Friday, July 29, 2016

Martha and Mary of Bethany: Sisters or lesbian couple?

Mary and Martha by Bernardino Luini (Wikimedia Commons)

Mary and Martha of Bethany were two of Jesus’ closest friends. The Bible calls them “sisters” who lived together, but reading the Bible with queer eyes raises another possibility. Maybe Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple. Their feast day is today (July 29).

Mary and Martha formed a nontraditional family at a time when there was huge pressure for heterosexual marriage.

As Nancy Wilson, moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches, wrote in the brochure “Our Story Too: Reading the Bible with ‘New’ Eyes”:

“Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary and Martha. What drew Jesus to this very non-traditional family group of a bachelor brother living with two spinster sisters? Two barren women and a eunuch are Jesus’ adult family of choice. Are we to assume they were all celibate heterosexuals? What if Mary and Martha were not sisters but called each other ‘sister’ as did most lesbian couples throughout recorded history?”

Wilson expands on this theory in her book Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Christian Scriptures.

Biblical patriarchs have also hidden their marriages by claiming their wives were their sisters. In the book of Genesis, Abraham claimed his wife Sarah was his sister on two different occasions (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18) and once Isaac passed off his wife Rebekah as his sister (Genesis 26:1-16).

Mary and Martha are best known for the conflict they had when they hosted Jesus and his disciples. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to listen, but Martha wanted her to help her serve. Jesus’ famous answer: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42).

In another major Bible story, Jesus talks with Mary and Martha in turn before raising their brother Lazarus from the dead. During the conversation, Martha speaks what is considered the first profession of faith in Jesus: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (John 11:27).

Like with most Biblical figures, the truth about Mary and Martha is a mystery. The gospels references are brief and sometimes contradictory. As a result, Mary of Bethany is identified as Mary Magdalene in the Roman Catholic church, while in Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions they are considered separate persons.

The Orthodox Church also includes Mary and Martha among the “myrrh bearing women” who were faithfully present at his crucifixion and brought myrrh to his tomb, where they became the first to witness his resurrection. Christian feminists also honor the couple and say that they probably were leaders of a “house church.”

Artists provide some beautiful paintings of the “sisters,” including the one above by Italian Renaissance artist Bernardino Luini (1480 -1532). Magic realist painter Eileen Kennedy has done a new painting of them as contemporary women. Kennedy’s “In the House of Martha and Mary” is on view at the Episcopal Cafe Art Blog. Martha stands angrily with vacuum cleaner in hand as her sister listens to Jesus.
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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Icons of Martha and Mary of Bethany and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com



Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Christian Scriptures by Nancy Wilson





Sunday, July 24, 2016

Boris and George: Russian saints united in love and death


Boris, a popular medieval saint in Russia and Ukraine, loved his servant George the Hungarian so much that he gave him a magnificent gold necklace. The feast day of Saint Boris is July 24 -- the same day that same-sex marriage became legal in New York in 2011.

The love between Boris, one of the oldest and most popular saints in Russia, and George the Hungarian ended in tragedy in medieval Russia in 1015, when both saints were murdered.

Boris and his younger brother Gleb are well known saints in Russia. They are often pictured together and many churches are named after them. Meanwhile the beloved George the Hungarian was never canonized and has mostly been ignored -- until recently.

Boris was a prince and gifted military commander who was popular with the Russian people. He was married, but he had enormous love for his servant George the Hungarian.

Slavic professor Simon Karlinsky has highlighted their gay love story in his analysis of the medieval classic, “The Legend of Boris and Gleb” compiled from 1040 to 1118. Karlinsky writes:
Boris had a magnificent gold necklace made for George because he “was loved by Boris beyond reckoning.” When the four assailants stabbed Boris with their swords, George flung himself on the body of his prince, exclaiming: “I will not be left behind, my precious lord! Ere the beauty of thy body begins to wilt, let it be granted that my life may end.” The assailants tore Boris out of George’s embrace, stabbed George and flung him out of the tent, bleeding and dying. After Boris died, first having forgiven his assassins, his retinue was massacred… Not only was the author of this story clearly sympathetic to the mutual love of Boris and George but he also seemed to realize that “the gratuitous murder of George resulted from his open admission of the nature of this love.”

