“Not-a lesbian”, “Not a Saint”, Benedetta Carlini,Visionary Nun (1590 – 1661 )


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.

See Also :

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

A Church for Saints and Sinners

The Guardian Newspaper has drawn attention to an article which it claims shows that the Holy See is warming to Oscar Wilde.  This is a little over the top – what the newspaper did, was to praise a review of a book about Wilde:

“Despite the Catholic Church’s condemnation of practising homosexuality, the newspaper has now run a glowing review of a new book about the famously doomed lover of Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was “one of the personalities of the 19th century who most lucidly analysed the modern world in its disturbing as well as its positive aspects”, wrote author Andrea Monda in a piece about Italian author Paolo Gulisano’s The Portrait of Oscar Wilde.

In an article headlined “When Oscar Wilde met Pius IX”, Monda wrote that Wilde was not “just a non-conformist who loved to shock the conservative society of Victorian England”; rather he was “a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false”.

“Wilde was a man of great, intense feelings, who behind the lightness of his writing, behind a mask of frivolity or cynicism, hid a deep knowledge of the mysterious value of life,” he said.”

Nevertheless, it is true that both in the review and in publishing an earier collection of aphorisms, the Vatican has commented a pprovingly on the wisdom behind many of Wilde’s wittty remarks: in particular, that the Catholic Church is a  place “for saints and sinners alone” – and not for respectable people or conformists.

“The Holy See started its unlikely love affair with the Irish playwright and author two years ago when it published a collection of his quips in the book Provocations: Aphorisms for an Anti-conformist Christianity. Wilde’s famous comments “I can resist everything except temptation”, and “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it” were included in the book, edited by Father Leonardo Sapienza.

Wilde was baptised into the Catholic Church shortly before he died. L’Osservatore Romano said that the “existential path” which the author trod “can also be seen as a long and difficult path toward that Promised Land which gives us the reason for existence, a path which led him to his conversion to Catholicism, a religion which, as he remarked in one of his more acute and paradoxical aphorisms, was ‘for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do’.”

This is profoundly true.  The heart of the Gospel is precisely that it is about to reaching out to all  – saints and sinners alike – and not to the rich and respectable, unless they discard those riches and respectability.  Indeed, many of our most revered saints today were at one time or another either clear “sinners”, or viewed with great suspicion or outright hostility by the Vatican establishment.

In a useful comment on the article, Martin Pendergast, well-known in the UK for his outstadning work behind the Soho Masses and the RC Caucus of the LGCM, notes the many reasons why this should not be a surprise, arguing along lines similar to those used by Mark Jordan in “The Silence of Sodom.”

“Why should anyone be surprised at the Vatican’s official newspaper lauding Oscar Wilde? Its marbled halls are strewn with the finely sculpted, muscular youths of Michelangelo’s erotic fantasies. The erupting sexuality in the Sistine Chapel’s frescos are likewise testament to Wilde’s assertion that the Catholic church is “for saints and sinners alone” and that “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.”

What might have attracted Oscar Wilde to Catholicism? At one level it might have been the camp ultramontanism of 18th and 19th century liturgy and music. This attracted so many converts of the era, lingering into the early 20th century, with leading figures of the Oxford Movement and later Anglo-Catholic revivals turning to Rome. Cardinal Newman, his beloved Ambrose St John, the hymn-writing Father Faber, and Robert Hugh Benson, were all aesthetes to varying degrees. Was there something in the harshness of Victorian society that encouraged them to seek out alternative values in the Catholic church of those times?


Wilde’s sexual life, which today might be described as exhibiting patterns of sexual addiction, gave him deep insight into what was good, and beautiful, and true, in himself and those whom he loved, from Constance Lloyd to Alfred Douglas. The Vatican newspaper is not romanticising Wilde but noting his real insights into the human condition, its vulnerability and its immense creativity. Wilde’s De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol are as valuable spiritual and theological classics as Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, or the latter’s passionate letters on the death of Ambrose St John.”

Saint or Sinner:  which are you?

For the full Guardian article, read it here;

For Martin’s commentary, read it here.

