Monday, May 02, 2005

Historia Calamitatum, Part II

(Part I)

When we left off the autobiographical/philosophical argument of Peter Abelard's Historia Calamitatum, Peter had just been violently castrated in the night for his involvement with the lovely and brilliant Héloïse.

In the morning, everyone was gathered outside Peter's door, sending out cries of lamentation; and as is often the case with commiserators, enduring their compassion and lament was even harder than enduring the physical castration, being a constant stimulus to Peter's shame. Interestingly, he has to admit that there is a certain poetic justice to it:

I saw, too, how justly God had punished me in that very part of my body whereby I had sinned. I perceived that there was indeed justice in my betrayal by him whom I had myself already betrayed; and then I thought how eagerly my rivals would seize upon this manifestation of justice, how this disgrace would bring bitter and enduring grief to my kindred and my friends, and how the tale of this amazing outrage would spread to the very ends of the earth.


Out of the misery of the disgrace of being a eunuch, Peter takes shelter in the monastic life. There he and his abbot were constantly pestered by people wanting to study under the great Peter Abelard. Now, how many of you think that Peter is going to settle comfortably into monastic life and live happily ever after? Put your hand down; you should know better. According to Abelard, the abbey to which he fled was very worldly, and the lives of the monks quite scandalous. Peter began to denounce the goings-on until everyone completely detested him. They eagerly seized on the constant pestering in order to get rid of him, and he withdrew to a small hut in order to teach. The students around him grow, and the other teachers become envious, stirring up the authorities against him.

During this time Peter wrote a book on the philosophical issues involved in the doctrines of the unity and trinity of God. This book became very popular; and as a result, according to Peter, his rivals became furious, summoning a council in order to take action against him. Because of the slanders of these men, he was nearly stoned on the way to the council. However, at the council, Peter's antagonists had difficulty finding anything in the book on which they could convict him, so they put off condemnation of the book until the council's end. Meanwhile, Abelard began to teach, and the people he taught became enthusiastic, and began to murmur among themselves that Abelard's judges must be the ones in error. His rivals try to catch him out on a few occasions; but he manages to show that their quibbles are the result of their own ignorance. As the council drew to a close, Peter's enemies were forced lamely to conclude that his book should be condemned because he had dared to read it in public without the approval of the Roman pontiff. This was an absurd charge, but it was pretty much a kangaroo court, anyway, so they required Peter to throw his own book on the flames. They also insisted that he read aloud the Athanasian Creed -- as if he were a child, Peter says -- and he did so as best he could amid his tears. He was handed over to the Abbot of St. Médard, to whose monastery he was consigned. It was like being sentenced to prison.

The monks of the monastery rejoiced at the coming of the great Peter Abelard, and tried to console him; but they weren't very successful:

O God, who dost judge justice itself, in what venom of the spirit, in what bitterness of mind, did I blame even Thee for my shame, accusing Thee in my madness! Full often did I repeat the lament of St. Anthony: "Kindly Jesus, where wert Thou?" The sorrow that tortured me, the shame that overwhelmed me, the desperation that wracked my mind, all these I could then feel, but even now I can find no words to express them. Comparing these new sufferings of my soul with those I had formerly endured in my body, it seemed that I was in very truth the most miserable among men. Indeed that earlier betrayal had become a little thing in comparison with this later evil, and I lamented the hurt to my fair name far more than the one to my body. The latter, indeed, I had brought upon myself through my own wrongdoing, but this other violence had come upon me solely by reason of the honesty of my purpose and my love of our faith, which had compelled me to write that which I believed.


"Kindly Jesus, where were you?" The report of the injustice of the trial began to spread, however, to such an extent that even the instigators had to deny their involvement. Peter was allowed to return to his old monastery. It was not to be an entirely happy reunion, for, you will recall, he had been active in denouncing their scandalous lifestyle. His enemies in the monastery waited for a chance to catch him out.

One day in his reading, Peter came across a passage in Bede that denied that St. Denis was the bishop of Athens, contrary to the tradition of the monastery. In a half-joking manner he showed it to some nearby monks, who angrily replied that Bede was a liar, for Hilduin, a former abbot, had traveled to Greece and confirmed the tradition. On being asked whether he thought Bede or Hilduin the better authority, Peter replied that Bede's writings were held in high esteem by the whole Latin Church. They angrily replied that he had now shown his true colors as a despiser of the monastery, having denied that the Areopagite was their patron saint. Peter protested that he had done no such things, but they ran to the abbot with their complaint. The abbot threatened to hand Peter over to the king for punishment. Peter fled, but over the next several years repeatedly tried to establish some sort of reconciliation. In a compromise solution, Peter was allowed to retire into solitude in the country. He chose a place in the region of Troyes, and there built his first oratory to the Holy Trinity. Hearing of his retreat, students began to flock to him again, enduring hardship in the wilderness simply in order to study with him. In order to feed himself, Peter began again to teach. The oratory, in order to hold all the students had to be expanded and was converted from a rude hut of stalks into a larger building of stone and wood. He called it the Paraclete, i.e., the Comforter or Consoler, for in his retreat he was finding something like a divine gift of consolation.

If you haven't figured out that it was temporary, you need to read more closely. The story is not yet finished....

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