Category Archives: Early Church

St Paulinus of Nola, Gay Bishop, Poet

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 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:

To Ausonius”

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 clear from the above that whatever his physical erotic activities, his sensibility was entirely what we would today call “Gay”.  Paulinus’  feast day is on June 22nd.  It is fitting that we remember him, and the multitude of other LGBT saints in the long history of the church.

Further reading:

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.)

In print, see  John Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality”, pp133 – 134.

SS. Perpetua and Felicity, martyrs, 07/03

Felicitas Perpetua” = eternal bliss – and also the names of the two saints the Catholic Church remembers and celebrates every year on March 7, SS Felicity and Perpetua, who were martyred together in Carthage in 203. Their story is not well known, but their names are familiar to older Catholics as one of a few same sex couples that were once listed in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass. These paired names are an echo of their place in the ancient rite of adelphopoeisis (literally, “making of brothers”), the liturgical rite once used to bless same sex unions in Church.
As two women martyred together, and from the kiss of peace which they exchanged at the end, they are frequently described as a lesbian counterpart to Sergius and Bacchus. This is inaccurate. Their relationship was not primarily one of lovers in the modern sense, but of mistress and slave. But that description is also inaccurate to modern ears, as it overlooks the very different status of women,and the very different nature of marriage relationships, in Roman times. In the journal kept by Perpetua (from which we know the story), she never once even mentions her husband. It is entirely possible (even probable?) that whatever the nature of her sexual life, Perpetua’s emotional involvement with Felicity may have been more important than her relationship with her husband.

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Marina/Marinos of Alexandria 12/02

Marinos was one of a group of saints we might describe as transmen, biologically female but who lived as male monks in men’s monasteries. Some of these are known only by name, some of the stories may be variations of the same person’s story under different names, but that of Mary / Marinos, also known as Pelagia, is one of the most completely  known.
The story as we have it, is that Mary was an only child from the north of Lebanon, raised after her father’s death by her widowed father, Eugene. Once Mary had grown up, Eugene told her that he would pass over to her all his possessions, as he wished to enter a monastery, for the sake of his soul. Mary was not happy with this, as she too was concerned for her own soul. So they agreed that Mary would cut her hair and adopt male clothing, so that she could pass as male, and enter the monastery together with her father. This they did, joining a monastery in Alexandria, Egypt, from which she takes her name. Inside the monastery, where the two shared a cell, the other monks noticed the higher pitched voice and smooth skin of their new brother (now known as Marinos), but assumed that either he was a eunuch, or that this was a special mark of the holiness they all saw in him.
Marina (in red) being brought to a monastery by her father Eugenius.
(14th century French manuscript).
In time, Marinos’ father died, and he responded by increasing still further his ascetic manner of life. The abbot called him one day, and referring to his great holiness, sent him out in the company of a few others on monastic business, where they needed to spend one night in a public inn. The innkeeper had a daughter who set her sights on seducing the attractive Marinos, without success. She had however already been made pregnant by another (either one of the monks, or by a passing soldier – the sources diverge). When she realized she was with child, to protect herself she accused the innocent Marinos.

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St. Sebastian, Martyr, 20/01

Writing about St Joan of Arc recently 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:
Gustave Rodolphe Boulanger, 1877
This is how I wrote about his death earlier this year:

Ordered to be executed, he was tied naked to a column and shot with arrows. Widely represented in art, it was not this, however, that killed him. He was left for dead, but was nursed back to life. After recovering, he intercepted the Emperor and denounced him for his cruelty to Christians. Enraged, the Emperor once again ordered his execution. This time, he was beaten to death, on 20th January 288. How many others have achieved martyrdom twice in one lifetime?

The image shows Sebastian pierced by arrows but “not dead yet”, confronting the Emperor Maximilian after the first attempted execution.

So, what’s the connection? Recall Michael B Kelly’s concept of the walk back from Emmaus , the idea that as lesbigaytrans people in the Catholic church, we have a need, even an obligation, to walk away from the church – and hen to return , to confront the institutional leaders of the church with the reality of the risen Lord, and of his real message to the world. When I saw this image, I suddenly saw it as representing all queer people confronting the emperors of the church with the evidence of their attempted martyrdom. In spite of all the efforts of the ecclesiastical mechanism, through the misrepresentation of Scripture, the characterization of us as “gravely “disordered, the active opposition in the political sphere to equal civic rights, and the failure to oppose criminalization, and hence the tacit support given to active bullying, violence and murder – not to mention actual execution by burning at the stake, in earlier years- we too, are not dead yet.

