Peter Abelard
(A Man's Turmoil)

by Dolores Esteban





France, 1118.

Gilles de Cyenville dismounted his horse. He sighed and he straightened briefly. Ignoring his aching back, he made a few steps towards the wooden door of the abbey. The door was closed. Gilles looked at the gate. He was suddenly hesitating. A man in his forties and with eloquent manners, Gilles de Cyenville suddenly felt very awkward. He took his leather gloves off and he wiped his forehead.

Gilles had been on the road for almost seven days with only brief stops at small taverns. His saddlebag contained a scroll that he had studied eagerly. Many nights he had spent in his chamber, reading the scroll again and again. In his room, illuminated by the light of a candle, he found pleasure in reading in the dead of the night.

The scroll had fascinated him. The author had fascinated Gilles even more. Peter Abelard. His tale had spread quickly. It was told even at the court of Alsace-Lorraine. Gilles had spent hours looking out of the window, thinking about Abelard and Abelard’s scroll. Gilles had tried to push aside the man’s heretical thoughts. However, he had not been able to do so.

In the beginning of June 1118, Gilles had devised a bold plan. He had left Alsace-Lorraine at the end of June. He had arrived in Paris one week later. The same afternoon, Gilles had travelled on to the village of Saint-Denis. Peter Abelard lived there in the abbey.

Gilles looked at the wooden gate again. And then he looked up. The sky had darkened and the first raindrops began to fall. Gilles’ black horse shuffled impatiently.

Gilles straightened and walked to the wooden entrance. He knocked at the door. A small wicket opened, revealing the pale face of a young monk. Gilles de Cyenville cleared his throat.

“Good evening, Brother! My name is Gilles de Cyenville. I sent a sealed scroll. I announced my visit to the abbot.”

The young monk looked at Gilles. Then he suddenly stepped aside. An old man looked out of the wicket.

“We were expecting you,” the old man said in a hoarse voice. He opened the wooden door.

“Brother Timothy, please lead our visitor to Abbot Gregorius,” he said to the young monk. “I will take care of your horse,” he added, turning back to Gilles de Cyenville.

Gilles nodded. He felt awkward again. But then he straightened and followed the monk. Brother Timothy cast him a curious look. But he did not address him. He led Gilles to a neat and small chapel.

“Abbot Gregorius is inside,” Timothy said in a very low voice.

He opened the door and entered the chapel. Gilles followed him. Timothy made the sign of the cross, and then slowly approached the abbot who stood in front of the altar. Abbot Gregorius turned his head to them.

“Father, our visitor has arrived,” Timothy said almost shyly.

Abbot Gregorius smiled at the young monk. He nodded briefly. And Timothy left the chapel.

Gilles watched the scene. He stepped forward reluctantly.

“Your Reverence,” he started.

The old man raised his hand and Gilles fell silent instantly.

“I’m Brother Gregorius,” the abbot said with a smile. “God chose me to lead and guide my brothers.  But I serve under the same rule. We have to learn to not be conceited. Step closer, my son.”

Gilles joined the abbot in front of the altar. Candles illuminated the chapel. It was cold inside. Gilles shivered slightly. He looked at the wooden cross. The wood had darkened to almost black. Gilles smelled the heavy scent of incense and the fine odour of the candles. He quickly made the sign of the cross.

The abbot stood in silent contemplation. Gilles did not dare to move or say a word.

“My son,” Abbot Gregorius said. “I received your message. I was wondering why you wanted to speak to a man who came to our monastery to live in peace and lead a cloistered life.” The abbot folded his hands.

 “I am seeking his advice,” Gilles answered silently, his eyes still resting on the cross.

“My son, you are seeking advice. I understand you are seeking guidance. The answers you seek may be bestowed on you. But you have to learn to be patient.”

Gilles turned his head and looked at the abbot. Abbot Gregorius smiled.

“You have travelled a long way to seek advice. You can trust you will find your answers. But first, you ought to rest, my son.”

The abbot made a sign with his hand and walked to the door of the chapel. Gilles followed him slowly. Timothy was waiting outside. The young monk straightened at the sight of the abbot.

