Benedetta Carlini – First Lesbian Nun Story

Posted by Censor Librorum on Oct 13, 2020 | Categories: Accountability, Arts & Letters, Celebrities, History, Lesbians & Gays, Politics, Scandals, Sex

Benedetta Carlini (1590-1661) was a mystic, seductress and nun. Dr. Judith C. Brown chronicled her life in the 1986 book, Immodest Acts. The book came on the heels of Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan’s bestseller, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, which was published in 1985. Benedetta was Abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia, Italy when she was accused of heresy and “female sodomy.” Her story is important not only as a documented lesbian relationship in the convent, but how an intelligent, persuasive woman gained, experienced and exercised power and celebrity within Catholicism’ male-dominated structure.  In the end, she was brought low by jealousy and her own excesses. She also had miscalculated the tectonic shift in the Church from the Counter Reformation: principally an emphasis on correction of clerical abuses, and more emphasis on intellectual understanding vs. supernatural manifestations of divine favor.

The story of Abbess Benedetta Carlini was discovered by accident by Dr. Brown, a historian at Stanford University while she was researching the economic history of the region and the Medici rule.  “I found Benedetta Carlini by chance, by leafing through an inventory of nearly forgotten documents in the State Archive of Florence.  The entry in the inventory read: ‘Papers relating to a trial against Sister Benedetta Carlini of Vellano, abbess of the Theatine nuns of Pescia, who pretended to be a mystic, but who was discovered to be a woman of ill repute.’”  This discovery of an ecclesiastical investigation contained what is probably the earliest account of a sexual relationship between two nuns. The documents concerning Abbess Benedetta Carlini consisted mostly of transcripts of a series of inquests between 1619 and 1623.

In 1986, Dr. Brown published her book about Benedetta’s life, investigations, and trials.  Titled Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.  It was widely reviewed in both scholarly and popular journals and publications.  I talked to Dr. Brown about speaking at the Conference for Catholic Lesbians (CCL) West Coast conference in May 1986.  Unfortunately, she wasn’t available to participate.  Too bad, because many scholars are dry and pedantic, and I found Dr. Brown to be both engaging and knowledgeable. She was one of a handful of women at that time to write an even-handed account of lesbianism who was not a lesbian herself.  The book served as a prop in Su Friedrich’s sensational 1987 film, Damned If You Don’t.  

Benedetta’s parents brought her to the convent in 1599 when she was nine years old. She entered the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, more commonly known as the Theatines. The order was founded in 1583 by the Venerable Ursula Benincasa, who was famous for her visions and piety. The fame she gained from her visions led some to accuse her of being possessed by a devil. In 1617, Ursula had her most famous vision, where Jesus (in some versions, Mary) appeared to her. In the vision Jesus praised her order and promised them salvation.  Ursula died in 1618 at the age of 71. Benedetta grew up learning about Ursula’s visions and the fame and power that proceeded from them.

Like the Venerable Ursula, Benedetta had visions.  In 1613, when she was 23, she reported visions to the mother superior and her confessor. A young boy helped her climb the “Mountain of Perfection;” she was surrounded by wild animals, only to be saved by Jesus.  In another vision, while praying one morning, she found herself “in a garden, surrounded by fruits and flowers.” Male figures came to dominate her visions—a beautiful youth, young men who beat her with sticks, chains, and swords; a handsome guardian angel named Splenditello, and Jesus himself.  Over time, the visions increased in intensity and detail, and Benedetta became well known for them.  Fearful that Sister Benedetta was being harassed by demonic forces, Sister Bartolomea Crivelli was assigned to share her cell, observe her, and help her if possible.

On the second Friday of Lent 1619, Benedetta received an unmistakable sign of divine favor, the stigmata.  Prior to this event Benedetta and others in her community were unsure if her visions were divine or diabolical in origin; but by manifesting the wounds of Christ she proved their divinity.

Her celebrity as a mystic blossomed.  That same year the Theatine nuns elected her as their abbess.

