The Queer Families of the Catholic Church
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.
Boisvert, Donald : Sanctity And Male Desire: A Gay Reading Of Saints
Boisvert, Donald : Out on Holy Ground: Meditations on Gay Men’s Spirituality
Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
Bray, Alan: The Friend
Cleaver, Richard: Know My Name – A Gay Liberation Theology
Jordan, Mark D:The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism
O’Neill: Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People
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