“Timothy, please show our visitor to the dormitory. Then come back, please. We have to prepare the office of Matins.”

Gregorius turned back to Gilles.

“Horarium. The service begins at midnight,” he explained. “Rest well, my son. We will speak tomorrow.”

“Yes, you Reve…Brother Gregorius. Thank you.” Gilles answered before he turned away and followed Timothy reluctantly.

“You’ll be all alone tonight,” Timothy said as he opened the door to the guest dormitory. “No one else has arrived today. And Peter Abelard prefers to live in a separate cell of the cloister. I will come back tomorrow right after Prime. Then we will have breakfast together.”

Timothy smiled briefly. And then the monk left. Gilles stood in the doorway. He felt confused and lost.

~~**~~

Not far from the refectory, a man stood looking into the sky. He watched the dark clouds above him.

“Will I ever see the sun again?” he said to himself. Peter Abelard closed his eyes. His voice and his hands were trembling. It was not the sun that he desired. He desired a smile. But whenever he tried to imagine the face he loved, his world fell apart in confusion and fear.

~~**~~

Gilles de Cyenville wrestled with his own demons.

He looked around in the dark room that was illuminated by a candle. Shadows danced in the flickering light. Gilles raised his eyes and looked at the cross on one of the walls. The cross dominated the sparsely furnished room. A shiver ran up Gilles’s spine when his eyes met the eyes of the figure. Jesus cast him a look that went right through him.

“In nomine Patris et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus,” Gilles uttered almost under his breath. But Jesus’ look remained cold and relentless.

Gilles turned his eyes away and looked around again. Five cots stood in the room with only little space between them. They were covered with gray woollen blankets. Someone had deposited Gilles’ belongings on one of the beds. Gilles approached the cot and sat down. He looked at the rough walls of the room. The monks had spared painting and decoration. Gilles turned his head and saw a bowl, a mug and a jug with water placed on a small wooden table. Gilles rubbed his hands. It was cold in the room. There was no place there inside to light a fire.

After a while, he put his belongings down on the floor. Gilles thought of reading the scroll he had taken along. But Gilles felt tired and exhausted. So he decided to rest. He undressed slowly. Gilles stood in his undergarments and lifted the blanket. His eyes spotted a book on the straw-filled pillow. The Bible. Gilles took it and turned it in his hands. The book was bound in black leather, a golden and elaborate cross on the front. Gilles opened the book cautiously. He saw fine and precious parchment. The pages were filled with a beautiful handwriting and they were decorated with ornate drawings.

“What a treasure,” Gilles said. He was in awe. He sat down on the cot with the book in his hands. He glanced at the cross. Not the hint of a smile graced the saviour’s lips. Jesus just kept looking at him. Gilles turned the pages slowly.

A bell struck midnight. But Gilles did not notice. He reread a paragraph in Latin that had caught his attention.

‘For what has a man of all his labour and of the striving of his heart, in which he labours under the sun? For all his days are sorrows and his travail is grief; yes, even in the night his heart takes no rest.’

“Even in the night his heart takes no rest,” Gilles repeated aloud. “Ecclesiastes,” he said. “The words of Kohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”

Gilles’ thoughts were interrupted by a faint sound. He looked up and he listened to what seemed to be a melodious chant. But Gilles was not able to make out the words. So he rose to his feet and crossed the room. Gilles opened the door.

The distant chant melted into the sound of the heavy and pouring rain.

“Cum angelis et pueris fideles inveniamur...” Gilles heard the words. Wondering, he looked into the night.

“Qu'est ce que tu vas chercher? What is it that you seek?” a cold voice asked out of a sudden.

Abruptly, Gilles turned his head. There was a figure in the dark, head and part of the face covered with a black hood. Gilles clasped the book he still held in his hands.

The man made a step towards him. Gilles gazed and he stood motionless. And he just kept staring.

“The rightness of wrong? The virtue of vice?” the man asked in a bitter voice. “Even in the night my heart takes no rest,” he added before he gave a laugh and with no more words retreated.

Gilles brushed the rain from his face with a hand. With the other he pressed the Bible against his chest in order to protect the precious book from the rain. Gilles heard the distant chant again.

