Tag Archives: Kittredge Cherry

Queer Francis of Assisi: Breaking Boundaries

At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has uncovered more ground-breaking work on opening up the previously hidden history of queer elements in the lives of the saints – in this case, Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was yesterday, October 4th. The evidence she has quoted, comes from an unpublished master’s thesis “Gender Liminality in the Franciscan Sources” by the Franciscan scholar, Kevin Elphick.

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

Reference to “queer” elements in the story and example of Francis are not intended as equivalent to the modern term “gay”, which would be completely anachronisitic, or to imply any specific sexual activity. We must always remember that although some writers use “queer” loosely as a synonym for gay and lesbian, or for the acronym LGBT, in fact it’s application in queer studies, and in queer theology, is much broader. Correctly used, the term does not refer to any specific sexual orientation or gender identity, but to a complete rejection of arbitrary definitions for sexuality or gender. In this sense, it is about breaking down boundaries – including boundaries outside of sex and gender, such as ethnicity, race or class.

So it is, that the Gospel message of radical inclusion and equality for all, is intrinsically a very queer one indeed. The theologian Robert Goss, who is identified by Elisabeth Stuart as initiating the transition from gay and lesbian theology to queer theology, rooted his thinking firmly in Christology, as indicated by the titles of two of his books, “Jesus Acted Up“, and “Queering Christ“.  St Francis of Assisi is renowned for his passionate commitment to embracing this Gospel message of breaking down boundaries, and an embrace of a materially simple life in imitation of Christ’s own. To see him as “queer” in this broadest sense, follows naturally.

The queer identity of both Francis and Christ, his model, is neatly illustrated in an image posted by Kittredge, of Francis embracing a Jesus with AIDS, on the cross. I quote here Kittredge’s description of Francis, and of the image:

Francis was born to a wealthy Italian family in 1181 or 1182. As a young man he renounced his wealth, even stripping off his clothes, and devoted himself to a life of poverty in the service of Christ. He connected with nature, calling all animals “brother” and “sister” and celebrating them in his famous Canticle of the Sun.

He saw the face of Christ in lepers, the most reviled outcasts of his time, and nursed them with compassion. William Hart McNichols puts Francis’ ministry into a contemporary context by showing him embracing a gay Jesus with AIDS in “St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree,” pictured here. Words on the cross proclaim that Christ is an “AIDS leper” as well as a “drug user” and “homosexual,” outcast groups at high risk for getting AIDS. The two men gaze intently at each other with unspeakable love as Francis hugs the wounded Christ. It was commissioned in 1991 by a New Jersey doctor who worked with AIDS patients, and is discussed in the book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More by Kittredge Cherry.

“St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree”
By William Hart McNichols © fatherbill.org

Kittredge’s post goes further, noting that Elphick’s thesis shows how some aspects of Francis’ life were “queer” even in a narrower sense, breaking down gender boundaries in particular, applying female terms to men, and male terms to some women admitted as brothers in the male community (a reminder here, of the  earlier biologically female saints who lived as men, in male monasteries).

Other Franciscan friars referred to Francis as “Mother” during his lifetime. He also liked to be greeted as “Lady Poverty.” He encouraged his friars to live as mothers with children when in hermitage together, and used other gender-bending metaphors to describe the spiritual life.

Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” (Details about Jacoba are at the end of this article.) His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order.

Jesus in Love

There is also evidence of an emotionally intense relationship with another man, described in the earliest known biography of Francis, by one of the saints own followers, who knew him personally:Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” (Details about Jacoba are at the end of this article.) His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order.

 “Now there was a man in the city of Assisi whom Francis loved more than any other, and since they were of the same age and their constant association and ties of affection emboldened Francis to share his secret with him, he would often take this friend off to secluded spots where they could discuss private matters and tell him that he had chanced upon a great and precious treasure. His friend was delighted and, intrigued by what he had heard, he gladly accompanied Francis wherever he asked. There was a cave near Assisi where the two friends often went to talk about this treasure.”

Thomas of Celano, quoted at Jesus in Love

Elphick is careful to describe this relationship  as “homoaffectional”, and not as “gay”:

“The relationship is inescapably homoaffectional, describing a shared intimacy between two Medieval men. That this first companion disappears from the later tradition is cause for suspicion and further inquiry…. The tone in Celano’s earliest account captures the flavor and intimacy of this relationship, perhaps too much so for an increasingly homophobic church and society.”

Kevin Elphick, quoted at Jesus in Love

Advertisements

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard’s name is one to be reckoned with. Although today we usually use the term “Renaissance Man” to indicate one with a wide range of learning to his credit, perhaps we should also recognize in a similar way some extraordinary medieval women -such as Hildegard, and others who entered convents and applied themselves with distinction to learning over many fields.
Even in some distinguished company, Hildegard stands out. Her music is highly regarded, as are her literary output and her mystical writings – which of course is what makes her particularly honoured inside the church. To round out her skills, she was also recognized as a notable poet, artist, healer and scientist.  What makes her of particular interest at this site, is that she also had an intense attachment to a fellow nun, Richardis, who may have inspired some of her finest writing.
I have known a little (very little) about Hildegard for some time, and have come across suggestions of her possible lesbianism, but have not had enough knowledge to write about her myself. I was delighted then to find that my colleague Kittredge Cherry has done some digging, and produced a wonderful extended post on this great woman. As one of Kitt’s readers put it in a comment,

 

This is my favorite post of the year!! Imagine trying to get the help of a Pope to prevent a lesbian split up LOL.

What an inspiration, and her music is incredible too. We need to build a lesbian chapel in her honor somewhere, and fill it with paintings!

A truly great woman, indeed.

This are some extracts from Kitt’s post:

St. Hildegard of Bingen was a brilliant medieval German mystic, poet, artist, composer, healer and scientist who wrote with passion about the Virgin Mary. Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women, especially her personal assistant Richardis von Stade. Her feast day is today (Sept. 17).
She had visions throughout her life, starting at age 3 when she says that she first saw “the Shade of the Living Light.” She hesitated to tell others about her visions, sharing them only with her teacher Jutta.

When she was 42, Hildegard had a vision in which God instructed her to record her spiritual experiences. Still hesitant, she became physically ill before she was persuaded to begin her first visionary work, the Scivias (Know the Ways of God).

In 1151, Hildegard completed the Scivias and trouble arose between her and her beloved Richardis. An archbishop, the brother of Richardis, arranged for his sister to become abbess of a distant convent. Hildegard urged Richardis to stay, and even asked the Pope to stop the move. But Richardis left anyway, over Hildegard’s objections.
Richardis died suddenly in October 1151, when she was only about 28 years old. On her deathbed, she tearfully expressed her longing for Hildegard and her intention to return.

Hildegard’s grief apparently fueled further artistic creation. Many believe that Richardis was the inspiration for Ordo Virtutum(“Play of Virtues”}, a musical morality play about a soul who is tempted away by the devil and then repents. According toWikipedia, “It is the earliest morality play by more than a century, and the only Medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both the text and the music.”

In an era when few women wrote, Hildegard went on to create two more major visionary works, a collection of songs, and several scientific treatises. She was especially interested in women’s health. Her medical writings even include what may be the first description of a female orgasm.

Impressed? Now go across and read Kitt’s full, thoroughly researched post atJesus in Love Blog, in her series on LGBT saints. (Hildegard’s feast day was yesterday, September 17th.)

Blessed Bernardo de Hoyos: "The Spouse of Christ"

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.