Even if, as this series has shown, the weight of the biblical tradition against the inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ2S+ persons is not as heavy as one might be led to think from so much of the current discourse, it remains that Christianity has ever been a friendly place for queer folk. And yet, despite of the consistent and persistent (and sometimes violent) opposition to homosexuality and those who don’t fit nicely into the gender binary, even here there are times, places, or individuals, where we see glimmers of hope: people or images upheld by the Church in whom queer folk might see our own experiences reflected. Today I’d like to take a quick look at some of these, in the Lives of the Saints, mystical writings, and the ‘brother-making’ ceremonies.
Lives of the Saints
While there are no ‘canonically‘ queer saints, there are saints whose stories could easily be interpreted as placing them within the ‘queer’ umbrella. These come in two major types: ‘paired’ saints and gender-bending saints.
Paired saints exist from very early on in the tradition. While not overtly sexual, the traditional language used to describe their relationships is blatantly homophilic and erotic. For example, it was said that the military saints Polyeuct and Nearchos “were tightly bound together” from the “passionate union their souls,” “each believing that he lived and breathed wholly in the other’s body.” A more famous pair of soldiers is Sts Sergius and Bacchus. Their Life refers to their love for each other being equal to their love for Christ; and after Bacchus is killed, he appears to Sergius in a dream in which he urges him to “hurry … to pursue and obtain me … For the crown of justice for me is to be with you.” As the controversial, though erudite, historian John Boswell, notes about this, “Bacchus’ promise that if Serge followed the Lord he would get as his reward not the beatific vision, not the joy of paradise, not even the crown of martyrdom, but Bacchus himself, was remarkable by the standards of the early church, privileging human affection in a way unparallelled during the first thousand years of Christianity” (Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe). Like the story of David and Jonathan, we cannot say with any degree of credibility that these paired saints represent homosexual relationships; but considering the ancient and venerable association between homosexuality and military life in that part of the world, we can be forgiven for wondering if there could have been more to these relationships than meets the eye. At the very least, we can say that they represent intimate and committed relationships between individuals of the same sex that far exceed what would be expected or ‘normal’ for same-gendered friendships in either our own culture or theirs.
The most popular female paired saints are the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity. Their story also exemplifies the gender-bending trope in the Lives of the Saints. In their story, Perpetua has a vision in which she becomes male, and both are lauded as “the most manly of soldiers.” Because of the high value placed on masculinity in Roman culture, it is not surprising that the trope of female saints ‘becoming’ or simply living as male emerged, and became one of the major archetypes for female saints. This trope includes figures like Saints Honoria, Marinos (or Marina), Smaragdos, Athanasios (or Athanasia), Eugene, Euphrosyne, among many others. There was even a popular medieval legend that one such figure, named Joan, became Pope! Despite ecclesiastical and civil prohibitions against cross-dressing, these individuals, who were raised as female, all dressed and found success living as men, and were sainted because of their gender-bending deception. Irrespective of whether their actions arose from gender dysphoria as understood today or simply as a way to have a life outside the expectations of marriage and motherhood, these saints shattered the expected conventions of what it meant to be a woman, and were praised for it.
If women could in some circumstances be praised for taking on ‘manly’ characteristics, the situation was far different for men. An accusation of effeminacy was the worst possible affront throughout much of Western history. And yet, some male saints laughed in the face of such disrepute. Sergius and Bacchus are again great exemplars of this. When they fell out of favour with the Emperor, they were dressed in women’s clothing and paraded through the streets. This was a common humiliation for criminals throughout antiquity, but they refused to be humiliated by it, saying: “As brides you have decked us with women’s gowns and joined us together for you.” They also argued that many women honoured God wearing such clothing, so it couldn’t keep them from doing so. Another popular male saint who openly played with concepts of gender was St. Francis of Assisi. At various times he referred to himself as a womb, as being impregnated and giving birth, and as a mother, even to the point of asking his monks to call him ‘mother’. (See Catherine M. Mooney’s work (particularly Gendered Voices and her essay “Francis of Assisi as Mother, Father, and Androgynous Figure,” in The Boswell Thesis, ed. Mathew Kuefler) for more on gender and St. Francis.) And so again we have a situation where transgressing received gender norms was not only accepted but recognized as being, in a sense, holy.
