Queer saints, martyrs and other notable dates for October feature lesbian lovers, a renowned female mystic, a notable secular saint, and two dates of importance for combating homophobia.
There is much that is paradoxical in the figure of Paul. In his dual persona as Saul / Paul, he is renowned as both a one-time feared persecutor of Christians, and as the greatest of all the early missionaries, who spread the word far beyond it s original geographic compounds, and author of by far the most influential Christian texts outside the Gospels themselves. In the same way, as the author of the most infamous New Testament clobber texts, he is widely regarded as strongly condemning homoerotic relationships – and yet Paul Halsall lists him in his Calendar of LGBT Saints:
There is considerable debate over those anti-gay “proof -texts”, but whatever the conclusions, there is much, as Anglican Bishop of Newark John Spong has pointed out, which leads one to suspect Paul might have been “queer” in some way. The fact he was never married, unusual for a Jew of his time, his companionship with a series of younger men, especially St. Timothy, his mention of an unnamed “thorn in the flesh”. and, possibly, his disdain for some types of exploitative homosexual relationship in his period, all raise questions, questions which cannot be answered it must be admitted, about his sexuality.
First, let us dismiss the idea that Paul’s writing is anti-gay: it isn’t, and further, much of his message is precisely the opposite, arguing for full inclusion of all. For a counter to the standard view of Paul as anti-gay, anti-sex, see Reidulf Molvaer, Sex & St. Paul the Realist
St. Paul was, in many ways, an ascetic and happy to be so, but he refused to make asceticism a general model or ideal for Christians – most people cannot live by such principles, especially in the area of sex. In the seventh chapter of his first letter to Corinth, he rejects any appeal for his support of sexual abstinence as ethically superior to active sexual relations. He sets limits, but does not limit legitimate sexual relations to marriage. In his day, it was commonly believed that homosexual practice, more easily than heterosexual relations, could bring people into harmony with the unchangeable nature of God. This Paul strongly rejects in the first chapter of his letter to Rome. Otherwise he does not write about “natural” homosexuality. In fact, it is a logical inference from the principles he sets forth in his letter to Corinth that loving, lasting homosexual relations are ethically as valid as heterosexual relations. Dr. Molvaer maintains that insight into contemporary ideologies can be a help to understanding what the New Testament says about these matters. Today, as in the early Church, extraneous influences in these areas can easily distort genuine Christian moral concerns as they are stated by Christ and St. Paul.
Then, consider his person. Astonishingly little is known for certain of Paul the man, but Bishop Spong is not the only one to have suggested that Paul may have had some close same-sex relationships of his own. Gay Catholic blogger Jeremiah Bartram (Gospel for Gays), who recently spent time on a pilgrimage “in the footsteps of St Paul” has reflected deeply on the life and writign of Paul, and concluded that on balance, the suggestion is sound (“Gay Paul“).
In the absence of hard evidence, personally I am happy to leave this discussion to others with greater scholarship and expertise behind them. My interest in the queer saints is in the lessons they hold for us today, and here I think there is one clear message, which lies in the best known story of al about Paul, his conversion on the road to Damascus. This has entered language as a “Damascene Conversion”, and therein lies hope. For if Saul, the renowned persecutor of Christians, could undergo such a complete change of heart and become instead active as the most famous proselytizer, so too is there hope for the religion -based persecutors of sexual minorities today. Not only is there hope, but there is already abundant evidence from the very many Christians in the modern world who have experienced just such Damascene conversions, going from direct, outright condemnation of same sex relationships, to actively advocating full inclusion in church. These changes of heart, usually coming after intensive study of Scripture and extensive discussions with gay and lesbian church members, have already been responsible for changes of policy in several denominations, and a more welcoming atmosphere in many local congregations. This process will continue.
For those Catholics who like to pray to the saints, you can freely include St Paul in you prayers. This is not because he was queer (although he may have been), but because his own conversion experience provides a useful model for all those modern day conversions that we need among the bigots who use religion as a cloak for prejudice and discrimination.
“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 Catholics as one of many same sex couples 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.
This relationship was certainly an intense and devoted one. As such, we can recognize it as queer – and on hearing their names during the Mass, reflect on the place of same sex unions over many centuries of church history.
For more on the biographical details, see the excellent post at Jesus in Love. Here is an extract:
The details of their imprisonment are known because Perpetua kept a journal, the first known written document by a woman in Christian history. In fact, her “Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions” was so revered in North Africa that St. Augustine warned people not to treat it like the Bible. People loved the story of the two women comforting each other in jail and giving each other the kiss of peace as they met their end.
Perpetua was a 22-year-old noblewoman and a nursing mother. Felicity, her slave, gave birth to a daughter while they were in prison. Although she was married, Perpetua does not mention having a husband in the narrative.
They were arrested for their Christian faith, imprisoned together, and held onto each other in the amphitheater at Carthage shortly before their execution on March 7, 203.
The icon of Perpetua and Felicity at the top of this post was painted by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his progressive icons. It is rare to see an icon about the love between women, especially two African women. The rich reds and heart-shaped double-halo make it look like a holy Valentine.Read more at Jesus in Love
At my primary blog, “Queering the Church”, and at my blogger site, “Queer Saints and Martyrs (and Others)“. one of the strands I have been exploring for some years now has been the place of LGBT/queer people in Christian history.
However, I have been dissatisfied with the blogger technology(and the way I set it up originally), and am in the process of transferring the entire site here, to the WordPress platform. Continue reading About “Queer Saints and Martyrs”
This is my favorite post of the year!! Imagine trying to get the help of a Pope to prevent a lesbian split up LOL.
What an inspiration, and her music is incredible too. We need to build a lesbian chapel in her honor somewhere, and fill it with paintings!
A truly great woman, indeed.
This are some extracts from Kitt’s post:
St. Hildegard of Bingen was a brilliant medieval German mystic, poet, artist, composer, healer and scientist who wrote with passion about the Virgin Mary. Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women, especially her personal assistant Richardis von Stade. Her feast day is today (Sept. 17).
She had visions throughout her life, starting at age 3 when she says that she first saw “the Shade of the Living Light.” She hesitated to tell others about her visions, sharing them only with her teacher Jutta.
When she was 42, Hildegard had a vision in which God instructed her to record her spiritual experiences. Still hesitant, she became physically ill before she was persuaded to begin her first visionary work, the Scivias (Know the Ways of God).
In 1151, Hildegard completed the Scivias and trouble arose between her and her beloved Richardis. An archbishop, the brother of Richardis, arranged for his sister to become abbess of a distant convent. Hildegard urged Richardis to stay, and even asked the Pope to stop the move. But Richardis left anyway, over Hildegard’s objections.
Richardis died suddenly in October 1151, when she was only about 28 years old. On her deathbed, she tearfully expressed her longing for Hildegard and her intention to return.
Hildegard’s grief apparently fueled further artistic creation. Many believe that Richardis was the inspiration for Ordo Virtutum(“Play of Virtues”}, a musical morality play about a soul who is tempted away by the devil and then repents. According toWikipedia, “It is the earliest morality play by more than a century, and the only Medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both the text and the music.”
In an era when few women wrote, Hildegard went on to create two more major visionary works, a collection of songs, and several scientific treatises. She was especially interested in women’s health. Her medical writings even include what may be the first description of a female orgasm.
Impressed? Now go across and read Kitt’s full, thoroughly researched post atJesus in Love Blog, in her series on LGBT saints. (Hildegard’s feast day was yesterday, September 17th.)
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
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