Abelard of Bath formulates a spirituality that focuses not on outward practice

Abelard’s intellectual tendencies for criticism, challenging authority, and prioritizing his own cleverness over tradition or the wisdom of his professors find a spiritual home and are incorporated into a compelling spirituality in the revised Benedictine rule, which was prepared at Heloise’s request. Following Heloise’s example, Abelard develops a spirituality that emphasizes inner development over external activity. It is a spiritual existence where questions and doubts are essential, seen as spiritual practices in and of themselves rather than as tools for solving problems. In order to better accommodate her community of women and, in her own words, “our weak nature, so that we can be freer for the offices of praising God,” Heloise asks Abelard to modify the Benedictine rule.

Heloise clarifies that the idea is to organize their life such that they give thanks and glory to God instead of offering sacrifices or external deeds. Women will find it difficult to follow rules that are inappropriate for them, and stringent rules would only encourage laxity and hypocrisy. “We must therefore be careful,” Heloise tells Abelard, “not to impose on a woman a burden under which we see nearly all men stagger and even fall” .

Abelard of Bath formulates a spirituality that focuses not on outward practice
On one level, the issue is literal. The Benedictine rule is applied to both male and female communities, but women are not even allowed to follow it in theory because it dictates behavior that is proper exclusively for men, such as wearing clothes that women should never wear. Heloise was concerned about this disparity while other female houses were not, and these kinds of inquiries lead both Abelard and Heloise to reevaluate the norm in more significant ways.

Heloise uses the passage from Romans that states, “The Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Everything is pure in itself, but anything is bad for the man who gives offence by his eating.” in response to inquiries concerning food and drink. According to Heloise, “Those who are true Christians are totally concerned with the inner man so that they may equip him with virtue and purge him of vice.” She goes on to say, “it is not so much what things are done as that which is in the soul when they are done that must be considered” .

Heloise and Abelard both believe that the foundation of a well-organized spiritual life is the idea that internal spirituality should guide outward practice. Heloise therefore poses her letter as a request for minor modifications to the rules, but in the end, she is really asking for a charter for a brand-new religious life that would put an emphasis on inner life rather than outward acts. The fundamental tenets of monastic life continence, poverty, and silence are introduced in Abelard’s response.

He thus makes an effort to reconsider the fundamentals of monastic life, influenced by ideas that are evident in his theology. First, he pauses in the middle of organizing the community’s daily activities to reflect on the inevitable occurrence of “irregularities,” or deviations from the norm. Abelard creates a community for people, not angels, just as he wrote religion for people (with all of their accompanying constraints).

He recounts Augustine’s account of his own society, saying, “I live among men, and no matter how watchful I am of discipline in my home, I am still a man. I wouldn’t dare say that my home is superior to Noah’s Ark, where one man out of eight was discovered to be a reprobate. It is neither superior to the company of Christ, where eleven honorable men had to bear the thief and traitor Judas, nor is it superior to heaven, where angels descended.”

Except inadvertently, Marenbon contends, moderation is neither the guiding idea here or in the particular recommendations for amending the rule.

First, unlike Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, who all believed that moderation was commensurate with human perfection, Abelard’s rule of moderation serves human frailty. According to Abelard, “It is sufficient for the weak if they avoid sin, although they may not rise to the height of perfection, and sufficient also to reside in a corner of Paradise if you cannot be with the martyrs” . By preventing the adoption of rules that are either overly strict or inappropriate for the group, moderation helps the community achieve its goals and ensures that its practices align with its values.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, a more moderate rule enables the society to concentrate on the inner transformation that the rule’s organized outer pattern of life is meant to facilitate, rather than on external practice. According to Abelard, worrying about the “works,” or outward rituals of monastic life, is the same as being involved in worldly affairs; it is a diversion from genuine spirituality. “Many affiict themselves more in outward things but make less progress according to God, who looks to the heart more than works” .

Subsequently, Abelard evidently shifts the attention of the rule from external works to the interior state, following Heloise’s example. Abelard contends that to sin is to transgress conscience, the inner guidance of moral behavior. It is not the food itself that is wicked, but rather the way it is sought.

“We might,” he says, “be without fault when we take more sumptuous foods but be held responsible for eating more lowly food” . He comes to the conclusion that sin affects the soul more than the body.