The Story of the Queer Saints and Martyrs: Synopsis

Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity  has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with males – either divine or human.

The Hebrews’ concept of a single all-powerful God did not incorporate any concept of divine sexuality, but they did include into their Scriptures numerous passages that describe same sex loving relationships  as well as the books of the prophets who were eunuchs.

The Christian Gospels offer tantalizing hints at Jesus’ own sexuality which may have included some male love interest. However, more directly relevant to us are His teaching and example , which clearly show that His message is an inclusive one, that quite explicitly does include sexual minorities of all kinds.

After the Gospels, the most important Christian writings are the letters of Paul, who has a reputation as strongly condemning same sex behaviour – but a more careful consideration of his life as well as his letters, in their own context, can offer a different perspective.

The Early Christians.

The cultural context of the early was one where  they were political and even social outcasts, in a society of a bewildering range of attitudes to sexuality, ranging from substantial sexual licence for Roman citizens, to negligible freedom of sexual choice for slaves, to sexual abstemiousness for those influenced by Greek stoicism. The stories of queer saints that come down to us include those of martyred Roman soldiers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions), cross-dressing monks.

In addition to the examples of individuals who were honoured as saints, there are also important examples from Church practice. Evidence from archaeology and written records shows clearly that from the late Roman period onwards, the Church made liturgical provision for the recognition of same sex couples. From Macedonia, there is extensive evidence of Christian same sex couples who were buried in shared graves. More telling evidence for church recognition of same sex couples comes from the existence of formal liturgical rites for blessing their unions. In the Eastern Church, these rites (known as “adelphopoeisis”)  date from the late Roman period. In the Western Church, where the evidence begins a little later, they were known as making of “sworn brothers”.

Medieval Homoeroticism

The early Middle Ages were once known as the “Dark Ages”, a disparaging term, which nevertheless is descriptive of the murky information we have about the saints: some of what is commonly believed about these saints is clearly mythical. Nevertheless, knowledge of the queer associations of saints like Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, George the dragon slayer and “Good King Wenceslas” is simple fun – and literal, historical truth or not, can provide useful material for reflection.

This period is also notable for the widespread use of specific liturgies for blessing same sex unions in Church. Even if these unions are not directly comparable with modern marriage, understanding of this recognition by the church deserves careful consideration, for the guidance it can offer the modern church on dealing with recognition for same sex relationships.

By the time of the High Middle Ages, influenced by increasing urbanization and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilization, the earlier moderate opposition and grudging toleration of same sex love softened to a more open tolerance, with some remarkable monastic love letters with homoerotic imagery, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops  and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections.

It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops.

However, the increase in open sexual relationships among some monastic groups also led to a reaction, with some theologians starting to agitate for much harsher penalties against “sodomites”, especially among the clergy. Initially, these pleas for a harsher, anti-homosexual regime met with limited support – but bore fruit a couple of centuries later, with disastrous effects which were felt right through to the present day – and especially the twentieth century.

The Great Persecution

Symbolically, the great change can be seen as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc – martyred not for the Church, but by the Church, for reasons that combined charges of heresy with her cross-dressing. A combination of charges of heresy and “sodomy” were also the pretext for the persecution and trials of the Knights Templar – masking the naked greed of the secular and clerical powers which profited thereby. The same confusion of “sodomy” and heresy led to an expansion of the persecution from the Templars to wider group, and  also the expansion of the methods and geographic extent, culminating in the executions of thousands of alleged “sodomites” across many regions of Europe. This persecution was initially encouraged or conducted by the Inquisition, later by secular authorities alone – but conducted according to what the church had taught them was a religious justification. Even today, the belief that religion justifies homophobic violence is often given as a motivation by the perpetrators – and the fires that burned the sodomites of the fifteenth century had a tragic echo in the gay holocaust of the second world war.

Yet even at the height of the persecution, there was the paradox of a succession of  popes, who either had well-documented relationships with boys or men,  or commissioned frankly homoerotic art from renowned Renaissance artists, which continues to decorate Vatican architecture. This period exemplifies the continuing hypocrisy of an outwardly homophobic, internally.

Modern Martyrs, Modern Revival

The active persecution of sodomites by the Inquisition gradually gave way to secular prosecutions under civil law, with declining ferocity as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment and more modern times (although executions continued until the nineteenth century). From this time on, theoretical condemnation of “sodomites” co-existed with increasing public recognition of some men who had sex with men, and records relating to queers in the church are less prominent than either earlier or later periods.  In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried alongside Ambrose St John does not appear to have aroused any opposition.

In the twentieth century, the increasing visibility of homosexual men produced the horrifying backlash in Germany in the gay holocaust, with its echos of the medieval bonfires of heretics and sodomites – the modern gay martyrs.

