Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon


To mark the day traditionally dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, I’d like to share an excerpt from Donald L. Boisvert’s book Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints.

Boisvert maintains that human desire has the potential to serve as a path to spiritual wholeness, and in Sanctity and Male Desire he looks at how saints - and one’s devotion to them - can be sites for the confirmation and celebration of homoerotic desire. He comes to the topic as a gay scholar of religion and draws upon his own experience of saints - including his years in seminary beginning at age thirteen.

Following are excerpts from Boivert’s reflection on Michael the Archangel.

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Tradition has it that Saint Michael fought against the forces of the angel Lucifer at the beginning of the world, when the latter rose up in rebellion against God and was flung into the eternal fires of hell after the primeval battle between good and evil. Because of this, Michael has always been cast in the guise of a warrior, and customary images show him standing proudly and triumphantly on top of a dragon – the devil himself – with victorious spear or sword in hand. He is always handsome. Some traditions maintain Michael was the angel sent to drive Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and that he was also the one who guided the Israelites through the desert.

In conventional Catholic teaching, he is seen as the fearless defender of the church against the forces of a heretical world. Saint Michael the Archangel has always been characterized as a protector of what is right, just, and good. In fact, he has been used time and again as a staunchly conservative symbol of defense against the apparently corrosive evils of liberalism and communism.

Before the revision of the church’s calendar of saints in the 1970s, he shared his feast day, September 29, with the two other important angelic figures of the Bible: Gabriel and Raphael, messenger and guide, respectively. This day now belongs not to the three archangels, whose existence can’t really be proven, but to a series of minor and far more prosaic Blesseds, thereby demonstrating how far the mighty can sometimes fall. Michael, who no longer officially has a feast day of his own, is also one of the few saints shared by different religious traditions, a sort of ecumenical go-between. He is God’s right-hand man, the one who gets the job done and who always does it so well.

As an angel, Saint Michael is, of course, a spirit. Strictly speaking, no one really knows what he looks like, though one can always argue about how many of his angelic companions can dance on the head of a pin, as medieval theologians were so fond of asking. It is therefore possible to picture him as we see fit.

Angelic creatures are usually portrayed as either female or as highly androgynous. Images show them as soft, slightly vaporous beings. They are usually clothed in flowing pink or powder-blue pastel robes. Michael, on the other hand, is a military man, a gladiator, a born fighter. In Catholic tradition, he is also the patron saint of policemen, a highly masculinized and violent profession.

One is struck, however, by the almost contradictory way in which his face is depicted. At times, he has the sexually ambivalent look typical of angels; at others, he resembles a modern athlete, that paragon of manly energy and charisma. There is an inherent ambivalence to the figure of Michael: he is either very masculine-looking or he is genderless (or perhaps even bisexual, depending on your perspective).




The defender of the Catholic Church is therefore a sexually uncertain creature. This is highly symbolic, I would argue, of the church’s discourse on eroticism generally – a discourse which, while claiming to be clearly unambiguous in its defense of gender roles, nonetheless harbors a strangely flirtatious pull towards sexual equivocation.

This equivocation should come as no surprise. The most visible champions of Roman Catholic orthodoxy have always been portrayed as strongly and capably masculine, while beneath their ermine robes there lingers the musky scent of homoerotic desire. Whether they be pope, bishop, theologian, or saint, their shrill clamors for sexual uprightness and doctrinal certitude go hand-in-hand, bespeaking their own ambivalence and confusion. But reality always shines through, and the cassock is sooner or later revealed as the drag outfit that it truly is. It therefore makes perfect sense that the angelic guardian of the Church of Rome should be so sexually charged in his masculinity, but that he also carry a suggestion of same-sex ardor and desire, of gender ambivalence and erotic ambiguity.

. . . Portraying Michael as defender and champion is to represent him in the guise of virile masculinity. It is this notion of masculinity, that of the male figure as protector, that mirrors an unconscious desire we have as gay men, individually and collectively, to feel safe and secure, and that reveals the potential use of Michael the Archangel as a gay icon.

As a community, we do not have very many religious archetypes. Some, such as our identification as a “tribe,” make reference to a Judeo-Christian biblical discourse stressing our unique historical role; others, alluding to special individuals such as “two-spirited person,” are more culture-specific. There are personages, such as Oscar Wilde, Harvey Milk, or Matthew Shepard, who have even attained the uniquely sacred status of gay martyrs.

All these, in some way, speak to an overwhelming need to give spiritual voice and vision to our common experience as gay men. From a catholic – that is, universal – perspective, Michael could exemplify strength and firmness in the face of another evil, that of homophobia. The sword-bearing, handsome archangel could be the one who comes valiantly to our rescue. He could be our “shield of righteousness” in our moments of adversity and rejection: Michael as both defender and comforter.

Michael is also the favorite of the deity. In his role, he touches upon, and could reflect, our privileged role and place as gay men in the economy of salvation. In our identification with him, we also become favorites of the divinity, despite our status as sexual outcasts. A source of affirmation, this unique and positive position with respect to the sacred calls forth and makes possible a greater acceptance and celebration of our erotic difference. It points furthermore to a view of sexual difference as a moment of redemptive potentiality.

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Donald Boisvert concludes his chapter on Michael the Archangel with the following prayer:

Blessed Michael the Archangel,
favorite of the deity, carrier of light, stand by our side.
Be our breastplate in times of doubt and uncertainty,
when the world would rather we not exist.
We know we have been blessed with a holy purpose.
Cover us with your strong and gentle wings.
Shelter us under your noble and manly cloak.
Lead us in our battle against the fear
and hatred of sexual difference.
And may your angelic face
smile upon us forever.

Amen.



Recommended Off-site Links:
St. Michael the Archangel in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Toby Johnson’s review of Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of the Saints.


See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic High Mass: Beautiful and Inherently Gay?
Real Holiness
In the Garden of Spirituality: Toby Johnson
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
A Fresh Take on Masculinity
Bless Me, Father


8 comments:

Sun Warrior said...

... and so it shall be.

Blessings and thanksgiving for this.

Sun Warrior

Jinmunsuen or Kentari said...

I've always wondered why the angels (that were supposedly men if not sexless) were so feminine. It makes perfect sense when you put it this way haha.

jinmunsuen

lisa said...

My daughter can see angels at times. She says they don't seem to be sexual (as in our human male/female categories anyway) beings. I think to genderize them in male/female/or even androgynous terms is to say that the heavenly realm is limited to what we have on earth. Could there be a third, forth, fifth or even sixth gender? Who knows? God's mind is limitless. We can't box Him in to our limited "this or that only" categories.

Anonymous said...

very well put lisa, i dont think you can assign gender to a divine being. of course i could be wrong. its very well written though and food for thought. id love to see the popes face reading that

jlacau said...

As a novice, I took the name of Brother Michael in St. Joseph's Monastery of the Hospitaller Brother's of St. John of God, in Ojai, CA, in honor of St. Michael the Archangel. Today, decades later, after serving as a USN/USMC combat corpsman during the Vietnam Era, I still honor him and all he stands for.

Anonymous said...

In response to "Jinmunsuen or Kentari" I would like to reference the fact that the Archangel Gabriel was once known as Gabrielle, and referred to as a female. Also, God was referred to as a woman in the earlier texts. It is still debated why the references were all made male.

Carla said...

"As a community, we do not have very many religious archetypes."

I wonder, have you done any kind of research into the supposedly romantic relationship between Kind David and Jonathan? Just curious.

David Hallas said...

I Think God made Angels to be Atracted to Both Side (Bisexual). When your Bisexual, you can understand Human emotion on Both side.