Tag Archives: All Saints

Nov 1st: Feast of all (Queer) Saints

An important part of Catholic tradition is a strong interest in S & M – and that’s not Sadism and Masochism (although some would say that to be a Catholic, and especially a gay Catholic, it helps to be a masochist), but “Saints and Martyrs”. For today’s feast of All Saints, it is worth remembering that the multitude of saints and martyrs in Church history also includes many queer saints and martyrs. For this great feast, I republish here an address I gave originally for the Quest 40th anniversary conference, in July 2013.

QuestLogo

I know that some people find the term “queer” offensive, but the primary meaning is just “strange”.  Some of our queer saints and martyrs are very queer. or strange,  indeed.

Many of you will know about Sergius and Bacchus, the best known of the gay saints:  Roman soldiers, lovers and Christian martyrs.  But are they saints? They are no longer listed in some major reference books on Catholic saints, and in others are listed, but with a note that their “cult” was suppressed in 1969. I’ve since come across claims that they were not in fact lovers, but just “good friends” – and even that modern scholars don’t believe they ever existed, in the first place.

 

This  rather sums up any attempt to grapple fully with the story of gay saints in Christian history: I have no doubt at all that there really were and still are many gay, lesbian and trans saints, but it’s not always easy to classify saints by orientation, there are ambiguities in what constitutes sainthood, and some of the historical details are distinctly unreliable. (The best known “facts” about St Patrick are that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, and used the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity. At least one of those is definitely not true, the other is dubious).

In the same spirit, I can assure you that of the saints I’m about to discuss, at least some of the facts are true.

Let’s return to Sergius and Bacchus, and their removal from the saintly canon in 1969. There are some gay activists who see conspiracy in this, but its much simpler. In the early church, there was no formal canonization process – the saints were those who were popularly acclaimed as such. In 1969, the Vatican went through the records, and removed a large number that were doubtful. There’s a converse – “saints” are not only those who have been canonized. There’s still a place for saints by popular acclamation.

At about the same period as Sergius and Bacchus, and also in Rome, there were Galla and Benedicta,  two nuns in a 5th century Roman convent, devoted to God, and to each other. When Galla fell seriously ill, St Peter appeared to her in a vision, and told her to prepare for her imminent death. Galla quite welcomed the idea of proceeding to heaven, but pleaded with Peter that she should not have to leave behind her beloved Benedicta. The saint duly promised that Benedicta too, would die soon after Galla, and that’s exactly what happened. I’m not sure how many of us would pray for the death of our loved ones  – but then, we’re not saints.

In the Eastern Church, there were a number of women who disguised themselves as men to live and pray in male monasteries (the earliest trans saints). The oddest trans saint of all is Wilgefortis, whose feast day was last Saturday. Some statues of her show a crucified, bearded woman. She was a beautiful royal princess, who was commanded by her father to marry a prince he had selected for her. She, on the other hand, did not want to marry, but to devote her life to God as a virgin. So, she prayed to God to be freed from the evil of marriage. Miraculously, she woke up with a thick beard, whereupon the prince refused to marry her, and the wedding fell through. Her father was furious, and had her crucified for her disobedience. That’s the story. The probable truth is less dramatic, possibly based on a conventional crucifix showing Christ in a tunic, rather than the more usual loincloth. Mistaking the tunic for a dress, people invented the myth of the bearded woman, to explain what appeared to be a crucified bearded woman. Even so, some people treasure her as a patron of trans or intersex people. She is also known by a range of other names, including Uncumber, and in Spanish “Liberada” – liberated. Under that name, she is regarded as a patron for liberation from male domination. I like to think of her as a possible patron for liberation from all manner of sexual or gender stereotypes and enforced roles.

 

On the other side of the Roman Empire, we have a completely orthodox, historically reliable 4th century Spanish bishop and saint, Paulinus of Nola, highly regarded for his missionary work, and also for his excellent liturgical verse. What the standard Catholic histories don’t tell you, is he is also respected by Latin scholars for his erotic verse addressed to a male lover, Ausonius. What is truly extraordinary, is that he is only one of a number of canonized saints, bishops and abbots, mostly medieval, whose poetry is included in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. But here it gets more tricky. Some of the frankly homoerotic language is no more than a literary device, not intended to represent any actual, real life male love interest.

What we do know is that there were numerous examples of pairs of bishops and saints who had close relationships which were intimate emotionally, if not physically:  St Aelred of Rievaulx wrote an important book on the spiritual value of these relationships. Just one example from this diocese, is that of the Saint Richard, bishop of Chichester, who had a close, emotionally intimate relationship with  Archbishop Edmund of Canterbury. While these relationships were expected to be celibate, and many were, this was because as monks, they had taken vows of celibacy. (Before becoming a monk, Aelred himself had  a relationship which probably was physical with the young son of the Scottish king). Those of us who have not chosen celibacy, could learn from Aelred about the spiritual value of our own relationships.

