Monthly Archives: May 2012

Catholic Queer Families: SS Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachy

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

Bernard lived in community with other men and shared intense, loving relationships with them. This experience directly informed the theological work that brought Bernard the title Doctor of the Church.
It is no accident that a major vehicle of Bernard’s teaching was a series of sermons on the Song of Songs, the erotic poem that is also sacred scripture. His reading reflects his experience – outer and inner – of emotional attachments to men. We are accustomed to considering his experiences “mystical”, a term that in this context might as well be “magical”. This is because we have fallen for the Platonic fallacy that flesh and spirit are completely at odds.
Bernard’s life gives this notion the lie. Another of his many works, Life of St. Malachy, is based on his personal friendship with Archbishop Malachy of Armagh. It contains a description of their second meeting, shortly before Malachy died in Bernard’s arms. Bernard’s account makes deeply romantic reading for a modern gay man. “Oscula rui”, Bernard says of their reunion: “I showered him with kisses”. Geoffrey of Auxerre tells us what happened later. Bernard put on the habit taken from Malachy’s body as it was being prepared for burial at Clairvaux, and we wore it to celebrate the funeral mass. He chose to sing not a requiem mass but the mass of a confessor bishop: a personal canonization and, incidentally, an example of using liturgy to do theology. Bernard himself was later buried next to Malachy, in Malachy’s habit.
For Bernard, as for us today, this kind of passionate love for another human being was an indispensable channel for experiencing the God of love. Like the Cistercian commentator on the Song of Songs, we modern gay men know the transcendent meanings of erotic experience and the ways it can teach us. Many gay men have turned from Christianity to other spiritual traditions, especially nature religions, because the richness of Christian experience on just this point has been concealed from us. But, like the mystics, we have refused to sever our physical experience, including our erotic experience, from our interior lives. This body wisdom is one of the anchors of our lives, a pearl for which we have paid dearly in persecution. It is one of the gifts we have to offer to the people of God.
-Cleaver, Know My Name

 The reference to the Song of Songs is important, as a reminder of how strongly erotic imagery (including homoerotic imagery) is associated with the Christian mystical tradition. Cleaver is right to point out that for those who are not tied by vows of celibacy, erotic experience is not antagonistic to spirituality, but may even enhance it. (The Presbyterian theologian Chris Glaser has written movingly of how spirituality and sexuality can complement each other).

Finally, Bernard’s union with Malachy in death, buried alongside him, is a further reminder of how shared burials of same sex couples on Church ground was once commonplace, in 4th and 5th century Macedonia, across medieval Europe, and even in Victorian England (Blessed John Henry Newman and Ambrose St John).

Queer families: hidden in plain sight, right through Christian history.

Books:

Boisvert, Donald : Sanctity And Male Desire: A Gay Reading Of Saints

Boisvert, Donald : Out on Holy Ground: Meditations on Gay Men’s Spirituality

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Bray, AlanThe Friend

Cleaver, Richard: Know My Name – A Gay Liberation Theology

Jordan, Mark D:The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism 

O’Neill: Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People

 

Related articles elsewhere

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All Will be Well, and All Shall Be Well: Julian of Norwich, 8th May

There is no way that we should be thinking of Julian as gay or lesbian, but we should certainly think of her as queer (and as, she was undoubtedly female, in spite of her name). There are two reasons for including her here. The first is her pioneering unequivocal feminism. These are shown by her gender bending references in her book to God as mother – and even to Jesus as “mother Jesus”, which are habits for us too to acquire in our prayer. In her own career, she was remarkable for producing the first book to be written in English by a woman. Can we think of her as the first feminist theologian?

“The Mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven with inner certainty of endless bliss.

The second is the fundamental nature of her spirituality, which was centuries ahead of her time, and can be especially valuable to those who, like the LGBT community, feel threatened by an accusatory and hostile  institutional Church.  Here, it is important to note that her optimistic spirituality, as indicated in the well-known quotation in my headline, is not simply a Panglossian, mindless “always look on the bright side”. There is a very sound theological basis for it, made clear in an expanded formulation of the idea:

“And so our good Lord answered to all questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortably: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well, and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well”.

All will be well – because God has promised to make them well. Hope is a virtue – and optimism a theological obligation.

Julian (not her birth name) was born in 1342. At the age of 30, she fell dangerously ill, coming close to death. At this time, she experienced a series of mystical visions on the Passion of Christ and on the love of God. After her recovery, she became an anchoress, and recorded her experiences which she described as “showings”, in her book. She is renowned for her insistence in these on God’s unbending love and care for Her people, which was unusual for a time when religion was seen in much stricter, more judgemental terms of avoiding eternal damnation.

Read “The Showing Of Love” on-line

The “Umilta” website has an astonishing collection of links to scholarly work on Juliana and her times ( including this useful one : Equally in God’s Image  Women in the Middle Ages

Friends of Julian describes itself as the  “official” Julian website. I don’t know on what authority they make the claim, but the site is at least attractive and informative.

Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Pioneering gay theologian ((1910-1984)

Bailey was the first Christian scholar to re-evaluate the traditional understanding of the Biblical prohibitions regarding homosexuality. He was an Anglican clergyman and Canon Residentiary of Wells Cathedral. Although not a full-time academic theologian or biblical scholar, after World War II he led a small group of Anglican clergymen and physicians to study homosexuality. Their findings were published in a 1954 Report entitled The Problem of Homosexuality produced for the Church of England, and were influential in moderating the church’s subsequent stance on the moral issues raised by homosexuality. The work of Bailey and his colleagues also paved the way for the progressive Wolfenden Report (1957), which was followed a decade later by the decriminalization of homo­sexual conduct between consenting adults in England and Wales.

As a separate project arising from this work, he undertook a separate historical study, which led to the publication of his groundbreaking book, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. Although this monograph has been criti­cized, it was a landmark in the history of the subject, combining scrutiny of the Biblical evidence with a survey of subsequent history. Bailey’s book drew attention to a number of neglected subjects, including the intertestamental literature, the legislation of the Christian emperors, the penitentials, and the link between heresy and sodomy. Since then, his work has been overtaken by more extensive analyses by specialist biblical scholars, but it was an important influence on the early work that followed by historians (for example, John Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality“, and Mark D Jordan’s “The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology “) and by biblical scholars (William Countryman’s “Dirt, Greed, and Sex“).
It was also important for influencing the findings of the British Wolfenden Report, which led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, and on the later deliberations of the Anglican Church on the subject.
Bailey died in Wells in Somerset.