Although some would dispute the description of Paulinus as ‘gay’, the description seems to me entirely appropriate to his sensibility. Although history records no evidence of physical expression of his same sex attraction, nor is there any evidence against it. Given the historical context he was living in (4th/5th century Roman empire) , when sex with either gender was commonplace for men at at all levels of society, inside and outside the Christian church, the absence of written records of private activities after 15 centuries is completely unremarkable. Nor is the fact that he was married particularly significant – for Romans, marriage and sex with men were entirely compatible.
What is known is that he was married, but also passionately in love with a man, Ausonius, to whom he addressed exquisitely tender love poetry. This is of sufficient quality and gay sensibility to be included in the Penguin book of homosexual verse:
I, through all chances that are given to mortals, And through all fates that be, So long as this close prison shall contain me, Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven, Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken, And from the earth I shall have gone my way, Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me, There shall I bear thee, as I do today.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me, Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee; Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin, Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections, Hold them as dear as life itself to be, Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.
[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]
It is surely entirely clear from the above that whatever his physical erotic activities, his sensibility was entirely what we would today call “Gay”. Paulinus’ feast day was on Monday of this week (June 22nd). It is fitting that we remember him, and the multitude of other LGBT saints in the long history of the church.
For more online, see Paul Hansall’s invaluable LGBT Catholic handbook, or the Catholic Encyclopedia. (Note though that the latter’s entry on Paulinus is an excellent case study on how official Church history scrupulously edits out our LGBT history. In a reasonably lengthy entry, Ausonius and the verses addressed to him are noted – but the essential facts that the relationship was passionate, or that the verses were clearly love poetry, are carefully filtered out.)
Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 – 1109, is important for the evidence he represents that the hostility of some Christians to homoerotic relationships has not always been typical of the institutional church. He has two claims in particular to attention from modern gay and lesbian Catholics. First, he is one of a band of notable medieval clerics who although personally celibate, exhibited a clear homoerotic sensibility, whose affectionate letters to his band of intimate male friends contribute to what John Boswell has described as a “medieval flowering” of a gay subculture, which was not again equalled until the latter part of the twentieth century. He reminds us also, that just as there was then a homoerotic culture deeply embedded in the catholic clergy, exactly the same applies today, as Mark Jordan has clearly shown (“The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism “).
The Council of London in 1102 wanted to enact ecclesiastical legislation which declared – for the first time in English history – that homosexual behaviour was a sin, and they recommended that offending laymen be imprisoned and clergymen be anathematized.
But Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury prohibited the publication of their decree, advising the Council that homosexuality was widespread and few men were embarrassed by it or had even been aware it was a serious matter; he felt that although sodomites should not be admitted to the priesthood, confessors should take into account mitigating factors such as age and marital status before prescribing penance, and he advised counselling rather than punishment.
The Medieval Flowering of Homoerotic Christianity The Homoerotic Catholic Church
Writing about St Joan of Arc, I observed that she carries a particular importance for us as gay men, lesbians and transsexuals in the church, as her martyrdom at the hands of church authorities can be seen as a powerful metaphor for the persecution we receive from parts of the church, just for being honest about ourselves, for refusing to renounce our God-given identity. I’ve been thinking further along these lines, and in fact all the Christian martyrs can similarly seen as role models – although the others were not typically executed by the church itself. One martyr in particular has been closely identified as a gay (male) icon – St Sebastian.
This is strictly speaking inappropriate, because there is not anything about Sebastian or his martyrdom that is particularly gay . The main reason quite frankly, that he has acquired this cult status is that painters for centuries have made striking images of his martyrdom, featuring half naked, desirable young men pierced with arrows: soft porn masquerading as inspirational religious art. ( The Independent newspaper has an excellent analysis, still available on-line, on just how this association developed through the art works.) Now, I have no problem with gay men enjoying pictures of St Sebastian, but have had some trouble seeing him as a specifically gay saint. However, I have come across one particular painting, quite different from the original, which immediately put me in mind of a concept I have written about before as a possible model for us in negotiating a proper relationship with the church. Here’s the picture:
This is how I wrote about his death, in an earlier post:
Two of the most notable saints deserving special attention by queer Christians are St Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and his dear friend St Gregory “the theologian”, Bishop of Nazianzus, whose relationship was of such great intimacy that they are frequently described as having shared “one soul in two bodies”. Today, January 2nd, the Church celebrates their joint feast day.
