Oscar Wilde, Queer Martyr

“Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” by McDermott & McGough (from “The Stations of Oscar Wilde to Reading Gaol”)

Oscar Wilde is obviously extremely well-known and celebrated as gay, and remembered for his incarceration in Reading Gaol, but his reflections on religious faith are not, even among LGBT Christians. A few years ago, there were some news reports about a Catholic connection, after the Vatican official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano ran a glowing review on a new biography about Wilde. Those reports rather focused on his deathbed conversion to Catholicism, largely ignoring his religious thinking during his prior life as an Anglican. L’Osservatore did however, pay tribute to the strong moral thread running through his writing:

In an article headlined “When Oscar Wilde met Pius IX”, Monda wrote that Wilde was not “just a non-conformist who loved to shock the conservative society of Victorian England”; rather he was “a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false”.

“Wilde was a man of great, intense feelings, who behind the lightness of his writing, behind a mask of frivolity or cynicism, hid a deep knowledge of the mysterious value of life,” he said.

Guardian

At Qspirit, Kittredge Cherry has a new post in her LGBT saints series about a new public art installation: the Oscar Wilde Temple, opening in New York, that draws attention to both his sexuality and his spirituality.  Noting that

….while in prison for homosexuality, Wilde wrote that Christ “took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its external mouthpiece

-Qspirit

Cherry continues with

A temple devoted to Oscar Wilde is not as odd as it may sound. Although he is better known as a forerunner of modern LGBTQ activism, the flamboyant and witty Wilde was also a spiritual seeker.  He loved church rituals and took Christ seriously, especially during and after prison. He identified with Jesus as a persecuted rebel artist with an individual vision, writing, “Christ’s place indeed is with the poets.”

The Oscar Wilde Temple is conceived as “a welcoming secular space,” but it is located in the Church of the Village, a progressive United Methodist Church. A chapel there is being transformed into a Victorian-era environment with devotional-style images of Wilde and contemporary martyrs of homophobia. It was created by the artists David McDermott and Peter McGough.

(People in the UK will be able to see the installation when it travels to London in 2018).

The post at QSpirit has much more background on Wilde’s involvement with the Catholic Church, which was much more than just the “deathbed conversion”.

He was baptized as an infant into the Anglican church. When he was four or five years old, his mother arranged for a secret second baptism into the Catholic church, helping establish a lifelong conflict between the two faith traditions. His whole life can be seen as “a long and difficult conversion to the Roman Catholic Church,” according to an article by Catholic scholar Andrew McCracken.

There’s also more, about people honoured in the installation at a “secondary altar” for people with HIV/Aids, and more contemporary people such as Alan Turing, who were like Wilde, martyred by homophobia. Read the full post here.

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Victim 0001, the Saint of 9/11: Father Mychal Judge

The body of Mychal Judge was tagged with the designation “Victim 0001” — the first official casualty of 9/11. In the famous Shannon Stapleton/Reuters photo, he is being carried out of the lobby of the North Tower, where he had been killed by debris from the collapsing South Tower. He was a Catholic priest of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, assigned to the monastery at the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in Manhattan. He was also a chaplain with the New York Fire Department (NYFD) and one of the first responders to the attack on the twin towers. He was a recovered alcoholic… and he was gay.”

Although some conservative Catholics deny that Fr Judge was gay, insisting that the claim is nothing but a hoax by gay activists, the truth seems clear. A number of people who knew him personally, attest that he had confided to them that he was. He was also a long term supporter of Dignity USA.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, there were numerous calls within the Catholic Church for his canonisation as a mark of his heroism on the day and a well-known life of service. This was initially supported by Cardinal Edward Egan,  New York’s archbishop at the time. However, once it began to be reported that Fr Judge was gay, Cardinal Egan withdrew his support, and the formal push for canonisation stalled.  However, less formally there have been many groups who regard him as a de facto popular saint. There have also been some claims of miracles attributed to his intercession – one of the formal requirements for canonisation.

More recently, after Pope Francis added as a criterion for sainthood, the act of saving someone from certain death, there have been renewed calls for a formal process.  At Bondings 2.0, Frank DeBenardo writes:

Fr. Judge is lovingly remembered by many as “The Saint of 9/11.” Now is the time to make that title official by working to canonize him in the church.

New Ways Ministry has been in touch with Fr. Luis Fernando Escalante who works with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  Fr. Escalante is gathering testimonies that are part of the first step toward canonization.  He needs to hear first-person accounts from people who knew Fr. Judge and whose lives were touched by his ministry.