Shortly after her election, she began to deliver sermons to the other nuns.  She spoke in a trance, an angel speaking through her, exhorting the nuns to purify themselves, and be grateful for Benedetta’s presence in their midst. In the months that followed, there were more trances and visitations: from St. Catherine of Siena and an angel—a beautiful youth in a white robe named Splenditello, even Jesus himself.  They spoke from within Benedetta, at times with loving praise, other times harshly or issuing commandments, such as a ban on eating meat, eggs, and dairy products.

On May 20, 1619, Jesus appeared to Benedetta and told her he wanted to marry her in a special ceremony.  He had specific ideas for the procession, the chapel decorations, list of guests and the ceremony itself. At the wedding, while the other nuns watched and listened, Benedetta claimed the Blessed Mother looked on benevolently while Jesus placed a gold ring on her finger. Speaking through her, Jesus said, “I would like that this, my bride, be empress of all the nuns.” He added that the Great Duke of Tuscany should be informed of her greatness. All those who did not obey, believe, and cherish her would be punished.

Although the nuns had gone along with Benedetta’s visions, the self-flagellation during trance-sermons and even a ban on salami and cheese; the wedding with Jesus and his dictate that they should obey her or face divine punishment was a step too far. They reported her to the ecclesiastical authorities, who investigated her twice between 1619 and 1623. They discovered that she had faked the stigmata by pricking herself with a needle; secretly ate salami and mortadella during her “ban” on meat and dairy and painted on her miraculous wedding ring with saffron.

But the most damning, was the confession of Sr. Bartolomea Crivelli, Benedetta’s assigned companion.  She described her two-year affair with the abbess.  The women met for sex at least three times a week.  “Embracing her, she would put her under herself and kissing her as if she were a man, she would speak words of love to her. And she would stir so much on top of her that both of them corrupted themselves.” They also masturbated each other and had oral sex to orgasm.  Mutual fondling carried a relatively light penalty—two years of penance, plus the loss of Benedetta’s status as abbess. The fact that Benedetta claimed “Splenditello” the angel committed the sexual acts allowed clerical investigators to classify all of Benedetta’s supernatural visions as diabolic in nature. In their report, investigators criticized Benedetta’s “immodest and lascivious language,” and “the great display of vanity” of her mystical marriage with Jesus. 

Benedetta, 36, was condemned to involuntary hermitage and spent the remaining 35 years of her life in solitary confinement.  The only other mention of Benedetta is an August 1661 entry in an unnamed nun’s diary stating that Benedetta Carlini died at age 71 of fever and colic pains. The nun added that Benedetta was “always popular among the laity.”  For her confession, Sr. Bartolomea Crivelli was spared any punishment. She died in 1660, a year before Benedetta.

Why the long solitary confinement?  I suspect jealousy, anger at her duplicity, and fear that her charm and intelligence could help her reclaim a leadership position led some nuns to promote her isolation within the community. She would feel her losses every day.  Church authorities wanted to discourage her dangerous popularity with the laity. Her supernatural claims were unwanted in the new age of science and Counter-Reformation.

There is no record of what Benedetta thought and felt after she was led to her lonely cell. Did she have any regrets? Did she revisit her visions– real, imagined or devised? Did her thoughts ever stray to Bartolomea, lying in her bed nearby?

Benedetta Carlini has been the inspiration or subject of films, plays and articles.  They include:

Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith Brown, Oxford University Press, 1986

Damned If You Don’t – a film by Su Friedrich in 1989.  If you want to see the film, below are the links for streaming and for DVD

Damned If You Don’t

Vimeo streaming for $3.99
DVD for $24.99

Discourses of Desire: Sexuality and Christian Women’s Visionary Narratives,” by E. Ann Matter, Journal of Homosexuality, 1989-1990

Big Gay Portal to Hell, a podcast by Catherine Clune-Taylor on Caveat

Stigmata, a 2011 play by Carolyn Gage

Vile Affections: Based on the True Story of Benedetta Carlini, a 2006 play by Vanda

Benedetta Carlini: Lesbian Nun of Renaissance Italy, a play by director and playwright, Rosemary Rowe.

