The tomb of Héloise and Abailard
19th century, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
By the time I learned about Peter Abailard (also spelled Abelard), I became a fan. There are many reasons. He was a brilliant theologian who attracted students to Paris. He was willing to think outside the box. In his work Sic et Non (Yes and No) he took theological propositions and argued both sides, showing how logic could be used to analyze a question. Of course, not simply taking the approved position could, and did, get him trouble with church authorities. He questioned the usual theories of atonement, most of which posited the need for something to happen in order to change God's stance toward sinners. He proposed what came to be known as "the moral theory" of atonement in which God did not need propitiation but we needed to have a change of heart. When we look at Christ on the Cross we see how every much God loves us and are moved to return to God. THAT was a breath of fresh air to me in seminary, especially since I had been raised on the penal substitutionary theory (a judicial penalty must be paid to satisfy God's justice and Jesus paid the price so we could be acquitted) as the only acceptable theory ever held. It was so nice to study the history of doctrine and learn that all kinds of ideas have been put forth to explain how we are reconciled to God in Christ (and all of them have shortcomings).
Peter was not only a brilliant scholar, philosopher, theologian, and teacher, he was also a poet and a lover. He wrote numerous hymns, some of which are still sung in hymnals today. And he and a certain student were the most famous lovers of his era. Héloise was a brilliant and charismatic student, and they fell in love, had a child named Astrolabe, and were secretly married. Her uncle had Peter captured and castrated. The two lovers were parted and she became a nun and later abbess. They had a great correspondence and the hymns he wrote were for the convent of the Paraclete where Héloise was.
Centuries later their bodies were reunited and buried in Paris. Although I lifted the photo from the web, I have my own photos of this tomb and of the roses I laid there (but they are on another computer).
Did I mention that Peter was falsely accused of holding unorthodox views, was hounded by none other than Bernanrd of Clairvaux, and condemned at two church councils? Well, I saved the best for last, I guess. You will not be surprised that I have never recognized Bernard as a saint for this one reason alone and that I keep Abailard's death day as a feast.
Abailard was a square peg in a world of round holes.
And so am I.
In claiming my selfhood and the right to be myself, I say to the entire world, "Fuck all your round holes!"
If you detect some anger there, you have clued in accurately. And if you suspect some pain underlying that anger you are correct once more. It is not that I am furious at this particular moment, I am fairly calmly writing of an ongoing existential stance.
In earlier essays I spoke of how I unconsciously, automatically, reflexively adapted my words, behavior, and expressions to please others, even when the others were not really asking that of me. Most of my life has been spent trying to trim my peg to fit into holes shaped by, determined by, ordained by others. Most of us have an experience of this since we are all unique. But I had it in spades. I never had the inner strength and clear identity to say, "Not my hole, not a fit, not even going to bother." Even now it is a victory, large or small, every time I say "no."
To this day, when pressed to imagine my life had I made other choices I seem to slam into an impenetrable blank wall. As imaginative and creative as I am, I have immense difficulty imagining a life other than the one I have led.
The photo of me in clericals, properly posed for a church directory, creeped me out because I saw myself rip-sawed, adze-hewn, and savaged to fit a round hole. Trying so very hard to be a good parish priest and a right proper Episcopalian. My therapist helped me reframe how I saw that photo, shifting it from, if you will, some Hallowe'en monster that terrifies me into a human, me, who had been shaped into something that was not quite true. Violated. A part of myself that desperately needs to be loved, pitied, grieved for, understood, healed.
I mentioned today on Facebook that I am too quick (and I would add too facile) to jump in with counter instances, balance, defense. In an earlier post I spoke of how I tried to be, and often was, a good priest. But that is glossing over the violence, the damage, the abiding pain, and fires of rage I almost never acknowledge.
One of Abailard's hymns, sung during Holy Week, is this:
Solus ad victimam procedis, Domine,
Morti te offerens quam venis tollere;
Quid nos miserrimi possumus dicere
Qui quae commisimus scimus te luere?
Nostra sunt, Domine, nostra sunt crimina:
Quid tua criminum facis supplicia?
Quibus sic compati fac nostra pectora
Ut vel compassio digna sit venia.
Nox ista flebilis praesensque triduum
Quod demorabitur fletus sit vesperum,
Donec laetitiae mane gratissimum
Surgente, Domine, sit maestis redditum.
Tu tibi compati sic fac nos, Domine,
Tuae participes ut simus gloriae;
Sic praesens triduum in luctu ducere,
Ut visum tribuas paschalis gratiae.
