This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

April 21 -- Feast of Saint Peter Abelard

As far as I know, Peter Abelard is not a saint anywhere but here.  If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you are probably getting used to that. 

How they started out
Born in 1079 to a wealthy, moderately aristocratic family, Peter demonstrated an early proclivity for academic and religious thought.  He mastered dialectic reasoning and set off as a sort of wandering scholar -- have disputations, will travel.  In Paris, he debated with his teacher, William of Champeaux, and at length he shot the old guy down.  Filled with the vainglory of youth alloyed with talent, he offered his services as a teacher not far from Paris.  He exhausted himself, took a hiatus, and then returned to vanquish his old master William once more.  Then he entered Notre Dame to study theology, but almost immediately won a faculty chair.  He attracted hundreds (he said thousands) of students to his lectures; he thought of himself as the only undefeated philosopher in the world. 

How they ended up
Obviously, an ego like that begs for a fall.  His began with the niece of a secular canon named Fulbert, in whose house Peter had found employment.  He seduced the beatiful, brilliant young lady who was eleven years his junior.  No one cared about the age gap.  She was well past the customary age for marriage, so the only thing that mattered was the avoidance of scandal.  Peter, however, could not resist bragging about the affair, and that was something the family could not stand.  Fulbert arranged a marriage between them and even acceded to Peter's request that the union be kept secret.  He had his career to think of, after all. 

Heloise gave birth to their son, Astrolabe (yeah, like the scientific device).  Embarrassed, Fulbert disclosed the secret marriage.  Peter suggested that his wife move into a convent, which she did.  Affronted, her family attacked him in the night and castrated him. 
How they really ended up

Peter hid himself in an abbey for a while, but they were quiet and provincial while he was flashy and cosmopolitan.  Without high profile connections, his writings were sabotaged by his critics and he got involved with petty squabbles with his monastic brothers.  Eventually, he was granted permission to move out and live as a hermit. 

Peter Abelard could not be a hermit if he had wanted to, and I doubt that he really wanted to.  As the most brilliant orator of his age, he drew hundreds of disciples to his hermitage, all of whom built huts or set up tents.  Eventually, he knew the authorities would close in again, so he fled to the harsh wilds of Lower Brittany, where he headed an abbey.  That wasn't going to last, and eventually he was back on the lecture circuit. 

You'd think folks might have been upset about Heloise and little Astrolabe, but what they really hated was his new school of theological thought.  Although he had buried Realism in his own mind, its adherents still held sway in the important offices.  Charged with heresy, he died en route to Rome for his hearing. 

You may well wonder what's so saintly about a guy like this.  He lacked humility.  He had no record of good works.  And his theology was unacceptable to the councils.  His virtue, of course, was his love of Heloise.  There are over 100 extant letters, perhaps more than 200, between them.  He arranged for her to take over the oratory he had abandoned so that she might be the abbess of her own convent.  She preserved his bones after he died, and they remain buried together (see photo above).  Sure, she deserves the sainthood more than he, and will get that when her dies mortalis rolls around.  But you can't have one patron of star-crossed lovers.  They must work as a team.  So here's to Saints Peter Abelard and his beautiful bride, Heloise, saints of the thwarted amor

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