“Then not only did I feel full of veneration for my great Basil because of the seriousness of his morals and the maturity and wisdom of his speeches, but he induced others who did not yet know him to be like him…. The same eagerness for knowledge motivated us…. This was our competition: not who was first but who allowed the other to be first. It seemed as if we had one soul in two bodies”
(The phrase was used by Gregory himself, after the death of his friend Basil, and has been regularly repeated across the sixteen centuries since by many others, including Pope Benedict).
Both are regarded by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches as Doctors of the Faith, and the Eastern Orthodox churches have further honoured them, together with John Chrysostom, with the title “Great Hierarch”.
St Aelred, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12th Century. 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.
St Aelred, 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.
Others point to his work as insisting on chastity, and believe that his well-recognised male friendships were entirely non-sexual. Whatever the genital truth, we should remember and honour Aelred as a reminder of the important place of intimate (emotionally, if not sexually) relationships between same-sex couples in the history of the church.
How Aelred Made it to the American Book of Common Prayer by Louie Crew, founder of Integrity, [email: lcrew@ANDROMEDA.RUTGERS.EDU]
Aelred was not in ECUSA’s calendar until a Roman Catholic head of history at Yale, John Boswell, wrote about him powerfully in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality Boswell dwelt at length with the lesbigay positive evidence. That spurred Integrity member, the late Howard Galley, one of the major architects of the 1976 Prayer Book, to initiate the actions which finally led to Aelred’s inclusion: using Aelred’s own texts, Galley shaped the readings which appear in THE LESSER FEASTS AND FASTS, including this collect:
Pour into our hearts, O God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love, that we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred, draw many to your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who livers and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN
Catholic Encyclopedia – entry on Aelred (available online)
Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, trans. Mary Eugenia Laker, (Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications 1977), see esp. p. 21 on Aelred’s homosexual attractions.
Boswell, John, CSTH, 221-20
McGuire, Brian P, “Monastic Friendship and Toleration “, in Monks, Hermits and the Ascetic Traditions, Studies in Church History 22, ed. W.J. Shiels, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985) pp. 147-160
McGuire, Brian P, “Looking Back on Friendship: Medieval Experience and Modern Context”, Cistercian Studies 21:2 (1986), pp. 123-142
McGuire, Brian P., Brother and Lover: Aelred of Rievaulx, (New York: Crossroad, 1994)
In his earlier articles, McGuire, the foremost expert on early Cistercian bonding, professed to find explanations of Aelred as homosexual as “one-dimensional”, but in this book he more forthrightly identifies Aelred as homosexual.
McGuire, Brian Patrick, “Sexual Awareness and Identity in Aelred of Rievulx (1110-67)”, American Benedictine Review 45(1994): 184-226
This probably the best work of its kind out on Aelred. It is the most comprehensive, and actually covers more ground than Brother & Lover.
Russell, Kenneth C., “Aelred, the Gay Abbot of Rievaulx”, Studia Mystica 5:4 (Winter 1982), 51-64
Protus and Hyacinthus were the eunuch slaves who were the companions of St. Eugenia of Alexandria. They served as her two teachers who accompanied her on a somewhat romantic journey, and at the end were martyred with her.
Dukakis, Megas Synaxaristes, translated in various volumes by Holy Apostles Convent, (Buena Vista, Colorado, various dates ), sub. Eugenia Szarmach, Paul E., “Aelfric’s Women Saints: Eugenia”, in Helen Damico and Alexandria Hennessey Olsen, eds., New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, (Bloomington IN: Indiana UP, 1990), 146-157
He is important for queer Catholics, especially gay men, for two reasons. First, because he is a great teacher of spirituality, and the cultivation of spiritual practice, by enabling a more direct experience of the divine, is an excellent way to immunize ourselves from toxic and misguided teaching on human sexuality. Second, and more interestingly, because his language at times uses imagery which is plainly homoerotic, and so easily usable by gay men in their own prayer.