Following the example of Sebastian, the challenge facing us to do more than simply mope about our pain, satisfied with mere survival. We too, must return to the church, showing them with the evidence of our pain-then negotiate with them a process of reconciliation.

For a look at some of the extraordinary range of representations os Sebastian in art, just look at the results of a Google Image search, or go to “Iconography of Saint Sebastian (painting)”, which has an immense collection of links to art images, usefully arranged chronologically and by artist. I particularly like some of the images by 20th century artists, which seemed to me to go beyond the soppy sentimentality to something real and relevant. This one is startling – Sebastian as a self-portrait by a female artist, Gael Erwin. And why not?

Books:

Bray, AlanThe Friend

Related articles at Queering the Church, and at Queer Saints and Martyrs:

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Apollinaria/Dorotheos 5/01

According to the LGBT Catholic Handbook, this week sees the feast day of St.  Apollinaria /Dorotheos of Egypt (5th, 6th January). She is said to have been one of a group of transvestite saints – women who took on men’s clothing  in order to live as monks.
For the specific story of Apollinaria, we turn to the Orthodox church, who take these female monks rather more serioulsy than the western church.

This is from the Orthodox website, “God is Wonderful in His Saints”

She was a maiden of high rank, the daughter of a magistrate named Anthimus in the city of Rome. Filled with love for Christ, she prevailed on her parents to allow her to travel on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem she dismissed most of her attendants, gave her jewels, fine clothes and money to the poor, and went on to Egypt accompanied only by two trusted servants. Near Alexandria she slipped away from them and fled to a forest, where she lived in ascesis for many years. She then made her way to Sketis, the famous desert monastic colony, and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos. In this guise she was accepted as a monk.
Anthimus, having lost his elder daughter, was visited with another grief: his younger daughter was afflicted by a demon. He sent this daughter to Sketis, asking the holy fathers there to aid her by their prayers. They put her under the care of “Dorotheos”, who after days of constant prayer effected the complete cure of her (unknowing) sister. When the girl got back home it was discovered that she was pregnant, and Anthimus angrily ordered that the monk who had cared for her be sent to him. He was astonished to find that “Dorotheos” was his own daughter Apollinaria, whom he had abandoned hope of seeing again. After some days the holy woman returned to Sketis, still keeping her identity secret from her fellow-monks. Only at her death was her true story discovered.

The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, while a look at some orthodox websites corroborates the story and confirms her feast on 5th January.  The Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. however,  dismisses the tale as ‘hagiographic fiction.’

Apollinaria’s story and motives are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. (UPDATE: After I first described this group of women as “transvestite”, I was taken to task by a reader, who pointed out that these days, “cross-dressing” is more appropriate terminology). Still, whatever the full historic truth of Apollinaria/ Dorotheos specifically, it seems to me this is a useful story to hold on to as a reminder 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.

Let us acknowledge the courage of those who have done it, and pray for those who are preparing to do so.

Related articles

 

Anson, J., “”, Viator 5 (1974), 1-32

Bennasser, Khalifa Abubakr, Gender and Sanctity in Early Byzantine Monasticism: A Study of the Phenomenon of Female Ascetics in Male Monastic Habit with a Translation of the Life of St. Matrona, [Rutgers Ph.D Dissertation 1984; UMI 8424085]

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Eugenia /Eugenios of Alexandria, 24th December


24th December is the day the Eastern Orthodox Church remembers St Eugenia / Eugenios of Alexandria, another of the group of female saints in the early church who dressed as men to be admitted to all-male monasteries.

