Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Gay saints and lovers: Sergius and Bacchus

Saints Sergius and Bacchus
By Brother Robert Lentz, OFM.Copyright 1994
Courtesy of (800.699.4482)
Collection of the Living Circle, Chicago, IL

Saints Sergius and Bacchus were Roman soldiers, Christian martyrs and gay men who loved each other. They were killed around 303 in present-day Syria. Their feast day is observed on Oct. 7. The couple was openly gay, but secretly Christian -- the opposite of today’s closeted Christians.

The close bond between the two men has been emphasized since the earliest accounts, and recent scholarship has revealed their homosexuality. The oldest record of their martyrdom describes them as erastai (Greek for “lovers”). Scholars believe that they may have been united in the rite of adelphopoiesis (brother-making), a kind of early Christian same-sex marriage.

A classic example of paired saints, Sergius and Bacchus were high-ranking young officers. Sergius was primicerius (commander) and Bacchus was secundarius (subaltern officer). They were tortured to death after they refused to attend sacrifices to Zeus, thus revealing their secret Christianity.

The men were arrested and paraded through the streets in women’s clothing in an unsuccessful effort to humiliate them. Early accounts say that they responded by chanting that they were dressed as brides of Christ. They told their captors that women’s dress never stopped women from worshipping Christ, so it wouldn’t stop them, either. Then Sergius and Bacchus were separated and beaten so severely that Bacchus died.

According to the early manuscripts, Bacchus appeared to Sergius that night with a face as radiant as an angel’s, dressed once again as a soldier. He urged Sergius not to give up because they would be reunited in heaven as lovers. His statement is unique in the history of martyrs. Usually the promised reward is union with God, not with a lover. Over the next days Sergius was tortured and eventually beheaded.

Sergius’ tomb became a famous shrine, and for nearly 1,000 years the couple was revered as the official patrons of the Byzantine army. Many early churches were named after Sergius, sometimes with Bacchus. They are recognized as martyrs by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. The pair was venerated through the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Latin America and among the Slavs. Sergius and Bacchus continue to be popular saints with Christian Arabs and now among GLBT Christians and their allies.

The icon above was painted by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his innovative icons. “Saints Sergius and Bacchus” is one of 10 Lentz icons that sparked a major controversy a few years ago.

Critics accused Lentz of glorifying sin and creating propaganda for a progressive sociopolitical agenda. They caused such a stir that in order to keep the peace between his Franciscan province and the Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Lentz gave away the copyright for the 10 controversial images to his distributor, Trinity Stores. Lentz had his name removed from those images on the Trinity website, but later reclaimed authorship. All 10 are now displayed there as a collection titled “Images That Challenge.” The group includes gay-positive, women-affirming and pagan-oriented icons. Lentz’ own moving spiritual journey and some of his icons are included in the book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More by Kittredge Cherry.

To learn more about Sergius and Bacchus, check out “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe” by John Boswell and “Passionate Holiness” by Dennis O’Neill.

P.S. Be sure to read the comments for more details about the historical accuracy of Sergius and Bacchus as “gay lovers.”
This post is part of the new 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.


eric said...
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eric said...

I guess it's remnants of my own internalized homophobia or something, but I've always had concerns about considering various saints to be gay.

But, after reading yesterday's post I had to rethink that. To read that they were known to be lovers (erastai) at the time of their arrest was an exciting development for me.

As a former soldier, I'm aware that very close bonds of friendship can develop between soldiers. I have always assumed that to be the case with Sergius and Bacchus. For a long time, I assumed that to be the case with Jonathan and David, as well.

But at not point do soldiers refer to themselves, nor have I ever seen that bond of camaraderie referred to as, erastai.

It is so affirming to revisit the lives of our heroes in the light of modern scholarship.

It's not so much that they were gay... it's the affirmation we receive when we see examples of LGBT persons living good, faithful and powerful lives.

Good job, Kitt! Keep 'em coming!

Turtle woman said...

I thought Eric's comment was interesting about having concerns about "considering various saints to be gay." Why not? Not everyone is straight, we all know this. We also know that lesbians and gay men are clever at hiding throughout history.

You have to ask yourself about the early church's exultation of celibacy, or who was really behind the creation of monastic life? Now why would large groups of men and women want to create single sex environments? And the answer is very simple, lesbians and gay men wanted a way out of heterosexual marriage, and wanted to elevate gay people, who are still usually considered to be celibate by straight people.

The saints and mystics came out of these single sex institutions, and there was good reason later on. Single women could be branded witches, or they could be forced to marry men. If you want to escape from that world as a lesbian, than becoming a nun and possibly a future saint is highly attractive.

Terence Weldon said...

As a Catholic, I have an uneasy relationship with saints of any kind - I am too concious of the abuses associated. With Sergius & Bacchus, we have the added difficulty at this distance in history of knowing the true facts: not all authorities agree they were lovers, not all still agree they were saints. Still, we need role models. Whatever the historical details, their memory and that of other gay, lesbian and transvestite saints serves a useful purpose.

With reference to Eric's observations on friendship between soldiers, the story of the "gallant band of Thebes" deserves to be better known, especially with the current US debate over DADT. The city of Thebes in classical Greece was so convinced about the value of male love that their renowned fighting force was composed exclusively of 300 men who served alongside their lovers. The theory was that men who were fighting to protect loved ones alongside them would show more bravery for that reason.

Their success showed the soundness of that thinking.

Terence Weldon said...

Thanks also for the reference to Passionate Holiness. I am aware of many of the books, but this one was new to me.

LX said...

An interesting read!

It would appear that the new 'discoveries' are pretty far fetched though. Boswell's book is apparently full of mistranslations and historical error.

What I do want to find is 'The oldest record of their martyrdom' which Boswell refers to. If it does, indeed, describe the two as erastai, the same word used in so many other ancient Greek texts when talking about the lovers and boyfriends... well that would be something, wouldn't it!

All criticism I have read on Boswell's book have been to do with general translation and misreading of history, specifically focusing on the meaning of adelphopoiesis, a rite which still exists in some eastern churches.

Another point I would add: the claim that "they would be reunited in heaven as lovers" is unlikely. We use "Till death do us part" for a reason: the Church believes that all marriages end at death, and if it allowed same-sex unions, the same would apply.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks to all of you for so many great comments. Eric, I especially appreciate hearing from a gay veteran. I am enlightened by hearing your perspective on the strong bond between soldiers that exists whether or not they have any sexual or erotic connection. Turtle woman, I also appreciate hearing another woman’s thoughts on this pair of male saints.

I understand the concern that many expressed about historical accuracy. Terence summed it up well: “We have the added difficulty at this distance in history of knowing the true facts: not all authorities agree they were lovers, not all still agree they were saints. Still, we need role models.”

I admit my bias is to uncover holy heroes and role models for GLBT people of faith and our allies. Yes, there is debate about whether Sergius and Bacchus were lovers. I doubt that historians will ever find enough proof to satisfy everyone. After all, these guys lived about 1,600 years ago, and the first written records date from about 100 years after they died. But Sergius and Bacchus are considered to be among the best documented cases of “gay saints.” Later in this series I will be writing about other historical saints for whom the label “GLBT” is more of a stretch.

I suppose I am applying “a hermeneutic of suspicion” as championed by feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther. The dominant Christian culture tried to suppress overt homosexuality, so any hint of homosexuality that survives should be given extra significance.

LX, I share your desire to find “’The oldest record of their martyrdom' which Boswell refers to.” Here is a link to The Passion of SS. Serge and Bacchus as translated by John Boswell from the Greek "Passio antiquior SS. Sergii et Bacchi Graece nunc primum edita," AB 14 (Brussels, 1895), 373-395. Admittedly, it is translated by Boswell, but it does seem to be based on the earliest record:

Here is a direct quotation of the part that talks about them being, as I put it, reunited in heaven as lovers:

“The same night the blessed Bacchus suddenly appeared to him with a face as radiant as an angel’s, wearing an officer's uniform, and spoke to him. "Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, 'I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou hast enlarged my heart.' Hurry then, yourself, brother, through beautiful and perfect confession to pursue and obtain me, when finishing the course. For the crown of justice for me is with you.''

That last line is a lovely way of describing a relationship, isn’t it? “The crown of justice for me is with you.”

LX said...

You know, thinking about it, it shouldn't be that hard to find a GLBT saint.

The Church would probably not canonize anyone who was openly Gay - not under the current administration anyway - but if someone dies a martyr they are a saint, no questions asked.

Unless you can think of anything about homosexuality which would stop someone from dying for the faith - which I cannot, then surely we can find one!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks, LX. Your words remind me of one reason that I’m doing this series now -- “The Church would probably not canonize anyone who was openly Gay - not under the current administration anyway.”

I know that there is a lot of new research (and related icons) out there about GLBT saints. I was shocked when I did a Google search and discovered that it’s not easily available online. It’s buried under code names like “images that challenge.” I figure it’s because the current Roman Catholic administration’s crackdown on GLBT expressions of faith. As an independent blogger, I’m free to put this material out there where more people can find it and benefit from it.

Let me know if you have some particular GLBT saints or martyrs to suggest. So far in this series I have written about Father Mychal Judge (chaplain who died in service at the World Trade Center 9/11/2001) and Matthew Shepard. Neither is canonized by the church… yet.

Here’s a link to the whole series so far:

TellingIt said...

It's always useful to know that the church burned Joan of Arc to death before they canonized her.

Since women have been erased from so much of history, even when we know for a fact that a heroic inventors, an apostle, astronaught in training, discoverer of DNA helix, contributor and co-author of things Einstein is only given credit for... the list goes on.

Men do everything in their power to steal knowledge, to cover up, to not report on or to simply discredit everything women have done.

I don't doubt that the church actively tries to hide gays and lesbians from history either. I just assume they are patriarchs, and I don't trust male sources of information on women for the most part. So this is automatic with me.

Remember there should be a HER as well as a HE is the story. Lesbian feminists just assume men get it wrong about women all the time. We have to force men to fact check.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks, Telling It. I see that that you also view life with a "hermeneutic of suspicion." You'll be happy to know that lesbian saints are coming soon in the GLBT saints series.