Venantius Fortunatus was a poet, born c. 530 in Treviso, near Ravenna in Italy. He spent his time as court poet to the Merovingians. After visiting the tomb of St. Martin of Tours at St. Hilary at Poitiers, he decided to enter a monastery. He continued to write poetry, some of which have a permanent place in Catholic hymnody, for instance the Easter season hymns “Vexilla Regis” and the “Pange Lingua”(Sing, O my tongue, of the battle). Three or four years before he died he was made bishop of Poitiers. Although never canonized, he was venerated as a saint in the medieval church, and his feast day is still recognized on 14th December each year.
Like Paulinus of Nola, St Veantius’s poetry also includes some decidedly secular verse of the romantic sort. That this celebrates male love is clear from its inclusion in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.
“Written on an Island off the Breton Coast”
You at God’s altar stand, His minister
And Paris lies about you and the Seine:
Around this Breton isle the Ocean swells,
Deep water and one love between us twain.
Wild is the wind, but still thy name is spoken;
Rough is the sea: it sweeps not o’er they face.
Still runs my lover for shelter to its dwelling,
Hither, O heart, to thine abiding place.
Swift as the waves beneath an east wind breaking
Dark as beneath a winter sky the sea,
So to my heart crowd memories awaking,
So dark, O love, my spirit without thee.>
[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]
John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names Polyeuctus and Nearchus as one of the three primary pairs of same sex lovers in the early church. (The others are Sergius & Bacchus and Felicity and Perpetua). Other sources are less certain that they were lovers: the useful “God is Wonderful in His Saints” Orthodox Resources website describes them simply as “friends”. Before dismissing Boswell’s claim though, we should remember that “friends” has sometimes served as a euphemism for “lovers”, just as to “sleep with” someone in modern English usually means more than to share a snooze.
“Polyeuctus and Nearchus were fellow-officers and close friends, serving in the Roman army at Miletene in Armenia. Nearchus was a Christian. Polyeuctus, though abundant in virtues, was still imprisoned in idol- worship. When the Emperor Decius’ persecution broke out (239-251), an edict was issued requiring all soldiers to show their loyalty by making public sacrifice to the gods. Nearchus sadly told Polyeuctus that because of the decree they would soon be parted. But Polyeuctus, who had learned about the Christian faith from his friend, answered that Christ had appeared to him in a vision, exchanging his military uniform for a shining garment and giving him a winged horse. Polyeuctus took the vision as a sign that he was to embrace the Faith, and that he, with Nearchus, would soon be lifted up to heaven. Almost immediately, he first tore down the Emperor’s edict in front of a startled crowd, then smashed the idols being carried in a pagan procession. He was quickly arrested and subjected to beating and scourging for sacrilege, but he only proclaimed more forcefully that he was a Christian. When the persecutors saw that Polyeuctus’ patient endurance was bringing other idolaters to the faith, they condemned him to death.”
Sergius and Bacchus are by a long way the best known of the so-called gay or lesbian saints – unless we include as “saints” the biblical pairs David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi. We need to be careful with terminology though: the word “gay” can be misleading, as it certainly cannot be applied with the same connotations as in modern usage, and technically, they are no longer recognised as saints by Western church, as decreed by the Vatican – but they are still honoured by the Orthodox churches, and by many others who choose to ignore the rulings of Vatican bureaucrats. The origins of saint-making lay in recognition by popular acclaim, not on decision by religious officials.
Whatever the quibbles we may have, they remain of great importance to modern queer Christians, both for their story of religious faith and personal devotion, and as potent symbols of how sexual minorities were accepted and welcomed in the earliest days of the Christian community.
They are particularly important in the movement to marriage equality, for their significance in early rites of blessing same-sex unions in church, which may point a way to making a modern provision for something similar without necessarily changing the traditional understanding of church marriage to that between a man and a woman – with its link to child-bearing.
(And, as I have written before, I have a very special personal connection with this pair of early saints and martyrs for the faith. Like so many queer Catholics, it never occurred to me that there could even exist gay or lesbian Catholics until I heard of SS Sergius and Bacchus. Some months after first hearing of them, I read their story in John Boswell, and wondered when was their feast day. I investigated – and found by wonderful serendipity that it was that very day. That began for me a continuing exploration of the other LGBT saints, of the rest of gay history in the churches, of more general gay and lesbian theology – and this blog. By further serendipity, I discovered this week that today, the feast day of Sergius and Bacchus, is also the birthday of – Dan Savage, well known for his work to combat homophobic teen bullying. If Serge and Bacchus may be regarded as patrons saints of gay adults, is Dan Savage a modern patron saint of gay teens?).