Karlinsky’s text above is quoted from “Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People” and “Gay Roots: Twenty Years of Gay Sunshine.”

The man behind the murders was Boris’ half-brother Sviatopolk, who wanted to consolidate his power. He also had their brother Gleb killed at the same time.

In 1071 Boris and his brother Gleb became the first saints canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. They were named “Passion Bearers” because, while they were not killed for their faith, they faced death in a Christlike manner, forgiving their murderers. Their father, St. Vladimir of Kiev, was the first Christian prince in Russia and their mother Anne was also Christian. Boris and Gleb are buried at the Church of St. Basil near Kiev in Ukraine.

The icon above was painted in 2000 by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his innovative icons. It is one of 10 Lentz icons that sparked a major controversy in 2005. Critics accused Lentz of glorifying sin and creating propaganda for a progressive sociopolitical agenda, and he temporarily gave away the copyright for the controversial images to his distributor, Trinity Stores.

Here George is restored to his rightful place beside Boris, properly honoring this extraordinary couple and the way they loved each other.

LGBT people in both Russia and the Ukraine still face legalized discrimination. May remembering Boris and George help bring equality for people of every sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Related links:
Spiritual art supports Russia’s LGBT rights struggle (Jesus in Love)

Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown (New York Times)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Borís y Jorge: unidos en el amor y en la muerte
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Top image credit: Saints Boris and George the Hungarian By Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. www.trinitystores.com

Icons of Boris and George and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com




Friday, July 22, 2016

Kuan Yin: A queer Buddhist Christ figure


Kuan Yin, the androgynous spirit of compassion in Buddhism, is sometimes thought of as a queer Christ figure or LGBT role model. Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of Kuan Yin today (July 22) this year.

Christians honor Christ as savior, and Kuan Yin is a type of Buddhist savior figure called a bodhisattva -- an enlightened person who is able to reach nirvana (heaven) but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save others from suffering.

Artists often show Kuan Yin with eyes in her/his hands and feed. They are like the wounds of Christ, but Kuan Yin can see with them.

Kuan Yin is also known as the goddess of mercy and goes by different names in different places, including Avalokiteshvara in India, Tara (female) or Chenrezig (male) in Tibet, and Kannon in Japan.

Writers and scholars who have explored the queer side of Kuan Yin include Patrick S. Cheng, theology professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge; Hsiao-Lan Hu, religious studies professor at the University of Detroit Mercy; and Toby Johnson, a former Catholic monk turned author and comparative religion scholar.

In the introduction to his 2003 essay “Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ,” Cheng explains:

"Kuan Yin, the Asian goddess of compassion, can serve as a mirror of the queer experience. Specifically, Kuan Yin affirms three aspects in the life of queer people that are often missing from traditional images of the divine: (1) queer compassion; (2) queer sexuality; and (3) gender fluidity. In other words, Kuan Yin can be an important means by which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people can see ourselves as being made in the image of God."

Cheng writes clearly about the connection between Kuan Yin and Christ in the section where he describes his personal search for queer Asian Christ figures:

Olga’s Kuan Yin
By William Hart McNichols ©
www.fatherbill.org
"I have been intrigued by the possibility of Kuan Yin serving as a christological figure for queer Asian people. For me, it has been difficult to envision the Jesus Christ of the gospels and the Western Christian tradition as being both queer and Asian (although I do recognize that queer theologians and Asian theologians have tried to do so in their respective areas). It is my thesis that Kuan Yin might serve as a symbol of salvation and wholeness for queer Asian people of faith...."

Click for the whole essay “Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ” in English or in Spanish.

Cheng's latest book Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit was published in 2013. He is also the author of “From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ”, “Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology.” His series on “Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today” was one of the most popular stories of 2010 at the Jesus in Love Blog.

Hsiao-Lan Hu presented a paper on “Queering Avalokiteśvara” at the 2012 American Academy of Religion annual meeting. She noted that the Lotus Sutra says that Avalokitesvara will appear to teach different beings in different forms, based on what they can accept.

