Stealing Heaven

Stealing Heaven, The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard, by Marion Meade (William Morrow & Company 1979) offers a very sympathetic look at these two lives. The way the book is written also illuminates the institutions of their time and how those institutions, the church and the nobility/monarchy were intertwined and governed society. In doing so, the book gives marvelous insights into a few of the historically important characters of that place and time.

The story of Heloise and Abelard is so well known that I will not attempt to retell it here. Read the Marion Meade book, and/or the other excellent book on this subject by James Burges that I reviewed in 2006.

If you are really interested in this tale and are over 18, see the movie that is based on the Marion Meade novel. It is extremely well done and is available online in both VHS –the original- and DVD versions, the latter from a Portuguese source, but its language is also English.

How would I compare the Burges and the Meade books? They are different, and each brings a different flavor to the tale. If you asked me which one I would recommend if you were going to read just one? Burges. Sorry, Ms. Meade.

One historical character thus illuminated shows Meade's mindset particularly clearly, and I very much agree with that mindset. That character is Bernard of Clairvaux. Meade, in telling her tale, brings Bernard into the drama and is very critical of him. This man, later sainted, was mean-spirited and did something to Peter Abelard that was like a second castration: he had him and his writings condemned, and even more importantly, kept him from teaching, kept him from continuing the very work that defined his life.

Meade observes that Bernard loved to invoke “love” in his exhortations-to-faith, but seemingly had none. He was judgmental and cruelly critical to those who did not fit into his narrow definition of being true to the faith. He despised intellectualism, saw it as diametrically opposed to and corrosive of faith, and hence was ruthless in his dealings behind the scene to make sure Abelard’s mouth was stopped and that his writings were taken out of circulation and destroyed to the extent that could be done. Since his writings still exist, there were limits to power even in those autocratic times!

One of the reasons I read this book is because a friend recommended I see “Stealing Heaven” --the movie that is based on it. I was affected by the movie, and then by the book. The movie has less than two hours to convey these two complicated humans' interconnected lives, and does so admirably. The book, however, adds dimensions, depth and many additional characters to the story.

In the movie, symbols are added to convey what took much prose to convey in the book. Also, several events were combined and stylized to convey a similar meaning to what took much longer to convey in the book. But the bottom line in both the movie and the book was that the story has a Hollywood ending IF you are a believer in the magical world-view that these two were steeped in and in which they believed.

I believe they believed, regardless of the fact that some of their words would suggest periods of unbelief in both. In the very final moment of the movie it may appear that there was a departure between the movie and the book. However, the correct interpretation is that Heloise believed in Christ, but she was very angry with him for the way she had been treated in life. Her ill fortunes were laid directly at his divine feet, in other words.

Like a daughter angry at her father, she lashes out and expresses her anger. But this does not mean this daughter did not believe in her father.

The sub-theme that plays throughout the Heloise part of the story is her continually questioning why she had been constructed in such a way as to always so deeply love and desire Peter Abelard that God took second place in her heart and mind. God constructed her to be so, and yet this same God continually told her, through scripture and its human interpreters, that this is not how she should be. This is a universal experience in those desiring to be both fully human and fully faithful to a religion that demands a certain amount of dehumanization in its adherents.

In this tale, Bernard was one who had achieved full, nothing-lacking, faithfulness, and to achieve this state he broke himself to the point where he was less than human, and proud of it. He had overcome all desire, had punished his body so severely that he was at all times looking forward to the next life, where he would be able to be totally free of the wants of the physical. He wanted everyone else to be like him, and was cruel to those who felt they did not need to renounce the physical or the intellectual, and yet claimed to be faithful. How could he possibly agree with that? It would make his life’s self-imposed suffering a useless exercise, a lie.

Abelard’s flirtation with heresy was hinted at in this story, especially when Bernard came into it. Examining his heresies was not the reason for the story, so only a few hints are given. Bernard accused Abelard of teaching something about Christ not being part of the Trinity, of being something apart from it. Heloise knew that was an out-of-context lie.