Dignity member and professional filmmaker Brendan Fay produced a documentary about Fr Judge, called simply, “The Saint of 9/11”.




Queer Saints for September

  • Sep 21st
    • Henri Nouwen?
  • St Edward II King of England, 1284 -1327 (LGBT Catholic Handbook)




Erzulie Dantor, Patron Saint of Lesbians

Kittredge Cherry writs:

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, one of the most famous Catholic icons, is the model for a Haitian Vodou goddess who protects lesbians.

Traditional images of Erzulie Dantor, the Vodou defender of lesbians, are based on the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, whose feast day is today (Aug. 26). They even share the same two scars on the dark skin of the right cheek.

Aug. 26 also happens to be Women’s Equality Day — the date when women got the right to vote in the United States back in 1920.

Every year more than 100,000 people view the original Black Madonna of Czestochowa icon in Poland at one of the most popular Catholic shrines on the planet. John Paul II, the Polish pope, was devoted to her. Few suspect that the revered icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary has a lesbian connection.

Read more at: Jesus in Love blog

See also:

Black Madonna becomes lesbian defender: Erzuli Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa (Jesus in Love blog)

Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas” by Randy P. Conner and David Hatfield Sparks

Blessed John of La Verna, Kissed by Jesus

The name “La Verna” is special to Franciscans, as referring to the site where St Francis of Assisi received the stigmata. Kevin Elphick, a Franciscan scholar who has written on queer Franciscan saints for Kittredge Cherry’s Jesus in Love blog, has an extensive post on Blessed John of La Verna, Franciscan friar who lived in Italy from 1259-1322.

(In addition to the inherent interest of his subject, even the title has a particular resonance to me. “La Verna” is also the name of a Franciscan retreat house outside Johannesburg, where a few years ago I experienced an especially intense directed retreat, which I described at Queering the Church as “six days that changed my life”.)

Here’s the opening paragraphs of Elphick’s post. Read the whole piece at Jesus in Love

Hidden in musty libraries and on the sagging shelves of convents and monasteries are countless lives of the saints and blessed, gathering dust, and in many cases forgotten. With thousands of lives of the saints in existence, it is inevitable that some of these are our stories, the stories of LGBTQ saints and blesseds throughout the ages. One of the purposes of the genre of saints’ lives, “hagiographies,” is to ensure that the contemporary faithful might find examples from the past with which to identify, and personally recognizable models of sanctity to emulate. As such, the time is overdue for the LGBTQ communities to name and claim our patron saints.

A stone wall surrounds the place where Jesus and John embraced in front of a chapel on Mount La Verna (Photo by Kevin Elphick)

One such candidate is Blessed John of La Verna (also called Giovanni della Verna, Blessed John of Fermo and Giovanni da Fermo), a Franciscan friar who lived in Italy from 1259-1322 C.E. While “gay” and “lesbian” are contemporary categories and not appropriate to use as accurate labels of historical figures,  still our collective gaydar is often attuned enough to detect our kinfolk and LGBTQ ancestors even across the centuries. John of La Verna is one such figure that should attract our attention.

Bernard of Clairvaulx and Malachi

The book of Ruth reminds us of the diversity of families in the Bible, as I discussed yesterday.Immediately afterwards, I began preparing a post on the pair of saints Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachi. With queer families fresh in my mind, it occurred to me that one specific form of queer family has a long, established history in the Catholic Church – our religious houses, the monasteries, convents and other communities.
When I shared this thought with Bart, he pointed out some more:
The Catholic Church, of all institutions, should know better than to blurt such rubbish about the definition of family. It has been using the term family in the extended, spiritual sense for centuries now, with words like brother, sister, mother and father used within the context of religious societies for just as long a time. And the Church never seemed to worry that they were single-parent families either (only a Mother, or a Father, though female orders were always attached to a male order for reasons that we don’t need to go into here). And, please note, they were ALWAYS single-sex families, veritable hothouses of homoerotic love if not sex.
Bart’s distinction between homoerotic love and homoerotic sex is an important one. There are numerous examples of same sex monastic lovers in Church history, although we do not usually know if this had any physical expression. Sometimes there may have been physical love, frequently we may be sure, there was not.  I found this description of the relationship between Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachy in “Know My Name”, by the gay liberation theologian Richard Cleaver.
 
Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachi
Bernard lived in community with other men and shared intense, loving relationships with them. This experience directly informed the theological work that brought Bernard the title Doctor of the Church.
It is no accident that a major vehicle of Bernard’s teaching was a series of sermons on the Song of Songs, the erotic poem that is also sacred scripture. His reading reflects his experience – outer and inner – of emotional attachments to men. We are accustomed to considering his experiences “mystical”, a term that in this context might as well be “magical”. This is because we have fallen for the Platonic fallacy that flesh and spirit are completely at odds.
Bernard’s life gives this notion the lie. Another of his many works, Life of St. Malachy, is based on his personal friendship with Archbishop Malachy of Armagh. It contains a description of their second meeting, shortly before Malachy died in Bernard’s arms. Bernard’s account makes deeply romantic reading for a modern gay man. “Oscula rui”, Bernard says of their reunion: “I showered him with kisses”. Geoffrey of Auxerre tells us what happened later. Bernard put on the habit taken from Malachy’s body as it was being prepared for burial at Clairvaux, and we wore it to celebrate the funeral mass. He chose to sing not a requiem mass but the mass of a confessor bishop: a personal canonization and, incidentally, an example of using liturgy to do theology. Bernard himself was later buried next to Malachy, in Malachy’s habit.
For Bernard, as for us today, this kind of passionate love for another human being was an indispensable channel for experiencing the God of love. Like the Cistercian commentator on the Song of Songs, we modern gay men know the transcendent meanings of erotic experience and the ways it can teach us. Many gay men have turned from Christianity to other spiritual traditions, especially nature religions, because the richness of Christian experience on just this point has been concealed from us. But, like the mystics, we have refused to sever our physical experience, including our erotic experience, from our interior lives. This body wisdom is one of the anchors of our lives, a pearl for which we have paid dearly in persecution. It is one of the gifts we have to offer to the people of God.
-Cleaver, Know My Name
 
The reference to the Song of Songs is important, as a reminder of how strongly erotic imagery (including homoerotic imagery) is associated with the Christian mystical tradition. Cleaver is right to point out that for those who are not tied by vows of celibacy, erotic experience is not antagonistic to spirituality, but may even enhance it. (The Presbyterian theologian Chris Glaser has written movingly of how spirituality and sexuality can complement each other).
Finally, Bernard’s union with Malachy in death, buried alongside him, is a further reminder of how shared burials of same sex couples on Church ground was once commonplace, in 4th and 5th century Macedonia, across medieval Europe, and even in Victorian England (Blessed John Henry Newman and Ambrose St John).
Queer families: hidden in plain sight, right through Christian history.
Books:
Bray, AlanThe Friend

Edith Stein, “St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross”

Today, Aug 9th, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of “St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross” – better known to most people as Edith Stein, Jewish convert to Catholicism, and nun who died in the Nazi gas chambers on August 9th 1942, and was later canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

There is nothing that directly links her to gay or lesbian Catholics, but indirectly I was struck, when reading her story this morning, of how many parallels and points of similarity there are between her situation and ours, that offer abundant material for reflection. This is a new idea for me, which I still need to think through and investigate – but as her day is still fresh, I offer them raw, as they are, while still topical. Perhaps some readers would like to help me to think this through further.

The earliest part of her life that is directly relevant is that she was born a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Judaism is an intensely inward-looking, family oriented culture and religion. For a Jewish person converting to Catholicism, this is much more than simply changing a set of religious beliefs, as in moving from one Christian denomination to another: it involves moving outside an entire culture, possibly including rejection or hostility from family members, and former friends and fellow worshippers. Conversely, adopting Catholicism includes becoming familiar with Catholic culture, quite as much as with Catholic belief and spiritual practices. As lesbians and gay men – and even more for those who adopt a gender identity that departs from biological sex – we grow up in a heterosexual culture and specific gender expectations that we become familiar with, even as we realize that we do not fit. In coming out, and rejecting the “automatic” sexual identity that had been imposed on us for one more in keeping with our authentic selves, we too may find ourselves rejected by family, friends, or colleagues – and certainly by some in the heterosexual world. Instead, just like Edith Stein who had to learn to absorb Catholic culture, we have to learn to find our way around a whole new culture in the LGBT community. Young heterosexuals have complex processes of socialization that guide and help them learn the patterns of sexual interaction and being, in their families, in schools, and from popular culture. Newly out homosexuals have to learn these things for themselves.

Edith was not just a Jewish convert – she was a Jew in Germany, leading up to WWII. She sought refuge in exile, in the Netherlands. As lesbian and gay Catholics, we too may find that we need to seek refuge in exile – exile from the Church itself, and its hostility to sexual nonconformists. She spoke out against the horrors of the Nazi persecution, and distanced herself from her former teacher. So too, we must speak out against the persecution of minority groups by the institutional Catholic Church, and distance ourselves from those who have taught us distorted interpretations of the faith.

