Sunday, October 04, 2015

St. Francis of Assisi: A Gay Man's Man

Today is the feast day of St. Francis Assisi, and to mark the occasion I share an excerpt from Donald L. Boisvert's 2004 book, Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints.

Boisvert writes from the perspective of a gay scholar of religion. He believes that male sanctity has been a defining theme in the lives of many Catholic gay men of a certain age. Boisvert, himself, came of age at the time of Vatican II, a time when Catholic culture, he says, was "at once repressive and liberating." It was a Catholicism, he writes, "that bespoke homoerotic desire while also denying it vociferously."

By way of an example of this Catholicism, Boisvert shares the following:

Knowing full well that our emerging sexual yearnings for the bodies of other boys were totally unacceptable, I and other young Catholic boys were nonetheless encourage to adore and worship – and by extension, to desire – the bodies of the saints, to say nothing of the half-naked crucified God himself. We were repeatedly taught to be chaste, but were pushed simultaneously into the welcoming arms of those virile holy men to whom we prayed. The male saint thus became an erotic fixation, an ever-present site of potential sexual affirmation and release. This was the stark manifestation of a Catholic culture at once repressive and liberating, of a Catholicism that bespoke homoerotic desire while also denying it vociferously. It was the Catholicism into which I was born and which I, like so many others of my generation, either had to learn to live within, or to transcend. Some o my generation of gay men did stay, choosing to accommodate ourselves silently; others could not, and left in large numbers.

I'm not of Boisvert's generation, and so did not experience the hot-house level of repressed sexuality that he maintains was a big part of the Catholicism of his youth, i.e., the years prior to and of Vatican II. And as I've noted in a previous post, Boisvert's intense erotic fixation on the bodies of male saints (and on Jesus' body) is something I simply don't share. Still, I know and have known Catholic gay men of Boisvert's generation, and many of them have shared similar stories and perspectives to Boisvert's. Also, and this is what's most important, I appreciate Boisvert's overall message that human desire is capable of serving as a pathway to spiritual wholeness. From my perspective, this points to what's been called the sacramental principle (i.e., the theological notion that matter channels spirit while remaining matter; that all nature, in other words, is graced, is infused at its core with and by the sacred). It's a principle at the heart of all authentic religious experience and expression, including, of course, Catholic Christianity (despite the fact that elements within this particular religious expression have attempted to limit the understanding of "sacrament").

With all this in mind, here, then, is an excerpt of Boisvert's "gay reading" of St. Francis of Assisi.

I write about Francis and [other male saints] because I have desired their holy bodies, and because their stature as saints has by no means erased their homoerotic attractiveness. I write to lave a trace and a legacy of a queer Catholicism, a religious faith deeply colored by my (and others') same-sex passions. It does make a difference, and it does contribute to the further naming and appropriation of a gay worldview. If we claim the objects of religious devotion simultaneously as objects of erotic desire, then w can also make ours the salvation which they promise, and do so as proud gay men. It was on and through the bodies of these holy men that I and others first found ourselves, that we first tasted the sweet nectar of forbidden love. and it was their sanctified bodies that made our desire the hallowed gift that it became. The bodies of the saints were our training grounds, our first loves, our unlawful rites of passage. When I now write about the holy body of Saint Francis of Assisi – or any of the others, for that matter – I write my own life story and the unspoken, secret stories of all others like me: Catholic "pervert" trained in the sanctified and timeless "perversions" of an intensely homoerotic institution. I speak what cannot or should not be spoken, the better to uncover its truly liberating message.

. . . It is said that gay men are obsessed with the body. I claim this obsession as a grace. It is really a devotion written in the heavens, an earthly strategy for engagement with the divine force. Phallic worship for example, has nothing at all to do with the empty and meaningless sucking of male genitalia, and everything to do with an awareness of human desire as a path to spiritual wholeness. It is a discipline. Somehow, I suspect Saint Francis of Assisi would have understood, if perhaps not approved.

For if Francis was anything, he was earthy; not the gentle and angelic figure of the tacky holy cards, but bold and brawny in his spirituality and in his humanity. A man's man, in other words. Or more precisely, a gay man's man. Francis of Assisi, the seducer and the charmer. Francis, the ultimate outsider, the one who, like so many of us, rejected family because they could not understand, and he did not want to be weighed down with their bankrupt values. Francis the visionary, who ultimately stood alone with his Creator, and was pierced by his fiery and bloody wounds as a special sign of divine love and election. Saint Francis of Assisi, the boy wonder who became the saint wonder. Francis, my love, my craving, my compulsion, my sweet man.

– Donald L. Boisvert
Excerpted from Sanctity and Male Desire:
A Gay Reading of Saints
pp. 112-113 and 119-120

For more of Francis of Assisi at The Wild Reed, see:
St. Francis of Assisi: Dancer, Rebel, Archetype
Francis of Assisi: God's Gift to the Church
No Mere Abstraction
St. Francis of Assisi and Human Sexuality
Francis and Elias
Francis of Assisi: The Antithesis of Clericalism and Monarchism
Francis and the Wolf
Solar Brother

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic
The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
In the Garden of Spirituality – Toby Johnson
The Catholic Thing

Recommended Off-site Link:
Francis of Assisi’s Queer Side Revealed – Kittredge Cherry (Jesus in Love Blog, October 4, 2015).

1 comment:

Joe Nix said...

I especially like Donald's words, "For if Francis was anything, he was earthy . . ."