons of perdition! What a hateful loss and grievous misfortune if you had given yourself to the defilement of carnal pleasures only to bear in suffering a few children for the world, when now you are delivered in exultation of numerous progeny for heaven! Nor would you have been more than a woman, whereas now you rise even above men, and have turned the curse of Eve into the blessing of Mary. How indecent for those holy hands which now turn the pages of sacred books to be enslaved in women's degrading concerns! God himself has deigned to raise us up from the contamination of this filth and the pleasures of this mire, and draw us to him by force - the same force whereby he chose to strike and convert Paul22 - and by our example perhaps to deter from our presumption others who are also trained letters.
I beg you then, sister, do not be aggrieved, do not vex the Father who paternally corrects us; pay heed to what is written: 'Whom the Lord loves he reproves'23 and 'He lays the rod on every son whom he acknowledges.'24 And elsewhere: 'A father who spares the rod hates his son.'25 This punishment is momentary, not eternal, and for our purification, not damnation. Hear the prophet and take heart: 'The Lord will not judge twice on the same issue and no second tribulation shall arise.'26 Listen too to that supreme and mighty exhortation of the Truth: 'By your endurance you will possess your souls.'27 Solomon, too: 'Better be slow to anger than be a fighter; and master one's heart rather than storm a city.'28
Abelard here exhorts her to think of Christ as her true spouse and remember his suffering on behalf of her redemption, a suffering more cruel and unjust than the momentary wound inflicted on Abelard.
And so I ask you, sister, to accept patiently what mercifully befell us. This is a father's rod, not a persecutor's sword. The father strikes to correct, lest the enemy strike to kill. By a wound he prevents death, he does not deal it; he thrusts in the steel to cut out disease. He wounds the body, and heals the soul; he gives life to what he should have destroyed, cuts out impurity to leave what is pure. He punishes once so that he need not punish forever. One suffers the wound so that two may be spared death; two were guilty, one pays the penalty. That, too, was granted by divine mercy to your weaker nature and, in a way, justly, for you were naturally weaker in sex and stronger in continence, and so the less deserving of punishment. For this too I give thanks to the Lord, who both spared you punishment then and reserved you for a crown, and who also by one moment of suffering in my body cooled once and for all the fires of that lust in which I had been wholly absorbed through my excessive incontinence, lest I be consumed. The many greater sufferings of the soul through the continual prompting of the flesh of your own youth he has reserved for a martyr's crown. Though you may weary of hearing this and forbid it to be said, the truth speaks clearly. The crown is reserved for the one who continues to strive and no one wins the crown unless he has fought by the rules.29 But no crown is waiting for me, because no cause for striving remains. The matter for strife is lacking in him from whom the thorn of desire is pulled out.
Yet I think it is something, even though I may receive no crown, if I can escape further punishment, and by the pain of a single momentary punishment may perhaps be let off much that would be eternal. For it is written of the men, or rather, the beasts of this wretched life, 'The beasts have rotted in their dung.'30 Then too, I grieve less that my own merit is diminished when I am confident that yours is increasing; for we are one in Christ, one flesh according to the law of matrimony. Whatever is yours cannot, I think, fail to be mine, and Christ is yours because you have become his bride. Now, as I said before, you have me as a servant, I whom in the past you acknowledged as your master, I am now more your own joined to you by spiritual love, rather than subjected by fear. And so I have greater trust that you will plead for us both before him and, through your prayer, I may be granted what I cannot obtain through my own; especially now, when the daily pressure of dangers and disturbances threaten my life and give me no time for prayer. Nor can I imitate that blessed eunuch, the high official of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia,31 who had charge of all her wealth, and had come from so far to worship in Jerusalem. He was on his way home when the apostle Philip was sent by the angel to convert him to the faith, as he had already deserved by his prayers and his devoted study of the Scriptures. Because he did not want to take time from this reading even on his journey, although he was a man of great wealth and a gentile, it came about through the great goodness of Providence that a passage of Scripture was opened to him which gave the apostle the perfect opportunity for his conversion. So that nothing may delay my petition nor defer its fulfilment, I hasten to compose and send to you this prayer, which you may offer to the Lord in supplication on our behalf:
God, who at the beginning of human creation, in forming woman from a rib of man did sanctify the great sacrament of the marriage bond and who glorified marriage with boundless honors both in being born of one given in marriage, and in the first of your miracles; you who moreover granted this remedy for the incontinence of my frailty, in such manner as pleased you, do not despise the prayers of your humble handmaid which I pour out as a suppliant in the presence of your majesty for my own excesses and those of my beloved. Pardon, O most gracious one, you who are rather graciousness itself, pardon our many great offences, and let the ineffable immensity of your mercy test the multitude of our faults. Punish the guilty now, I pray you, so that you may spare them hereafter. Punish now, rather then punishing in eternity. Take to your servants the rod of correction, not the sword of wrath. Afflict their flesh in order to preserve their souls. Come as a redeemer, not an avenger; gracious rather than just; the merciful Father, not the stern Lord. Prove us, Lord, and test us, in the manner in which the prophet asks for himself,32 as if he said openly: First consider my strength and measure accordingly the burden of my testing. This is what St Paul promises to the faithful, when he says 'God is faithful, and he will not allow you to be tested beyond your powers, but when the test comes he will also provide a way to sustain it.'33 You have joined us, Lord, and you have parted us, when and in what manner it pleased you. Now, Lord, what you have mercifully begun, most mercifully end, and those whom you have parted for a time on earth, unite forever to yourself in heaven; you who are our hope, our portion, our expectation and our consolation, O Lord, you are blessed, world without end. Amen.
Farewell in Christ, bride in Christ; in Christ fare well and live in Christ.
1Epistulae, 22.2. 2Psalm xiv, 9. 3Numbers xii, 1. 4Canticles (Song of Solomon) i, 4-5. 5I Timothy v, 16. 6Cf. Romans xii, 15. 7Proverbs xviii, 17. 8Luke xviii, 14. 9Epistulae xxii, 24. 10Eclogues, 3.65. 11Psalm xl, 18. 122 Corinthians xii, 17-8. 13Cf. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae, 6.8. 14Matthew xix, 12. 15Matthew xviii, 8. 16Isaiah lvi, 4-5. 17Cf. Romans x, 2. 18Psalms xl, 18. 19Cf. Psalms lxvi, 16. 20Ecclesiasticus xix, 2. 21I Kings xi, I ff. 22Cf. Acts xxvi, 12 ff. 23Proverbs iii, 12. 24Hebrews xii, 16. 25Proverbs xiii, 24. 26Cf. Nahum i, 9. 27Luke xxi, 19 (Vulgate). 28Proverbs xvi, 32. 29Cf. 2 Timothy ii, 5. 30Joel i, 17 (Vulgate). 31Acts 8. 26 ff. 32Psalm xxvi, 2. 33I Corinthians x, 13.