Benedetta, an upcoming film directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Virginia Efira as Benedetta.  The film is scheduled to premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

 

 

 

 

Unsolved Mystery: The Disappearance of Danny Walsh and the Legend of Cement Shoes

Posted by Censor Librorum on Aug 13, 2020 | Categories: History, Scandals

I always enjoy the Cross Sound Ferry ride from Orient, NY to New London, CT. I look out over the water and imagine what lies beneath. Somewhere underneath the rolling waves are four centuries of shipwrecks, lost fishing nets and tackle, Coke bottles, busted lobster traps, and the remains of Danny Walsh, encased in cement shoes.

Danny Walsh

Danny Walsh was one of the most successful bootleggers during Prohibition, and the last major Irish-American gangster in Southern New England.  He was kidnapped and murdered in 1933.  His remains were never found.

A first generation Irish-American, Walsh was born in 1898 in the neighborhood of “Valley Falls” in Cumberland, Rhode Island. He was the son of John and Mary Walsh and was the second of nine children.  When Prohibition started Walsh was earning $5 a day working in a Pawtucket, Rhode Island mill.  Walsh became one of the most famous rum-runners during the 1920s. He assembled a formidable operation which included planes, automobiles and a fleet of boats. These speedboats were armor plated with layers of New York telephone directories to ward off Coast Guard machine gun fire.  The boats would go out to the 12 mile limit, known as “Rum Row” to meet ocean-going vessels.  Walsh’s exploits were chronicled in local papers, including the infamous incident of December 1929, when one of his smuggling speedboats, “The Black Duck,” came under fire by a Coast Guard gunship.

Rhode Island was the most Catholic state in the country, and many of the state’s Irish, Italian, French-Canadian and Polish citizens regarded Prohibition as a Protestant plot against their social life.  Enforcement was lax.

Charles “King” Solomon

As the Roaring 20s roared along, Walsh prospered and became a protégé of Charles (King) Solomon, Boston’s legendary crime boss.  Solomon made Walsh the northeast distributor of high-quality Canadian alcohol.  Sam and Harry Bronfman of Seagram Company were happy to sell legal Canadian whiskey at 65 cents a gallon.  Walsh could sell the same gallon for $7 in the U.S.

By 1925 Walsh had made a huge fortune as one of the country’s largest bootleggers. Considering himself a “gentleman farmer” Walsh spent a lot of money on thoroughbreds which he raised on his farm in Charlestown, Rhode Island. He became an accomplished horseman. Affable and politically savvy, he kept his political allies and bankers stocked with hard liquor.  In 1928 Federal authorities charged him with tax evasion, arguing he owed the government $350,000 in unpaid income taxes.  Walsh bargained the figure down and paid.  When anyone asked, he told people he was a hobby farmer who had made shrewd investments.

Walsh was rumored to be part of the “Irish Combine,” a group of Irish gangsters heavily involved in bootlegging.  They included Big Bill Dwyer and Owney Madden of New York City, Larry Fay on Long Island, NY, Walsh in Providence, RI, Daniel O’Leary of Philadelphia, PA and Joseph Kennedy of Boston, MA. 

One of the most notorious bootleggers during Prohibition was Carl Rettich, a New Jersey born criminal who got his start at age 17 in the mob-controlled live poultry business.  He overheard a plot to murder a wholesale poultry dealer but kept his mouth shut. In September 1924, 30-year-old Rettich was charged with the murder of Frank d’Agostino, a gangster who was known by police as a “hijacker” of bootleg liquor. D’Agostino told friends that he planned to meet with Rettich to discuss returning the whiskey he had stolen from him.  Instead he ended up on a pier with four bullets in his neck and chest.  Rettich was an associate of George F. (“Doc”) Moeller’s, alleged whisky smuggler, who disappeared a few weeks earlier with $150,000. The police were unable to trace his whereabouts, although they believed he fled to Germany.

