Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Conversion of St Paul

Today, the Church celebrates the feast of the conversion of St Paul. Just in that title, there is encouragement for LGBT Christians: just as Saul of Tarsus, scourge of the early Christians found God and became instead a great champion of their cause, it is possible that the institutional churches, which are so widely seen by the queer community as their persecutors, could likewise meet God and undergo a similar change of heart, to become our champions - turning to what Jenni at Queering the Church described a few days ago as a "preferential option for the queer". This is not as far-fetched as it may seem: there has already been a most extraordinary transformation of religious responses to homoerotic relationships over the last half century, and an increasing number of influential churchmen and women are becoming enthusiastic straight allies, champions of our cause.

I am working towards an extended post on this theme (which will be the basis of an address I will be giving to the Quest annual conference in September), so will not go over the evidence here. Meanwhile, in honour of Paul, I reproduce below a post I wrote in 2010.
There is much that is paradoxical in the figure of Paul. In his dual persona as Saul / Paul, he is renowned as both a one-time feared persecutor of Christians, and as the greatest of all the early missionaries, who spread the word far beyond it s original geographic compounds, and author of by far the most influential Christian texts outside the Gospels themselves. In the same way, as the author of the most infamous New Testament clobber texts, he is widely regarded as strongly condemning homoerotic relationships - and yet  Paul Halsall lists him in his Calendar of LGBT Saints:

There is considerable debate over those anti-gay "proof -texts", but whatever the conclusions, there is much, as Anglican Bishop of Newark John Spong has pointed out, which leads one to suspect Paul might have been "queer" in some way. The fact he was never married, unusual for a Jew of his time, his companionship with a series of younger men, especially St. Timothy, his mention of an unnamed "thorn in the flesh". and, possibly, his disdain for some types of exploitative homosexual relationship in his period, all raise questions, questions which cannot be answered it must be admitted, about his sexuality.
What are we to make of this?
Conversion of St Paul
(Andrea Meldolla, more often known in English as Andrea Schiavone or Lo Schiavone c. 1510/1515)

First, let us dismiss the idea that Paul's writing is anti-gay: it isn't, and further, much of his message is precisely the opposite, arguing for full inclusion of all. For a counter to the standard view of Paul as anti-gay, anti-sex, see Reidulf Molvaer, Sex & St. Paul the Realist

St. Paul was, in many ways, an ascetic and happy to be so, but he refused to make asceticism a general model or ideal for Christians - most people cannot live by such principles, especially in the area of sex. In the seventh chapter of his first letter to Corinth, he rejects any appeal for his support of sexual abstinence as ethically superior to active sexual relations. He sets limits, but does not limit legitimate sexual relations to marriage. In his day, it was commonly believed that homosexual practice, more easily than heterosexual relations, could bring people into harmony with the unchangeable nature of God. This Paul strongly rejects in the first chapter of his letter to Rome. Otherwise he does not write about "natural" homosexuality. In fact, it is a logical inference from the principles he sets forth in his letter to Corinth that loving, lasting homosexual relations are ethically as valid as heterosexual relations. Dr. Molvaer maintains that insight into contemporary ideologies can be a help to understanding what the New Testament says about these matters. Today, as in the early Church, extraneous influences in these areas can easily distort genuine Christian moral concerns as they are stated by Christ and St. Paul.
Then, consider his person. Astonishingly little is known for certain of Paul the man, but Bishop Spong is not the only one to have suggested that Paul may have had same close same -sex relationships  of his own. Gay Catholic blogger Jeremiah Bartram, who recently spent time on a pilgrimage "in the footsteps of St Paul" has reflected deeply on the life and writign of Paul, and concluded that on balance, the suggestion is sound.
In the absence of hard evidence, personally I am happy to leave this discussion to others with greater scholarship and expertise behind them. My interest in the queer saints is in the lessons they hold for us today, and here I think there is one clear message, which lies in the best known story of al about Paul, his conversion on the road to Damascus. This has entered language as a "Damascene Conversion", and therein lies hope. For if Saul, the renowned persecutor of Christians, could undergo such a complete change of heart and become instead active as the most famous proselytizer,  so too is there hope for the religion -based persecutors of sexual minorities today. Not only is there hope, but there is already abundant evidence from the very many Christians in the modern world who have experienced just such Damascene conversions, going from direct, outright condemnation of same sex relationships, to actively advocating full inclusion in church.   These changes of heart, usually coming after intensive study of Scripture and extensive discussions with gay and lesbian church members, have already been responsible for changes of policy in several denominations, and a more welcoming atmosphere in many local congregations. This process will continue.
For those Catholics who like to pray to the saints, you can freely include St Paul in you prayers. This is not because he was queer (although he may have been), but because his own conversion experience provides a useful model for all those modern day conversions that we need among the bigots who use religion as a cloak for prejudice and discrimination.

Monday, 23 January 2012

"Alfredo's Fire": The Self- Martyrdom of Alfredo Ormando

In January 1998 Alfredo Ormando, an Italian writer, set himself on fire in St Peter's Square in the heart of the Vatican. Ormando was Catholic, and gay.

