The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar- but should be. John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before Sergius & Bacchus .
Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians. The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.
In Catholic spiritual tradition, there is an important and honoured place for the idea of “The Bride of Christ”. At one level, we are taught to think of the Church as a whole as such a bride of Christ, and the wedding at Cana as a metaphor for the marriage of Christ to his bride, the Church. At another level, religious women think of themselves as forgoing human marriage, to become brides of Christ. The image is a powerful and valuable one, in developing that personal relationship with the Lord that we seek – but where does it leave men, who may find it difficult to imagine themselves as brides?
Surprisingly perhaps, Catholic tradition provides an equivalent route for men – at least, for gay men, and others who are not threatened by thoughts of homoerotic attraction. Gerald Loughlin has described a medieval German tradition in which the wedding at Cana was seen as celebrating the wedding of Christ and his “beloved disciple” (assumed to be John the Evangelist). St John of the Cross used extensive homoerotic imagery in his mystical writing. Blessed Bernardo de Hoyos combined both of these ideas, taking them to their logical conclusion. As Kittredge Cherry noted at Jesus in Love blog, in a valuable post for his feast day (yesterday, November 29th), Blessed Bernardo saw himself, in a mystical vision, as marrying Christ – as a man, becoming not a bride, but a “Groom of Christ”.
Always holding my right hand, the Lord had me occupy the empty throne; then He fitted on my finger a gold ring…. “May this ring be an earnest of our love. You are Mine, and I am yours. You may call yourself and sign Bernardo de Jesus, thus, as I said to my spouse, Santa Teresa, you are Bernardo de Jesus and I am Jesus de Bernardo. My honor is yours; your honor is Mine. Consider My glory that of your Spouse; I will consider yours, that of My spouse. All Mine is yours, and all yours is Mine. What I am by nature you share by grace. You and I are one!”
(quoted at Jesus in Love from “The Visions of Bernard Francis De Hoyos, S.J.[Image]” by Henri Bechard, S.J.)
Kittredge observes, quite correctly,
While the Catholic church refuses to bless same-sex marriages, the lives and visions of its own saints tell a far different story — in which Christ the Bridegroom gladly joins himself in marriage with a man.
Michael Bayley at the Wild Reed, who drew my attention to Kittredge’s post, thinks that we should declare Bernardo the patron saint of Catholic for Marriage Equality, MN. Why not the patron saint of marriage equality – period?
For more on the details of Bernardo’s story, cross to Jesus in Love. What I want to do instead, is share a personal experience, and to reflect briefly on the lessons for modern gay Catholics, and other Christians.
This resonates with me, as I have had a similar experience myself. I was on a six-day silent, directed retreat in 2002, when, quite early on, my reflection turned to the familiar idea of “the bride of Christ”. I asked myself to picture instead “the groom of Christ”, and was led, for the rest of the retreat, into the most extraordinarily intense spiritual experience of my life. It was as if I was on honeymoon with my new husband. By day, every moment was spent deeply focussed on his presence, whether out of doors, in my room, or in the chapel, where I sat for hours at a time gazing at the tabernacle. By night, I was alone in bed with my lover, and new husband.
Remarkably, the day after I began this journey, I was browsing through some spiritual journals in the lounge of the retreat centre, and came across an article with exactly the same idea: that men could profit from adopting the same image for themselves, as the groom of Christ (but imagining Christ as female). Given the ubiquity of the visual representations of Christ the man that we meet from childhood and throughout our lives, in art and in explicitly religious pictures, statues, books and films, picturing Christ as female may be difficult. As gay men, we have no need to do so: we may retain our traditional view of Christ as male (fully male, with a fully male body) and adapt instead the traditional image of ourselves as the brides of Christ, to the grooms.
Try it. After all, just like John the Evangelist, we are all Beloved Disciples.
Sergius and Bacchus are by a long way the best known of the so-called gay or lesbian saints – unless we include as “saints” the biblical pairs David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi. We need to be careful with terminology though: the word “gay” can be misleading, as it certainly cannot be applied with the same connotations as in modern usage, and technically, they are no longer recognised as saints by Western church, as decreed by the Vatican – but they are still honoured by the Orthodox churches, and by many others who choose to ignore the rulings of Vatican bureaucrats. The origins of saint-making lay in recognition by popular acclaim, not on decision by religious officials.
Whatever the quibbles we may have, they remain of great importance to modern queer Christians, both for their story of religious faith and personal devotion, and as potent symbols of how sexual minorities were accepted and welcomed in the earliest days of the Christian community.
They are particularly important in the movement to marriage equality, for their significance in early rites of blessing same-sex unions in church, which may point a way to making a modern provision for something similar without necessarily changing the traditional understanding of church marriage to that between a man and a woman – with its link to child-bearing.
