Abelard and Heloise
A selection from
THE LETTERS OF PETER ABELARD AND HELOISE
Narrated by Marguerite Gavin and Marguerite Gavin
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Heloise to Peter
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.
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.?
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.
Heloise to Peter
We were 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.
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. 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 loins 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.
Peter to Heloise
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?
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.
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.
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