Tag Archives: Intimate relationship

Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church

With the news that Hildegard of Bingen is one of the two people that Benedict has just named as doctors of the church, I repost below a portion of my earlier post on her:

Hildegard’s name is one to be reckoned with. Although today we usually use the term “Renaissance Man” to indicate one with a wide range of learning to his credit, perhaps we should also recognize in a similar way some extraordinary medieval women -such as Hildegard, and others who entered convents and applied themselves with distinction to learning over many fields.

Even in some distinguished company, Hildegard stands out. Her music is highly regarded, as are her literary output and her mystical writings – which of course is what makes her particularly honoured inside the church. To round out her skills, she was also recognized as a notable poet, artist, healer and scientist.  What makes her of particular interest at this site, is that she also had an intense attachment to a fellow nun, Richardis, who may have inspired some of her finest writing.

I have known a little (very little) about Hildegard for some time, and have come across suggestions of her possible lesbianism, but have not had enough knowledge to write about her myself. I was delighted then to find that my colleague Kittredge Cherry has done some digging, and produced a wonderful extended post on this great woman.

 We need to be careful though not to confuse this undoubted emotional attachment with a sexual relationship. The medieval church sanctioned and publicly approved many particular friendships between monks, and between nuns. These were not necessarily sexual. Although some undoubtedly were, others equally certainly were fully celibate. Indeed, there is much of value to reflect on in this connection, of relevance to modern gay men and lesbians.

Kittredge Cherry, in the the post I took as my starting point, stated that “Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women”. Sexuality, and its expression as emotional or sexual attachments, are two distinct issues. In modern terms, it is perfectly possible to be both gay and celibate (as a notable proportion of Catholic priests are), just as it is possible to be heterosexual in orientation, but celibate.

There is a problem here in the use of the word “lesbian”, a word, like “gay”, which perhaps has inappropriate connotations when applied to earlier historical periods. However, what Kittredge has drawn attention to, and that I see as important, is the undeniable evidence of a powerful emotional (not sexual) attachment to women – and to one in particular.

With her newly elevated status, which draws attention to the enormous but neglected contributions of so many influential women, we also need to take another look at her specifically religious contribution. Sadly, I am unable to do this today – but will return to it later.

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St John of the Cross,14th Dec (NRC), 24th Nov (ORC),

St John of the Cross (1542-1591) is usually remembered on December 14th (in the new Roman calendar, and also in the CoE calendar), but the old Roman calendar had him on November 24th.

St. John, like other mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila, used the language of courtly love to describe his relationship with Christ. He also discussed, with rare candor, the sexual stimulation of prayer, the fact that mystics experience sexual arousal during prayer. With the male Christ of course, this amounts to a homoeroticism of prayer.

An extract from the Dark Night quite clearly draws on homoerotic imagery, and has a valuable place in spiritual practice for gay men:

“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,

Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,

and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;

With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;

My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

Select bibliography

Catholic Encyclopedia – entry on John of the Cross (available online)
St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, trans. E. Allison Peers, 3rd ed. (Garden City NY: Image/Doubleday, 1959)
Rougement, Denis de, Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion, rev. ed. (New York: Pantheon, 1956; pb New York: Harper, 1956), 159-64

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