Earlier this week, the Catholic Church marked the feast day of SS Martha and Mary. In my post here, and in the comments thread for Kittredge Cherry’s corresponding post atJesus in Love Blog, there was some attention given to the nature of their relationship. Were they literally “just” sisters? Was the word a euphemism for a different kind of relationship? Is it fair to call them “lesbians”? Does it matter?
I believe that the very attempt to force people into sexual categories is a trap. This is what has created the myth in the first place of a normative heterosexual identity within an opposite sex, monogamous marriage. The truth is that in nature and in human societies the world over and in all periods of history, relationships and forms of sexual expression are bewildering in their diversity. Trying to apply modern words to historic patters is particularly dangerous, as the attempt risks burying the past in the baggage carried by those words. This was clearly illustrated for me when I read this morning about Bernadetta Carlini, an Italian visionary whose description as a “lesbian nun” clouds more than it illustrates – even though the one thing that is not contested in her story is that it featured regular sex with a woman (sometimes described as the earliest recorded instance of lesbianism in modern history).
Much of Bernadetta’s story will be familiar to anyone who read volumes of hagiography during childhood in a Catholic school (as I did), or later. Near miraculous circumstances surrounding her birth, dedication by her mother to a life in the convent, a childhood of great “holiness”, eminence in the convent where she became abbess, acknowledged for herintense spirituality (proven by the marks she bore of the stigmata )- that kind of thing. It is the end of the story that is markedly different from the routine, and should cause us to sit up and ask some awkward questions: questions about the words we use, how do we define “lesbian” for earlier cultures, how do we recognize sanctity?
The thoughts I share with you here are prompted by a short essay by E. Ann Matter, “Discourses of Desire: Sexuality and Christian Women’s Visionary Narratives”, in “Que(e)rying Religion “(ed Gay Comstock), which in turn was prompted by recent studies by Judith Brown, who refers to Bernadetta as a lesbian nun in Renaissance Italy.” Matter takes issue with the use of the word “lesbian” in this context, arguing that the undisputed sexual activity with a woman appears to be “lesbian” to modern eyes, but in the context of her life, had completely different connotations. To get directly to the the crucial points, I shall say no more of her early life, until she started to win renown for her mystical visions and stigmata.
To a sceptical modern mind, such claims would be treated with great suspicion, but recall that in earlier times, they would have been taken entirely seriously. If not exactly commonplace, they were certainly not unheard of – they featured in the lives of many of the saints.
She became famed for her spiritual authority as a great visionary, claiming to be in regular communication with several angels (identified by name), and even with Jesus Christ himself. Within her community and the town of Pescia, her claims were not only taken seriously, they revered her for them. Paolo Ricordati, her confessor, encouraged her in developing them. It was that development that led to the dramatic climax, which we must interpret.
It is a standard metaphor of women’s dedication to the religious life that in their commitment to lifelong celibacy, they become “brides of Christ”. Benedetta interpreted this literally, and instructed her convent in 1619 to prepare a great wedding feast for her – which they did. This wedding marked the highpoint of her spiritual fame. Inevitably, it attracted the attention of the church authorities, who conducted an extensive round of investigations, very largely depending on the witness of a young nun, Bartolomea Crivelli, who was an attendant on Benedetta. On the strength of this first round of investigations, including 14 different visits to the convent. the church declared Benedetta a true visionary.
Two years later, a second round of investigations which followed Benedetta’s “death and resurrection” in 1621, produced a dramatically different outcome. (Her resurrection had supposedly been prophesied by one of her angel visitors.) This time, Bartolomea gave more details on the precise nature of the mystical encounters with Christ – and the investigators didn’t like it. The story was that when Benedetta was visited by her mystical “bridegroom”, Christ himself (or by Splenditello, one of his angels who regularly visited in her visions), she did what any good bride would do – she gave herself to him sexually. But to do this in embodied form, she needed a human stand -in. Bartolomea testified that she had been that stand-in. She had regularly had sex with Benedetta, in the place of the mystical bridegroom.
From there, as you can imagine, it was downhill all the way. Had Bartolomea never spoken of the sexual encounters, we can easily imagine what might have been a clear path to recognized sainthood: visions, stigmata and spiritual leadership are strong claims, and (alleged) resurrection after death would surely have been the clincher – but there was this crucial problem of her “immodest acts”. This was a time, remember, when “sodomy” was still a capital offence, and frequently resulted in burning those found guilty of it. The conclusion was that Benedetta’s “visions” had been faked. Even so it took two years before the investigation could reach a final verdict, that she had been “misled” by the devil. She was sentenced to imprisonment in the convent until her ultimate death, many years later.
What are we to make of this? I do not have all the evidence, nor the tools for a proper evaluation, and shall not attempt to pass any verdict on the historical “truth” behind the story. However, I do want to make some general observations, that I think are worth pondering.
First, although the story in its entirety is extraordinary to modern ears, to medieval or Renaissance Christians it would have been entirely credible, right up to the point of the actual bodily intercourse. Many of the great mystics described relationships with God in terms of deep, loving personal relationships with Jesus, and men and women alike routinely described the intensity of these in frankly erotic terms. In the church, we accept the real possibility of intensely mystical experiences, and do not dispute the testimony of other great mystics. Conversely, many queer Christians in the modern world know from their own experience that they too, have the possibility of intensely spiritual encounters with God in their own lovemaking. If we are prepared to accept the possibility of intense mystical experiences as real encounters with God, why should we not take seriously the possibility of the story being literally true, exactly as first told?
On the other hand, we also know that many claims of “miraculous” events really have been fraudulent. We also need to take seriously the possibility that the whole thing really was a giant fake.
Finally, we need to consider the role of the Church investigators. In two separate investigations, involving several visits and innumerable inerrogations of many witnesses, they were willing to accept any number of remarkable claims: that she represented spiritual leadership, that she was a genuine visionary, that her wounds were authentically the stigmata of Christ, that she was visited regularly by a series of angels and by Christ himself, and (most remarkably) that she had experienced death and resurrection. All of that, the investigators were prepared to believe – up until the moment they learnt of the sexual relationship with Bartolomea.
Was Benedetta lesbian? To my mind, clearly not -at least, not in the modern sense, not on the basis of the “facts” as presented. The nature of the relationship was not based on loving partnership, but entirely on the one person acting as a stand-in for (male) Christ. Unless, that is, Barolomea was inventing the supernatural visits as a cover for a more conventional relationship. It was however, a “queer” relationship, as lying totally outside conventional expectations for a woman, either as dutiful wife or as quiet sister in a convent cloister.
Was she a saint? Clearly not, in the official histories. Should we regard her as a popular saint for our community, suitable for canonization by queer popular acclamation? That depends on your view of the “Truth” – was it faked, or did she really experience mystical union with Christ?
We cannot know. But however we decide, I believe there is something important to take away and remember in this story: that on the basis of the evidence from two extensive investigations, there is a strong possibility that she would have become a recognized saint – except for the simple fact that she had sex with a woman. That small detail was enough, in the eyes of the Church, to counteract all the evidence in support of her claim- even though that sexual expression was part of a mystical union. Sadly, this is typical of so much of how some in the Church today react to the “homosexuals” in its ranks: no matter what the evidence of piety, devotion to God, or action for good in the world – as soon as they recognize the “homosexual”, all else is ignored. Only that one feature of our lives is recognized, labelled (in the Catholic Church at least) as “gratuitous self-indulgence” – and condemned out of hand.
And so it is that I suggest we should reflect on the story, and remember the life, of not-a-lesbian, not-a -saint, Benedetta Carlini.
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