Rev. Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, a noted speaker and Christian feminist theologian,is the co-author with Rebecca Parker of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, which was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of 2008. This post originally appeared on dogcanyon.org.
A lot of Christians are going to attend a "Good" Friday service this week and hear how Jesus loved us so much he gave himself out of love for us, to save us. This is what is supposed to make his torture and murder "good." They'll be told that if they love him back enough, they will be transformed to love in the same way and forgive unto death.
This is a not so much an idea of love so much as an idea of unrequited passivity. And it encourages acquiescence to evil. The Canadian Catholic Bishops actually apologized in 1990 for teaching these ideas to victims of domestic violence. The Vatican has not apologized yet, but it might be too distracted right now with sexual abuse scandals to notice its been using this bad idea of love to shame victims into silence.
The ideal of love as self-sacrifice emerged in the twelfth century after Charlemagne started using Christianity as the propaganda arm of his empire. The main person who emphasized love as self-sacrifice was a brilliant, controversial scholar and teacher named Peter Abelard, but this piece is not about him; its about his amazing wife Heloise, who was both his most loyal supporter and his most astute critic.
In the face of the bad preaching about love that will fog the air on Friday, I offer the brisk, bracing clarity of Heloise, Abbess of the Paraclete. The affair of Heloise and Abelard has been idealized from medieval times as a great romance brought to a tragic and premature end by his castration. Heloise's own letters to Abelard, which place her squarely among the most rhetorically brilliant and compelling ancient writers on love, probably constructed the popular legend and their mythic place in the pantheon of great lovers. However, her actual relationship to Abelard, found in her letters, was fraught with tensions.
Her differences from him reveal a remarkable figure whose understanding of love resisted violence, false piety, and the romance of suffering. Her voice has integrity, is steady, and resists self-deception or self-pity. She is honest about human feelings of love and loss and is committed to responsible uses of power—and she offers compelling antidotes to the dangerous pieties erupting from the cloisters of her age, which still deeply infect Western Christianity.
The young, intellectually gifted Heloise and Abelard, twenty years her senior and her charismatic teacher, became secret lovers. Heloise regarded voluntary love as a stronger bond than marriage, which was not a church sacrament at the time, but a civil contract, saying she preferred "love to wedlock, freedom to chains." She observed that women often married for money, which she viewed as a form of prostitution. She asked if anything ordained by God, such as sexual intercourse, could be sinful, and asserted that she would rather be his mistress than his wife. "God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore."
Unfortunately, however, Heloise became pregnant. Abelard forced her to marry, sent her to his parents' estate, and arranged for their son, Astrolabe, to be raised there. He attempted with marriage to appease her furious guardian Fulbert, who had hired him to tutor his obviously brilliant niece. In retribution, Fulbert paid two men to castrate him.
Abelard entered monastic life, starting a community he called the Paraclete. Abelard left the Paraclete to Heloise when his attempts as abbot failed (his monks tried to poison him). She was a successful abbess. The Paraclete grew to have five subsidiary communities. She called on Abelard to function as her spiritual advisor through sporadic episodes of correspondence between them, and she collected his theological works.
Years after tragic end of their affair, Abelard wrote an autobiography called "The Story of my Misfortunes," and repented of his behavior. He said his castration was justifiable punishment for having betrayed the trust of Heloise's uncle. He characterized himself as a predator who connived to have access to her. Abelard's confession, written after the first of his two ex-communications, may have been a self-serving attempt to restore his reputation and gain a teaching position by sounding appropriately repentant and contrite.
In her fiery letter in response to his autobiography, Heloise said she was moved to tears by the recollection of his sufferings, but she also noted his focus on his personal woes disrupted his capacity to meet the obligations of love, not only to her but to her community. She did not suggest that Abelard needed to be more selfless—she said he did not love enough because he was not open to receiving love.