“Hosanna. Procedamus in pace. In nomine Christi, Amen. We must proceed in peace. In the name of Christ,” the monks chanted.

The chant ended abruptly and silence fell. The sound of the heavy rain grew louder. Frightened, Gilles withdrew into the safety of his room.

~~**~~

Gilles sat down on his cot. A cold shiver ran up his spine. He felt uneasy again. He glanced at the cross. Jesus gave him a look and Gilles lowered his eyes quickly. Finally, he rose to his feet and poured water into the mug. He emptied it at one draught. Gilles lay down on the cot. The strange encounter came back to his mind. He wondered who the stranger had been. Gilles blew out the candle. And soon he drifted to sleep.

Gilles awoke with a start, not knowing who or what had wakened him. He opened his eyes and fearfully gazed into the room. The room was illuminated by a very soft light. Gilles felt a presence right next to him. He turned his eyes to the light. And then he winced. A figure was kneeling beside him.

“Who or what are you?” Gilles asked, his voice slightly trembling.

The unearthly figure smiled graciously.

“Angelus et pueris. Angels and boys. So much the same,” the figure said in a soft voice, bowing down to Gilles slowly.

Gilles looked into lavender blue eyes.

“Pleasure without love? What do you think?” the being asked gently.

Their lips touched slightly. The kiss was tender. Gilles felt oddly calm and at ease. And then he drifted to sleep again.

Gilles awoke again the following morning. The strange encounter came back to his mind. He felt tired and very confused. Gilles looked at the cross, and Jesus, the saviour, smiled.

~~**~~

Peter Abelard had also woken. He had not slept well and had gotten up early. 

He stood naked in his cell. He poured water in a basin and washed his body. The icy water made him tremble. But he did not stop torturing himself until his shameful thoughts were replaced by a feeling of quiet remorse.

“I must do penance for my sins. I’m a detestable and abhorrent creature. And yet…”

Abelard threw a cloth on the floor angrily.

“I’m not a sinner. Nor am I fallen from grace. No. No, Heloise, I have not betrayed you. I have released you from what you would not be able to bear. Heloise, my beautiful and gracious gentlewoman, my beloved angel, you took my heart.”

There was a knock at the door. Abelard turned abruptly and seized a blanket to cover his body. He moved to the door and opened the wicket. The young monk Timothy stood outside. Peter Abelard winced at the sight of him. He felt compelled to turn away. But he gazed into Timothy’s blue eyes instead. Peter Abelard blinked. Peter felt hypnotized.

A gracious smile played on Timothy’s lips.

“Office of Lauds,” the monk said softly. “Am I disturbing you?” he asked, giving an ambiguous smile. His eyes rested on Peter’s face a moment too long.

Abelard shook his head, and he closed the wicket quickly. The blanket dropped to the floor. He leaned against the wooden door, feeling nervous. He was breathing heavily.

“I am not worthy,” he uttered under his breath. “Mea culpa. Please, forgive me, Heloise.”

~~**~~

At dawn, Gilles joined the monks in the chapel. Hiding his inward turmoil, he focused on the morning prayers. The calm voices of the monks restored Gilles’s peace, and he shook off his disquieting dream.

Timothy awaited him at the door. He invited Gilles to have breakfast in the refectory. Almost cheerful, Gilles followed him. He did not see that Abelard was sitting on a bench.

Abelard looked at the cross, his lips moving quietly. Only when Abbot Gregorius spoke to him, did he look up. Peter rose to his feet. Reluctantly, he accepted the abbot’s invitation to join him and the monks for breakfast.

Gilles had sat down already. He looked at the door as it opened. Curiously, he watched Abbot Gregorius and an unknown man enter the room. Peter Abelard and the abbot sat down. Abbot Gregorius said a brief prayer and he made the sign of the cross. The monks ate silently.

~~**~~

They finished breakfast. Abbot Gregorius rose to his feet. He made a sign with his hand. The monks left the room. Gilles stood. And so did Peter. Peter ignored Gilles. But Gilles looked at Peter with interest. He was wondering if the man in front of him was the man he so eagerly had wanted to speak to.