Related posts:

Oscar Wilde, Queer Martyr (Queer Saints, Sinners and Martyrs)

Oscar Wilde: Gay martyr with complex faith journey recalled in new art

The Road from Emmaus: Gay & Lesbian Prophetic Role

As an example of powerful Biblical interpretation which combines the different approaches approved by the Pontifical Biblical Commission of which I wrote yesterday, I would now like to present to you a powerful reflection by Michael B Kelly.  This was originally presented as a keynote address to the Australian lesbian and gay Catholic group “Acceptance” back in 1997. An edited text is reprinted in his book, “Seduced by Grace: Contemporary spirituality, Gay experience and Christian faith“.Seduced by Grace_ Michael Bernard Kelly

Michael’s interpretation is notable for the way in which he places the familiar story of Emmaus firmly within the broader context of Luke’s Gospel, and specifically its narrative of the Resurrection.

In this, he is well within both the canonical tradition of looking at the Bible as a whole, as well as the literary/narrative approach.  He stresses the psychological context of the disciples in the immmediate aftermath of the Crucifixion, but also the social context:  the male leaders as religious insiders locked in fear of the authorities, but also unwilling to believe the reports of the women, who were outsiders.  He also notes Luke’s background as an educated Greek, writing in Greek, for a Gentile audience, to whom same sex relationships would have appeared commonplace and morally neutral.  This puts him firmly within the cultural anthropology approach, but also prepares the way for his great pastoral insight:  as nothing is stated in the text about the sexual orientation of the disciples on the road, we may legitimately imagine them as gay men or lesbians.  By placing his interpretation bang in the middle of the contextual approach, he transforms a familiar story into a profoundly fresh metaphor for our prophetic role in the church. Continue reading The Road from Emmaus: Gay & Lesbian Prophetic Role

Catholic Magisterium and Me

In one his comments on my Catholic Teaching page, Ignatius / Benedict writes that

“I think you’ll be happy in the Anglican denomination where this sort of reasoning evades the Truth.”

I’m sorry to disappoint you, IB, but you will not get rid of me that easily.  I am a cradle Catholic, “gebore en gerore” (born and bred, as expressed in Afrikaans), and could no more renounce my faith than I could my language – or my orientation.

One year I accompanied my then partner to Christmas Midnight Mass in the cathedral parish of St Mary’s, Johannesburg, a place rich in sympbolism and significance at that time of anti -apartheid struggle – and came away empty.   My present partner here in the UK is also a high church Anglican, and I have frequently accompanied him to services – which again I find shallow and empty.  Only in the Catholic Mass do I find true richness.

What draws me to the Catholic Church, beyond mere habit and familiarity, is precisely that it is not just “Catholic” (i.e. institutional), but also “catholic” (literally, universal).  The Gospels are clearly inclusive, and so, in principle, is the Catholic Church – inclusive across geographic boundaries, across language and ethnicity, and across two millenia of history.

An important part of that is the Magisterium.  2000 years of scholarship and of spirituality must surely include within it much great wisdom, which must be respected and treasured.  I am particularly grateful for those giffts from which I have personally benefited: the wisdom in Ignatian spirituality, the teaching apostolate of the Dominicans and the missionary zeal of so many.   I take the value of the Magisterium very seriously indeed, as teaching authority.  I also take pride in the history of the church in its struggle against oppression, in South Africa and elsewhere.  The Catholic Church took the first steps to defy the apartheid laws and admit people to its schools without regard to ethnic background; spoke out in pastoral letters against the sheer iniquity of apartheid laws;  gave succour and support to political detainees and their families; intervened as peacemakers in vicious ethnic violence in the killing fields of Natal before the 1994 election; and worked as peace monitors and electoral educators in the build up to that historic election. I am proud to say that I myself was a part of the work of the church Peace & Justice activities at the time, which is why I am so disappointed that the Church’s insistence on siding with the oppressed does not extend to sympathy and understanding for those sexual minorities whose  oppression arises from the Church’s own actions. Continue reading Catholic Magisterium and Me

On “Catholic Teaching”: Housekeeping notes.