The next place we can find some whispers of ‘the missing myth’ in the Tradition is in certain spiritual writings. Often, this can be a case of figures from the past using language that we today have a hard time not seeing as homoerotic, but were unlikely to have been intended as such. (The most famous example is St. John of the Cross’s poem The Dark Night.) But there is at least one important monastic saint whose writing seems to be explicitly homoerotic, with no attempt at spiritualizing: St. Symeon the New Theologian. St. Symeon, who was active around the year 1000, was the most influential thinker of the Christian East in the six hundred years between John of Damascus and Gregory Palamas, so he is far from a minor or obscure figure. In one of his lesser-known parables, found in his Tenth Ethical Discourse, he writes of a rebel leader who repents and comes to the palace to give himself up. The emperor “fell upon his neck and kissed him all over” and provided him with a crown (a prominent symbol of marriage in the Eastern tradition) and clothes matching his own. “Night and day” the emperor “embraces him and kisses his mouth with his own mouth;” “he was not separated from him even in sleep, laying down with him and embracing him on his bed and covering him all over with this cloak, and placing his own face upon all his parts” (10.235-273). Derek Krueger summarizes this as “a performance of male same-sex desire and fantasy that structures expectations of salvation” (”The Homoerotic Spectacle and the Monastic Body in Symeon the New Theologian,” in Toward a Theology of Eros). Later tradition has largely ignored this parable as “questionable” and as “having forgotten the ‘perfected sensation’ that he argues for.” One more generous commentator notes that “the saint’s gift for image will exceed his discretion and good sense.” But could Symeon have actually meant what he said? Did he actually intend to use homoerotic imagery to describe our union with God?
On the more cautious side, Symeon likely had in mind an ongoing debate in Eastern Christian spirituality about the role of the body in the process of becoming holy. Byzantine culture inherited from late classical philosophy an anti-material bias that had a strong impact on its spirituality; but at the same time, belief in the Incarnation led theologians to push back against this tendency and insist that the faithful are united to God in and through our bodies, not apart from them or despite them. This was a live issue in Symeon’s day and it seems likely that his refusal to spiritualize the nuptual imagery here (something he does elsewhere) could have been intended to drive home the point that we are saved and sanctified in our bodies. But this is not in and of itself enough to ‘explain away’ the clear homoeroticism of the parable. Symeon ends the section with an exhortation to “run naked” to Christ and be made “worthy celebrants of the bridal chamber of heaven” (10.304-11). Again, it is not a feminized soul or spirit that is welcomed into Christ’s bed, but the monk in his naked, male, body.
This is not the only overtly homoerotic text attributed to Symeon. His ‘Hymn 16’ speaks of finding God inside him, “lighting up all my members with brightness, entirely intertwined with me, He embraces me totally.” And, “I am sated with divine delight and sweetness… and all my members become bearers of light.” The repeated emphasis on “all my members” again likely references the theological debates about the body — all of the man of faith’s body parts, including the ones looked upon as troublesome, are transfigured by this union with God. But again, this insistence means that we are imagining here the monk’s male body “entirely intertwined” with and “sated” by God. The ‘smoking gun’ for Symeon could be another Hymn, in which he refers to himself as “a sodomite in deed and desire” (Hymn 24, cited in Krueger), though this should be taken with a grain of salt since the term “sodomite” has carried many different meanings throughout history, ranging from the general ‘sinner’ to specific sex acts. (As late as the late 1800s, for example, New York’s sodomy laws included any sexual act aside from penile-vaginal sex within marriage; and of course, the Bible itself associates ‘the sin of Sodom’ with a lack of compassion, not with anything sexual.) Since our knowledge of Byzantine sexual language is far more limited than for the ancient Greek world, it’s hard to know exactly to what St. Symeon was confessing. But, if nothing else, his case demonstrates that it has been possible for persons of great faith to use homoerotic imagery, without spiritualizing it, in articulating theological truths.