Abbot Gregorius turned to Peter. “A man is seeking your advice, Peter. Do you feel it is the right time to answer his questions?”

Peter Abelard looked between the abbot and Gilles.

“I agreed to speak to him, Brother Gregorius,” he said reluctantly.

Peter looked at Gilles. “What is it that you seek? The rightness of wrong? The virtue of vice?” he asked. His voice was cold but almost trembling.

A shiver ran through Gilles as he recognized the stranger who he had met in the pouring rain the previous night. Gilles felt uncomfortable and he did not know what to say.

Peter Abelard made a step towards him. Gilles stood motionless and just kept staring.

“We must proceed in peace,” Peter said mysteriously.

He nodded at the abbot “I feel it is the right time to answer his questions. I will go for a walk with Gilles de Cyenville,” he said.

Abbot Gregorius gave him a thoughtful look. He nodded and then left the room.

Peter turned back to Gilles and measured him. Gilles still was at a loss of words. He swallowed and nodded briefly.

Peter then smiled faintly.

“I received your letter. And I was wondering why you wanted to speak to a man who has fallen from grace. Are you just curious? Tell me, please. What are your intentions?”

Peter moved to the door and opened it.

“Come, Gilles de Cyenville. Let’s go for a walk.”

~~**~~

The sun had risen. Rose-colored clouds drifted in the blue sky. Peter Abelard looked up briefly.

“Isn’t it strange? Last night I was convinced that I would never see the sun again.”

Without waiting for a reply, Peter moved on. Gilles followed him quickly. He studied the man who was walking ahead of him. So this was the man whose unfortunate tale had spread so quickly. Gilles suddenly felt like a mean and infamous intruder.

“You must think I’m intruding into your life,” he said in a low voice to Peter.

Peter stopped short and turned around. Their eyes met and they measured each other.

“You’re seeking advice. What sort of advice could I give you?” Peter asked. “I have lost the woman I loved. I have lost my son. My beloved Heloise is forced to live a lonely life. You must know that her uncle Fulbert forced her to enter a cloister. They took our son away from her. Never treat someone you love the way I treated Heloise. This is the only advice I can give you, Gilles de Cyenville,” Peter said before he moved on.

“How can you say so?” Gilles asked. “You married the woman you loved. Did not Heloise deny the marriage and go to the convent of Argenteuil?”

Peter turned around abruptly.

“The agent's intention alone determines the moral worth of an action,” he said, stressing every word as he spoke them.

Gilles moved closer. “This is what you wrote in you essay. Your thoughts and reflections are deep and profound. This is why I came here to see you.”

Peter gave Gilles a piercing look. He was about to reply, yet he stopped when a figure approached them. Peter turned his eyes to the young man. The monk Timothy nodded at him as he passed them by. Peter watched him walk down the path. Peter’s cheeks had blushed and Gilles watched him. For a second, Gilles felt irritated. But then he decided to resume his talk.

“You wrote about marriage in a frank manner. This is why people are reluctant to agree to your thoughts. This is why you appear to be dangerous. You are an insurgent. But your words fascinate me,” Gilles said enthusiastically.

“What do you mean?” Peter asked cautiously. His eyes rested on Gilles’ face firmly.

“I quote from your writing: If sexual pleasure in marriage is not sinful, then the pleasure itself, inside or outside of marriage, is not sinful; if it is sinful, then marriage cannot sanctify it. I want to ask you. Do you question marriage?” Gilles asked, moving closer to Peter.

Peter gave Gilles a meaningful look. “Why should I question marriage? I married her. I married Heloise.”

Peter turned around and moved on. Gilles followed him quickly.

“Your thought is all true. But it is heretic. You question the Church’s position by this simple statement of yours,” Gilles said quietly.

“Why so?” Peter asked, turning back to Gilles.

“You said it yourself,” Gilles said. “If sexual pleasure is sinful, then sexual acts should be performed without pleasure. You declared that this was impossible and it was unreasonable of God to permit them only in a way in which they cannot be performed. You question God, don’t you, Peter?”

“Do you think my words are true?” Peter asked back.