Only after WWII did the Vatican begin to seriously address the question of homosexuality, with increasingly harsh judgements and attempts to silence theologians and pastors who questioned their doctrines and practice. Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members. However, these victims of church exclusion, who can be seen metaphorically as modern martyrs, martyred by the church for being true to their sexual identity,  refused to be silenced. Like St Sebastian before Emperor Maximilian, they found new ways to minister to the truth of homosexuality and Christianity.

Today, these early pioneers for queer inclusion in church have been joined by countless others, who work constantly at tasks large and small, to witness to the truth of our sexuality and gender identity, and to its compatibility with authentic Christianity. In effect, that includes all of who identify as both Christian, and simultaneously as lesbian, gay trans, or other  – and the women who refuse to accept the narrow confines of the gender roles church authorities attempt to place on us.

November 1st is the day the Church has set aside to celebrate All Saints – the recognition that sainthood is not only a matter of formally recognized and canonized saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For queers in Church, it is especially a day for us to remember our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church – and that we, too, are called to martyrdom, in its literal sense: to bear witness, in our lives, to our truth.

The Queer Family in the Book of Ruth

The story of Ruth and Naomi and their deep love has often been used to illustrate love between women in the Bible.  There is more to the book than that alone, for a queer reading. Although the book begins as the story of Ruth and Naomi, it ends as that of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, as Mona West makes clear in her chapter on Ruth for The Queer Bible Commentary, concluding with a reflection on its lesson for queer families – in all their variety.

With the strong public interest in the struggle for marriage equality and gay adoption, we often overlook the simple but important fact that not all queer families are imitations of conventional families, differing only in the minor detail of being headed by a couple of the same biological sex. We come in a multitude of forms – like the family I meet recently, comprising three men who have just celebrated 25 years of living as a mutually supportive and committed triple. This obviously does not fit with the modern conception of “traditional” marriage and family – but nor do the families of Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament, and nor does the family of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, as we know it by the end of the book.

Continue reading The Queer Family in the Book of Ruth

Cardinal Francesco Maria de’ Medici, Gay Cardinal?

b. 12 November 1660
d. 3 February 1711

Born in Florence, the son of Grand duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany andVittoria Della Rovere. In 1683 he was appointed to governor of Siena, a position he maintained until his death. He was the grand prior of theSovereign Order of Malta in Pisa. Abbot commendatario of S. Galgano, Siena. Abbot commendatario of S. Stefano, Carrara, 1675. According to a family tradition was promoted to the cardinalate at a young age in 1686. He remained in Florence, in his villa of Lappeggi, devoting himself to a life not really religious, made of amusements and love affairs with men. He resigned cardinalate on June 19, 1709 and was named prince of Siena. He then was forced to marry in 1709 Eleonore Luisa Gonzaga, duchess of Guastalla, daughter of Vincenzo Gonzaga, in an attempt to save the dynasty, but they did not have children.
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Let Us Remember, for Nov 9th:

The cross-dressing saints of the Church.

From Queer Saints and Martyrs:

St Matrona / Babylas of Perge, Cross-dressing  Saint? 

St Matrona /Babylas of Perge is one of a number of female saints in the early church who dressed as men to be admitted to all-male monasteries. The stories and motives of these women are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’, or cross – dressing, is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. Still, whatever the full historic truth, it seems to me these are useful stories to hold on to as reminders of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered, in our midst. Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting our sexual identities, consider how much more challenging must be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis. Their stories collectively also carry a sobering reminder of the differing regard given by society of the time to male and female lives – else why would women have sought out male monasteries, in spite of the risks and discomfort to themselves of their lives in disguise, if not expectation of some greater spiritual reward than in a female convent?

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Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

The story of Daniel is so well known to us, there is no need to repeat it here:  and that is exactly the problem  Like so many tales from long ago, we hear them as children with modern ears, and then never think to make the imaginative leap back into the historic conditions which completely change their significance.  So familiar are we with the sanitised “Children’s Bible Stories” version, and the familiar, often soppy pictures that accompany it, we lose sight of the fact that the real story probably had sexual overtones.