Heloise reminded him that he had neglected to call on others to help bear his burdens: "We beseech you to write as often as you think fit with news of 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 joy." She chided him for his self-absorbed self-pity, and accused him of not loving her because he described his motivation for their affair as lust alone. She made a request of him: "I beg you then to listen to what I ask – you will see that it is a small favour which you can easily grant. While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words – of which you have enough to spare – some sweet semblance of yourself."
Heloise never spoke of their relationship as a source of shame, guilt, or dishonor. Nor was she enthusiastic about his suggestion that she should put love for God ahead of love for him. She entered religious life, she insisted, because he asked her to, not out of any particular love for God. "No reward for this may I expect from God, for the love of Whom it is well known that I did not anything." Moreover, Heloise thought Abelard was wrong to dismiss erotic joy–he had come to assess his castration as a justified act of divine grace, saying, "how justly God had punished me in that very part of my body whereby I had sinned," Late in life, she reminded him of the pleasure he shared with her, and she grieved his castration. She refuted his conclusion that their sexual union was an unclean departure from the divine will and disagreed that it marred the "beauty of chastity." Heloise asked him to remember their sensual union and to stay faithfully in relationship to her, as well as to stay connected to her religious community.
Abelard presented himself and Heloise as embodying an ideal of selfless love in their post-trauma relationship. "Each grieved most, not for himself, but for the other. Each sought to allay, not his own sufferings, but those of the one he loved." Heloise countered that he took her love for granted and that she did not understand love as selfless. Instead, she loved both boldly and with expectations of reciprocity. "If only your love had less confidence in me, my dear, 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." He failed to acknowledge that he owed her anything, she commented, even a letter! For her, love had a right to make demands; it was grounded in integrity, connection, and care. Abelard, in contrast, idealized a love that was unbounded by obligations, fears of punishment, or hopes of reward. For him, love was internalized purely as a condition of the heart—not a web of obligations and relationships.
Throughout her life, Heloise remained passionately devoted to Abelard despite his attempt to separate himself from her. Challenging his self-absorption and sense of himself as a victim, she politely but pointedly noted that he used his own suffering to tell another man that his anguish was insignificant in comparison. He paid attention to the suffering of an acquaintance, Heloise noted, but ignored her and the community he founded with no sense of obligation or responsibility to them. She held out for love shared in the intellectual and spiritual dimensions that she thought Abelard could sustain.
Heloise understood compassion as something more than full identification with another's pain and sorrow and the internalizing of the most abject, abyssal suffering. For her, compassion was more than subjective feeling, weakness, and devotion. Her compassion maintained a tensile consciousness that combined empathy for another's pain with sufficient self-possession to be able to offer to someone mired in his own suffering a world beyond pain and helplessness, a world glimpsed in community and companionship—a world that offered, still, the possibilities of love, of friendship.
Love required action. Heloise admonished Abelard, "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." Heloise understood goodness as power: moral agency based on empathy. Goodness resisted violence, alleviated pain, healed the sick and broken, and loved beauty. Her love was not afraid to make demands—it expected accountability and responsibility and understood that the best love was mutual. In her understanding and experience, love was a great power.
When Abelard died in 1141, on his way to Rome to defend himself at his second excommunication trial, he had admirers and students who carried on his intellectual innovations, but few friends. Heloise sent a letter to the abbot at Cluny who was Abelard's superior when he died. She asked for a written statement of her husband's absolution, "to be hung on his tomb," and she appealed for a position in the church for their son, Astrolabe. Abelard's body was buried at the Paraclete. Heloise assured that he remained within the embrace of the community where she served as abbess until she died twenty-three years later.
Abelard might have been too traumatized and humiliated to hear Heloise's wise, honest, and powerful words of love, but I hope, for the next eight hundred years, Christians can get a good dose of her instead of his piety of self-sacrifice and passivity. Then, we might be able to see Friday as the early church did, a day of profound lamentation for the loss of a beloved leader who taught them how to live, murdered by an imperial system that used its might to make people forget him and go away. The power of love was not to forget. Instead they told his story with courage and supported each other in resisting the most powerful empire to rule Europe. We should call it "Lamentation" Friday.