In Catholic hagiography, the most famous image of a martyr burned at the stake is that of St Joan of Arc, condemned by the approved theologians of the Church as a heretic and martyred by the church, essentially for her transgression in dressing as a man. In the centuries that followed, thousands more were burnt as sodomites. These were viewed by the church as irredeemable sinners - but later history may come to view them differently. The church now views Joan as a canonized saint. Pope Benedict has explicitly acknowledged the clear lesson - official theologians may be wrong. In years to come, those burnt for sodomy may also come to be more widely recognized as collective martyrs - martyred by the church, for the nature of their love.  In his horrifying echo of the centuries - long great persecution of sexual minorities, Alfredo Ormando's suicide after years of attempting to stifle his sexuality in accordance with Vatican rules, may be seen as a unique act of self-martyrdom.

Friday, 20 January 2012

St. Sebastian, Martyr, 20/01

Writing about St Joan of Arc recently I observed that she carries a particular importance for us as gay men, lesbians and transsexuals in the church, as her martyrdom at the hands of church authorities can be seen as a powerful metaphor for the persecution we receive from parts of the church, just for being honest about ourselves, for refusing to renounce our God-given identity. I've been thinking further along these lines, and in fact all the Christian martyrs can similarly seen as role models - although the others were not typically executed by the church itself. One martyr in particular has been closely identified as a gay (male) icon - St Sebastian.
This is strictly speaking inappropriate, because there is not anything about Sebastian or his martyrdom that is particularly gay . The main reason quite frankly, that he has acquired this cult status is that painters for centuries have made striking images of his martyrdom, featuring half naked, desirable young men pierced with arrows: soft porn masquerading as inspirational religious art. ( The Independent newspaper has an excellent analysis, still available on-line, on just how this association developed through the art works.) Now, I have no problem with gay men enjoying pictures of St Sebastian, but have had some trouble seeing him as a specifically gay saint. However, I have come across one particular painting, quite different from the original, which immediately put me in mind of a concept I have written about before as a possible model for us in negotiating a proper relationship with the church. Here's the picture:

Gustave Rodolphe Boulanger, 1877

This is how I wrote about his death earlier this year:

Ordered to be executed, he was tied naked to a column and shot with arrows. Widely represented in art, it was not this, however, that killed him. He was left for dead, but was nursed back to life. After recovering, he intercepted the Emperor and denounced him for his cruelty to Christians. Enraged, the Emperor once again ordered his execution. This time, he was beaten to death, on 20th January 288. How many others have achieved martyrdom twice in one lifetime?

The image shows Sebastian pierced by arrows but "not dead yet", confronting the Emperor Maximilian after the first attempted execution.
So, what's the connection? Recall Michael B Kelly's concept of the walk back from Emmaus , the idea that as lesbigaytrans people in the Catholic church, we have a need, even an obligation, to walk away from the church - and hen to return , to confront the institutional leaders of the church with the reality of the risen Lord, and of his real message to the world. When I saw this image, I suddenly saw it as representing all queer people confronting the emperors of the church with the evidence of their attempted martyrdom. In spite of all the efforts of the ecclesiastical mechanism, through the misrepresentation of Scripture, the characterization of us as "gravely "disordered, the active opposition in the political sphere to equal civic rights, and the failure to oppose criminalization, and hence the tacit support given to active bullying, violence and murder - not to mention actual execution by burning at the stake, in earlier years- we too, are not dead yet.
Following the example of Sebastian, the challenge facing us to do more than simply mope about our pain, satisfied with mere survival. We too, must return to the church, showing them with the evidence of our pain-then negotiate with them a process of reconciliation.
For a look at some of the extraordinary range of representations os Sebastian in art, just look at the results of a Google Image search, or go to "Iconography of Saint Sebastian (painting)", which has an immense collection of links to art images, usefully arranged chronologically and by artist. I particularly like some of the images by 20th century artists, which seemed to me to go beyond the soppy sentimentality to something real and relevant. This one is startling - Sebastian as a self-portrait by a female artist, Gael Erwin. And why not?

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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Priest With the Pink Triangle

For the first post in my "queer modern heroes" series, I begin with someone most people have never heard of. (I'm not sure anyone even knows his name.) I begin with him because he represents a double martyrdom, martyred for his orientation, and also martyred for his faith. I choose him also precisely because he is anonymous, reminding us that in our own way, we are all called to our own heroism in the face of persecution, all called to be "martyrs" in the true, original sense - as witnesses to truth. I read this story in John McNeill's "Taking a chance on God": McNeill got the story from Heinz Heger. These are McNeill's words:

"I would like to end this reflection on the mature life of faith with the eyewitness account of a gay priest who was beaten to death in a German concentration camp during World War II because he refused to stop praying or to express contempt for himself. The story is recounted by Heinz Heger in his book "The Men With the Pink Triangle", in which he he recalls what took place in the special concentration camp for gay men in Sachsenhausen (Sachsenhausen was a "level 3" camp where prisoners were deliberately worked to death):

"Homosexual" prisoners in Sachsenhausen

Toward the end of February, 1940, a priest arrived in our block, a man some 60 years of age, tall and with distinguished features. We alter discovered that he came from Sudetenland, from an aristocratic German family.

