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 the 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.
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).
One of the curiosities of the Catholic tradition of honouring our saints and martyrs, is how hagiography seamlessly combines historical biography, myth with collective amnesia. The stories of Saints Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, for instance, are replete with well-known legends that have absolutely no verifiable foundation in historical fact, and the delightful story of St Wilgefortis (aka Uncumber), the crucified bearded woman, turns out to have a much more plausible basis in reality. For many other saints, the distortions of hagiography are not just the accretions that are added by popular imagination, but the important details that are so often omitted in the transmission down the ages. St Paulinus, for instance, is widely honoured for his missionary work and for the impressive quality of his Latin devotional poetry. The standard Catholic sources on the saints, however, discreetly omit any reference to his other poetic legacy – equally fine homoerotic verse addressed to his boyfriend, Ausonius.
The story of Saints Galla and Benedicta of Rome may be another example of this selective memory.
Neither of these is particularly well-known, and Benedicta is even less-so than Galla, but I start with her. There are references to her scattered across the internet, but they all seem to come down to a few lines similar to these, from Catholic Online:
Mystic and nun. Benedicta lived in a convent founded by St. Galla in Rome. Pope St. Gregory the Great states that St. Peter appeared in a vision to warn her of her approaching death.
This seems innocuous enough, until it is set against the parallel warning of imminent death that St Gregory also gave to the better known St Galla.
From a large selection of on-line sources, Wikipedia sums up the key uncontested points of her story, those widely reported elsewhere:
Galla was the daughter of Roman patrician Symmachus the Younger, who was appointed consul in 485. Galla was also the sister-in-law of Boethius. Her father, Symmachus the Younger, was condemned to death, unjustly, by Theodoric in 525. Galla was then married but was soon widowed, just over a year after marriage. It was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage. Being wealthy, she decided to retreat to theVatican Hill, and found a hospital and a convent, near St. Peter’s Basilica. Galla is reputed to have once healed a deaf and mute girl, by blessing some water, and giving it to the girl to drink. Galla remained there for the rest of her life, tending to the sick and poor, before dying in 550, of breast cancer.
Notice, please, that little sentence tucked away in the middle, and its cautious qualifier: “it was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage.” This strategy of a holy woman, to grow a beard to avoid marriage, is precisely that adopted by Wilgefortis. Her legend appears to have a much more mundane explanation. I have no knowledge of any firm evidence to either corroborate, or to contradict, Galla’s legendary beard. What interests me is the rest of Galla’s story, and its treatment in hagiography.
An article at Catholic Culture is a good example. It seizes on the beard, and uses it as a moral fable, encouraging us to “dare to be different”. Catholic Culture, however, claims that the beard story was only a threat, and the beard never did grow.
A story about St. Galla of Rome, illustrating the importance to not follow the crowd, but to be oneself. Legend says that St. Galla, after becoming a widow, grew a beard to avoid any offers of remarriage.
Not only girls who want to be nuns, but girls who just want to be good have to ignore a marvelous lot of nonsense from those who “follow the pack.” Life will pass you by, they say, and you won’t have any fun if you don’t do as we do! About as fast as St. Galla grew her beard, it will!
So, then dare to be different – the cause of following holiness. But there’s one little detail also included in the same article, which they do not comment on – a detail that has been omitted from all the other accounts I have seen about Galla. These all tell how, as reported by St Gregory, St Peter appeared to Galla in her final illness to predict the date of her imminent death. The other reports omit the crucial detail that the deaths of Galla and Benedicta were directly linked – at Galla’s express request to Peter:
One night she saw St. Peter standing before her between two candlesticks and she asked him if her sins were forgiven her. St. Peter nodded and said, “Come, follow me.” But Galla asked if her dear friend Benedicta might come too. Yes, she might, said St. Peter, after thirty days — and that is precisely what happened. St. Galla and another holy woman departed this life for heaven three days later, and Benedicta thirty days after them.
As Censor Librorum at Nihil Obstat noted in her reflection on Galla last December, a woman who first grows or threatens to grow a beard to avoid marriage, and then implores Saint Peter to allow her female beloved to accompany her into heaven, is not displaying a conventional heterosexual orientation.
I have no hesitation in hesitation in adding Saints Galla and Benedicta to my collection of queer saints and lovers.