On my Catholic Teaching page yesterday, Ignatius Benedict posted a comment which drew a response from me, leading to further exchanges from each of us.  Ignatius Benedict has his own blog In the Roman Catacombs, which I respect but often disagree with, and we clearly have very different views on church and authority, so I suggested that on that matter we should now agree to differ and close that particular discussion.

However, reflecting on his comments, and those posted by Conway on the same page earlier, I realised that this page is one that I have neglected for too long.  The reasons I think are understandable. In setting up this site 6 months ago, I built a structure that intially represented ambition and intention rather than achievement, reflected in pages that were set up as templates without content.  As time has passed, I have tried to build up the content on three fronts simultaneously:  a series of regular front page postings reflecting mostly personal opinions and reflections, prompted by events in the news or in my life, or ideas as they occur to me ;  a series of information pages which attempt to build up information on faith and sexuality from a range of perspectives (church, history, scripture, and so on); and an expanding set of books pages.

These inner inforamtion pages are the most difficult for me:   I am very conscious that I ahve no particular expertise or training in these fields, and so I depend on sharing information that I have gleaned from others.   Also, inevitably I find it easier and more useful for me personally to time my time on the topics in which I am personally most interested, and about which I feel most confident.  So these pages ahve been more neglected than others, and Church Teaching most of all.

Excuses though are not good enough.  I personally have limited interest in the detail of Church teaching, but others do.  I will henceforth make a greater effort to research and report on the official teaching.  Be warned, though, that in doing so there will be some surprises.  For as I noted in response to James, the official teaching, once you go beond the simple headlines coming out of the Vatican, are not nearly as clearcut and simple as one would think.

In the meantime, until I have been able to flesh out my thinking in more organised fashion, you may like to check out the interchange in the comments boxes, which has now become quite an extended exchange – and by all means, go ahead and make your own contributions.

The Monastic Tradition: All a Big Mistake

Possibly in response to a orevious post, a reader (my friend Rob Alexander) has sent me this by email.

Thank you, Rob.

Monastery Life

A young monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to helping the other monks in copying the old canons and laws of the church by hand.

monks 01
He notices, however, that all of the monks are copying from copies, not from the original manuscript. So, the new monk goes to the head abbot to question this, pointing out that if someone made even a small error in the first copy, it would never be picked up! In fact, that error would be continued in all of the subsequent copies.

monks 02The head monk, says, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.”

He goes down into the dark caves underneath the monastery
where the original manuscripts are held as archives in a locked vault that hasn’t been opened for hundreds of years.

monks 03

Hours go by and nobody sees the old abbot.


So, the young monk gets worried and goes down to look for him. He sees him banging his head against the wall and wailing.

monks 04“We missed the R!  We missed the R! We missed the R!”

His forehead is all bloody and bruised and he is crying uncontrollably.

The young monk asks the old abbot, “What’s wrong, father?” With A choking voice, the old abbot replies,
“The word was…

monks 05


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My Homoerotic Retreat: Six days that changed my life.

(In offering the story below, I do so with some trepidation.  I know that many readers will be sceptical or cautious, may even find it ridiculous. I myself, given my particular background in faith and religious temperament, would have been made distinctly uncomfortable if any of my friends had asked me to take such a story seriously. Still, I think it is time to share it.  I leave you to decide for yourself:  was this a genuine mystical experience, as my eminently well qualified spiritual directors believed?  Or was I just suffering from some kind of spiritual delusions of grandeur?  Make up your own mind.)

During Advent of 2002, I underwent a 6 day directed retreat which turned out to be the most extraordinary spiritual, even mystical, experience of my life, which in certain key respects fundamentally changed my outlook on faith.

Background & Context

As the experience really was remarkable, sounding like an account that I myself would previously have dismissed as ramblings from the sentimental / superstitious wing of Catholicism, I want to begin by setting out my prior religious / spiritual background, as well as the context in which I began my retreat.  This will provide both context and contrast for what followed.

