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 for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.”
Continue reading ““Lamentation” Friday and the Power of Love”