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Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints

Today is the feast of All Saints.  For us as gay men, lesbians in the church, this begs the obvious questions: are there gay saints?  Does it matter?
Some sources say clearly yes, listing numerous examples. Others dispute the idea, saying either that the examples quoted are not officially recognised, or denying that they wer gay because we do not know that they were sexually active.  Before discussing specifically LGBT or queer saints, consider a more general question.
Who are the “Saints”, and why do we recognise them?
All Saints Albrecht  Dürer
All Saints : Albrecht Dürer

Richard McBrien gives one response, at NCR on-line:

There are many more saints in heaven than the relatively few who have been officially recognized by the church.
“For every St. Francis of Assisi or St. Rose of Lima there are thousands of unknown and long forgotten mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers, nurses, teachers, manual laborers, and other individuals in various kinds of occupations who lived holy lives that were consistent with the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Although each is in eternal glory, none of their names is attached to a liturgical feast, a parish church, a pious society, or any other ecclesiastical institution. The catch-all feast that we celebrate next week is all the recognition they’re ever going to receive from the church.”
“The church makes saints in order to provide a steady, ever renewable stream of exemplars, or sacraments, of Christ, lest our following of Christ be reduced to some kind of abstract, intellectual exercise.
Two things are important here, especially at this feast of “all” saints: the category of saints is far larger than just those who have been recognised by a formal process; and the reason for giving them honour is to provide role models. It is not inherent to the tradition of honouring the saints that they should be miracle workers, or that we should be praying to them for special favours – although officially attested miracles are part of the canonization process. This formal process did not even exist in the early church:  it was only in the 11th or 12 the century that saint making became the exclusive preserve of the Pope.
It now becomes easier to make sense of the gay, lesbian and transvestite saints in Church history, and their importance for the feast of All Saints.

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Let Us Remember, for Nov 1st:

All Saints – including, potentially, ALL of us!

from Queer Saints and Martyrs:

Nov Ist : All (Gay) Saints

Are there gay saints? Some sources say clearly yes, listing numerous examples. Others dispute the idea, saying either that the examples quoted are not officially recognised, or denying that they were gay because we do not know that they were sexually active. Before discussing specifically LGBT or queer saints, consider a more general question. Who are the “Saints”, and why do we recognise them?

All Saints Albrecht  Dürer

Nov 1st : All (Gay) Saints

Are there gay saints? Some sources say clearly yes, listing numerous examples. Others dispute the idea, saying either that the examples quoted are not officially recognised, or denying that they were gay because we do not know that they were sexually active. Before discussing specifically LGBT or queer saints, consider a more general question. Who are the “Saints”, and why do we recognise them?

All Saints Albrecht  Dürer

Richard McBrien gives one response, at NCR on-line:

There are many more saints in heaven than the relatively few who have been officially recognized by the church. “For every St. Francis of Assisi or St. Rose of Lima there are thousands of unknown and long forgotten mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers, nurses, teachers, manual laborers, and other individuals in various kinds of occupations who lived holy lives that were consistent with the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Although each is in eternal glory, none of their names is attached to a liturgical feast, a parish church, a pious society, or any other ecclesiastical institution. The catch-all feast that we celebrate next week is all the recognition they’re ever going to receive from the church.” “The church makes saints in order to provide a steady, ever renewable stream of exemplars, or sacraments, of Christ, lest our following of Christ be reduced to some kind of abstract, intellectual exercise.

Two things are important here: the category of saints is far larger than just those who have been recognised by a formal process; and the reason for giving them honour is to provide role models. It is not inherent to the tradition of honouring the saints that they should be miracle workers, or that we should be praying to them for special favours – although three officially attested miracles will help the formal canonization process. This formal process did not even exist in the early church: it was only in the 11th or 12th centuries that saint making became the exclusive preserve of the Pope. It now becomes easier to make sense of the gay, lesbian and transvestite saints in Church history, and their importance.

For some, their official recognition is not important – all that counts is their value as role models. If they are widely seen as such, we are entitled to call them so, even without clear canonized status.

The LGBT Saints are also not limited to the distant past. The American Episcopal church recognizes two twentieth century lesbians as saints: Vida Dutton Scudder has a feast day in October, and just recently, Rev Pauli Murray was added to its book of “Holy Men, Holy Women”. In the Catholic Church, there is a strong popular move to initiate a cause for sainthood for Fr Mychal Judge, “The Saint of 9/11”. Earlier, there was a formal cause for another American, Dr Tom Dooley. That failed, apparently because of his sexuality – but when the church revises its thinking on sexuality, that cause could well be revised.

The formal canonization process, or Anglican equivalents however, are really not the point.   They are merely the public confirmation and recognition of sainthood, not its criterion. There are countless more men and women who qualify by the virtue of their lives – but whose qualities have not been publicly noted. Among LGBT Christians, there are still others who deserve attention for the opposition and persecution they have received from the institutional church – and the courage they have displayed in standing up to this modern martyrdom.

In fact, we are called to sainthood, and to witness – witness as Christians, and in honesty in our lives as lesbian, gay or trans. This is not a conflict. Numerous writers on spirituality have noted that embracing our sexuality can bring us closer to the divine, not drive us away. We can, indeed, take a rainbow bridge to God  (and sainthood) – but the the gay closet is a place of sin.

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