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Heloise and Bernard of Clairvaux

ISS Reports


Seminar delivered by Dr Constant Mews on June 5, 2002

Heloise (1101-1164) is famous for the passionate intensity of her love for Peter Abelard. Their affair is so archetypal, they have been made secular saints of free expression and sexual liberation. However, Heloise looked at love as an ethical relationship. She argued for the sincerity of love as a necessity. In her Letters to Abelard she writes in a language that combines Ovid and the Song of Songs, yet the love she wishes to celebrate is that of friendship, the ideal of Cicero, not Ovid.

Dr Constant Mews, author of The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard (New York: Palgrave, 1999), said in his talk to the Institute for Spiritual Studies, that Heloise appeals to God as her witness to the love Abelard and she experienced. She is quite advanced in her thinking, seeing love as something never fully realised as there is always an obligation. Heloise combines love as passion (Ovid) with love as friendship (i.e. the Ciceronian ideal, or agape), yet how is it possible to reconcile these two loves? Later in her life she was a powerful critic of the false love of lust that Abelard went through; she was a pragmatist in pursuit of an ideal. Constant Mews then pursued a comparison rarely made before now, between Heloise and her contemporary, St Bernard of Clairvaux (circa 1090-1153).

Bernard adhered to St Benedict's teaching that the monastery was the schola caritatis, or school of love. Reacting to the corruption within the orders at the time, he led a new monastic movement, returning to the original Benedictine Rule. The early Cistercians were strict, so strict they would only sing songs sung by Benedict himself. They were puritanical.

Bernard teaches that the cause of loving God is God Himself. This is true for all people of reason, including non-Christians. To love God is to love without measure. Love is not a wicked distraction from the spiritual life, but is an example to understanding of the spiritual life. Bernard takes us through four stages: love of self; then love of neighbour, i.e. because God asks us to; then love of God for God's sake; and then, the final remarkable step, love of one's self for God's sake.

The Word is the Bridegroom visiting the soul, Bernard believes. He harnesses sexual energy to spiritual reflection. The focus is on redemption through the living and dying of Jesus Christ. Bernard works on the level of emotion and shares with Heloise a belief in the sincerity of love. They both wished to get away from the dichotomy of 'religious' versus 'secular' love, desired to treat them together.

Interestingly, Heloise criticised the Benedictine Rule for not including women, and it was the Cistercians who didn't want women around. In the end her own monastic practice virtually disposed of Rules, the house living a simple life of charity and poverty. The great French spiritual writer Etienne Gilson once argued that the similarities in Heloise's and Bernard's thinking are there, but Gilson never saw the lost letters, with their parallels of selfless love, now published by Constant Mews. The quest remains, to find how much Heloise may have influenced the thinking of St Bernard, a quest Constant Mews is determined to continue.

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