Holy Virgin and Martyr Eugenia and her companions (~190)

“This Martyr was the daughter of most distinguished and noble parents named Philip and Claudia. Philip, a Prefect of Rome, moved to Alexandria with his family. In Alexandria, Eugenia had the occasion to learn the Christian Faith, in particular when she encountered the Epistles of Saint Paul, the reading of which filled her with compunction and showed her clearly the vanity of the world. Secretly taking two of her servants, Protas and Hyacinth, she departed from Alexandria by night. Disguised as a man, she called herself Eugene [Eugenios -ed.] while pretending to be a eunuch, and departed with her servants and took up the monastic life in a monastery of men. Her parents mourned for her, but could not find her. After Saint Eugenia had laboured for some time in the monastic life, a certain woman named Melanthia, thinking Eugene to be a monk, conceived lust and constrained Eugenia to comply with her desire; when Eugenia refused, Melanthia slandered Eugenia to the Prefect as having done insult to her honour. Eugenia was brought before the Prefect, her own father Philip, and revealed to him both that she was innocent of the accusations, and that she was his own daughter. Through this, Philip became a Christian; he was afterwards beheaded at Alexandria. Eugenia was taken back to Rome with Protas and Hyacinth. All three of them ended their life in martyrdom in the years of Commodus, who reigned from 180 to 192.” (Great Horologion)


(For some general observation on the full group, have a look at “Transvestite Saints?”

See also:

Anson, J., “The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism: the Origin and Development of a Motif”, Viator 5 (1974), 1-32
Bennasser, Khalifa Abubakr: Gender and Sanctity in Early Byzantine Monasticism: A Study of the Phenomenon of Female Ascetics in Male Monastic Habit with a Translation of the Life of St. Matrona, [Rutgers Ph.D Dissertation 1984; UMI 8424085]

 

Delcourt, Marie: “Le complexe de Diane dans l’hagiographie chretienne”, Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 153 (January-March 1958), 1-33

 

Patlagean, Evelyne: “L’histoire de la femme déguise en moine et l’evolution de la sainteté feminine à Byzance”, Studi Medievali ser. 3 17 (1976), 597-625, repr. in Structure sociale, famille, chretienté à Byzance IVe-XIe siècle, (London: Variorum, 1981), XI

 

Marina Warner, St. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, (London: 1981, pb. Penguin, 1985), esp 149-63

 

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Gay Bishops: How Many?

 Bishop Mary Glasspool has now been consecrated as a bishop in the diocese of Los Angeles, making her the second openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church. Some sources are describing her as the second gay bishop  in history” – but that would be pushing it, and is breathtaking in its cultural myopia.

Bishop Mary Glasspool (image Wkipedia)
Bishop Mary Glasspool (image Wkipedia)

So, for context and a refresher once again of how deeply homoerotic relationships have been embedded in the Christian church, I offer some reminders. Mary Glasspool is the first openly lesbian bishop in the Episcopal church, but not the first lesbian bishop globally: That would be Bishop  Eva Brunne, consecrated by the Swedish Lutherans last year (2009).

Eva Brunne, Bishop of Stockholm
Eva Brunne, Bishop of Stockholm 

Popular reports name Bishop Gene Robinson as the first gay bishop, but that’s oversimplifying. He was the first modern bishop in the Anglican communion to be consecrated while openly gay, but there have been others before him who came out openly after being named bishop – for example, Otis Charles, also of Utah, Derek Rawcliffe of Glasgow and Galloway in the Scottish Episcopalian church, and Mervyn Castle of False Bay (part of the Archdiocese of Cape Town in the Anglican, “Church of the Province of South Africa”).

In the days of the early church, Bishop Paulinus of Nola not only had a boyfriend, he commemorated his love in some frankly erotic love poetry. Bishop Venantius Fortunatus was another. Both of these men are canonized saints. Bishop Arno of Salzburg may not have written erotic verse, but he received some, from Saint Alcuin of Tours. (He also had a relationship with Paulinus, as did Alcuin, in some kind of clerical threesome).  Bishop Marbod of Rennes (11th century) also wrote erotic verse to a boyfriend, but was not canonized. Other early bishops also had male lovers,  but because they are not remembered as saints, and have not left memorable erotic verse, we do not know their details.

We do know about the ordination of one openly gay bishop, John of Orleans,  in the eleventh century, at the instigation of his lover Ralph, the  Archbishop of Tours, because of the scandal it caused. This scandal was not because John was both gay and famously promiscuous, but because of his youth and Ralph’s obvious nepotism. How many other openly gay bishops were consecrated at that time without the same scandal, we just don’t know.

Clouding the issue of “gay” bishops is one of terminology, especially against a background of monastic celibacy. There are strong grounds for describing another recognised saint, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, as “gay”, even if celibate, on the basis of his writing and passionate love letters to his monastic “friends”.  He  should definitely be remembered as a protector of gays, for rejecting a decision by the London synod to impose harsh penalties for homosexual actions.