After drifting away from the church during my twenties as a married man, I later came out as a gay man.  Ironically, it was only after setting up in a committed long gay relationship that I was moved to return to the church.  The parish I then joined was led by Jesuit priests, and in time I began to explore the Ignatian approach to spirituality, by way of increasingly heavy involvement in the CLC – “Christian Life Community”.  In spite of this involvement, I did not see myself as particularly “religious” (a word I detest), nor “spiritual”, with all its connotations of “piety” and mysticism.  I simply knew that I enjoyed profound satisfaction in setting aside time for quiet reflection on my life.  My take on all matters of faith was primarily cerebral. (I was distinctly uncomfortable with the more ostentatious displays of images and relics, of novenas and special prayers “guaranteed” to bring results, or of mystical voices and apparitions.)  I did, however, find value in the Jesuit emphasis on balancing the promptings of head and heart, and on the value of paying attention to experience.  I became of convinced of the truth that Prayer is not just about speaking to God asking for favours, but also of attempting to listen.  I knew that by proper attention to the discernment of spirits within, one could, with care and imperfectly, hear the voice of the Lord speaking directly to us.

The context for this retreat was that after a long period of careful discernment, my partner and I had taken the important decision to leave South Africa, the only country I had ever known, to take up teaching posts in the UK – a country which I had never even visited. This was to be my final Christmas in South Africa, and the decision lay heavy on my mind.  I was also reoccupied with the nature of my gay relationship.  I had repeatedly considered the issue of homosexuality in prayer and under spiritual direction, and was comfortable that there was nothing immoral or reprehensible in our relationship.  Still, I was just a little bothered by the possibility that perhaps after all, I was fooling myself, making excuses and rationalising away some inner doubt.  So I was looking for final reassurance on two key questions in my life:  the decision to emigrate, and my status as a sexually active gay man in the church.


Image via Wikipedia

The Retreat Experience

The setting for the retreat, which had been set up by our CLC team, was a Franciscan house and retreat centre on the banks of South Africa’s Vaal River. On arrival the first evening, we had a very simple liturgy, and were allocated to one of the two directors, with first appointments set for the morning.  During the first meeting with my director, I shared some of my preoccupations, and was advised to reflect among other readings, on the Song of Songs, and on the passage of Moses and the burning bush.

I knew of course that the Song of Songs was written as a love poem, wit the lover serving as a metaphor for god, but had never really looked at it closely before.  Approaching it afresh, I was struck by the clear eroticism, and also by how easily it could be read as two male lovers. (I later found that it may well have been written with that plain intent, but did not then know that). This reading, as homoerotic love poetry, was in case the way I read it, and found myself intensely moved and frankly aroused.

Later, I went out of doors under the shade of the riverbank trees, enjoying their cool and protection from the December African sun. I turned now to the story of the burning bush, which I had encountered before as a graphic illustration of how the Lord, in certain circumstances, speaks to us directly.   After reading and reflecting on the text a few times, I set aside my bible, and looked up at a bright blue sky through the dappled shade of the foliage.   Quite specifically and consciously I put a direct request to the Lord:  “Speak to me, Lord”, I said.  I am convinced that for the next 5 days, he did, in the most direct and unsettling terms.

I did not immediately realise what was happening, but later realised that I was gradually being drawn into an increasingly intense relationship with the human person of Jesus Christ, something that had previously always seemed remote and inaccessible from my faith experience.  During the Eucharistic adoration that ended the first day’s formal programme, I became totally absorbed in every second of the experience, fully involved and rapt from start to finish, with never a moment’s loss of concentration, nor any discomfort from my position sitting cross-legged on the floor for the full hour.  I was also completely self-aware of the intensity of the experience, so conscious of the intensity, far exceeding anything I had previously known, that I would not have been surprised to find myself levitating.  At the end of the exposition, I found myself in agony that my precious time of intimacy had ended.  I followed the group who removed the Sacrament to its place in the chapel, and then stayed behind for a couple more hours totally lost in the presence in front of the tabernacle.

So it continued for the rest of the retreat:  every morning I was up early, and into the chapel for an hour before the 8:00 Mass which began the formal programme, at intervals during the day, and for a long period before going to bed. During these times, was quite literally not just in conversation with Jesus Christ as a friend, but with Him as a lover, and with Mary during frequent rosaries as the mother of my boyfriend.