The Lovers’ Story
Sergius and Bacchus were third /fourth century Roman soldiers, and lovers. This alone is worth noting in any discussion of homoerotic relationships and the early Christians: in the Roman world, as in most of the Mediterranean region, such relationships were commonplace. What mattered in questions of sexual ethics and social approval (or otherwise) had little to do with the gender of the partners, but with their respective social status.
They were of high social standing, good enough to have a close personal relationship with the emperor, Tertullian. This provoked jealousy. They were also Christians, which gave their enemies a useful pretext to denounce them to the Emperor. He ordered them to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, which they refused to do. Their refusal provoked the wrath of the emperor, who began to exact a series of penalties, culminating in the sentence of death. The first to be killed was Bacchus, who was flogged to death. Serge was subjected to further torture, before being killed himself. The fifth century “Passion of Sergius and Bacchus” describes many details, and also some supposed miraculous interventions, such as the dead Bacchus appearing to Sergius in a vision, where he admonished his partner for grieving, and promised that they would soon be together again:
Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken away from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shall enlarge my heart”.
Boswell makes two points about the trial and passion of Sergius and Bacchus that are especially relevant to their significance for queer Christians: in all the legal and theological arguments over the charges against them, the matter of their relationship was simply not an issue. The complaint was that they had refused to honour pagan gods. Their sexuality was of no consequence at all. Later, when the Greek hagiographer has the dead Bacchus appear to Sergius to comfort him with the prospect of paradise, the greatest joy of the promised afterlife is to be reunited with his male lover. Neither the Roman jurists, nor the fifth century Christian writer who recorded the passion, have anything at all to say against the relationship – and the Christian celebrates the quality and value of their love.
Sergius and Bacchus & Gay Marriage
It is simply historically untrue that marriage has always been between one man and one woman, or that same-sex marriage is a modern invention. Among many counter-examples that easily disprove that belief, is the tradition of liturgical blessings, in church, of same-sex unions as described by the ground-breaking historical work of John Boswell. While these were not in any way an exact counterpart to modern marriage (nor were heterosexual unions from the same period), they do no need to be considered carefully in modern responses in faith to the questions around marriage and family equality. Sergius and Bacchus are significant here, for being mentioned by name in many of the liturgies for these rites that have survived, along with numerous other, less familiar examples of same-sex couples from church history.
There are also surviving texts of ancient and medieval hymns to the couple. Boswell quotes one from the sixth century, which has the opening verse ,
Of Serge and Bacchus, the pair
filled with grace, let us sing, O ye faithful!
Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds!
The full hymn is too long to quote here in full, but one verse in particular emphasises the importance of their mutual devotion:
It was not desire for this world
that captivated Serge for Christ,
nor the empty life of worldly affairs
[that captivated] Bacchus;
rather, made one
as brethren in the bond of love
they called out valiantly to the tyrant,
“See in two bodies
one soul and and heart,
one will and virtue.
Take those that yearn to please God.
Glory to Him who worketh through his saints amazing and wonderful deeds!
The words “made brethren” in this verse are a reference to the literal translation of the greek name for the rite, that of “making brothers”. This has been taken by some commentators as disproving Boswell’s claim that these rites have any connection to marriage, and are instead simply a joining in spiritual brotherhood. (A claim that Boswell himself anticipated and countered in the text himself).
Whatever the original connotation of the words though, that there was some concept of marriage involved is clearly shown by another hymn from the ninth century, quoted and discussed at “Obscure Classics of Latin Literature“, on a page for Carolingian poetry.
I. O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract as our voices resound with odes And let us make manifest the gracious rewards of the Lord. We who are below shall celebrate the saints with an illustrious hymn From our very hearts.
II. Holy martyrs shining by virtue of your merits, Sergius and Bacchus, As partners you wear God’s crown, you have transcended Together the enclosure of the flesh; and now you are Above the stars.
“O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract” seems pretty explicit, to me.
Glory to Him who worketh through his saints amazing and wonderful deeds!
(At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has a fascinating post on depictions of Sergius and Bacchus in art, featuring in particular a wonderful stained glass window of the pair, at St. Martha’s Church in Morton Grove, Illinois. This was donated to the church by its LGBT parishioners, and is believed to be the only representation of them in any United States Church).