Rettich relocated to Rhode Island at Walsh’s invitation.  Together they expanded operations.  Known to his Warwick Neck, RI neighbors as “Charles Ryerson,” area people believed him to be a respectable attorney who had moved to Rhode Island to care for his aging father.  Rettich threw parties for politicians and the local elite, letting people fire his machine gun on the front lawn.

Carl Rettich

On January 23, 1933, Charles “King” Solomon was gunned down in the men’s room at Boston’s Cotton Club.  His boss and protector dead, ten days later Danny Walsh disappeared.

Walsh was last seen the night of February 2, 1933 at the Bank Café in Warwick, RI having dinner with Rettich, Rettich’s young associate, nicknamed “Wireless,” and two other unidentified men. A waitress testified that Walsh and Rettich were in good spirits, but a second witness disagreed, claiming the men had an argument over an unpaid debt. Rettich paid Walsh $30,000 to settle it.  Danny Walsh disappeared.  Local police and a Federal inquiry into his disappearance went nowhere.

The Associated Press ran a story on June 3, 1935 speculating that Walsh “was stood in a tub of cement until it hardened about his feet, and then thrown alive into the sea.” The AP reported it was just a “grisly underworld tale.”

According to unnamed informants, Walsh had been taken to the basement of Rettich’s home and clubbed. He was put in a box that was filled with concrete and dumped in the ocean.  Walsh’s girlfriend was given the same treatment for being too vocal about his disappearance.  Another rumor had Walsh’s body stuffed in a barrel filled with cement and dumped in the sea off Block Island. No bodies were ever found.  Police Captain Alfred Stevens of Providence, RI believed Rettich murdered Walsh to take full control of the business and reclaim his $30,000 payment.

Murder Castle

The Providence Journal received a tip that some “Chicago interests” might have staged Walsh’s kidnapping, upset he was encroaching on their territory in western Massachusetts.  The Journal’s front-page story on February 11, 1933 reported that Walsh might have been kidnapped for a $40,000 ransom. A few days after his disappearance, Walsh’s brother, Joseph Walsh, received a ransom note demanding $40,000.  Joseph Walsh, Carl Rettich, and two other men traveled to the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.  There they handed the $40,000 to a man that none of them saw. He collected the money by slipping “his hand through a hotel room door.” Despite promises from the kidnappers, Walsh never resurfaced.

Over the next several years authorities would often investigate unidentified murder victims in hopes of finding Danny Walsh; “any time a suspicious corpse was found—in Massachusetts or Rhode Island woods—or a skull turned up in a fishing net off Block Island, police checked it against Danny Walsh’s dental records.” The bodies of Danny Walsh and his girlfriend were never found. What happened to Danny Walsh?  No one knows, but what is left of him is probably at the bottom of Block Island Sound.

Rettich’s luck ran out in 1935. He was convicted on multiple charges for a Fall River, MA mail heist that netted $129,000.  He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and spent the rest of his life there. Rettich is footnote now in Prohibition history, but he is the inspiration for the enduring legend of cement shoes. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Catholicism of John Rechy

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jul 21, 2020 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays, Sex

A few weeks ago I pulled out my copy of City of Night by John Rechy to reread it. It was Rechy’s first novel published in 1963. It draws on Rechy’s life, starting with growing up in El Paso, Texas, and his vocation as a hustler, starting in New York, and traveling through the very Catholic cities of Los Angles, Chicago, and New Orleans. After years of doing both, he eventually traded hustling for writing and teaching.

John Francisco Rechy was born March 10, 1931 in El Paso, Texas. He was the youngest of five children born to Guadalupe and Roberto Rechy.  Both of Rechy’s parents were born in Mexico; his father had a Scottish ancestor.