The intensity continued to increase. On the following day, I remembered the well-known image of the “Bride of Christ”, an image that was clearly inappropriate to me as a man.  But thinking in terms of gay marriage, I imagined myself as the “groom of Christ”, which took my moments of intimacy with my “lover” to an entirely new level:  ever more intense, and frankly erotic. By extraordinary synchronicity, the following morning I was in a disused room of the retreat house, where I came across some old magazines that had once been art of the library.  Among these were some copies of a journal of spirituality. Picking one up at random and glancing at the contents, the first title I saw was something like “The Groom of Christ:  a Reflection for Men.”  This turned out to be a variation on the old metaphor, but from a male perspective. Recognising that most men would have difficulty imagining themselves as brides, the writer proposed instead turning the image on its head, imagining Christ as the bride. This seemed to me equally implausible, and I was grateful that as a gay man, I had not needed to make this distortion of gender to benefit from what is a perfectly good and powerful meditation just as it is.

I deliberately pass over the impact of direct reflection on the Passion, which came later, and move immediately to the sequel.

I remember one morning leaving my room with the clear intention of going to visit “my pal, my lover” Jesus in the chapel.  But while my definite intention was to turn left, my body was pulled right.  I knew I was being deliberately pulled aside, and tried to argue.  “I’m going to meet you in the chapel”, I said. The answer was clear:  “But I want you this way.”  There was clearly no point in arguing, so indeed I turned right, not knowing where I was headed.  This turned out to be the monastery’s private graveyard, leading to further deep reflection, in that Advent season, on life and death. But then I was pulled on further, to a large open field.  Around the perimeter were erected a series of almost life sized wooden crosses (about 8 feet high), each with a caption for a station of the cross.

Stations of the Cross

As I approached the first station, I was suddenly filled with powerful, uncontrollable emotion and fell to my knees, sobbing out loud. (This was out in the open, and in full public view not just of the retreat centre, but also of anybody passing in the street alongside.  I paid no attention)  It took quite some time before I could regain enough composure just to get back on my feet and move on – to the next station, where once again, entirely outside my control, the full emotional spectacle was played out once again.  And again, and again, over the full 14 stations.

After an experience so intense, so outside the experience of one previously so reserved in religious matters, as sceptical and cautious about the demonstrative, almost superstitious Latin / Mediterranean brand of Catholicism, where cold I go next?  In fact, the only way was to ease out of it.  I had of course been reporting on my increasingly intense experiences daily to my retreat director, who now advised me to ease off.  A day earlier than normal, she started to lead me through some gentler meditations to ease me gradually back to a point where I could re-enter the real world outside.  So the last two days were largely filled with riverside nature walks, and meditations through art, including a simple painting of a monstrance, as I remembered it so vividly from the Eucharistic adoration.

In my final debriefing with my retreat director, she warned that would I had experienced had been unusually intense, even mystical, and would need to rounded off with my regular spiritual director, a senior Jesuit priest.

The Aftermath

When I did meet up with Fr Mike, I was fully expecting him to agree that the experience should be taken seriously.  I was not prepared though, for quite how seriously he took it.   He too described it as “mystical”, and said that encounters of such intensity were “blessings, rarely bestowed on just a few.”  He thought long and hard, and continued by saying that in his experience, where such encounters were given, it was usually in preparation for exceptionally difficult times ahead, a way of storing up spiritual strength as sustenance for the dry periods to come.  Thinking of my pending emigration, I laughed, and said that I well knew the years ahead would be tough.  “No”, came the response, I mean really tough.

So it proved.  Within weeks of arriving in the UK, my partner of nearly 20 years concluded he had made mistake in coming, and soon returned to South Africa.  I in turn was even more convinced that I needed to be here – that indeed, in Ignatian terms, I had been “sent” on mission, and so I stayed.  So began several years of serious difficulty, including emotional trauma, financial and professional difficulties, uncertainty over my immigration status, and recurrent bouts of depression, some of which remain problems to this day, 6 years later. Throughout all of this, at all the darkest times, I do exactly as Fr Mike anticipated:  I look back on that retreat on the riverbank, once again drawing on spiritual reserves to carry me through.

