Reflections, Religious Texts

Those Grieving During the Holidays

Clear Glass Candle HolderThe holidays can be a difficult time for people who have lost loved ones. While it may seem that everyone is celebrating life and love with friends, some are alone in their grief. Thanksgiving may be a burden for someone experiencing a loss. It is with them in mind that I write today’s reflection.

The 12th century Cistercian monk and reformer Bernard of Clairvaux was known for his beautiful reflections on divine love as well as his fiery and aggressive personality. He was, above all else, a leader. And a leader wasn’t allowed to show emotional weakness – especially an austere abbot.

But in his 26th sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard cut short his commentary to express his grief over the death of his biological and spiritual brother Gérard. Gérard joined his brother in the monastery and became the cellarer of Citeaux. He was Bernard’s lifelong friend and companion. Gérard wasn’t educated, but he kept the monastery up and running. His death devastated Bernard, but an abbot wasn’t supposed to mourn. Monks were taught to anticipate and embrace death. So, Bernard hid his emotions from the other brothers and stoically officiated his brother’s funeral.

But in Sermon 26 of the Song of Songs, Bernard finally broke the silence and shared his true feelings with the monks in his care. Perhaps, death was supposed to be interpreted as a great good, but it was only good for Gérard. Bernard had lost his best friend, and nothing would ever be the same without him.

To Gérard, Bernard exclaimed:

All my delights, all my pleasures, have disappeared along with you.  Already cares rush in upon me, troubles press about me on every side; manifold anxieties have found me companionless, and, since you departed, have stayed with me in my solitude.  In my loneliness I groan under the burden.  Because your shoulders are no longer there to support it, I must lay it down or be crushed.  O, if I could only die at once and follow you!  Certainly I would not have died in your stead, I would not deprive you of the glory that is yours.  But to survive you can mean only drudgery and pain.  My life, if you can call it that, will be one of bitterness and mourning; it will even be my comfort to endure this painful grief.

Could Gérard still hear his brother’s voice? Did he care about his brother’s suffering even though he was in a better place? Bernard concluded that it was impossible for any soul in contact with a merciful God to be indifferent toward the plight of the living. Therefore, Gérard was present in spirit. He did care about his brother’s suffering. But he was no longer in the flesh, and Gérard’s physical presence mattered.

I am that unhappy portion prostrate in the mud, mutilated by the loss of its nobler part, and shall people say to me: “Do not weep”?  My very heart is torn from me and shall it be said to me: “Try not to feel it”?  But I do feel it intensely in spite of myself, because my strength is not the strength of stones nor is my flesh of bronze.  I feel it and go on grieving; my pain is ever with me.

Bernard may have been the abbot of Citeaux and one of the most powerful men in his day (his student became pope), but he was still human. He was tired of putting on a show, of pretending that death didn’t matter.

Will you say then that this is carnal?  That it is human, yes, since I am a man.

It must have been shocking for the brothers to see their abbot in this emotional state. Many of the monks were former knights, so they were probably accustomed to hiding their emotions and acting tough. In a patriarchal society, men especially feel discouraged to show their true feelings.

As I mentioned above, I’m writing this post with the grieving in mind. Holidays can be wonderful times of the year. Friends and family gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) or Christmas. But holidays can also be burdensome for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. They may feel like they have to perform for the occasion, and if they can’t, they may experience guilt and regret. They don’t want to “ruin” the occasion. And of course, they may miss their loved ones the most during the holidays because the holidays are supposed to be joyful occasions. The grieving often experience the most loneliness during the holidays.

For personal reasons, Bernard’s story resonated with me when I first read it at the end of 2016. We still live in a society in which emotion is interpreted as weakness. We are asked by society to hide our pain not only at work but among friends, and especially during the holidays. But death is a tragedy. It leaves a mark on the living.

During the holidays, we who are not mourning need to remember those who are and give them space and support to do so. Advertisements tell us to have the perfect Thanksgiving or the perfect Christmas. But the need to play a certain role in company (as a teacher, a CEO, a parent, etc) is a huge burden for those who are grieving. They may feel that they don’t matter as human beings. Let’s not preference our celebrations over the lives of our loved ones.

If you are grieving, I hope you find the comfort and support you want and need this season.

Abélard, Pierre, Religious, Religious Texts

Review of Pierre Abélard’s Historia Calamitatum

Abélard and Héloïse in the manuscript Roman de la Rose (14th century)

What was it about?

When you hear the word “scholasticism” what do you think of? I know that when I hear the word I generally think of Thomas Aquinas and his colossal (but unfinished) system Summa Theologica. Scholasticism was a way of doing theology that emerged in late 11th century Europe and was often considered the only acceptable way of doing Catholic theology well into the 20th. But not all scholastics were Thomists or even Catholic. Anselm of Canterbury, Pierre Abélard, Albert the Great, Peter Lombard, and John Duns Scotus (to name only a few) were all scholastics. Some of their followers were even rivals of the Thomists. There were also Protestant scholastics. Some of the early Lutheran and Reformed theologians were scholastics – adopting or redefining scholastic categories to teach the faith.

Pierre Abélard (1079-1142), along with Anselm of Canterbury, was one of the first scholastics. He was a brilliant logician, and one of the founding members of what came to be the University of Paris. He had a huge following and was well respected, until some started accusing him of being non-Trinitarian. In response to a request to prove the Trinity logically, Abélard wrote a book called Sic et Non (Yes and No). Unfortunately, the book was condemned by his rivals, and as a result he was forced to burn his own book at the Council of Sens.

Abélard, however, is not know today for his brilliant but tumultuous theological career. He is known instead for his love affair with a student he tutored named Héloïse d’Argenteuil. Abélard was invited by Héloïse’s uncle to teach his niece philosophy, but Abélard used his position of authority to get Héloïse to sleep with him. She had a son with him, and though they both tried to hide the child, the uncle took revenge by having Abélard castrated in the middle of the night. Héloïse spent the rest of her life as a nun, writing letters to Abélard for spiritual advice.

Historia Calamitatum is Pierre Abélard’s autobiography of his theological career and his affair with Héloïse.

What did I think of it?

How can you judge a person who lived over 800 years ago? While I was reading Historia Calamitatum, I felt like Abélard’s affair with Héloïse would be categorized today as statutory rape. He is an arrogant man who uses his position of authority to manipulate a young woman. But Héloïse is not weak; she is just as brilliant as Abélard. In her letters to Abélard (not included in the Historia Calamitatum), she demonstrates a surprising amount of agency. While I was disgusted by this philosopher’s personal life choices, I pitied him too because his writings were often misrepresented by his opponents. Historia Calamitatum reminded me of the politics that (for better or for worse) have shaped Christian teachings throughout the centuries. As one of the first scholastics, Abélard was strongly condemned by the more influential monastics who often considered reason at odds with faith. Historia Calamitatum bears witness to the tension that existed between the monastics and the scholastics at the start of the second millennium. I am glad to have been introduced to such a complicated figure as Pierre Abélard.