He writes about a childhood religious revelation: “Soon, I stopped going to Mass. I stopped praying. The God that would allow this unhappiness was a God I would rebel against. The seeds of that rebellion—planted that ugly afternoon when I saw my dog’s body beginning to decay, that soul shut out by heaven, were beginning to germinate.” (page 17, City of Night)

In City of Night, there are no less than 32 mentions of God or Catholicism in its 380 pages. I found the “indelible mark” of Catholic sacraments and upbringing throughout his writing and statements. The hypocrisy of church offends him, and he believes many clergy are gay, but I was surprised that I did not find a bishop, priest, or seminarian in any of bars, streets, and parks he frequents in City of Night.  Most gay priests I know had boyfriends or sought out casual sex at some point during their careers.  It’s surprising that Rechy didn’t have a sexual encounter with one of them or chose not to write about it.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s “quarrel with God,” kept popping up in my head throughout City of Night. The character, “youngman,” observes the world around him; and continually questions and rebels against an indifferent, evil God. “Youngman” searches for salvation the way Ahab searches for Moby Dick.  He did not find it on white sheets (page 367).  He did find love, which might have meant salvation, but chose to walk away. 

I have reread those pages (343-368) to understand why youngman resisted Jeremy’s offer of love.  Was he homophobic?  Was he afraid of a loss of control? Was the habit of resistance to any emotional involvement so strong that he could not overcome it?  I never could figure it out. Whether faith, love, or sex, you must choose to surrender, and if that readiness is not there, the moment is lost.

John Rechy’s Catholicism is revealed in his writing and his interviews. He is remarkably consistent throughout the decades of his use of Catholic imagery and why and how it remains in his life and work.

“I was a late bloomer I think as part of the Catholicism.  Sex was not mentioned, and didn’t exist.  I learned about sex from bestselling novels like Gone With the Wind and Forever Amber. When I was about 15 the sexual urges started coming but without direction. I didn’t know what sexual direction I was going, whether it was men or women. My first (willing) male sexual contact was in the army when I was about 20 in Paris.  There was a lot of sexual conflict that came into play, a lot of ambiguity. I was aware of sex before then, but it was ambiguous if I liked male or female. Finally, one led to the other and finally I identified completely as a gay man.”

 “The Catholic Church profoundly influenced me, believe it or not. I’m fond of saying ‘A lapsed Catholic lapses every day.’ This influence was basically unavoidable with the Mexican background, that’s pretty profound. That accounts for the religious imagery in my books. I like to say, ‘I write in Catholic.’”

 “I dislike religion very much, Christianity in particular (especially Catholicism, which is what I was born into), and find it mean and dangerous—and hypocritical about sex. Those aspects, I intertwine into many of my books.”  

 “Religions, Christian religious, at any rate, do offer redemption, salvation, et cetera—that is at the core of much of it: salvation. But when you finally encounter the hypocrisy and cruelty embedded in every one of those religions, you’re left with a terrible emptiness—no “salvation.” We look for substitutes: often, yes, in sex, lots of sex. Now I can see how intelligent readers might find a sense of spirituality in my writing.  I would say, however, it is, more, the tenacious dregs of early religious attitudes. I use Catholic imagery constantly, and that might lead to a deduction of spirituality.”

 “My mother was deeply religious, and it got her through painful times. Because of that, I often prayed with her, the rosary, et cetera. I would never have done anything to compromise that. Too, looked at objectively, the Catholic Mass is very beautiful, High Mass. On a church that only Technicolor could do justice to; the statues of saints, Mary, and Jesus all look like movie stars. The ritualized services, the changing, the spraying of incense—that provides great theater, of course. It wasn’t until I could see those rituals as such that I could tolerate them. Yes, beautiful drama at the core of which is—alas—suffering and repression and cruel judgments.”

 “Mexican culture adds hateful factors to the forming of a solid homosexual identity, in main part because of the power of the Catholic church, although I would say a majority of priests and high prelates are themselves gay.”