As a Carmelite nun, she had a particular devotion to St John of the Cross (from whom she took her name) and St Theresa of Avila. I do not yet know anything specific about this devotion, quite what aspect of these saints she particularly appreciated, but I do know this. One component of the spirituality of these great mystics is that it was expressed at times in intensely physical, erotic language. This alone makes it particularly attractive and appropriate for use as a spiritual path for gay men in particular.

But it is obviously not simply a spirituality of erotic rapture – St John is after all, known as St John of the Cross! Orthodox Vatican doctrine recognizes that its expectation of compulsory celibacy imposes on us a burden which the heterosexuals are not expected to bear, and explains this as a “cross” that we must carry. I too see a cross in our condition – but I see the cross not in the gift of an orientation given to me by God, but in the unjustified persecution we endure by the church, and promoted by its false teachings, in the wider world.

Stein’s death in the gas chambers, and her later canonization, have been seen in two dramatically different ways. John Paul II canonized her as a martyr, arguing that her arrest and deportation was in direct retaliation for a letter by the Dutch bishops denouncing the Nazis, which in turn may have been prompted by the stance of Edith herself. Jewish groups say she was just one Jewish victim among millions, who should not have been singled out for special treatment.

The same divided perspective applies to those gay and lesbian theologians who have found themselves persecuted by the Vatican for their prophetic witness against its condemnation and scapegoating of “homosexuals” in the Church. One side sees them as near heretics, the other as prophets, and (metaphorically) as martyrs who have seen their careers destroyed for their honesty.

Which view is sound? I know where I stand, but ultimately, we await the judgement of history.

St Theresa Benedicta / Edith Stein – Pray for us.

Queer Saints and Martyrs for February

Fr Robert Carter, Feb 22nd

Feb 1st

Feb 9th

Feb 12th

Feb 13th

Feb 14th: Valentine’s Day

Feb 20

Feb 22nd

Feb 23rd

Feb 28th

(See the “Calendar of Queer Saints and Martyrs” for the listings of queer saints and martyrs covering the entire year. The full year page lists only the most important of the large number that could be included, especially those widely recognized as saints, and also with good reason to be described as in some sense queer.

The monthly pages provide a more comprehensive listing of queer people in church history, including some lesser figures, some for whom the descriptor “queer” is more speculative, and some who were clearly were not saints –  but are known to have had same – sex intimate relationships. All are important for illustrating some part of queer Christian history.)

St Aelred of Rievaulx, Abbot and Patron of Same Sex Spiritual Love

St Aelred,  whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott.  He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:

Continue reading St Aelred of Rievaulx, Abbot and Patron of Same Sex Spiritual Love

Queer Saints and Martyrs for January

Throughout Jewish and Christian history there have undoubtedly been numerous leading churchmen, including popes,cardinals, bishops, abbots and saints who have had sex with men, or protected those who did, or who commissioned frankly homoerotic artworks. Many others, who as priests or monks kept to their vows of celibacy but had notable emotionally intimate relationships with men, or wrote of the value of such relationships, for the spiritual gifts they could bring. It would be wrong to describe these men as “gay”, which has modern connotations which are inappropriate for earlier times, (especially for those who have taken vows of celibacy), or to describe their female counterparts as “lesbian”.

“Queer”, on the other hands, has a broader range of meanings and connotations, including at the most literal level, simply “strange”. In church history, where the place of women has been so often undervalued, it is also appropriate to draw attention to those women in history who contradict the modern marginalisation of women in ecclesiastical power structures, as ordained deacons in the early church, or as powerful abbesses in the Medieval period. In the list below, there is no suggestion that all were involved in same – sex physically erotic relationships (although some may have been). However, all deserve some consideration by LGBT Christians for the lessons we can learn from their lives or writings, about the place of sexual or gender minorities in our history, or about the spiritual value of our relationships.

The origins of the Christian custom of honouring our saints lay in the state sponsored persecution of the early Christians, with recognition given to those who had died for their faith. The word “martyr” has its roots in the Greek for “to bear witness”, and in later centuries, it can be applied in a quite different sense, to men and women who have been persecuted not for their Christian faith, but for attempting to live honestly as gay, lesbian or trans men and women — persecuted not for the Church, but by the Christian community.  In some cases, this persecution has taken the form of actual murder or judicial execution, in others, it has driven individuals to suicide. Continue reading Queer Saints and Martyrs for January

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