So why should we see St Paddy as a gay icon?
* In a comment to an earlier posting of this piece, theologian JohnMcNeill has said that he thinks the book with this story was “How The Irish Saved Civilization”, by Thomas Cahill. “He claims that Patrick paid for his passage back to Ireland by servicing the sailors on the boat.”
Fr Robert Carter SJ died a year ago today, making Feb 22, in Catholic tradition, his “dies natale”, or day of (new) birth. He deserves to be remembered as one of the earliest activist, openly gay Catholic priests:
“Since Jesus had table fellowship with social outcasts and sinners, those rejected by the religious establishment of his time, I consider myself to have been most fully a Jesuit, a ‘companion of Jesus,’ when I came out publicly as a gay man, one of the social rejects of my time. It was only by our coming out that society’s negative stereotypes would be overcome and we would gain social acceptance.”
-Fr Robert Carter
The Rev. Robert Carter, who in the early 1970s was one of the first Roman Catholic priests in the country to declare publicly that he was gay and who helped found the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, died on Feb. 22 in the Bronx. He was 82.
Robert Carter, right, with Dan McCarthy, left, Bernard Lynch and John McNeill at a gay pride march in the early 1980s
CollectPour into our hearts, 0 God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love, that we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred draw many into your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The regard given to St Aelred by gay writers is based on his book, “On Spiritual Friendship”, in which he is clear in extolling the value of same-sex love. He does so on the basis of personal experience, and describes the impact that several of these friendships have had on him, and the desolation he has felt when a lover has died.
“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love; in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness; in whose most welcome, friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open, as freely as you would to yourself, your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses – as by some medicine – you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.”
It is important to keep clearly in mind that although there is clear reference to the “embrace of love”, and to “kisses”, Aelred is writing about spiritual friendship, and that he stresses the spiritual riches it brings, “with the Holy Spirit flowing over you.”
It is for this reason that opponents of homoerotic love deny that Aelred in any way presents a model of gay love as we understand it today. Instead, they point to his equally clear writing about chastity, and his lifelong struggle to remain chaste.
Personally, I see the battle to confirm or deny Aelred’s spiritual friendships as resembling or contradicting modern gay love as completely pointless. Of course they were different to modern relationships – just as all other medieval relationships were different to modern counterparts. Marriage then was different in many important respects to what we have today, ordinary friendships were different – as Alan Bray argues convincingly in The Friend. Aelred was also living and writing in a specifically monastic setting, about people who had taken a vow of celibacy. Discussion of whether those monks’ intimate friendships included physical intimacy is entirely irrelevant.
Aelred and his writing do nevertheless have profound importance for modern gay men and lesbian partnerships, and raises uncomfortable questions about the Catholic church’s rule on compulsory celibacy for priests. Saints Augustine and Aquinas both described the sacramental value of two people giving themselves to each other in (heterosexual) marriage. Aelred does likewise for same-sex emotional and spiritual intimacy in monastic same-sex relationships. In the same way, modern gay or lesbian couples can and should recognize and nurture the spiritual, sacramental value their relationships, whether celibate (as in the monastic ideal), or otherwise (as i heterosexual marriage).
In the centuries following Aelred, his celebration of love between monks was completely undermined and replaced in monastic life and in seminary training for the priesthood by a tragic and destructive prohibition on any form of particular friendships, fostered by a growing recognition in the late medieval period of widespread homosexual practices in the monasteries. (St Peter Damian, who was one of the earliest to argue vociferously for strong penalties against homosexual acts, directed his anger primarily at priests and monks). The problem is that if priests are allowed neither physical nor emotional intimacy with another, where are they to obtain the strength and succour to sustain them in their lives?
Praising the value of clerical celibacy in his extended interview for “Light of the World”, Pope Benedict says that it “becomes possible” when priests live in community. What then, of those priests who do not, or those other gay Catholics who wish to live in conformity with orthodox teaching but are in practice expected to live alone?
St Aelred got it right. There clearly is deep spiritual value in intimate same-sex relationships, whether in monastic celibacy, or in marriage.
There are other reasons too, for us to take Aelred seriously as a patron of gay or lesbian committed relationships. His writing draws explicit attention to the nature of Christ’s own particular friendship, with the beloved disciple – describing it as a “heavenly marriage”:
“Jesus himself, is in everything like us. Patient and compassionate with others in every matter. He transfigured this sort of love through the expression of his own love; for he allowed only one – not all – to recline on his breast as a sign of his special love; and the closer they were, the more copiously did the secrets of their heavenly marriage impart the sweet smell of their spiritual chrism to their love.”
5 So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods;
return after your sister-in-law.’16But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
b. March 20, 1947
d. December 24, 1994
John Boswell was a gifted medieval philologist who read more than fifteen ancient and modern languages. After receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1975, he joined the history faculty at Yale University. Boswell was an authority on the history of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in medieval Spain. He helped to found the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale in 1987. In 1990 he was named the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History.
Selected works by John Boswell:
In Catholic spiritual tradition, there is an important and honoured place for the idea of “The Bride of Christ”. At one level, we are taught to think of the Church as a whole as such a bride of Christ, and the wedding at Cana as a metaphor for the marriage of Christ to his bride, the Church. At another level, religious women think of themselves as forgoing human marriage, to become brides of Christ. The image is a powerful and valuable one, in developing that personal relationship with the Lord that we seek – but where does it leave men, who may find it difficult to imagine themselves as brides?