John Rechy absolutely nailed the eroticism in Catholic art and churches.

“The imagery of Catholic art, in its churches, is erotic and—oh, yes—very often powerfully, overtly sexual—the Sistine paintings at times seem to depict orgies.  And a lot of sadomasochism, a lot. Yes, and look at the image of Christ crucified in altars all over the world. What a huge impact that has to have: a beautiful man, a muscular body, almost naked, only a tantalizing covering—and a kneeling audience of priests and congregants.” 

 “I have always been fascinated by the sexual imagery in Catholic churches and religious art, especially depicting Christ.  In representations of his crucifixion he is incredibly beautiful, his body is lithely muscular, perfect, and the loincloth covers him just above the pubic area. It is that figure that congregants are expected to kneel and “adore.” That is the figure that nuns “marry” before…And yet people are aghast to think of Jesus as a sexual figure.”

“In my book, Our Lady of Babylon, there is the most beautiful love scene between Jesus and Judas.  I retell the story of the betrayal. The sex scene is told by Mary Magdalene, who’s looking down on it from a hill. Talk about artistic decision! I know that it would be very difficult to say, “And then Jesus went down on Judas, and Judas went down…” because it would be an outrage. But I wanted a full sex scene.  So it’s Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene. She’s in the middle, and they begin to kiss her, and then she moves slowly away, knowing that this is what it’s all about, and then they come together and kiss, and then Magdalene moves away to a hill. And then from the point of view of Magdalene, so that I don’t have to get vulgar, I describe their movements. So there it is. I’ve done that one.”

“In the novel, Rushes..I write about one night in a leather bar, a night that ends up in an S & M orgy room…The bar is described to look like an altar. The characters locate themselves in the positions of priest and acolytes during Mass. On the walls of the Rushes Bar there are sketchy erotic drawings. These find parallels in the Stations of the Cross, the last panel fading into unintelligible scrawls, to suggest the ambiguity of the possible Fifteenth Station. There is a “baptism” and an “offertory.” At the end of a metaphoric crucifixion and an actual one (gay bashing) occur simultaneously, one inside the orgy room, the other outside. The novel/Mass ends with a surrendered benediction.” 

 “What have I discovered? I guess I’ll go on saying there is no substitute for salvation, a phrase that appears in every one of my books; but what I may have come to believe is that what is required is to redefine the word “salvation,” by pulling it away from any religious context.  Then salvation may be found in living as good a life as the terrifying world allows.”

 “In my teen years, I did write some poetry (in addition to the novels I was writing). The poems were often in rhymed pentameter. I liked epic subjects. “The Crazy Fall of Man” was one, in which, at the end, Judgement Day, outraged people come to judge God, not the other way around; and the last person is Christ, so powerfully accusing God that He—God—throws himself into hell, like this: “And raising his mighty hand in an act of contrition, God said, “Forgive, forgive, forgive,” and flung Himself headlong into the bottomless pit of hell.”

John Rechy’s writing is full of incidents and feelings familiar to many gay and lesbian Catholics. Anger, especially anger at God and the church; loneliness, the ease of slipping into lies and masks, the search for sex, the feeling of empty spaces inside, and finally, the wistful longing to return to the faith of our childhood and youth. How often do we find ourselves feeling abandoned, seeking God who is absent from our life? Our search—or walking away—can go on for many years. Rechy is not indifferent about his Catholicism. Even if you care just a little, the connection is still there.

“And I was thinking that although there is no God, never was a God, and never will be One—considering the world He made, it is possible to understand Him—or that part of Him that had forbidden Knowing, because–Christ!—at that moment I longed for innocence more than anything else, and I would have thrown away all the frantic knowing for a return to a state of Grace—which is only the state of idiot-like, Not Knowing.” (page 379, City of Night)

At parties or receptions throughout the years, various men or women have asked me about my life. When I say I’m a Catholic, and believe and work for change in the Church, I’m often treated to a barrage of abuse by former Catholics.  People feel entitled to rip into a self-identified Catholic in ways that they would never do to anyone else.  Inevitably, three or four drinks later, this person seeks me out for another conversation. They tell me how sad they are about the Church’s rejection of them, and how much they miss the faith that they had when they were younger. I understand. How often I wished I could return to that sweet innocence. There is nothing to do but comfort them and hope they can find their way back.