It would be good to say that I have remained in some kind of exalted, mystical or advanced spiritual plane – but it would also be completely untrue.  Indeed, removed from the firm structure of my closely bonded CLC group, my conscious practice of deliberate prayer and spiritual practice has moved somewhat behind where it used to be back in Johannesburg, and needs to be deliberately revived.

Two things, though, I have taken away from away from the retreat with unshakable conviction. First, given the context of the start to the retreat, with a specific question about sexuality and some clearly homoerotic reflections, I have never since entertained even a moment’s doubt about the validity of a gay sexual life in faith.  Second, after I was given such a strong preparation for the difficulties around my emigration, I am more convinced than ever that the move was chosen for me as mission.  Indeed, I am firmly convinced that the specific reason why I was called here was to live openly as gay and as Catholic, and to help others to do the same.

Why He should have called me in particular, is completely beyond my understanding.  I claim absolutely no special training in these matters, no great wisdom and certainly no holiness.  But He moves as we know in mysterious ways, and sometimes chooses the most unlikely people to do His work.

Related Posts at QTC

Marriage Equality & the Church: Take 2

Back in May, I wrote that the growing international acceptance of civil marriage for same sex couples would inevitably nudge the churches to rethink their own positions, nudging them to greater acceptance.  (See “Marriage Equality and the Church“ ). Some recent news stories illustrate the point.


In the UK,  the change in Swedish law is already having a direct imact on the Anglican church, which has close ties to the Lutherans.  The resonse described here is about two English bishops who have written to the Lutherans to express their “concern” that the change in Swedish law will ut pressure on the English church to accept same sex marriage:

From the Daily Mail online:

“The Church of England warned last night that it is under pressure to accept gay marriage.

…….The concerns were raised in a letter from Bishop of Guildford Dr Christopher Hill and Bishop of Chichester Dr John Hinds to leaders of the Swedish state church which has close and formal links with the Anglicans.…….

Their letter was a response to moves in the Church of Sweden to offer gender neutral marriage services which could be used for either brides and grooms or for same sex couples.”

I would agree that their concern is well founded, but speaking for myself, I would change the  description from “concern” to “delight”.

Also in the UK, the strongest opponents of marriage, led by the Bisho of Rochester, are now formally leaving the Anglican Church, thinking that they are leading a groundswell movement of resistance.  Independent observers think otherwise, and the departure of the bigots will simply make it easier for the rest of the chuirch to make real progress. See:

The Independent LeadingArticle:   The bishop is embracing a lost cause.

The Daily Telegraph There’s no pride in bashing gays, bishop

The Times Online The spiritual battle for the soul of Anglicanism

Ekklesia Backlash grows against Nazir-Ali’s call for gay “repentance”

In the US, the Southern Baptist Convention is probably the most hostile of the bigger churches.  But even here, there are signs that a rethink is coming.  In a leading article in the Baptist Standard, the editor write that it is Time for A Rethink on Homosexuality. He continues to believe that revelation, but at least concedes that there is no reason to be harsher on this “sin” than on others:

Small consolation, I know, but movement none the less.  In New Hampshire, meanwhile, a columnist for another Baptist publication, the Manchester Examiner, makes explicit the connection between the NH marriage law, and its inevitable result of pressure on the church for a rethink:

“In New Hampshire, the Southern Baptists have planted a number of new churches in the recent decade. … How will the Southern Baptists react to a changing landscape where homosexuality is becoming more tolerated and accepted in mainstream New Hampshiresociety? People outside the church are less likely to view it as wrong or different, just as they view other things considered sexual sin. Churches have acclimated and adjusted to cohabiting heterosexual couples,divorce and remarriage (once considered adultery by many Baptists), and many other things once considered anathema.

Where once homosexuality was considered a disease or psychological disorder, it is now becoming better understood. And even if a church believes that the Bible teaches homosexuality is sin, should it be distinguished from other sexual sins? If churches are going to be opposed to homosexuality, they must be opposed to all sexual sin equally. Is there a bias against homosexuals that needs to be overcome to reach them effectively? And if so, can churches overcome it?”