“Yes, I think so,” Gilles replied. “You gave an example. If someone forces a monk to lie bound in chains between two women, and by the softness of the bed and the touch of the women beside him he is brought to pleasure but not to consent, who may presume to call this pleasure, which nature makes necessary, a fault? The agent's intention alone determines the moral worth of an action. The monk did not consent. His pleasure is not sinful at all.”

Peter smiled vaguely. “You studied my essay carefully, Gilles de Cyenville. It seems you learned each of my words by heart.”

Gilles nodded.

“I read your essay at least a hundred times. I felt aghast at first. But then I studied your words again. And I studied them more carefully. Your words are fresh. And you are a man of genius, Peter.”

Peter raised his hand and interrupted Gilles.

“So why do you think did Heloise deny the marriage?” he asked. His voice was severe.

Gilles looked at Peter with surprise.

Peter then turned around and moved on. Gilles just stood watching him. Peter soon was out of sight. So Gilles walked back the path slowly. He was pondering on Abelard’s question. Gilles felt very perplexed.

Gilles entered his room and sat down on his cot. He glanced at the cross in the room. Jesus smiled and gave him a patient look.

“Why did Heloise deny the marriage?” Gilles repeated Abelard’s words.

He gazed into the room. Again, he felt awkward. He wondered why he had come to see Abelard. Gilles felt confused. But his mind was working. And he suddenly straightened and rose to his feet.

“If sexual pleasure is sinful, then marriage cannot sanctify it,” he said in a low voice.

Gilles looked at Jesus.

“Does Heloise think that sexual pleasure is sinful? Did she give in to it? She gave birth to a son. No woman would deny a marriage. No woman would give away her child and retire to a cloister. Unless…”

Gilles paced the room.

“The agent's intention alone determines the moral worth of an action,” Gilles said aloud. “What was Heloise’s intention? Did she deny the marriage because she could not agree to Peter’s reflections? Does she think that sexual pleasure is sinful?”

Gilles stopped. Peter’s example came to his mind.

“The monk was aroused although he did not consent. His pleasure is not sinful at all.”

Gilles looked at the cross. His face turned pale. A frightening thought came to his mind.

“Did Heloise not consent?”

A cold shiver ran up his spine at this thought. His nightly dream or vision occurred to him. Gilles remembered the words the being had said. Pleasure without love? What do you think?

“I must seek Peter,” Gilles said aloud. “I feel it is urgent.”

~~**~~

Gilles left his room and hurried down the path. He stopped when he heard voices from behind a tree. Gilles recognized Peter Abelard’s voice. He slowly moved closer. Gilles spotted Peter and the monk Timothy.

“Am I disturbing you?” Timothy asked.

Peter shook his head.

“I must do penance for my sins. I’m a detestable and abhorrent creature. And yet…” He paused. “I’m not a sinner. Nor am I fallen from grace.”

A gracious smile played on Timothy’s lips.

Peter felt compelled to turn away. But he gazed into Timothy’s eyes instead. Peter felt hypnotized again.

“I must go,” Timothy said, laughing softly. His eyes rested on Peter’s face a moment too long.

Timothy turned away and crossed the lawn. Peter turned back to the path slowly. Gilles retreated and hid a behind a bush. He heard Peter’s silent whispers.

“No. No, Heloise, I have not betrayed you. I have released you from what you would not be able to bear.”

Gilles just stood and watched Abelard leave. Gilles waited a while, and then he followed him.

“Something is wrong. I cannot see the point. I feel that I lack the details,” he said to himself.

Gilles’ thoughts were interrupted by a faint sound. He looked up and listened to what seemed to be a melodious chant.

‘Cum angelis et pueris fideles inveniamur...’ Gilles heard the words. He recognized the chant.

“With angels and boys, let us be found faithful?” he wondered.

“What is it that you seek?” a cold voice asked out of a sudden.

Gilles turned his head and saw a figure. Peter stood in front of him.

“The rightness of wrong? The virtue of vice?” Peter asked. And then he fell silent.

‘Cum angelis et pueris fideles inveniamur...’ They heard the chant again.

“Angelus et pueris. Angels and boys. So much the same,” Gilles said.

“What do you mean?” Peter asked back. His voice was cold.

“That’s what the angel of my dream said to me,” Gilles explained.

