Martha and Mary, Queer Saints.

The household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus is well known to us from the Gospels, where they are described as “sisters” and their brother Lazarus. They are also known to us as Jesus’ friends, and their home as a place he visited for some rest and hospitality.  The problem is, that the story is perhaps too familiar: we are so used to hearing of them and their home since childhood, that we automatically accept the words and visualize the family in modern terms, just as we did as children.  To really understand the significance of this family, we need to consider the social context.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, BEUCKELAER, Joachim (1565)

In the modern West, we are accustomed to a wide range of family and household types. Although the socially approved ideal remains the nuclear family, with one husband, one wife, children and pets, we recognize many others as well: single person households; communal living, especially for young adults; same sex couples; and siblings (or other family members) sharing a home.  In the Biblical world, economic and social conditions dictated that just one model was nearly universal. A patriarchal male established a household, and controlled within it wives, concubines, sons, daughters and slaves. Sons remained within their father’s household and its economic basis until they had the resources to set up on their own. Daughters remained with their families until they were married off by their fathers, to submit to their new husbands. Their entire existence was dependent on the men who controlled them – fathers, brothers, or husbands. A single woman living independently of men was remarkable. Two women living together would have been exceptional. They are described as “sisters”, but that may not be in the literal sense – the term was commonly used to describe what we would describe as a lesbian relationship. This may or may not have included sexual intimacy, but it was most certainly a household in open defiance of the standard gender expectations for women, and so I have no hesitation in describing them as “queer”.

We should also pause a moment, and consider briefly their brother Lazarus. He is best known to us in the story of his rising from the dead, but in the context of the household, he appears to be a minor figure. Although Hebrew families were dominated by the males, with sons taking control of the women after a father’s death, in a household of siblings, we would normally expect that with one brother and two sisters, the man should be the master of the household: but that is emphatically not the picture of Lazarus that comes across from the Gospel. He too can be described as “queer” on that basis alone, although there is a lot more that could be said about Lazarus as a possible lover of Jesus.

This week though, the Church celebrated the feast of Martha and Mary, and so it is on the sisters that I want to concentrate.

When I reflect on the story of Martha and Mary as I have grown up with it since childhood, the image that sits with me indelibly is of the hospitality that they offered. Hospitality should be a core Christian value. In the traditional Hebrew desert community, hospitality to travellers was a primary virtue: without it, they could easily die, and at one time or another, anyone could find himself a traveller in the desert, dependent himself on the hospitality of strangers. The family itself, with its total interdependence, can be seen as a model of mutual, reciprocal hospitality. Through the institution of marriage, creating linkages between households and family networks binding the entire society, hospitality between households was the social glue binding the entire society.

As we know to the present day, the most powerful element and symbol of hospitality is the shared meal. It is not for nothing that the Mass is constructed around the commemoration of a meal. Hospitality and community go to the heart of the Christian ideal: this certainly is how I understand the concept of God’s Kingdom on earth. Where we have full, mutual hospitality and community, love inevitably grows, and there can be no possibility of injustice.

The challenge must be to make  certain that the hospitality really does extend to all. We as gay men an women know to our cost that very often it does not apply to us, and we must continue to work to secure that hospitality for ourselves: but we must likewise ensure that we too, offer hospitality, both within our community and beyond it. Let us never forget that the clearest symbol of hospitality in the Gospels is seen in a queer household.  Let us strive in our modern queer community to model and embody the spirit of hospitality to the wider world.

(See also :

Jesus in Love BlogMartha and Mary: Sisters, or Lesbian Couple?, in Kittredge Cherry’s excellent, continuing  series on LGBT saints

and

Web Gallery of Art for commentary on Bueckelaer’s painting

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SS Symeon of Emessa and John: Hermits, Saints and Lovers

The information for this pair of same sex lovers is sparse, but the story important.  I quote directly from the LGBT Catholic Handbook Calendar of gay & lesbian saints :
The story itself is about a same-sex relationship. Symeon..and John…. meet on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They become friends and “would no longer part from each other”. In fact they abandon their families and go together to dedicate their lives to God. In the monastery they first join, they are tonsured by the abbot who blesses them together (Krueger 139-141, 142). This seems to refer to some early monastic version of the adelphopoiia ceremony.”
Twenty nine years later, they part and their stories diverge. Simeon wants to leave John, as he had earlier left his wife, and becomes know as a “fool for Christ”.  But:
The extent of the relationship is revealed at this point. John is not keen for Symeon to leave. He says to Symeon “……Please, for the Lord’s sake, do not leave wretched me….Rather for the sake of Him who joined us, do not wish to be parted from your brother. You know that, after God, I have no one except you, my brother, but I renounced all and was bound to you, and now you wish to leave me in the desert, as in an open sea. Remember that day when we drew lost and went down to the Lord Nikon, that we agreed not to be separated from one another. Remember that fearful day when we were clothed in the holy habit, and we two were as one soul, so that all were astonished at our love. Don’t forget the words of the great monk…Please don’t lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from You.”
Halsall states that this was not a sexual relationship, but it is clearly an emotionally intimate, same sex relationship.  At a time when “marriage” did not carry the same meaning that it has today;  when many religious married couples, even outside holy orders, were encouraged to remain celibate;  and given that they had entered a monastery before living together as  hermits, this is unremarkable.