How, indeed?

The Tyranny of the Clerical Closet

Over the last 40 years, we who are openly gay and lesbian, inside and outside the church, have been discovering the joy of coming out.  It is widely agreed that at a public level, this has led to increasing public understanding and acceptance of our issues. At a personal level, this is almost invariably a liberating, invigorating experience, freeing us from guilt and fear. As Helminiak has noted, and I discussed here, this is valuable as a growth experience for both spiritual and mental health.
The converse of course, is also true: remaining in the closet  carries clear and demonstrable costs.  Denying oneself honest sexual expression leads either to the repression of a natural human instinct, or to a life of subterfuge, of deceit, of fear of being discovered, and of feelings of anguished guilt.  This surely cannot be healthy, either mentally or spiritually.
Continue reading The Tyranny of the Clerical Closet

Pride in Our Past

One of the features of the post-Stonewall era, with the explosion of interest in lebian & gay studies and in queer theory, has been the wealth of information becoming available of our place in history.  By reminding ourselves and the world that we as LGBT people have been around in all ages and societies, by showing that in many of these it is not homosexuality but exclusive heterosexuality that was considered abnormal, and by presenting as role models individual gay & lesbian leaders in all fields, we have been enabled to recover a sense of self- confidence, and to counter more easily the lies and prejudice spouted against us.

For the most part, however, this recovery of history has by-passed our place in the church, which today remains one of the primary sources of the hostility.  This is quite unnecessary:  gay men, lesbians, and gender minorities all have a notable place in scripture and church history, which we should be doing more to uncover and share.

When I first began to explore what we may call our ‘lost’ history, I thought of it as material that had simply become ignored and then forgotten. Later, as I investigated some particular individuals, I realised that in at least some cases,  the omissions have not been simple oversight.  The nature of these is so significant they can only represent deliberate acts, actively airbrushing us out of the official biographies. Two examples illustrate the problem – many more can be found.

Last week I wrote about St Paulinus of Nola, noted saint, bishop and gifted medieval poet.  All of these are recorded in his entry in the on-line Catholic Encylopedia.  This entry also notes his friendship with a certain Faustinus, and that a portion of the poetry is addressed to Paulinus, which the entry describes as ‘epistles’ – a word which to modern ears has distinctly religious associations.  What the CE does not tell us, is that these verses were quite clearly erotic love poems, of sufficiently obvious a nature as to be represented in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. These verses were emphatically not the entirety of Paulinus’ legacy.  No more than for any of us, homosexual attraction was by no means thee totality of his being.  But by no stretch of the imagination can I conceive of frankly homosexual erotic verse being presented as religious ‘epistles’, as the result of mere oversight.  Somewhere over fifteen centuries of hagiographic transmission,  the true nature of these poems has been deliberately excluded.

Much the same has occurred much more recently in the story of Cardinal John Henry Newman, which I also investigated and wrote on last week. In a lengthy entry, the CE totally ignores his very significant attachment to his beloved friend, Aubrey St John.  There is no point in speculating about the physical expression of this love.  It is quite enough to know the uncontested fact that it was so strong that Newman insisted on being buried in the same grave as St John, so that they might spend eternity together.  Yet so remarkable a desire, evidence of an exceptionally important relationship in his life, gets not even a mention.  This too can only be deliberate omission of an uncomfortable fact, not simple oversight – but in this case, without the excuse of centuries of historybehind it.

But it gets worse.  In just the past two days, I have come up against two different writers who claim there has been deliberate mistranslation of scriptural texts, so as to obscure the gender implications.  In the article on the Song of Songs (“The Song of Songs, A Gay Love Poem” (Fidelity Press, 1995), reviewed at the Wild Reed the writer provides evidence that later translators have deliberately altered the text of the Song of Songs to obscure its frankly same -sex erotic origins.

“Johnson has consulted with many Hebrew scholars, who reluctantly concede the validity of his revolutionary word-for-word translation. The Masoretes did not, happily, produce a homophobic text. They merely made a gay love poem appear to be hetero. And that was done to many ancient poems and stories.”