Peter gave him a mocking smile.

“Do you believe in angels and dreams?”

“Pleasure without love? What do you think?” Gilles asked back cautiously.

Peter looked stunned. He made a step back.

“You are on the right track, Gilles.” His voice sounded bitter and sad. Abruptly, he turned away and he headed down the path quickly.

Gilles looked after him.

“Angels and boys. So much the same,” he said. He thought of the tender kiss. A shiver ran up his spine.

Gilles heard a noise. He turned his head. Timothy came back and approached him. Gilles blushed at the sight of the young monk.

“Am I disturbing you?” Timothy asked innocently.

Gilles shook his head. He looked into the monk’s blue eyes.

“The agent's intention alone determines the moral worth of an action. Do you agree with Peter Abelard’s words?” Gilles asked.

“Peter says that God is the only one with a right to pass judgement. He said it was unreasonable of God to permit what cannot be performed,” Timothy replied.

Gilles’ eyes rested on the monk’s face firmly. Timothy tilted his head.

“For example, if someone forces a man to lie next to another man, and by the softness of the bed and the touch of the man beside him he is brought to pleasure, who may presume to call this pleasure, which nature makes necessary, a fault?” Timothy asked.

“The agent's intention alone determines the moral worth of an action. Did the monk consent or not?” Gilles asked back.

“Does it really matter?” Timothy said.

“It does,” Gilles said in a determined voice. “Peter speaks of sexual pleasure. Can a man feel pleasure when he does not consent?”

“Maybe you found a fault in Peter’s thoughts,” Timothy said calmly.

They measured each other.

“The monk did consent. His pleasure is not sinful at all. Peter ought to listen to his heart,” Timothy said. “Abbot Gregorius invites you for lunch,” he added, already walking away.

Gilles looked after him for a while. Finally, he moved down the path.

Peter waited for him in front of the refectory. He looked at Gilles expectantly.

“Why do you think did Heloise deny the marriage?” Peter asked. His voice was calm.

“Because she realized that the agent’s intention was not rightful and sincere,” Gilles replied in a sober voice.

“The agent's intention alone determines the moral worth of an action. I have deceived myself,” Peter said. “I betrayed Heloise. I have never loved her. And she never took my heart. Heloise released me from what I would not be able to bear. Heloise is an angel, punished for her pure and higher love.”

Peter turned more to Gilles.

“I must do penance for my sins. I am not worthy. You said you read my essay. I wrote that ethical notions are not an idle wheel, since they are the means by which we determine which intentions to promote or discourage when we punish people as examples or in order to deter others,” he said.

Peter looked at Gilles.

“I am not guilty for loving another man. I do not feel ashamed of it. But I am guilty of having betrayed a woman with a good and innocent heart. This is my sin. Mea culpa,” he said. Peter turned his eyes away.

“The rightness of wrong. The virtue of vice. Who can say? God is the only one with a right to pass judgement,” Gilles said.

“We must not blame God for our faults and failures,” Peter said with a faint smile. “Do not take the easy way out.”

Peter looked aside and nodded. Gilles also turned his eyes. The monk Timothy had entered the place. He stood silently. He was watching them.

“I must go,” Peter said.

Gilles gave him a nod.

“Au revoir. Et bon voyage,” Peter added.

He turned away and joined Timothy. Gilles watched them leave the place.

Gilles entered the refectory. And Abbot Gregorius greeted him.

~~**~~

Gilles left Saint-Denis the following morning. Abbot Gregorius wished him good-bye.

“You were seeking advice,” the abbot said. “Did you find an answer to your question?”

Gilles nodded.

“I must not take the easy way out,” he said.

Abbot Gregorius smiled mildly.

“Sometimes we have to travel a long way. We are all travellers. Life is a journey, isn’t it?” he asked softly.

Gilles nodded again. He handed a scroll to the abbot He gave away Peter Abelard’s scroll, the scroll that he had read so eagerly. Gilles mounted his horse and he looked to the sky.

The sky had darkened. And the first raindrops began to fall.

 

THE END

 

 



© 2009 Dolores Esteban

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First published at GA Gay Authors - Gay Quality Fiction