Before moving on, I’d like to note that if indeed St. Symeon was acknowledging a predilection towards homosexuality, St. Symeon would not be alone among the saints. St. Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth century abbot, openly wrote that before he took is vow of celibacy he had had sex with men. While he remained committed to his vow, he indicated that he had not always been successful in living it out. And he continued to have long-standing, erotic — if ideally chaste — relationships with other men. There is no indication that he saw anything wrong with any of this: the vow of chastity was something expected of every monk, irrespective of their proclivities, not something he undertook because there was something wrong about his sexuality in particular.
Finally, we have to look at the curious case of so-called ‘brother-making’ liturgical rites. Basically, over a span of several hundred years, and across a large swath of Europe and the Near East, there were Church rites that blessed and solemnized relationships between two men. Even more surprising, these services were practically identical to the marriage rites of the time, featuring similar prayers and the quintessential rituals of the binding of hands and crowning. So, these are, for all intents and purposes, same-sex marriage rites, irrespective of how we interpret that. The big and unanswerable question is what they were intended to do. The name of the rite is not helpful, since ‘fraternal adoption’ was a civil issue and there is no evidence the Church ever took an interest in it. Additionally, there is a very long history — found in the Bible itself — of using sibling language to describe a spousal relationship. This practice is also well-documented for homosexual relationships, from ancient Greece through to classified ads in the 1980s. So the ‘brother-making’ language here cannot preclude it from being understood in a ‘gay’ way. Even a suggestion that these church-blessed relationships between men were expected to be chaste is not helpful, since it was also the expectation that heterosexual marriage be as chaste as possible. It also seems unlikely that these rites were intended to solmemnize particular friendships, since ‘particular friendships’ were also viewed with suspicion throughout much of Christian history. Additionally, these rites disappeared from liturgy books around the same time as anti-homosexuality laws were put into place in Early Modern Europe; indeed, the first person to publish the rite in the West, in the seventeenth century, put a note above it saying it was prohibited by ecclesiastical and civil law. If it was not about ‘same-sex marriage’, why would it be prohibited in this way? Questions abound with all of this. We simply do not know, and will likely never know, what these rites were all about. What we can say with certainty is that, for several hundred years, the Church had rites for the blessing of committed relationships between persons of the same gender, however that may have been conceived.
So, what does all of this mean? There can still be no doubt that the Christian tradition has on the whole demonstrated a strong antipathy towards what today we call queer, or LGBTQ2S+ people. But, as today’s post has shown, there are cracks in this seemingly united front. The Church has, at various times and places, celebrated same-sex pairs known for their great love and attachment to each other; recognized as great saints individuals who broke gender norms and at least one man who was unafraid to describe salvation in explicit homoerotic terms; and blessed relationships between same-sex individuals in a manner identical to how it blessed heterosexual marriages. These are whispers in the Tradition that we can hear and hold on to.
It was not desire for this world that captivated Sergius for Christ, Nor the empty life of worldly affairs Bacchus; Rather, made one as like brothers in the bonds of love, they called out valiantly to the tyrant: See in two bodies one soul and heart, one will and virtue. …. (Hymn to Sergius and Bacchus, ca. 6th C)
O Lord our God, who made humankind in your image and likeness …and who now have approved your saints and apostles Philip and Bartholomew becoming partners, not bound together by nature, but in the unity of the Holy Spirit and in the mode of faith, you who considered your saints and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus worthy to be united: Bless your servants ____ and _____, joined not by nature … But grant them to love each other and remain unhated and without scandal all the day of their lives …. (10th C liturgical manuscript)
Lord our God, glorified in the council of the saints, great and awesome ruler over all around you: Bless your servants _____ and ______, grant them knowledge of your Holy Spirit. Guide them in your holy fear, grant them joy, that they may become united more in the spirit than in the flesh. Because you are the one who blesses and sanctifies those who trust in you and yours is the everlasting glory. Amen. (10th C liturgical manuscript)
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