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Letter from Heloise (1101–1164) to Peter Abelard (1079–1142)

translated by A.S. Richardson (1884)

Heloise and Abelard

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 [she starts her letter using the royal “we,” but soon switches to the first person] 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’ 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’ 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.

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 an 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.’ 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.’

It was the first woman in the beginning who lured man from Paradise, and she who had been created by the Lord as his help mate became the instrument of his total downfall. And that mighty man of God, the Nazarite whose conception was announced by an angel, 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. Job, holiest of men, fought his last and hardest battle against his wife, who urged him to curse God. The cunning archtempter 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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?’ 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 fact 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 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.

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. 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.’ 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.’ On the other hand, through Solomon it is said that ‘The sayings of the wise are sharp as goads, like nails driven home.’ 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?’ And: ‘A road may seem straightforward to a man, yet may end as the way to death.’ 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.’ 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’ and ‘He cannot win a crown unless he has kept the rules.’ 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?’

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