In the summary of her paper, Hu writes, “Of the 33 forms listed in the Lotus Sutra, 7 are explicitly female, indicating that the Bodhisattva of Compassion transcends gender identity…. What is the theoretical ground in the Buddhadharma (Buddha’s teaching) that justify or even propel such conceptualization? How does that theoretical ground compare to modern-day queer theory?”

She summed up her paper in the 2013 Women’s and Gender Studies Newsletter from the University of Detroit Mercy: “Avalokiteśvara's multi-morphic manifestation affirms different beings in their specific identities, while his/her transformability points to the possibility of moving beyond the confinement of any particular identity. For people of minority identities, the Bodhisattva thus can be both a source of comfort and a model for coping with reality in which they often need to perform different roles.”

Hu is the author of This-Worldly Nibbana: A Buddhist-Feminist Social Ethic for Peacemaking in the Global Community.

Another LGBT perspective on Kuan Yin is provided by Toby Johnson in Kuan Yin: Androgynous spirit of compassion, which he wrote for the Jesus in Love Blog. Johnson begins by retelling the traditional story of Kuan Yin. Then he explains that it is “a nice myth for gay people” because:

"It says we’re really all One, all reflections of one another, that the distinction between male and female is illusory and needs to be transcended and that transcending gender is part and parcel with experiencing heaven now."

A student of Joseph Campbell, Johnson has written 10 books, including the classic Gay Spirituality and Two Spirits. He is production manager of Lethe Press and former editor of White Crane Journal. Johnson discusses Kuan Yin as an androgynous figure who embodies compassion in his articles “Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara” and “Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.”

Queer theologian Robert Shore-Goss applies the bodhisattva concept to queer Christian life in “Bodhisattva Christianity: A Case of Multiple Religious Belonging” in the 2013 book “Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians.” Goss is pastoring Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley (North Hollywood, CA) after serving as chair of the religious studies department at Webster University in St. Louis.

Images of Kuan Yin posted here were created by Tony O’Connell, Stephen Mead, Ralfka Gonzalez and William Hart McNichols. Mead is a gay artist and poet based in New York whose work has appeared internationally in cyberspace, books, and galleries. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Catholic priest who has been criticized by church leaders for making LGBT-friendly icons of saints not approved by the church. His icons have been commissioned by churches, celebrities and national publications.

“Avalokitishvara” by Tony O’Connell

O’Connell is a gay artist based in Liverpool. Raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, he has been a practicing Buddhist since 1995. He creates an artwork celebrating Avalokitishvara / Kuan Yin every year on his/her birthday. Viewers who look closely at his painting here will see an eye in the palm of the Compassionate One's hand.

“There is an amazing statue of Avalokiteshvara in a Liverpool museum with a text that explains how the mustache was painted over to alter his gender as the people who met the monks on the spice routes from India struggled with the idea of a manifestation of compassion being male and wanted to see him as female. It occurs to me that there are subtle ranges of the same personality between Avalokitishvara, Kuan Yin and Tara as one gender ambiguous enlightened mind,” O’Connell said.

He explains that Tara came into being in compassionate response to samsara, the cycle of birth and death: “There is a beautiful scripture that talks about how even with all his enlightened abilities to benefit living beings, Avalokiteshvara saw the suffering of samsara was almost beyond measure. His heart broke for living beings and he wept tears of compassion. When the first tear hit the ground a lotus flower grew up and blossomed to reveal Tara. Her first words as a Buddha were, 'Do not weep- I will help you.'”

For more about Tony O’Connell and his art, see my previous posts Reclaiming sainthood: Gay artist Tony O’Connell finds holiness in LGBT people and places and Olympics: Spiritual art supports Russia’s LGBT rights struggle.

Guadalupe as Chenrezig by Ralfka Gonzalez

Outsider artist Ralfka Gonzalez links Kuan Yin not with Christ, but with his mother by painting Chenrezig as Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the Gonzalez image, he/she is wrapped in Juan Diego's cloak.

