LGBT (Church) History Month: Queer Saints, before "Christianity"

Christianity did not enter the world independently of other religions, or uninfluenced by them. It began as a Jewish sect, and still shares with Judaism a major part of its scriptures and traditions. The Jews in turn were just one small ethnic group in a diverse Mediterranean world of conflicting cultures and civilizations, subject to repeated conflict and war with their neighbours, and to repeated bouts of conquest and slavery.  Before we can really appreciate the place of queer men and women in “Christian” history, we need to consider their place in a wider context: outside the Jewish world, in the Jewish scriptures, and in the contemporary world of Christ himself, before the expansion of his following became an independent faith with a name of its own – Christianity.

The Rape of Ganymede (Rubens)


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Let Us Remember, for Dec 14th: Two Queer Saints

St Venantius Fortunatus, Italian Bishop and Homoerotic Poet

 

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

St John of the Cross, Spanish mystic, Priest and Doctor 1542 -1591 

He is important for queer Catholics, especially gay men, for two reasons. First, because he is a great teacher of spirituality, and the cultivation of spiritual practice, by enabling a more direct experience of the divine, is an excellent way to immunize ourselves from toxic and misguided teaching on human sexuality. Second, and more interestingly, because his language at times uses imagery which is plainly homoerotic, and so easily usable by gay men in their own prayer.

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“Eternal Bliss” – SS Felicity and Perpetua, March 7th

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 many Catholics as among the saints that are listed in the First 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.

g3

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Vida Dutton Scudder: Lesbian Saint for Our Times

Vida Dutton Scudder is a rare example of a modern lesbian who is a recognized Christian saint (recognized by the US Episcopal Church, not the Roman Catholics). Her work and message are particularly relevant to the twentieth century, as we grapple with an economic crisis triggered in effect by corporate and consumer greed.

 Born in 1861, over a long life Scudder was an educator, writer, and welfare activist in the social gospel movement. Much of her thinking has particular relevance to us today, as we grapple with a financial and economic crisis precipitated in effect by a corporate and consumer culture marked by unrestrained greed. Throughout her life Scudder’s primary relationships and support network were women. From 1919 until her death, Scudder was in a relationship with Florence Converse, with whom she lived.

  After earning a BA degree from Smith College in 1894, in 1895 she became one of the first two American women admitted to graduate study at Oxford university. After returning to Boston, Scudder (more…)

Catholic Queer Families: SS Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachi

The Queer Families of the Catholic Church

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

 

St Bernard of Clervaux, Heilegenkreuz Abbey (Georg Andreas Wasshuber,1650-1732),

 

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Hildegard of Bingen

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. As one of Kitt’s readers put it in a comment, (more…)

The Story of Our Queer Saints & Martyrs (and others)

Ever since I started here at QTC, I have tried to share with you some information about our gay, lesbian and trans saints and martyrs, which I think is one of the great unknown stories of Church a and LGBT history. Ever since Stonewall, there has been a recognition that so much of the queer past has been hidden from history, with a great deal of work done to uncover this history and bring it into the light of day. In exactly the same way, and more dangerously, our history in the church has also been hidden. The pioneering work of scholars like John Boswell (and before him, Vern Bullough) has done a great deal to open this history up for exposure, but too often it remains buried in academic treatises which are valuable, but possibly inaccessible or intimidating to a general reader.

All Saints

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The Saints & Martyrs of Stonewall

Devotion to the saints is one of the most characteristic features of Catholic culture – but just who are the “saints”? The best known are those officially recognised by the church, those who have been formally canonized and listed in official guides by the Church. But it was not always so – in the early church, before it became an institutional industry (sometimes even a commercial enterprise) things were different: saints were recognized by popular acclamation.
In this month of LGBT Pride, worldwide, there has been a lot written about the events of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1969, events that led to the first gay liberation marches the following year, and to countless more Pride Parades, in an expanding list of locations, ever since. Can we think of those Stonewall heroes as “saints”? Kittredge Cherry thinks we can, and has written about them for her LGBT Sainsts and Martyrs series at “Jesus in Love” Blog.

There are many forms of sainthood, and Kitt is right to include as saints more than just those formally recognised by the institutional church. Often linked to “saints” is the word “martyrs”, from the Greek “to bear witness”. It is in this sense, that we can think of the Stonewall heroes not only as saints, but also as “martyrs”, those who bore witness to the truth. So it is too, that we are all called to “martyrdom” at Pride, to bear witness to out own truth. “Speak the Truth in Love” is the instruction from Scripture, and even from the Vatican in its infamous Hallowe’en letter. “Speaking the Truth” can also mean, quite simply, joining a Pride Parade as a religious act.

I like to think of saints in terms of the lessons they can offer us in our lives today, and in this there is another lesson we can take from the Stonewall martyrs: the importance of standing up against injustice. For them, it was the harassment of the police they were standing up to and resisting, against all expectations. For us, it is the harassment and unequal treatment meted out by the institutional church.

This is how Kitt introduces her post:

LGBT people fought back against police harassment 41 years ago today (June 28) at New York City’s Stonewall Inn, launching the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender liberation movement.

The Stonewall Rebellion (aka Stonewall Riots) became known as the first time that LGBT people rebelled against government persecution of homosexuality. It is commemorated around the world during June as LGBT Pride Month.

The queer people who fought back at Stonewall are not saints in the usual sense. But they are honored here as “saints of Stonewall” because they had the guts to battle an unjust system. They do not represent religious faith — they stand for faith in ourselves as LGBT people. They performed the miracle of transforming self-hatred into pride. These “saints” began a process in which self-hating individuals were galvanized into a cohesive community. Their saintly courage inspired a justice movement that is still growing stronger after four decades.

Before Stonewall, police regularly raided gay bars, where customers submitted willingly to arrest. The Stonewall Inn catered to the poorest and most marginalized queer people: drag queens, transgenders, hustlers and homeless youth.

She concludes with a prayer for all saints:

I think of the saints of Stonewall as I pray this standard prayer for all saints:

God, May we who aspire to have part in their joy
be filled with the Spirit that blessed their lives. Amen.

(Read the full post at  ”GLBT saints: The Saints of Stonewall“)

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Saint Sebastian, Martyr

Widely known as an early martyr, Sebastian was a Roman soldier arrested during theDiocletian persecution of the late 3rd Century. Ordered to be executed, he was tied naked to a column and shot with arrows. Widely represented in art, it was not this, however, that killed him. He was left for dead, but was nursed back to life. After recovering, he intercepted the Emperor and denounced him for his cruelty to Christians. Enraged, the Emperor once again ordered his execution. This time, he was beaten to death, on 20th January 288. How many others have achieved martyrdom twice in one lifetime?

"Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian", Antonio del Pollaiuolo, National Gallery.

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