Today, I came across an article by Bernadette Brooten, “Junia…… outstanding among the Apostles”…  in which she produces evidence that a personal name in Romans was altered from a female form to a male form, to mask the fact that a woman was being addressed as a great apostle:

“Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7): To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.

John Chrysostom (344/54-407)(2)

Also notable is the case of Junias or Junio, placed in the rank of the apostles (Rom. 16, 7), with regard to whom one or another [exegete] raises the question of whether it is a man.

Pontifical Biblical Commission (1976)(3)

What a striking contrast! The exegesis of Romans 16:7 has practically reversed.”

There are many other examples. On the face of it, it would seem that to support the view that homosexuality was sinful, and that women could not serve as priests, the official voise of the church a;ltered texts that did not fit with their prejudices.  Then they used their bowdlerised texts in support of their prejudices.

These arguments are clearly contoversial, and are surely contested.  I lack the credentials and resources to explore them fully, nor do I have any desire to do so.  I do want to stress though, that there is a pattern (here and elswhere), entirely consistent with the abuse and transformation of the word and concept of “sodomy”, which makes it at the very least abundantly clear that the received version of history as handed not by the church, and usually accepted without questioning, is at the very least open to contest and debate.

There is a further reason to explore for ourselves our true place in church history:  Pope Benedict himself, indirectly, has commanded us to do so.  In his otherwise infamous “Hallowe’en letter”, then Cardinal Ratzinger instructed us to “speak the truth” on homosexuality :

“Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral”
“We encourage the Bishops to promote appropriate catechetical programmes based on the truth about human sexuality… ”
“The Lord Jesus promised, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (Jn. 8:32)”

(Encouraging thruth, of course, the letter immediatley proceeded to pronounce falsehoods and half truths)

God is Truth” was one of the key attributes of the divine, relentlessly hammered into me in school RE lessons, complete with endless scriptural texts to support the statement – all of which I was required to write out and memorise. But truth is not something which we can find simply by accepting at face value the words of the church, as the Vatican could like us to believe. Truth is a goal never fully achieved, that needs to be worked for, to be wrestled with, accepting there will be many false starts and mistakes along the way. (For a wonderful descripton of this search in the context of the church see James Alison, “The joy of being wrong”, in “On Being Liked”.) For the misrepresentations of church history apply not only to sexual & gender issues, but also to the official versions of the history of church power and of the Vatican itself.

In recovering an understanding of GLBT church history, I am also finding a new understanding of the growth and abuse of papal power itself.  Both of these journeys I have begun sharing with you, and will continue to do so, for as long as I maintain this site.

There is one final reason for me, personally, to explore these issues.  When Cardinal Murphy O’Connor authorised the move of the Soho Masses into the Catholic parish of the Assumption & St Gregory, he made clear in his public statements that there should be no ‘ambiguity’ in our ministry about Catholic teaching on homosexuality, on which official teaching should be presented ‘clearly and in full’.  For someone like me, in clear dissent with some of the official teaching, this presented a real dilemma, which soon dissolved when I recognised that it is simply impossible to follow both instructions to the letter.  For the “full” teaching of the church is  itself ambiguous, on many points and many levels. Recognising the impossibility of doing both,  I have discarded any attempt to avoid ambiguity, and embraced instead the alternative instruction, to promote the full teaching as fully as I can.  but the Magisterium, so central to Catholic orthodoxy, is assembled from history.  To understand it “fully”, we need to understand also the historical development and selection.

I can thus proclaim that in creating, maintaining and developing this blog, I am attempting to do no more than follow the clear directives of my presnt Pope, and immediately past Cardinal:  to speak the “truth” about homosexuality and Catholic teaching, “in full”.  This is clearly an impossible and Herculean task, akin to clearing a beach of sand, one grain at a time.  Still, I continue relentlessly, one grain and post at a time, seeking the truth where I find it – including those truths that the Church itself has attempted to keep hidden.

In doing so, I am finding increasing confidence and pride in my status as an openly gay Catholic, with increasing freedom from years of instilled guilt.  I hope and pray that my ramblings can help you to do the same.