Heloise: Troubled Saint and Lover
By DAN STIVER
For women’s history month, an ancient woman who comes to my mind is Heloise, from the twelfth century (c. 1095-1163). She may not be a contributor to U.S. history, but she is a notable contributor to church history. As Wikipedia states, “Her surviving letters are considered a foundation of French and European literature and primary inspiration for the practice of courtly love.” Some may know of her as part of one of the great love stories in all of history, with the famous Abelard (1079-1142), author of one of the major theories of atonement. They were buried together, and their burial site today in Paris, France, is a pilgrimage site for young lovers. The love story is touchingly real, but it is also a dramatic theological story. The fuller story is rich, but here it is in brief.
Heloise remarkably was a teenager who was widely known in Europe for her learning. Her uncle and guardian secured for her a tutor in Paris, one of the greatest thinkers of the medieval period, Abelard. As time went on, they became lovers, Heloise became pregnant, and they were predictably discovered by the uncle, who was furious. Heloise was concerned about Abelard’s reputation and offered not to be married but to remain with him as his mistress. They did, however, become married. Here things became even more complicated. In the uncle’s fury, he hired ruffians to assault Abelard, and they castrated him. What were they to do? Heloise wanted to remain with Abelard, but he was apparently too embarrassed and humiliated to do so. He directed her to go to a convent, to which she had no calling, but she went for his sake. She eventually became a prominent abbess of the convent. After some time, Abelard wrote a book entitled My Calamities, telling about the affair and its aftermath. When Heloise, who had not been in communication with Abelard, received a copy, she was deeply hurt and wrote to Abelard, asking among other things why he could talk to the world about their relationship but not to her. Whereupon they began one of the great letter exchanges of history, famous because we have copies.
In these letters, Abelard had presumed that she was happy and satisfied in her calling, but Heloise poignantly describes how she is still in love with him, and would continue to be, and is in the convent only because of him, not because of God’s call. Abelard conveyed to her in the theology of the time that what had happened must have been God’s will; that was the only option. Heloise, however, was in anguish because she saw that this was indeed the only theological option, but she could not really believe it or accept it—but she had nowhere to go theologically. One of her moving expressions is the following: “While we enjoyed the pleasures of an uneasy love and gave ourselves over to fornication 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 heavy hand upon us.” In this light, she exclaimed, “Good God! What is all this?” As she put it, “I strive and labour in vain.” (Love Letters 1 and 2) Cristina Nehring wrote in an eassy in the New York Times in 2005 that Heloise’s letters “are the richest, containing the rash, ringing, reckless and altogether impious declarations of love for which Heloise will always be known. Here is a voice that refuses to stay in the Middle Ages; it reaches through the centuries and catches us at the throat.” She was never able, as far as we know, to make sense of what happened. She and Abelard were later able to meet occasionally in his visits to the convent, making all wonder what they talked about. He died first. When she died, she was buried in his grave.
There are problems. One is the age and station disparity, to be sure. To some, Heloise may have “loved too much” and been too dependent on Abelard. On the latter, perhaps, but I cut her some slack in a twelfth century, medieval context. What is astonishing to me, however, is that she transcended her time beyond the great Abelard, with little to go on. In some way, she intuited that she did not have to accept that God had caused what had happened to Abelard, nor that it was God’s will, insights that even Abelard could not imagine. She could imagine, but only in part, that God was good in a different way than her times allowed. It was an unthinkable theological thought at the time, although many of us would have a different theology today that would not ascribe bad things to God’s will.
To me, Heloise represents people who from our vantage point were able to transcend their time, culture, tradition, and limitations in amazing and profound ways. At the same time, these are tragic stories in that they were not able fully to fit into their times or to be much understood. Even Abelard apparently was unable to understand Heloise. As with Heloise, also, they could hardly understand themselves.
I think many people are in such a painful dilemma today, their heart telling them one thing, but their tradition and context locking them into another. I was one such person at one time—err, several times! Today Christians have a grand treasury of options in the church, much wider than we often think. Heloise did not have that advantage. Many of us don’t either, due to lack of awareness of the breadth of church history. So Heloise is my patron saint, a troubled saint, for all these people, whose hearts restlessly stretch beyond the constraints of their context.
Dan Stiver is a part-time professor of theology at Logsdon Seminary