Tag Archives: gay saints

Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints

Today is the feast of All Saints.  For us as gay men, lesbians in the church, this begs the obvious questions: are there gay saints?  Does it matter?
Some sources say clearly yes, listing numerous examples. Others dispute the idea, saying either that the examples quoted are not officially recognised, or denying that they wer gay because we do not know that they were sexually active.  Before discussing specifically LGBT or queer saints, consider a more general question.
Who are the “Saints”, and why do we recognise them?
All Saints Albrecht  Dürer
All Saints : Albrecht Dürer

Richard McBrien gives one response, at NCR on-line:

There are many more saints in heaven than the relatively few who have been officially recognized by the church.
“For every St. Francis of Assisi or St. Rose of Lima there are thousands of unknown and long forgotten mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers, nurses, teachers, manual laborers, and other individuals in various kinds of occupations who lived holy lives that were consistent with the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Although each is in eternal glory, none of their names is attached to a liturgical feast, a parish church, a pious society, or any other ecclesiastical institution. The catch-all feast that we celebrate next week is all the recognition they’re ever going to receive from the church.”
“The church makes saints in order to provide a steady, ever renewable stream of exemplars, or sacraments, of Christ, lest our following of Christ be reduced to some kind of abstract, intellectual exercise.
Two things are important here, especially at this feast of “all” saints: the category of saints is far larger than just those who have been recognised by a formal process; and the reason for giving them honour is to provide role models. It is not inherent to the tradition of honouring the saints that they should be miracle workers, or that we should be praying to them for special favours – although officially attested miracles are part of the canonization process. This formal process did not even exist in the early church:  it was only in the 11th or 12 the century that saint making became the exclusive preserve of the Pope.
It now becomes easier to make sense of the gay, lesbian and transvestite saints in Church history, and their importance for the feast of All Saints.

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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.

St. George the Dragon Slayer

I’ve always been somewhat amused by the idea that St George, with no discernible link to this country, known primarily for an obviously mythical reputation as a dragon slayer, should have been adopted as patron saint of England. It’s also rather odd that of the four constituent “countries” in the UK, the English are oddly reserved about flying the flag of St George, at least outside of  sports events.  The Scots, the Welsh and (especially) the Irish will celebrate their national days with enthusiasm, but the English are very ambivalent about George, with claims that he has been hijacked by right wing nationalist racists. However, his feast day comes at a good time of year (springtime), and coincides happily with Shakespeare’s birthday, so I’ve always been happy to drink a quiet toast to George, and to Will Shakespeare, when April 23rd comes around.
Now, though, I have found an excellent reason to take him rather more seriously.

I knew that Paul Halsall, in his calendar of LGBT Saints, lists George, but I had not previously investigated why.  Now that I have done, I find several features that appeal to me personally.
As stated above,  his irrational status as ptaron Saint of England, my adopted home, delights my sense of the absurd. That he should have a claim to a status as a gay icon increases the appeal. To cement the deal, the nature of his claim, to a mystical experience in which he is described as the “bridegroom of Christ” pretty closely resembles the central experience of the most intense retreat of my own life.

I think I should change my middle name to “George”.
Now, consider the dragon.  The value of plainly mythical beasts lies in their potential as symbols.  If we use the dragon image to represent ignorance, homophobia and the institutional hostility from heterosexual theology, can we all march under his banner?
I’d like to think so.

This is how “Pharsea’s World” explains his significance for gay men:

Nothing whatsoever can be established about St. George as a historical figure. Nethertheless, no one reading early texts about George can fail to notice their homoeroticism. George at one stage is about to marry, but is prevented by Christ:
“[George] did not know that Christ was keeping him as a pure virginal bridegroom for himself”.
[E.W. Budge: “The Martyrdom and Miracles of St. George of Cappodocia”: The Coptic Texts,
(London: D. Nutt, 1888) page 282]
In these texts ….George is presented as the bridegroom of Christ. Bridal imagery is quite common in discourse about Christ, but usually male saints are made into “brides of Christ”, but with George homo-gender marital imagery is used.


Related posts:

St Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles

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.
What are we to make of this?

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.

St. Aelred of Rievaulx, Abbot 12/01

St Aelred, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12th Century. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott. He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron.

St Aelred, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott. He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron.

Others point to his work as insisting on chastity, and believe that his well-recognised male friendships were entirely non-sexual. Whatever the genital truth, we should remember and honour Aelred as a reminder of the important place of intimate (emotionally, if not sexually) relationships between same-sex couples in the history of the church.