Abelard’s teachings are not straightforward, so it would be hard for Abelard to defend himself on this and other accusations in front of rather ignorant and jealous churchmen such as those assembled by Bernard for the purpose of judging Abelard.

Abelard questioned the need for universal salvation, a most delicious heresy linked to his non-belief in original sin, my favorite Abelardian heresy.

Abelard felt and declared that sin can only be committed by those who have understanding, a notion that subtly contradicts the idea of original sin. Original sin is what we are supposedly all born with, we are contaminated with it through sexual reproduction passing it on from Adam. If you look that straight in the face and think about it for a few seconds, Abelard's declaration might make the Virgin Birth unnecessary if it was for the sole purpose of assuring Christ being born without the stain of original sin.

If you take Abelard's declaration to its limits, then everyone is born without the taint of this inherited sinfulness.  This calls into question several scriptural statements by Paul, making them untrue.

Abelard, as the Meade story informs us, was accused of making Paul into a liar, an accusation that could logically follow from taking some of Abelard’s pronouncements at face-value. Abelard denied contradicting Paul, said he loved Paul.

In a book focusing on Heloise more than Abelard you would not want to go into these heresies in any detail. So Meade did not, she just mentioned them because of their important role in determining the nature of the last part of Abelard’s life. She also mentioned them because in large part the treatise that was mined for heresies more than others, and did him in, was based on an original work by Heloise!

All through the story you feel that Heloise was much more in love with Abelard than vice-versa. It is only toward the end that you begin to sense, as Heloise begins to sense it, that this may not have been as true as the evidence from the main part of the story, in terms of time elapsed, seems to show. Toward the end evidence comes to light that allows Heloise to believe that Abelard was very much in love with her throughout his life. He was simply a church-man, playing a church-man-role, defined and limited by his chosen religious society.

This was severely aggravated by his having lost that which for him defined his man-hood, even causing him to question his standing before God. Add to that his own native personality’s rather self-centered orientation, and you have almost insurmountable roadblocks in terms of his ability to admit and express love and longing for a woman.

None of these limits applied, of course, when he was a young teacher in love and lust with Heloise. He almost made Heloise a byword in Paris through his songs of their love. Perhaps he was thrice castrated, not just twice. Once when he was cut. Then again when he decided to submit to the church and become a monk. And then finally when a gag order was imposed as a result of his heresies. But still the story has a good ending. Read it for yourself, and/or see the movie.

I was extremely pleased that this excellent author, excellent in terms of both her research and her storytelling ability, also touched two other subjects I have mentioned in my own writings on this website. She has written a biography of Theosophy's founder, Helena Blavatsky, whom I mention in my pages on Anna Kingsford and on Annie Besant. She has also written a fictional biography of a female troubadour during the time of the Crusade against the Cathars in the Languedoc. I will definitely read that last one, Sybille is its title.  I may also read the Blavatsky book.

Meade is famous for her portrayal of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is featured very briefly, a cameo-appearance as it were, in this book. I read that book some time ago, before I began to write book reviews. I remember being impressed with it, and may read it again to refresh my memory of how it dealt with the troubadour tradition that Eleanor imported into France from the Languedoc.

In Meade's notes at the end of the book she describes the burial place where Heloise and Abelard lie together.  It is a very nice resting place indeed, as you can see by going here, and here.  Many persons that make pilgrimage to this site throw flowers on their grave and wish them, and all past and present day lovers, well.  I have done so.  Several times.

. . . Miscellany:

Abelard was into music and it is only fitting that there has been music created to celebrate his achievements in that realm.  There is an opera-like production described on the internet that is quite comprehemsive in its musical description of these two lives.

There is a website dedicated to heresies that has a section on Abelard's heresies.  

Wikipedia's article on Abelard has some nice artists' portrayals of the romance of Heloise and Abelard, and a good photo, with some detail, of their final resting place.  The next four illustrations come from that source (1) teacher and pupil, (2) caught in love, (3) abbott and abbess, and (4) finally together, in death:


As the French say at the end of their films:  --"fin"--

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