Then are the succession of gay popes: Julius II, Julius IIIPaul II, and possibly John XII (r. 955-964), Benedict IX (r. 1033-1045; 1047-1048), John XXII (r. 1316-34), Paul II (r. 1464-1471), Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), Julius II (r. 1503-1513) and Leo X (r. 1513-1521) (See Jesse’s Journal at Gay Today).

In the modern Catholic Church , there have been no openly gay bishops or popes, but there have certainly been many in the closet. There are credible claims that that Paul VI may have had his share of boyfriends, at least before becoming pope, and similar suggestions that the “Smiling Pope“, John Paul I, may have been gay. And on Wiki Answers, there is a claim that Pope Benedict himself is gay.

Then there are certainly hundreds of closeted gay bishops in the Catholic Church. The late Cardinal Spellman of New York was notorious in his day. Allegations have been made against Cardinal Wuerl of Washington and others who surround themselves with obviously gay fan clubs – while publicly attacking LGBT equality.

I accept that hard as it is to be openly gay as a Catholic priest, it will be obviously that much harder as a bishop. But I do wish journalists,  who undoubtedly have the required evidence, would be less reticent about outing those gay bishops who are publicly hostile. If it is too much to hope that we in the Catholic Church can expect any time soon to see bishops coming out publicly to join their Episcopal and Lutheran counterparts, perhaps the threat of involuntary outing could at least dampen their public hostility to civil rights advances.

See also:

Outing the Church: Gay Popes, Gay Bishops

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Trans Saints? Cross-Dressing Monks

The “LGBT Catholic Handbook lists an intriguing group of transvestite saints – women who took on men’s clothing in order to live as monks. The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, but the Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia however, dismisses the tales as ‘hagiographic fiction.’ The stories and motives of these women are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ 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.
icon-of-appoliarios1
“I have treated these saints as a group as their stories are often similar. These are the large number of saints who were famous for their holy cross-dressing. All of these were women, and the stories, largely but not exclusively fictional, generally have them escaping marriage or some other dreaded end by dressing as monks. This is no short term ploy, however. The women then live their lives as men (in direct contradiction to the Levitical Law which calls cross-dressing an “abomination”), some of them becoming abbots of monasteries. In such positions it is hard to imagine that they would not perform roles such as confessor. Their biological sex is only discovered after they die. It is sometimes argued that these transvestite saints did not cross-dress because they wanted to but because they had to, and so calling them “transvestites” is wrong. It is true that we know nothing of the psychology of these women, but when they dressed as man for 20 years and became abbots of monasteries, it is hard to know in what way they were being “forced” to cross-dress. These women chose to live their Christian lives as members of the opposite biological sex – it is fair to see them as “transgendered”. There are no male saints, it seems, who dressed as women (with the possible exception of Sergius and Bacchus, who were forcibly paraded through the streets in women’s clothes). At work here is an old notion that women are saved in so far as they have “male souls”, a repeated term of praise in lives of female saints. These women’s lives do show that the Levitical Law was not determinative in Christian estimations of holiness, and that modern rigid gender categories had much less role in earlier epochs of Christianity than nowadays. These saints found a place in both Orthodox and Roman calendars.
  • St. Anastasia the Patrician (or “of Constantinople”) March 10th ORC/ORTH
  • St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople Oct 29 ORTH
  • St. Apollinaria/Dorotheos Jan 5, 6 ORTH
  • St. Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9 ORTH
  • St. Eugenia/Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th ORTH
  • St. Euphrosyne/Smaragdus Feb 11th ORC (Sept 25 ORTH)
  • St. Marina of Sicily July 20th ORTH
  • St. Marina/Marinos of Antioch July 17th ORTH (July 20th ORC – as St. Margaret)
  • St. Mary/Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th ORTH
  • St. Matrona/Babylas of Perge Nov 9 ORTH
  • St. Pelagia/Pelagios June 9 ORC (Oct 8 ORTH)
  • St. Theodora/Theodorus of Alexandria Sept 11 ORTH
  • St. Thekla of Iconium Sept 23 ORC (Sept 24 ORTH) See also
  • St. Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th ORC d. 1188 OE: A nun who lived under the name “Brother Joseph” in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg.
  • St. Uncumber [or ] July 20th ORC A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders) She was represented as a bearded women on a cross.