His interpretation fits with the practices of Japan’s “hidden Christians,” who created statues of Mary disguised as Kuan Yin (Maria Kannon) when Christianity was outlawed from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Pictured here is the first of many “Buddha Lupe” images painted by Gonzalez. He is a self-taught Chicano artist and gay Latino activist who divides his time between Oaxaca, Mexico and San Francisco. He often paints Mexican and/or gay themes in a colorful folk-art style.

An in-depth discussion of this post happened on my Facebook page with various people adding valuable background info on Kuan Yin and his/her many incarnations:




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Related links:

Korean Christ” icon by Robert Lentz

Christ Sophia” by Br. Michael Reyes, OFM (Christ with Chinese characters and lotus blossom)

Art by He Qi

Kuan Yin: Espejo del Cristo queer asiático by Patrick Cheng

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Top image credit: “Kwan Yin is Coming” by Stephen Mead


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This post is part of the LGBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.



Thursday, July 21, 2016

Symeon of Emesa and John: Holy fool and hermit who loved each other

“Symeon and John” by Jim Ru

Sixth-century Syrian monks Symeon and John were joined in a same-sex union and lived together as desert-dwelling hermits for 29 years. After a tearful split-up, Symeon went on to become known as the Holy Fool of Emesa, the patron saint of all holy fools (and puppeteers.) Their feast day is today (July 21).

These Byzantine saints are important for LGBT people because of their loving same-sex bond and Symeon’s role as holy fool. In the tradition of “fools for Christ,” believers deliberately challenge social norms for spiritual purposes. LGBT Christians, who face insults from both sides for being queer AND Christian, may be able to relate to the motivations and experiences of the holy fools.

Symeon the Holy Fool (or Simeon Salus) of Emesa (c. 522 - c.588) and John of Edessa were close friends starting in childhood, although Symeon was six years older. Both came from wealthy families. When Symeon was 30, they made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the journey home they were both filled with an irresistible desire to leave their families and join a monastery together.

They took vows in the monastery of Abba Gerasimus in Syria. The two men were tonsured by the abbot who blessed them together in an early monastic version of the adelphopoiia ceremony -- the “brother-making” ritual that historian John Boswell calls a “same-sex union.” They were referred to as the “pure bridegrooms (nymphoi) of Christ.”

Soon the two men went together to live as hermits in the desert near the Dead Sea, where they could practice spiritual exercises in solitude. There is no suggestion that their relationship was sexual, but they shared a life together in the wilderness with all the emotional intensity of a same-sex couple for 29 years.

At that point Symeon decided to leave his longtime companion and move to the city of Emesa in modern Lebanon.  He wanted to do charity work while mocking social norms as a “fool for Christ.” John begged him not to go. John’s passionate plea is recorded in “Symeon the Holy Fool” by Derek Krueger:

“Please, for the Lord’s sake, do not leave wretched me. For I have not yet reached this level, so that I can mock the world. 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 lots and went down to lord Nikon, that we agreed not to be separated from one another. Remember that fearful hour 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.”

Even this heartfelt appeal did not change Symeon’s mind. Instead he invited John into a long, intimate prayer session as described by Krueger:

“After they had prayed for many hours and had kissed each other on the breast and drenched them with their tears, John let go of Symeon and traveled together with him a long distance, for his soul would not let him be separated from him, but whenever Abba Symeon said to him ‘Turn back, brother,’ he heard the word as if a knife separated him from his body, and again he asked if he could accompany him a little further. Therefore, when Abba Symeon forced him, he turned back to his cell drenching the earth with tears.”

Symeon went on to help the poor, heal the sick and do other good works in Emesa. In order to avoid public praise, he shocked people by deliberately acting crazy, making himself a “holy fool.”

Not long before his death, Symeon had a vision in which he saw his beloved John wearing a crown with the inscription, “For endurance in the desert.” 

Symeon and John were honored together as saints on July 21 in many ancient calendars. In the 16th century Caesar Baronius separated them and moved Symeon to July 1, but some traditions still celebrate them both on July 21.

