Margaret Laird claims Peter Abelard as a contemporary
THERE IS A HYMN, not perhaps sung as often as it once was, which expresses most aptly the situation in which so many faithful orthodox Anglicans find themselves at the beginning of this new millennium. The hymn dates from the Middle Ages and like most hymns of that period, contains purer expressions of doctrine than that of most contemporary hymnody. The fact that mediaeval hymns have been used throughout the ages in Christian liturgy adds to their attraction and this is particularly true of the subject of this article.
In order to appreciate any literature fully, it is essential to take some account of the context and age in which it was written. In this case, it was the twelfth century, the age of a great cultural movement, so rich in art, architecture, scholarship and literature, that it has often been described as the ‘Twelfth Century Renaissance’. It was, of course, an age of faith and the key to the understanding of this period lies in theology – a theology which attracted and produced some of the greatest scholars and teachers, the most brilliant of whom was Peter Abelard.
And so, at last, the hymn can be identified. It is J M Neale’s translation of:
‘O quanta qualia sunt illa Sabbata’
or ‘O what their joy and their glory must be,
Those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see!’
The original Latin version has been attributed to Peter Abelard.
There are many reasons why faithful Anglicans may benefit from a study of this hymn but extreme sabbatarian sympathy is not one of them. It is, however, mainly because of the way in which Peter Abelard uses the imagery of the Sabbath to illustrate the contrast between life now and life hereafter and at the same time, to demonstrate the tenuous link between heaven and earth.
Like so many of the faithful in the Church today, Abelard’s experience of the mediaeval Church was by no means happy. His theological stance and superior intellect gave rise to opposition and even to hatred and envy amongst his contemporaries. His academic career suffered when his writings were publicly condemned and in his personal life, his romantic love affair with Heloise ended in tragedy and frustration. Is it any wonder that he longed for the life hereafter?
‘Wish and fulfilment can severed be ne’er,
Nor the thing prayed for come short of the prayer.
Peter Abelard was born in Brittany of Breton parents and his independence of thought, his vivid poetic imagination and his keen awareness of the supernatural, doubtless flowed from his Celtic roots. These qualities are reflected in his description of the heavenly courts:
‘What are the Monarch, his court, and his throne?
What are the peace and the joy that they own?
Tell us, ye blest ones, that in it have share,
If what ye feel ye can fully declare.’
Like all Celts, he could not envisage the heavenly Jerusalem without music:
‘One and unending is that triumph-song
Which to the Angels and us shall belong.’
It is, however, in the penultimate verse of the hymn that Abelard expresses with deep emotion what he had discovered from his own experience – that during our earthly existence, we must accept the limitations of this life. Things here will never be perfect, even in the Church.
‘Now in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh,
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.’
Although in this life, we are already members of that heavenly Jerusalem and subject to its Monarch, as yet, we are unable to enjoy all its privileges. We are, as Abelard expresses it ‘exiles on Babylon’s strand’. The Jews in exile in Babylon were deprived of their Temple and its worship and of their Priesthood. Similarly, many faithful orthodox Anglicans, who are isolated from those of like mind, are deprived of the opportunity to receive the sacrament of the altar in their own parish churches and are unable to accept the priestly ministry of their incumbents. The Act of Synod has been a life line to many and is still desperately needed, but the PEVs are only too well aware that there are still a large number of the faithful who are unable to benefit from the protection it offers.
During their long exile, many of the Jews remained loyal to the faith of their fathers and although deprived of the outward symbols of their religion, used this time in their history to deepen their theological knowledge and spiritual understanding. Likewise, orthodox or traditional Anglicans must not lose heart. During what might be described as their ‘exile’, they must continue to defend the doctrines and teaching which have been upheld by the universal Church for two thousand years. They must also resist resolutely the efforts of those who attempt to conform the Church to the standards of the world. It is well worth recalling some words of Bishop Graham Leonard that “though men reject the Church when she is true to herself, they despise her when she is conformed to the world.”
All this will not be easy and the results of those efforts may not be seen in our lifetime. However, there is no room for despondency as long as we believe that orthodoxy will ultimately triumph as it has done in the past, often against the most tremendous odds.
Abelard’s hymn ends on a note of hope. Although at present, we may be ‘exiles on Babylon’s strand’, of one thing we can be certain and that is that for each of us, the exile will come to an end. Physical death is a necessity which is laid upon us but because of the Cross, because of the Resurrection, death holds no fear for members of the heavenly kingdom. Death simply means ‘the end of the exile’ and the opportunity to enjoy fully the privileges of the Kingdom:
‘Crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest;
God shall be All and in all ever blest’.
and the chance to worship him:
‘Low before him with our praises we fall,
of whom, and in whom, and through whom are all.’
Peter Abelard’s hymn ends with a doxology which, in two brief lines, not only expresses the doctrine but leads us on to the worship of the Holy Trinity:
‘Of whom, the Father; and through whom, the Son;
In whom, the Spirit, with these ever One. Amen.’
Margaret Laird is a member of Forward in Faith in the diocese of St Alban’s