Surprisingly perhaps, Catholic tradition provides an equivalent route for men – at least, for gay men, and others who are not threatened by thoughts of homoerotic attraction. Gerald Loughlin has described a medieval German tradition in which the wedding at Cana was seen as celebrating the wedding of Christ and his “beloved disciple” (assumed to be John the Evangelist). St John of the Cross used extensive homoerotic imagery in his mystical writing. Blessed Bernardo de Hoyos combined both of these ideas, taking them to their logical conclusion. As Kittredge Cherry noted at Jesus in Love blog, in a valuable post for his feast day (yesterday, November 29th), Blessed Bernardo saw himself, in a mystical vision, as marrying Christ – as a man, becoming not a bride, but a “Groom of Christ”.
Always holding my right hand, the Lord had me occupy the empty throne; then He fitted on my finger a gold ring…. “May this ring be an earnest of our love. You are Mine, and I am yours. You may call yourself and sign Bernardo de Jesus, thus, as I said to my spouse, Santa Teresa, you are Bernardo de Jesus and I am Jesus de Bernardo. My honor is yours; your honor is Mine. Consider My glory that of your Spouse; I will consider yours, that of My spouse. All Mine is yours, and all yours is Mine. What I am by nature you share by grace. You and I are one!”
(quoted at Jesus in Love from “The Visions of Bernard Francis De Hoyos, S.J.[Image]” by Henri Bechard, S.J.)
Kittredge observes, quite correctly,
While the Catholic church refuses to bless same-sex marriages, the lives and visions of its own saints tell a far different story — in which Christ the Bridegroom gladly joins himself in marriage with a man.
Michael Bayley at the Wild Reed, who drew my attention to Kittredge’s post, thinks that we should declare Bernardo the patron saint of Catholic for Marriage Equality, MN. Why not the patron saint of marriage equality – period?
For more on the details of Bernardo’s story, cross to Jesus in Love. What I want to do instead, is share a personal experience, and to reflect briefly on the lessons for modern gay Catholics, and other Christians.
This resonates with me, as I have had a similar experience myself. I was on a six-day silent, directed retreat in 2002, when, quite early on, my reflection turned to the familiar idea of “the bride of Christ”. I asked myself to picture instead “the groom of Christ”, and was led, for the rest of the retreat, into the most extraordinarily intense spiritual experience of my life. It was as if I was on honeymoon with my new husband. By day, every moment was spent deeply focussed on his presence, whether out of doors, in my room, or in the chapel, where I sat for hours at a time gazing at the tabernacle. By night, I was alone in bed with my lover, and new husband.
Remarkably, the day after I began this journey, I was browsing through some spiritual journals in the lounge of the retreat centre, and came across an article with exactly the same idea: that men could profit from adopting the same image for themselves, as the groom of Christ (but imagining Christ as female). Given the ubiquity of the visual representations of Christ the man that we meet from childhood and throughout our lives, in art and in explicitly religious pictures, statues, books and films, picturing Christ as female may be difficult. As gay men, we have no need to do so: we may retain our traditional view of Christ as male (fully male, with a fully male body) and adapt instead the traditional image of ourselves as the brides of Christ, to the grooms.
Try it. After all, just like John the Evangelist, we are all Beloved Disciples.
Are there gay saints? 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 were 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?
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: 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 three officially attested miracles will help the formal canonization process. This formal process did not even exist in the early church: it was only in the 11th or 12th centuries 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 some, their official recognition is not important – all that counts is their value as role models. If they are widely seen as such, we are entitled to call them so, even without clear canonized status.
The LGBT Saints are also not limited to the distant past. The American Episcopal church recognizes two twentieth century lesbians as saints: Vida Dutton Scudder has a feast day in October, and just recently, Rev Pauli Murray was added to its book of “Holy Men, Holy Women”. In the Catholic Church, there is a strong popular move to initiate a cause for sainthood for Fr Mychal Judge, “The Saint of 9/11”. Earlier, there was a formal cause for another American, Dr Tom Dooley. That failed, apparently because of his sexuality – but when the church revises its thinking on sexuality, that cause could well be revised.
The formal canonization process, or Anglican equivalents however, are really not the point. They are merely the public confirmation and recognition of sainthood, not its criterion. There are countless more men and women who qualify by the virtue of their lives – but whose qualities have not been publicly noted. Among LGBT Christians, there are still others who deserve attention for the opposition and persecution they have received from the institutional church – and the courage they have displayed in standing up to this modern martyrdom.
In fact, we are called to sainthood, and to witness – witness as Christians, and in honesty in our lives as lesbian, gay or trans. This is not a conflict. Numerous writers on spirituality have noted that embracing our sexuality can bring us closer to the divine, not drive us away. We can, indeed, take a rainbow bridge to God (and sainthood) – but the the gay closet is a place of sin.
Some years later, in October 1969, he hired two brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson (aged 22 and 17, respectively), to come to his home for sex. Mistakenly believing that there was a large sum of money in the house, the two then assaulted and tortured Navarro for some hours, hoping to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the cash. They eventually left with just $20. Navarro died of asphyxiation, having choked on his own blood.