St Paulinus of Nola: Bishop, Poet, Saint – and Gay: (June 22nd )

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 married, but also 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 entirely clear from the above that whatever his physical erotic activities, his sensibility was entirely what we would today call “Gay”.  Paulinus’ feast day was on Monday of this week (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.

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