As I’m focusing on saints and martyrs, I won’t say too much about the many notable examples of other abbots,  bishops and even popes who definitely had sex with men, but consider a special class of gay martyrs – those martyred by the church, on account of their sexuality, during many centuries of direct persecution that began with the Inquisition, and continued by civil governments on behalf of the Church.

What I find most fascinating about the Renaissance period, is that at just the time when the inquisition was actively hunting down and burning “sodomites”, there was a succession of popes and cardinals who were themselves having sex with men, or who were patrons of artists producing frankly homoerotic art – Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel being the best and well – known example. Less well known, is that one of these Popes also commissioned Michelangelo to paint a more explicitly erotic work for the papal bedroom.

In modern times, there would seem to be no gay or lesbian saints. That changes when we remember the important distinction between formally canonized saints, and popular saints. One candidate for sainthood by acclamation is Fr Mychal Judge, chaplain to the New York Fire Department, the saint of 9/11, who died in the twin towers and was carried out, formally identified as victim 0001. Immediately, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York and other prominent Catholics began calling for his canonization. Those calls ended abruptly when it became known that he was an active member of Dignity, and identified openly as gay. Another is the American layman Tom Dooley, who started as a Naval doctor, before devoting his life to missionary work in Africa. There is a formal cause open in favour of his canonization, and a website to promote it – but there’s a difficulty. The reason he left the Navy was that he was found to have engaged in a sexual relationship with a man, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence.

If the Catholic Church has an inbuilt bias against celebrating lay people as saints , that does not apply to other denominations. Lutherans and Anglicans do not have the elaborate procedures for canonization that we do, but they do nevertheless have a comparable form of recognition for holy men and women. It is among these, that we can find some more easily identifiable gay, lesbian and trans saints. The Episcopal Church in the USA has allocated a feast day to Vida Scudder, a social reformer of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century, who is known to have lived in a lesbian relationship. Just last year, the Episcopal Church added to its “Book of holy men and women”, Rev Pauli Murray, the first African American female ordained a priest. Although physically female, Murray saw himself, and lived, as a man attracted to women. The Lutherans include in their own calendar of saints, the United Nations Secretary General, Dag Hammerskold, who is believed to have been gay. But the most interesting of these Anglican / Lutheran saints is –

Michelangelo. The Vatican freely acknowledges the spiritual value of his work, including the male nudes and near nudes in the Sistine Chapel, but ignores the man. Anglicans and Lutherans know that the work cannot exist without its creator – and so they honour the man as well as the work. (The next time you men spend hours poring over Michelangelo’s hunky nude men, you could try claiming piously that you were doing so for their spiritual value, while praying to the saint who created the images).

sistine-chapel-last-judgment

What lesson can we draw from these queer saints and martyrs? First, to use the old cliché, we are not alone. There have always been what we call gay men and lesbians, in the Church, and among the saints, as there are everywhere else.

Second, I suggest we can include ourselves among the saints and martyrs. Accepting that “saints” refers to all holy men and women, not just those formally canonized, it is perfectly orthodox to say that we should all aspire to sainthood. Collectively, we as gay men and lesbians have all suffered martyrdom by the church – if no longer by physical execution, then certainly by emotional and spiritual abuse. But the word “martyrdom” derives from the word for “witness”. The early martyrs for the church were so called, because in the face of persecution, they witnessed to the truth of their faith.

And so I call on all of you, in the same spirit, to witness to the truth of both your faith, and the nature of your personal sexual or gender identity. Live with integrity, even in the face of continuing persecution by the Church. I ask you then  to drink a toast, to yourselves – to the assembled saints and martyrs of Quest.

 

 

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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Queer Saints and Martyrs for November

November

  • (Nov 16th 
    • Edmund?)

SS Benedicta, (6 May) and Galla (5 October), Roman nuns – and lovers?

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.

Who are the "Queer Saints and Martyrs"?

I have been rather neglecting this site for a while, partly by circumstance, and partly for some reflection and reconsideration of its essential nature. When I first started learning about the “gay saints” of the Church, the matter of definition seemed fairly clear.As time has moved on, and I have learned and thought a little more, I have realised that this view is simplistic. One comment at the site, referring specifically to trans saints, is also more broadly relevant to the entire project.

No MTF saints can be found among those who actually got canonized — but we all know, you don’t have to actually be canonized to be a saint. Surely there’s got to be some MTF saints who *aren’t* canonized! Problem is — not only such saints aren’t canonized – but a MTF saint would probably have so little written about her, that it would be unlikely that we’d even know about her at all! So, maybe it’s time that we start *investigating* the possibility? Coz let’s face it — the Vatican aint going to do this investigation for us. Information may be scant – but at least we can start looking! 

So – it’s time to start looking. Here is my current thinking, and the revised concept for the site.

Byzantine icon of “All Saints”

 

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