"Polyeuctus and Nearchus were fellow-officers and close friends, serving in the Roman army at Miletene in Armenia. Nearchus was a Christian. Polyeuctus, though abundant in virtues, was still imprisoned in idol- worship. When the Emperor Decius' persecution broke out (239-251), an edict was issued requiring all soldiers to show their loyalty by making public sacrifice to the gods. Nearchus sadly told Polyeuctus that because of the decree they would soon be parted. But Polyeuctus, who had learned about the Christian faith from his friend, answered that Christ had appeared to him in a vision, exchanging his military uniform for a shining garment and giving him a winged horse. Polyeuctus took the vision as a sign that he was to embrace the Faith, and that he, with Nearchus, would soon be lifted up to heaven. Almost immediately, he first tore down the Emperor's edict in front of a startled crowd, then smashed the idols being carried in a pagan procession. He was quickly arrested and subjected to beating and scourging for sacrilege, but he only proclaimed more forcefully that he was a Christian. When the persecutors saw that Polyeuctus' patient endurance was bringing other idolaters to the faith, they condemned him to death."
One of the delights I find in taking that “bracing walk in history” is the frequent discoveries that what we usually assume to be the “common sense” understanding of modern practices and institutions is nothing of the source, forcing us to rethink what in fact these mean. Two of these examples are of “traditional marriage”, and of priestly celibacy. Both of these I have referred to (separately) before, but never thought of combining them. Now I have come across a source that does consider them together, and presents the remarkable observation:
Indeed, the most learned authority on the subject argued forcefully that for the first thousand years Christianity required nuptial blessings only for priests; for the laity, an ecclesiastical ceremony was an honour, only permitted to those being married (to their own class) for the first time.
This statement comes from John Boswell, referring to the work of Korbinian Ritzer, in “Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe” which I am now rereading. This was one of the first books on homosexuality and the church that I ever read, but I foolishly gave it away some years ago, thinking I would soon replace it – but never did. For a long time now I’ve been feeling the need to read it, and am now delighted finally to have a replacement copy.
In rereading a book, one often gets to see different aspects to those that were apparent on first reading, and so it is here. first, for the perspective that it offers on heterosexual relationships and “marriage” in classical and medieval times, which was so different to our modern conception of what “Traditional” marriage is supposed to have looked like, and also for the aside on the priesthood. Last month I came across a question on the New Zealand blog “Liturgy”, which bothered me, because it looked so simple, but there was no clear answer. The question out by Fr Bosco Peters was simple: It is clear that in the early church ordination was possible for married men, as it is today in the Eastern church, but before the reformation, is there any evidence that priests could marry after ordination? Fr Peters seemed to think that there was no such evidence:
I have been involved in some discussions about this. The contention is that there is no evidence in the Tradition of marriage after ordination. None! There is, according to that position, not a single example of marriage after ordination until the Reformation. I find this an astonishing and fascinating claim. I would be fascinated if any reader could come up with a refutation. Or, of course, references to this being correct.
I would imagine that Boswell’s quotation from Ritzer clearly settles that question: there would be no requirement for priests to marry in church if it were nto permitted fro them to marry at all. But my primary interest in “Same sex Unions” is of course the one that has caused all the fuss.
It is for this reason that I found the opening quotation above striking. Arguments over how far adelphopoesis in the East, or “sworn brothers” in the West, resemble modern marriage are completely misplaced: they should rather be compared with opposite sex relationships at comparable times, which were not necessarily blessed in church, were certainly not seen as sacramental until relatively late, and were most unlikely to have been about love or even friendship, but were essentially civil contracts to protect property and inheritance considerations.
At most church weddings, the person presiding over the ritual is not a priest or a pastor, but the wedding planner, followed by the photographer, the florist, and the caterer. And in this day and age, more wedding theology is supplied by Modern Bride magazine or reality television than by any of the Christian treatises on holy matrimony. Indeed, church weddings have strayed long and far from distinctly Christian aspirations. The costumes and gestures might still be right, but the intentions are hardly religious. Why then, asks noted gay commentator Mark D. Jordan, are so many churches vehemently opposed to blessing same-sex unions? In this incisive work, Jordan shows how carefully selected ideals of Christian marriage have come to dominate recent debates over same-sex unions. Opponents of gay marriage, he reveals, too often confuse simplified ideals of matrimony with historical facts. They suppose, for instance, that there has been a stable Christian tradition of marriage across millennia, when in reality Christians have quarrelled among themselves for centuries about even the most basic elements of marital theology, authorizing experiments like polygamy and divorce.
