One of the curiosities of the Catholic tradition of honouring our saints and martyrs, is how hagiography seamlessly combines historical biography, myth with collective amnesia. The stories of Saints Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, for instance, are replete with well-known legends that have absolutely no verifiable foundation in historical fact, and the delightful story of St Wilgefortis (aka Uncumber), the crucified bearded woman, turns out to have a much more plausible basis in reality. For many other saints, the distortions of hagiography are not just the accretions that are added by popular imagination, but the important details that are so often omitted in the transmission down the ages. St Paulinus, for instance, is widely honoured for his missionary work and for the impressive quality of his Latin devotional poetry. The standard Catholic sources on the saints, however, discreetly omit any reference to his other poetic legacy – equally fine homoerotic verse addressed to his boyfriend, Ausonius.
The story of Saints Galla and Benedicta of Rome may be another example of this selective memory.
Neither of these is particularly well-known, and Benedicta is even less-so than Galla, but I start with her. There are references to her scattered across the internet, but they all seem to come down to a few lines similar to these, from Catholic Online:
Mystic and nun. Benedicta lived in a convent founded by St. Galla in Rome. Pope St. Gregory the Great states that St. Peter appeared in a vision to warn her of her approaching death.
This seems innocuous enough, until it is set against the parallel warning of imminent death that St Gregory also gave to the better known St Galla.
From a large selection of on-line sources, Wikipedia sums up the key uncontested points of her story, those widely reported elsewhere:
Galla was the daughter of Roman patrician Symmachus the Younger, who was appointed consul in 485. Galla was also the sister-in-law of Boethius. Her father, Symmachus the Younger, was condemned to death, unjustly, by Theodoric in 525. Galla was then married but was soon widowed, just over a year after marriage. It was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage. Being wealthy, she decided to retreat to theVatican Hill, and found a hospital and a convent, near St. Peter’s Basilica. Galla is reputed to have once healed a deaf and mute girl, by blessing some water, and giving it to the girl to drink. Galla remained there for the rest of her life, tending to the sick and poor, before dying in 550, of breast cancer.
Notice, please, that little sentence tucked away in the middle, and its cautious qualifier: “it was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage.” This strategy of a holy woman, to grow a beard to avoid marriage, is precisely that adopted by Wilgefortis. Her legend appears to have a much more mundane explanation. I have no knowledge of any firm evidence to either corroborate, or to contradict, Galla’s legendary beard. What interests me is the rest of Galla’s story, and its treatment in hagiography.
An article at Catholic Culture is a good example. It seizes on the beard, and uses it as a moral fable, encouraging us to “dare to be different”. Catholic Culture, however, claims that the beard story was only a threat, and the beard never did grow.
A story about St. Galla of Rome, illustrating the importance to not follow the crowd, but to be oneself. Legend says that St. Galla, after becoming a widow, grew a beard to avoid any offers of remarriage.
Not only girls who want to be nuns, but girls who just want to be good have to ignore a marvelous lot of nonsense from those who “follow the pack.” Life will pass you by, they say, and you won’t have any fun if you don’t do as we do! About as fast as St. Galla grew her beard, it will!
So, then dare to be different – the cause of following holiness. But there’s one little detail also included in the same article, which they do not comment on – a detail that has been omitted from all the other accounts I have seen about Galla. These all tell how, as reported by St Gregory, St Peter appeared to Galla in her final illness to predict the date of her imminent death. The other reports omit the crucial detail that the deaths of Galla and Benedicta were directly linked – at Galla’s express request to Peter:
One night she saw St. Peter standing before her between two candlesticks and she asked him if her sins were forgiven her. St. Peter nodded and said, “Come, follow me.” But Galla asked if her dear friend Benedicta might come too. Yes, she might, said St. Peter, after thirty days — and that is precisely what happened. St. Galla and another holy woman departed this life for heaven three days later, and Benedicta thirty days after them.
As Censor Librorum at Nihil Obstat noted in her reflection on Galla last December, a woman who first grows or threatens to grow a beard to avoid marriage, and then implores Saint Peter to allow her female beloved to accompany her into heaven, is not displaying a conventional heterosexual orientation.
I have no hesitation in hesitation in adding Saints Galla and Benedicta to my collection of queer saints and lovers.