(And, as I have written before, I have a very special personal connection with this pair of early saints and martyrs for the faith. Like so many queer Catholics, it never occurred to me that there could even exist gay or lesbian Catholics until I heard of SS Sergius and Bacchus. Some months after first hearing of them, I read their story in John Boswell, and wondered when was their feast day. I investigated – and found by wonderful serendipity that it was that very day. That began for me a continuing exploration of the other LGBT saints, of the rest of gay history in the churches, of more general gay and lesbian theology – and this blog. By further serendipity, I discovered this week that today, the feast day of Sergius and Bacchus, is also the birthday of – Dan Savage, well known for his work to combat homophobic teen bullying. If Serge and Bacchus may be regarded as patrons saints of gay adults, is Dan Savage a modern patron saint of gay teens?).
The Lovers’ Story
Sergius and Bacchus were third /fourth century Roman soldiers, and lovers. This alone is worth noting in any discussion of homoerotic relationships and the early Christians: in the Roman world, as in most of the Mediterranean region, such relationships were commonplace. What mattered in questions of sexual ethics and social approval (or otherwise) had little to do with the gender of the partners, but with their respective social status.
They were of high social standing, good enough to have a close personal relationship with the emperor, Tertullian. This provoked jealousy. They were also Christians, which gave their enemies a useful pretext to denounce them to the Emperor. He ordered them to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, which they refused to do. Their refusal provoked the wrath of the emperor, who began to exact a series of penalties, culminating in the sentence of death. The first to be killed was Bacchus, who was flogged to death. Serge was subjected to further torture, before being killed himself. The fifth century “Passion of Sergius and Bacchus” describes many details, and also some supposed miraculous interventions, such as the dead Bacchus appearing to Sergius in a vision, where he admonished his partner for grieving, and promised that they would soon be together again:
Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken away from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shall enlarge my heart”.
Boswell makes two points about the trial and passion of Sergius and Bacchus that are especially relevant to their significance for queer Christians: in all the legal and theological arguments over the charges against them, the matter of their relationship was simply not an issue. The complaint was that they had refused to honour pagan gods. Their sexuality was of no consequence at all. Later, when the Greek hagiographer has the dead Bacchus appear to Sergius to comfort him with the prospect of paradise, the greatest joy of the promised afterlife is to be reunited with his male lover. Neither the Roman jurists, nor the fifth century Christian writer who recorded the passion, have anything at all to say against the relationship – and the Christian celebrates the quality and value of their love.
Sergius and Bacchus & Gay Marriage
It is simply historically untrue that marriage has always been between one man and one woman, or that same-sex marriage is a modern invention. Among many counter-examples that easily disprove that belief, is the tradition of liturgical blessings, in church, of same-sex unions as described by the ground-breaking historical work of John Boswell. While these were not in any way an exact counterpart to modern marriage (nor were heterosexual unions from the same period), they do no need to be considered carefully in modern responses in faith to the questions around marriage and family equality. Sergius and Bacchus are significant here, for being mentioned by name in many of the liturgies for these rites that have survived, along with numerous other, less familiar examples of same-sex couples from church history.
There are also surviving texts of ancient and medieval hymns to the couple. Boswell quotes one from the sixth century, which has the opening verse ,
Of Serge and Bacchus, the pair
filled with grace, let us sing, O ye faithful!
Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds!
The full hymn is too long to quote here in full, but one verse in particular emphasises the importance of their mutual devotion:
It was not desire for this world
that captivated Serge for Christ,
nor the empty life of worldly affairs
[that captivated] Bacchus;
rather, made one
as brethren in the bond of love
they called out valiantly to the tyrant,
“See in two bodies
one soul and and heart,
one will and virtue.
Take those that yearn to please God.
Glory to Him who worketh through his saints amazing and wonderful deeds!
The words “made brethren” in this verse are a reference to the literal translation of the greek name for the rite, that of “making brothers”. This has been taken by some commentators as disproving Boswell’s claim that these rites have any connection to marriage, and are instead simply a joining in spiritual brotherhood. (A claim that Boswell himself anticipated and countered in the text himself).
Whatever the original connotation of the words though, that there was some concept of marriage involved is clearly shown by another hymn from the ninth century, quoted and discussed at “Obscure Classics of Latin Literature“, on a page for Carolingian poetry.
I. O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract as our voices resound with odes And let us make manifest the gracious rewards of the Lord. We who are below shall celebrate the saints with an illustrious hymn From our very hearts.
II. Holy martyrs shining by virtue of your merits, Sergius and Bacchus, As partners you wear God’s crown, you have transcended Together the enclosure of the flesh; and now you are Above the stars.
“O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract” seems pretty explicit, to me.
Glory to Him who worketh through his saints amazing and wonderful deeds!
(At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has a fascinating post on depictions of Sergius and Bacchus in art, featuring in particular a wonderful stained glass window of the pair, at St. Martha’s Church in Morton Grove, Illinois. This was donated to the church by its LGBT parishioners, and is believed to be the only representation of them in any United States Church).