From the Calendar of LGBT Saints:

How Aelred Made it to the American Book of Common Prayer
by Louie Crew, founder of Integrity, [email: lcrew@ANDROMEDA.RUTGERS.EDU]

Aelred was not in ECUSA’s calendar until a Roman Catholic head of history at Yale, John Boswell, wrote about him powerfully in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality Boswell dwelt at length with the lesbigay positive evidence. That spurred Integrity member, the late Howard Galley, one of the major architects of the 1976 Prayer Book, to initiate the actions which finally led to Aelred’s inclusion: using Aelred’s own texts, Galley shaped the readings which appear in THE LESSER FEASTS AND FASTS, including this collect:

Pour into our hearts, O God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love, that we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred, draw many to your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who livers and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN

Select bibliography (From the Calendar of LGBT Saints)

Catholic Encyclopedia – entry on Aelred (available online)

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, trans. Mary Eugenia Laker, (Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications 1977), see esp. p. 21 on Aelred’s homosexual attractions.

Boswell, John, CSTH, 221-20

McGuire, Brian P, “Monastic Friendship and Toleration “, in Monks, Hermits and the Ascetic Traditions, Studies in Church History 22, ed. W.J. Shiels, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985) pp. 147-160

McGuire, Brian P, “Looking Back on Friendship: Medieval Experience and Modern Context”, Cistercian Studies 21:2 (1986), pp. 123-142

McGuire, Brian P., Brother and Lover: Aelred of Rievaulx, (New York: Crossroad, 1994)
In his earlier articles, McGuire, the foremost expert on early Cistercian bonding, professed to find explanations of Aelred as homosexual as “one-dimensional”, but in this book he more forthrightly identifies Aelred as homosexual.

McGuire, Brian Patrick, “Sexual Awareness and Identity in Aelred of Rievulx (1110-67)”, American Benedictine Review 45(1994): 184-226
This probably the best work of its kind out on Aelred. It is the most comprehensive, and actually covers more ground than Brother & Lover.

Russell, Kenneth C., “Aelred, the Gay Abbot of Rievaulx”, Studia Mystica 5:4 (Winter 1982), 51-64

 

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St Venantius Fortunatus, Italian Bishop and Homoerotic Poet

c.530-c.603
Venantius Fortunatus was a poet, born c. 530 in Treviso, near Ravenna in Italy. He spent his time as court poet to the Merovingians. After visiting the tomb of St. Martin of Tours at St. Hilary at Poitiers, he decided to enter a monastery. He continued to write poetry, some of which have a permanent place in Catholic hymnody, for instance the Easter season hymns “Vexilla Regis” and the “Pange Lingua” (Sing, O my tongue, of the battle). Three or four years before he died he was made bishop of Poitiers. Although never canonized, he was venerated as a saint in the medieval church, and his feast day is still recognized on 14th December each year.

Like Paulinus of Nola, St Veantius’s poetry also includes some decidedly secular verse of the romantic sort. That this celebrates male love is clear from its inclusion in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.

“Written on an Island off the Breton Coast”

You at God’s altar stand, His minister
And Paris lies about you and the Seine:
Around this Breton isle the Ocean swells,
Deep water and one love between us twain.
Wild is the wind, but still thy name is spoken;
Rough is the sea: it sweeps not o’er they face.
Still runs my lover for shelter to its dwelling,
Hither, O heart, to thine abiding place.
Swift as the waves beneath an east wind breaking
Dark as beneath a winter sky the sea,
So to my heart crowd memories awaking,
So dark, O love, my spirit without thee.
>

[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]

Books:

Coote, Stephen, ed., The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse
Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.

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Polyeuctus and Nearchus, Martyrs 09/01

John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names Polyeuctus and Nearchus as one of the three primary pairs of same sex lovers in the early church. (The others are Sergius & Bacchus and Felicity and Perpetua). Other sources are less certain that they were lovers: the useful “God is Wonderful in His Saints” Orthodox Resources website describes them simply as “friends”. Before dismissing Boswell’s claim though, we should remember that “friends” has sometimes served as a euphemism for “lovers”, just as to “sleep with” someone in modern English usually means more than to share a snooze.

“Polyeuctus and Nearchus were fellow-officers and close friends, serving in the Roman army at Miletene in Armenia. Nearchus was a Christian. Polyeuctus, though abundant in virtues, was still imprisoned in idol- worship. When the Emperor Decius’ persecution broke out (239-251), an edict was issued requiring all soldiers to show their loyalty by making public sacrifice to the gods. Nearchus sadly told Polyeuctus that because of the decree they would soon be parted. But Polyeuctus, who had learned about the Christian faith from his friend, answered that Christ had appeared to him in a vision, exchanging his military uniform for a shining garment and giving him a winged horse. Polyeuctus took the vision as a sign that he was to embrace the Faith, and that he, with Nearchus, would soon be lifted up to heaven. Almost immediately, he first tore down the Emperor’s edict in front of a startled crowd, then smashed the idols being carried in a pagan procession. He was quickly arrested and subjected to beating and scourging for sacrilege, but he only proclaimed more forcefully that he was a Christian. When the persecutors saw that Polyeuctus’ patient endurance was bringing other idolaters to the faith, they condemned him to death.”

Select bibliography
Boswell, John, Same Sex Unions, 141-44



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