-Book Overview from “Google Books”
“I have treated these saints as a group as their stories are often similar. These are the large number of saints who were famous for their holy cross-dressing. All of these were women, and the stories, largely but not exclusively fictional, generally have them escaping marriage or some other dreaded end by dressing as monks. This is no short term ploy, however. The women then live their lives as men (in direct contradiction to the Levitical Law which calls cross-dressing an "abomination"), some of them becoming abbots of monasteries. In such positions it is hard to imagine that they would not perform roles such as confessor. Their biological sex is only discovered after they die. It is sometimes argued that these transvestite saints did not cross-dress because they wanted to but because they had to, and so calling them "transvestites" is wrong. It is true that we know nothing of the psychology of these women, but when they dressed as man for 20 years and became abbots of monasteries, it is hard to know in what way they were being "forced" to cross-dress. These women chose to live their Christian lives as members of the opposite biological sex - it is fair to see them as "transgendered". There are no male saints, it seems, who dressed as women (with the possible exception of Sergius and Bacchus, who were forcibly paraded through the streets in women's clothes). At work here is an old notion that women are saved in so far as they have "male souls", a repeated term of praise in lives of female saints. These women's lives do show that the Levitical Law was not determinative in Christian estimations of holiness, and that modern rigid gender categories had much less role in earlier epochs of Christianity than nowadays. These saints found a place in both Orthodox and Roman calendars.
- St. Anastasia the Patrician (or "of Constantinople") March 10th ORC/ORTH
- St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople Oct 29 ORTH
- St. Apollinaria/Dorotheos Jan 5, 6 ORTH
- St. Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9 ORTH
- St. Eugenia/Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th ORTH
- St. Euphrosyne/Smaragdus Feb 11th ORC (Sept 25 ORTH)
- St. Marina of Sicily July 20th ORTH
- St. Marina/Marinos of Antioch July 17th ORTH (July 20th ORC - as St. Margaret)
- St. Mary/Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th ORTH
- St. Matrona/Babylas of Perge Nov 9 ORTH
- St. Pelagia/Pelagios June 9 ORC (Oct 8 ORTH)
- St. Theodora/Theodorus of Alexandria Sept 11 ORTH
- St. Thekla of Iconium Sept 23 ORC (Sept 24 ORTH) See also
- St. Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th ORC d. 1188 OE: A nun who lived under the name "Brother Joseph" in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg.
- St. Uncumber [or ] July 20th ORC A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders) She was represented as a bearded women on a cross.
“Sergius & Bacchus: Lovers & Martyrs?"
The recognition of saints is an important part of Catholic history and tradition. Growing up in a Catholic school, I was frequently urged to read the lives of the saints, of which our small school library had a copious supply, for my spiritual well-being.
Many adult Catholics retain a special affection, even devotion, to particular favoured saints. For some of us, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the more demonstrative forms of veneration may come dangerously close to the Protestant perception of a cult of idolatrous 'worship' of the saints; for others , the problem is simply that of the remoteness of most of the saints: remote in time, overwhelmingly limited in geography to Europe, and particularly certain regions of Europe. There is also the problem that the recognised saints were, if not ordained clergy and religious sisters, at least celibate lay people - creating a perception that saintliness is reserved to the asexual, even unsexed, among us, leading lives devoid of intimate personal relationships. (This creates the further problem of a simplistic association of healthy emotional and sexual lives with 'sin'.) Pope John Paul II, during his long pontificate, set about creating an unprecedented number of new saints for the modern age, deliberately seeking to undo this sense of remoteness. We now have many more saints, and beatified saints-in-waiting, from recent history and from beyond Europe. There were even reports that he was actively looking for a suitable married couple for elevation, to counter the perception that sainthood applied only to the celibate. But we in the LGBT community remain excluded - or think we are. "How great it would be", we think, if we too could have saints of our own. It is in this spirit that a number of modern scholars (most notably John Boswell, followed by others) have dug into history and produced evidence of recognised 'gay saints' in church history. The LGBT Catholic Handbook has an extensive listing of the best known of these. Is it realistic to think of these as 'gay saints'? Is it helpful? I suggest that the answer to the first question is probably "No", at least not as narrowly defined. But to the second question, I would answer, most certainly, "Yes, helpful indeed, if interpreted more broadly." The problem with the term, narrowly interpreted is that it is so fluid, imprecise and anachronistic. For St Jerome and St Alcuin, where the status of sainthood is uncontested, there is a different problem. Although there is clear evidence that these two, and others, experienced strong, even intimate emotional relationships with other men, it is not absolutely agreed that these relationships were sexual. And so, it is argued, these men cannot be understood as 'gay'. (Others would suggest that the naysayers are deliberately ignoring the plain evidence infront of their eyes, but no matter, the dispute is plainly there. So where are the gay saints, narrowly defined? I do not know of any who unambiguously meet both criteria: agreed to be saints, agreed to be gay. Nevertheless, I don't think this is important. It is not only the canonised saints who are important: I was taught that we are all potentially saints, even if not recognised. The "communion of saints" includes many more than the limited number who have been publicly acknowledged. It is also of no consequence whether particular individuals expressed their emotional intimacy in genital acts to be considered in some snese 'gay'. (We do not require that other saints show evidence of genital activity with the opposite sex to be considered 'heterosexual'). By applying a looser, broader definition, then I suggest that there will be many 'gay saints' that have gone before us, and many who still live among us. This not to suggest that praying to them is likely to produce miracles in support of official canonisation - but it is important that we recognise and offer respect to role models in our history. It is in this spirit that I commend a closer examination of the many figures who have been suggested as supposed 'gay saints'.