Francis Bland Tucker's translation, the best known, is this:
Alone thou goest forth,
O Lord, in sacrifice to die;
Is this thy sorrow naught to us
who pass unheeding by?
Our sins, not thine, thou bearest, Lord;
make us thy sorrow feel,
Till through our pity and our shame
love answers love's appeal.
This is earth's darkest hour, but thou
dost light and life restore;
Then let all praise be given thee
who livest evermore.
Grant us with thee to suffer pain
that, as we share this hour,
Thy cross may bring us to thy joy
and resurrection power.
Episcopalians can find this in The Hymnal 1982, Hymn # 164, sung to the tune Bangor.
I have no messianic pretensions or delusions and am NOT comparing myself to Jesus. But I am identifying with this much: "Alone thou goest forth in sacrifice."
In an earlier post I included my poem based on the Sacrifice of Isaac and noted that it was written for all the sons sacrificed to their fathers demons where no ram was provided at the last moment, no angel cried, "Stop." It is a universal theme, endlessly repeated. Whether it is the unfulfilled dreams or the unrecognized demons of the older generation, sons and daughters get offered up over and over again.
It seemed to me that everyone expected great things from me. How could I let them down? And I had a mystical sense of divine calling in an era and a specific religious culture where that took very few forms. I remember how, at age 15-16, I read about the life of pastors and thought to myself, though I never dared utter it to anyone, "O hell no! I cannot imagine anything more dreary." (Welcome to the Confessions of not-Augustine!) But if not a pastor, then a missionary or an evangelist. The evangelists I knew were all pretty much used-card salesman, including the one who most influenced me who had been precisely that. The whole dramatic building up of guilt and crisis in others and then offering them a one-size-fits-all remedy (only it doesn't), seemed too fucking manipulative to me. I insert the expletive to underscore my distaste then and now. And missionary? The Wycliffe Bible Translators had the appeal of my love of languages and linguistics. But you have the same manipulation combined with exotic climes and customs and foods. I was way too damned picky an eater and too comfortable living in California, thanks. God may have been calling, but I was not leaping with joy, eager to cry, "Here am I, Lord, send me!"
It seemed that faithfulness to God involved a price and, like it or not, I signed up to pay it. I persevered in the path toward ordination, not once but twice: first as a Baptist then as an Episcopalian.
But here is my dirty little secret that I am now admitting: the Church has always been too small for me.
That is not a self-aggrandizing statement, though it could be read that way. Remember, I am now and always have been a nature mystic. Rigid boundaries, orthodoxies, and structures do not mesh will with mystics and never have. I follow Peter Abailard in rejecting simple answers and definitely fall in the moral theory of atonement school, which remains a minority view in most denominations. I worship the Cosmic Christ, that Word through whom all things come into being and that Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world; and the Universal Spirit that permeates all things, simultaneously bringing forth endless variety while binding all into a great unity; and a transcendent Creator who cannot be captured in any words or categories. I encounter the Divine everywhere. The Church is just a tiny part of Creation; the God who is everywhere is mostly somewhere besides Church.
Yes, symbolically and emotionally I remain a Trinitarian.
The irony is that for someone who, at some level, has always known the Church was too small, too narrow, too inadequate, I plunged into it with fervor. I specialized in biblical studies and like any good Baptist I knew the Bible really well. I have read it ALL the way through multiple times, even the endless begats. Next I turned to Church history and really loved it. If you had a question about what something means, or why we do something in the liturgy, or how we came to believe something, I probably had an answer. I wanted to know and I loved to share. And then, gradually over the last fifteen years, all that became increasingly irrelevant to me, no matter how deeply formed I am by it all.
Speaking of Scripture.... You know how different passages resonate in different ways under different circumstances? Allow me to share a parable:
Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:Again, I am not identifying with the only son (or the Only Son), or desirous of playing with full allegory, or anything like that. Just saying that the following words and images came to mind as I thought about my clergy photo:
‘The stone that the builders rejectedWhen they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?”
beat over the headI was not physically beaten but there are those who witnessed me being emotionally beaten and bullied. I was literally and publicly insulted. And my spirit was killed a thousand times from my teens into my sixties. I need to sit with this reality, feel it, honor it, grieve it, and allow it to heal. In this essay I have brought it out into the light and air so it no longer suppurates.
That is why I recoiled from the photo. That is why I have given away almost all my vestments and want to unload my theological library. That is why I do not attend church. There is too much history there.
I am a square peg. God made me that way, I like being that way, and I intend to rejoice in that which God has made.
And if anyone has some round holes that need filling, let them find a round peg. I am no longer available.