But as an intimate relationship over nearly thirty years, consecrated by the abbot in a rite of  adelphopoiia, their story, vague and indistinct as it is, must surely be taken as yet another dimly remembered tale of  gay lovers, buried in the history of the Christian Church, that modern scholarship is beginning to uncover.
Their feast days are celebrated together on 21 st July (Orthodox calendar).
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St Wilgefortis / Uncumber / Liberada: Saintly Bearded Woman?

A wonderful example of a sainted bearded lady?

Wilgefortis

Unfortunately, she may also be an example of a ‘saint’ whose biography is more popular fiction than recorded history. Still, she is listed in the standard catholic reference works, and has had an official feast day, as well as a bewildering array of aliases, among them Liberata, Kummernis,  Uncumber, and Livrade,  Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love blog expands on these names, with some notes on their origins:

The name Wilgefortis may come from the Latin “virgo fortis” (strong virgin). In Spanish she is Librada — meaning “liberated” from hardship and/or husbands. She also goes by a bewildering variety of other names. Her alternate English name Uncumber means escaper. In addition, she is known as Liberata, Livrade, Kummernis, Komina, Comera, Cumerana, Ulfe, Ontcommen, Dignefortis, Europia, and Reginfledis.

Jesus in Love

Continue reading St Wilgefortis / Uncumber / Liberada: Saintly Bearded Woman?

“Male AND Female”He Created THEM: What is YOUR Gender?

At the “Embodied Ministry” conference sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality this week, one of the workshops I found particularly thought – provoking was “Male AND Female He Created THEM”, led by Rev Sharon Ferguson. Below is a personal report on the workshop which I posted at the CSCS website.

The biblical verse “Male and female he created them” is usually taken to mean that humans are created either male of female, and so to justify all that is contained and implied by the binary understanding of sex and gender. However, the simple binary division of biological sex is shown by the modern understanding of intersex conditions to be simplistic. (See for example) Susannah Cornwall’s presentation for this conference).

In another workshop, Rev Sharon Ferguson showed that the standard interpretation of the words may be not the only one. The binary division is even less universally applicable to gender, than it is to biological sex.

Sharon Ferguson, Male AND Female he created THEM

Continue reading “Male AND Female”He Created THEM: What is YOUR Gender?

Will “Ministries of Welcoming” for returning Catholics result in an aborted landing for LGBTs?

Saturday 5th July saw a well–attended all–day workshop at London’s Heythrop College to mark the UK re-launch of the “Landings” programme to welcome back into the Church Catholics, who for one reason or another, feel disaffected or alienated from the Church and have either stopped participating in the life of the Church or who do so only sporadically. When I first read about this UK re-launch some months ago, I was enthusiastic, and signed up immediately: I was a beneficiary of the programme a few years ago, when it was a key point in my own journey (not back into the life of the Church, but into full participation in a local parish).

The published promotional material, under the title “Ministries of Welcoming in the Church: A Conference on Healing and Reconciliation” sounded good, with two keynote addresses, and supporting workshops dealing with specific groups of disaffected or alienated people:

  • Those separated or divorced
  • Women
  • Prisoners
  • Those who have been traumatised or abused
  • An ecumenical model of reconciliation
  • Interfaith reconciliation

But there’s a problem: can you spot the obvious omission? Continue reading Will “Ministries of Welcoming” for returning Catholics result in an aborted landing for LGBTs?

Rainbow Jesus Joins London Pride

Rainbow Jesus, at London Pride

 

The purple t-shirts are for “Christians Together at Pride”, with some for “Soho Masses”. The “Welcome” banner is for “LGBTCatholicsWestminster”, the successor to what were once known as the “Soho Masses”.

The next picture shows the old and new banners, for Soho Masses and LGBTCatholicsWestminster side by side. (“Soho Masses” have not been shut down – just moved):

All are welcome, Soho Masses

Also at London Pride this year were “Positive Catholics”, a mutual support group for Catholics living with HIV / AIDS.

Positive Catholics at Pride

(All pictures courtesy of Martin Pendergast)