The body of Mychal Judge was tagged with the designation “Victim 0001” — the first official casualty of 9/11. In the famous Shannon Stapleton/Reuters photo, he is being carried out of the lobby of the North Tower, where he had been killed by debris from the collapsing South Tower. He was a Catholic priest of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, assigned to the monastery at the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in Manhattan. He was also a chaplain with the New York Fire Department (NYFD) and one of the first responders to the attack on the twin towers. He was a recovered alcoholic… and he was gay.”
Today, Aug 9th, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of “St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross” – better known to most people as Edith Stein, Jewish convert to Catholicism, and nun who died in the Nazi gas chambers on August 9th 1942, and was later canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
There is nothing that directly links her to gay or lesbian Catholics, but indirectly I was struck, when reading her story this morning, of how many parallels and points of similarity there are between her situation and ours, that offer abundant material for reflection. This is a new idea for me, which I still need to think through and investigate – but as her day is still fresh, I offer them raw, as they are, while still topical. Perhaps some readers would like to help me to think this through further.
The earliest part of her life that is directly relevant is that she was born a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Judaism is an intensely inward-looking, family oriented culture and religion. For a Jewish person converting to Catholicism, this is much more than simply changing a set of religious beliefs, as in moving from one Christian denomination to another: it involves moving outside an entire culture, possibly including rejection or hostility from family members, and former friends and fellow worshippers. Conversely, adopting Catholicism includes becoming familiar with Catholic culture, quite as much as with Catholic belief and spiritual practices. As lesbians and gay men – and even more for those who adopt a gender identity that departs from biological sex – we grow up in a heterosexual culture and specific gender expectations that we become familiar with, even as we realize that we do not fit. In coming out, and rejecting the “automatic” sexual identity that had been imposed on us for one more in keeping with our authentic selves, we too may find ourselves rejected by family, friends, or colleagues – and certainly by some in the heterosexual world. Instead, just like Edith Stein who had to learn to absorb Catholic culture, we have to learn to find our way around a whole new culture in the LGBT community. Young heterosexuals have complex processes of socialization that guide and help them learn the patterns of sexual interaction and being, in their families, in schools, and from popular culture. Newly out homosexuals have to learn these things for themselves.
Edith was not just a Jewish convert – she was a Jew in Germany, leading up to WWII. She sought refuge in exile, in the Netherlands. As lesbian and gay Catholics, we too may find that we need to seek refuge in exile – exile from the Church itself, and its hostility to sexual nonconformists. She spoke out against the horrors of the Nazi persecution, and distanced herself from her former teacher. So too, we must speak out against the persecution of minority groups by the institutional Catholic Church, and distance ourselves from those who have taught us distorted interpretations of the faith.
As a Carmelite nun, she had a particular devotion to St John of the Cross (from whom she took her name) and St Theresa of Avila. I do not yet know anything specific about this devotion, quite what aspect of these saints she particularly appreciated, but I do know this. One component of the spirituality of these great mystics is that it was expressed at times in intensely physical, erotic language. This alone makes it particularly attractive and appropriate for use as a spiritual path for gay men in particular.
But it is obviously not simply a spirituality of erotic rapture – St John is after all, known as St John of the Cross! Orthodox Vatican doctrine recognizes that its expectation of compulsory celibacy imposes on us a burden which the heterosexuals are not expected to bear, and explains this as a “cross” that we must carry. I too see a cross in our condition – but I see the cross not in the gift of an orientation given to me by God, but in the unjustified persecution we endure by the church, and promoted by its false teachings, in the wider world.
Stein’s death in the gas chambers, and her later canonization, have been seen in two dramatically different ways. John Paul II canonized her as a martyr, arguing that her arrest and deportation was in direct retaliation for a letter by the Dutch bishops denouncing the Nazis, which in turn may have been prompted by the stance of Edith herself. Jewish groups say she was just one Jewish victim among millions, who should not have been singled out for special treatment.
The same divided perspective applies to those gay and lesbian theologians who have found themselves persecuted by the Vatican for their prophetic witness against its condemnation and scapegoating of “homosexuals” in the Church. One side sees them as near heretics, the other as prophets, and (metaphorically) as martyrs who have seen their careers destroyed for their honesty.
Which view is sound? I know where I stand, but ultimately, we await the judgement of history.
Saints, martyrs and liturgical feasts in August worth noting for their queer significance, include women deacons (a reminder that clerical ministry has not always been restricted to men), Edith Stein of the Cross, two notable same – sex couples (Bernard of Clairvaulx and Malachi, and John Henry Newman and Ambrose St John), and modern heroes of the movement for LGBT rights.