Artist Jim Ru was inspired to paint the Symeon and John as a couple, with John’s fervent words to his beloved, “Please don’t leave lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from you.” The painting was displayed in his show “Transcendent Faith: Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Saints” in Bisbee, Arizona in the 1990s.
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More resources:
Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius’s Life and the Late Antique City” by Derek Krueger (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).

Simeon the Holy Fool (Wikipedia)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Simeón de Emesa y Juan: un “santo loco” y un ermitaño que amaban el uno al otro
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.



Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Saint Wilgefortis: Holy bearded woman fascinates for centuries

Saint Wilgefortis statue in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Pas-de-Calais, near Wissant, France (Wikimedia Commons)

Santa Wilgefortis” from “Queer Santas” series by Alma Lopez

Saint Wilgefortis prayed to avoid marriage to a pagan king -- and her prayers were answered when she grew a beard! This gender-bending virgin martyr has natural appeal for LGBT people. Her feast day was July 20 (tomorrow) until she was removed from the Vatican calendar in 1969.

Wilgefortis remains in standard Catholic reference works, and images of her as a bearded woman on a cross are plentiful across Europe and in Latin American folk retablos.

She probably originates more in popular imagination than in history, but Wilgefortis continues to be an object of devotion in folk religion, a favorite character in pop culture and an inspiration in queer art.

Contemporary readers have come up with many theories about Wilgefortis. She has been interpreted as the patron saint of intersex people, an asexual person, a transgender person, a person with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome or a lesbian virgin.

Legend says that Wilgefortis was the teenage Christian daughter of a king in medieval Portugal. She had taken a vow of chastity, but her father ordered her to marry a pagan king. She resisted the unwelcome marriage by praying to be made repulsive to her fiancé. God answered her prayers when she grew a beard.

Unfortunately her father got so angry that he had her crucified and Wilgefortis joined the ranks of virgin martyrs. The church has promoted “virgin martyrs” as examples of chastity and faith, but lesbians and other queer people recognize them as kindred spirits who do not engage in heterosexual activity.

Saint Wilgefortis in the Museum of the Diocese Graz-Seckau in Graz, Austria, 18th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Her veneration began in 14th century Europe and grew until the 16th century, when her story was debunked as fiction. People continued to worship her despite frequent opposition by church officials. She was honored all across Europe, and in some places her popularity rivaled the Virgin Mary. Wilgefortis stayed on the official Vatican calendar until 1969. Scholars suggest that her legend arose to explain the Volto Santo of Lucca, a famous Italian sculpture of the crucified Christ in a long tunic that medieval viewers thought was a woman’s dress.

The history is explored in the book “The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages” by Ilse E. Friesen., professor of art history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. She traces the emergences of increasingly female crucifixes over the centuries, focusing on the he German-speaking regions of Bavaria and Tyrol, where the veneration of Wilgefortis reached its peak.

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. In Barcelona (Spain), local people honor Múnia de Barcelona, a legendary saint who is similar to Wilgefortis. Her feast day day is Feb. 28.

The saint is presented in two incarnations -- as Wilgefortis and as Liberata -- in the “Queer Santas” series by Chicana artist Alma Lopez. The series grew out of the artist’s insight that female martyrs may have protected their virginity to the death not so much out of faith, but because they were lesbians. Lopez paints Wilgefortis/Liberata as masculine women in crucifixion poses. They look like butch lesbians, liberating themselves by rejecting feminine appearance and traditional gender roles.

Saint Liberata” from “Queer Santas” series by Alma Lopez

Wilgefortis also makes various appearances in modern literature. The critically acclaimed 1970 novel “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies concerns a scholar researching Wilgefortis. Castle Waiting, a graphic novel by Linda Medley, features a nun from the order of St. Wilgefortis, an entire convent full of bearded women!

St. Wilgefortis in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows at the Loreta Sanctuary in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Curious Expeditions.

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Related links:

Uncumber or Wilgefortis (Queering the Church)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Santa Librada (Wilgefortis): Una santa Barbuda
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts