Friday, July 15, 2011

Saints Symeon and John: The holy fool and the 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 LGBTQ 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. LGBTQ 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.

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

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.

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
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved. presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.


Josh Thomas (Indiana) said...

I am struck by your comment that we face criticism from both sides. It's the truth; and it hurts.

But having a guide to point out the truth makes the sting go away. We know why LGBTs take offense at us: they reject the Church that rejects them. And they're right to do so.

It's our job to tell our own kind that Jesus is not a fundamentalist, that he wouldn't be caught dead being that stupid, that he likes how we are, and wishes the deepest communion for us.

Ms. Kit, you write well. You've got that Gospel thing going, so don't ever stop.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Yes, Josh, we LGBT Christians are “holy fools” getting criticism from both sides. To most churches, we are way too radical, while most of the LGBT community thinks we are fossils, clinging to outdated ideas.

The concept of “fools for Christ” goes all the way back to the apostle Paul, who writes in the Bible, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

Thanks to encouragement from people like you, I will keep on writing and spreading the good news that God loves everyone, including LGBT people.

Trudie said...

Not to keep beating the feminist drum, but there are some things that need to be said over and over again. The misogyny in our culture predates and exacerbates the homophobia. There is no way to avoid the fact that early Christianity, despite the totally opposite perspective of Jesus, bought into this. One need only look at the way in which even the four gospels of the Christian Canon, not to mention the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles, made either no mention or only passing (and sometimes derisive) mention of the female followers of Jesus.

Although one can see in some of the early stories, such as the curing of the Centurion's "beloved servant" and the baptizing of the "Ethiopian eunuch" a few examples of Christ's (and his followers') acceptance of sexual minorities, the suppression of the totally obvious contribution of (as the book "Half the Church" points out)Christ's female followers really boggles the mind.

Beyond this, of course, is the extreme erotophobia that apparently crept in very early in the development of Christian tradition. The mere fact that so many of the early Christians felt compelled to renounce their sexuality (hetero OR homo) and accept celibacy as the superior spiritual path tells us that the imbalance goes to the very root of their understanding of what Jesus was trying to say. Obviously, they "just didn't get it!" And most of them still don't.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Trudie, you have provided some context and background for the story of Symeon and John. The early church was sex-negative compared to Jesus. Celibacy and asceticism, the spiritual need not be exalted as a superior spiritual path, but I do believe it is an equally valid spiritual path for those who freely choose it. In today’s world where consumption is glorified, I find the simple desert lifestyle of Symeon and John to be rather refreshing.

After reading their dramatic, tear-drenched split-up scene, I was thinking of calling them the patron saints of split ups.

Trudie said...

What is it about us as humans that makes us so thrive on drama of the negative variety? I agree that Symeon an John could well be noted as the patron saints of split-ups - or maybe of co-dependents? Somewhere there's got to be a pair of lovers who are celebrated because they DIDN'T split up, and who weren't martyred, either...

Kittredge Cherry said...

I’m also longing for more saintly pairs whose lives have happy endings, Trudie. At least Brigid and Darlughdach stayed lovingly together until a peaceful death in old age. I chose to highlight Symeon and John because there was a painting of them together in love. It’s extremely rare to find that. And I like the idea of “holy fools.”