He found the torment of the arrival procedure especially trying, particularly the long wait naked and barefoot outside the block. When his tonsure was discovered after the shower, the SS corporal in charge took up a razor and said "I'll go to work on this one myself, and extend his tonsure a bit." And he saved the priest's head with the razor, taking little trouble to avoid cutting the scalp. quite the contrary.

The priest returned to the day-room of our lock with his head cut open and blood streaming down. His face was ashen and his eyes stared uncomprehendingly into the distance. He sat down on a bench, folded his hands in his lap and said softly, more to himself than to anyone else: "And yet man is good, he is a creature of God!"
I was sitting beside him, and said softly but firmly: "Not all men; there are also beasts in human form, whom the devil must have made."

The priest paid no attention to my words, he just prayed silently, merely moving his lips. I was deeply moved, even though I was by then already numbed by all the suffering I had see, and indeed experienced myself. But I had always had a great respect for priests, so that his silent prayer, this mute appeal to God, whom he called upon for help and strength in his bodily pain and mental torment, went straight to my heart.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

12th January: St Aelred of Rievaulx, Patron of Same Sex Intimacy

St Aelred,  whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott.  He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as 'homosexual'. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:


Pour 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.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Saints Polyeuct and Nearchos, 3rd Century Lovers and Martyrs.

The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar - but should be.  John Boswell ("Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe") names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same-sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before  Sergius & Bacchus .

Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians.  The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Three Queers from the East: Thoughts for the Epiphany

Earlier in the week, I wrote that some Bible stories are so familiar, we do not stop to consider their significance. I could also add, that some others are so familiar, we do not stop to ask if they are accurate. A case in point is that of today's feast of the Epiphany, which we routinely celebrate as the visit of the three kings of the East to the infant Jesus - but the Gospel text does not specify that there were three, nor that they were kings.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

It is the term "magi" that has been traditionally adapted to "wise men", or corrupted in popular imagination to "kings". Astrologer-magicians, in the Zoroastrian religion, would be a more accurate translation. (Note the obvious linguistic connection between "magus" and "magic"). Kittredge quotes Nancy Wilson and Virginia Mollenkott, to suggest that the Magi were probably either eunuchs, or trans.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Apollinaria/Dorotheos 5/01

According to the LGBT Catholic Handbook, this week sees the feast day of St.  Apollinaria /Dorotheos of Egypt (5th, 6th January). She is said to have been one of a group of transvestite saints - women who took on men's clothing  in order to live as monks.

For the specific story of Apollinaria, we turn to the Orthodox church, who take these female monks rather more serioulsy than the western church.

This is from the Orthodox website, "God is Wonderful in His Saints"
She was a maiden of high rank, the daughter of a magistrate named Anthimus in the city of Rome. Filled with love for Christ, she prevailed on her parents to allow her to travel on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem she dismissed most of her attendants, gave her jewels, fine clothes and money to the poor, and went on to Egypt accompanied only by two trusted servants. Near Alexandria she slipped away from them and fled to a forest, where she lived in ascesis for many years. She then made her way to Sketis, the famous desert monastic colony, and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos. In this guise she was accepted as a monk.
Anthimus, having lost his elder daughter, was visited with another grief: his younger daughter was afflicted by a demon. He sent this daughter to Sketis, asking the holy fathers there to aid her by their prayers. They put her under the care of "Dorotheos", who after days of constant prayer effected the complete cure of her (unknowing) sister. When the girl got back home it was discovered that she was pregnant, and Anthimus angrily ordered that the monk who had cared for her be sent to him. He was astonished to find that "Dorotheos" was his own daughter Apollinaria, whom he had abandoned hope of seeing again. After some days the holy woman returned to Sketis, still keeping her identity secret from her fellow-monks. Only at her death was her true story discovered.
The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, while a look at some orthodox websites corroborates the story and confirms her feast on 5th January.  The Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. however,  dismisses the tale as 'hagiographic fiction.'

Apollinaria's story and motives are remote from our time, and 'transvestite' is not to be confused with 'transgendered'. (UPDATE: After I first described this group of women as "transvestite", I was taken to task by a reader, who pointed out that these days, "cross-dressing" is more appropriate terminology). Still, whatever the full historic truth of Apollinaria/ Dorotheos specifically, it seems to me this is a useful story to hold on to as a reminder of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered,  in our midst.

Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting  our sexual identities,  consider how much more challenging must  be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis.

Let us acknowledge the courage of those who have done it, and pray for those who are preparing to do so.

Related articles


Talbot, Alice-Mary: "Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints' Lives in English Translation"

Anson, J., "", Viator 5 (1974), 1-32

Bennasser, Khalifa Abubakr, Gender and Sanctity in Early Byzantine Monasticism: A Study of the Phenomenon of Female Ascetics in Male Monastic Habit with a Translation of the Life of St. Matrona, [Rutgers Ph.D Dissertation 1984; UMI 8424085]
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