Books by John Rechy

City of Night (Grove Press, 1963)

Numbers (Grove Press, 1967)

This Day’s Death (Grove Press, 1969)

The Vampires (Grove Press, 1971)

The Fourth Angel (Viking, 1972)

The Sexual Outlaw (Grove Press, 1977)

Rushes (Grove Press, 1979)

Bodies and Souls (Carroll & Graf) 1983

Marilyn’s Daughter (Carroll & Graf) 1988

The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez (Arcade, 1991)

Our Lady of Babylon (Arcade, 1996)

The Coming of the Night (Grove Press, 1999)

The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens (Grove Press, 2003)

Beneath the Skin (Carroll & Graf, 2004)

About My Life and the Kept Woman (Grove Press, 2008, memoir)

After the Blue Hour (Grove Press, 2017)

Pablo! (Arte Publico Press, 2018)

Books About John Rechy

Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy by Charles Casillo (Advocate Books, 2002)

Understanding John Rechy by Maria DeGuzman (University of South Carolina Press, 2019)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Headache of St. Hildegard of Bingen

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jun 19, 2020 | Categories: Arts & Letters, History, Lesbians & Gays, Saints, Sex

St. Hildegard of Bingen was a mystic, writer, composer, polymath, and Abbess of Rupertsberg Abbey in Germany.  She suffered from migraine headaches. Migraines are often preceded or accompanied by visual hallucinations. In her medical treatise Causae et Curae, Hildegard described the migraine in detail but never connected this diagnosis to herself.  Similarly, Hildegard loved a younger woman deeply, strongly, passionately, but never connected lesbian desire to herself, either in her writing or her art.

The “Egg of the Universe,” an illumination of one of Hildegard’s visions, bears a striking resemblance to a woman’s vulva, but Hildegard doesn’t describe it as such: “By this supreme instrument in the figure of an egg, and which is the universe,” she wrote, “invisible and eternal things are manifested.”  Is it an egg, or is it a celebration of female sexuality?

In the illustration, the outer planets of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn correspond exactly with the vagina, urethra, and clitoris.  The labia is also easy to identify.  While the illustration is egg-shaped, so is the vulva. Didn’t it occur to Hildegard that her holy vision produced a detailed and accurate picture of a woman’s external genitalia? The finger or tongue-like shape in the opening is also revealing.

Hildegard recorded her visions in Scivias, a three-volume work completed in 1151 or 1152 when she was 53.  It took her ten years to complete. Scivias contains 26 visions that she experienced. In each vision, she describes what she saw, and then records explanations that she heard which she believed to be the “voice of heaven.” She had a lot to say about male and female roles and homosexuality. The prescriptions against wearing men’s clothes, lesbian sex and masturbation appear in the Part II, Vision 6, The Sacrifice of Christ, and the Church.

  1. Men and women should not wear each other’s clothes except in necessity.

“A man should never put on feminine dress or a woman use male attire, so that their roles may remain distinct, the man displaying manly strength and the woman womanly weakness; for this was so ordered by Me when the human race began….But as a woman should not wear a man’s clothes, she should also not approach the office of My altar, for she should not take on a masculine role either in her hair or in her attire.”

  1. God will judge all perpetrators of fornication, sodomy, and bestiality.

“And a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in My sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one in this evil deed. For they should have been ashamed of their passion, and instead they impudently usurped a right that was not theirs. And, having put themselves into alien ways, they are to Me transformed and contemptible.”

“And women who imitate them (men) in this unchaste touching and excite themselves to bodily convulsions by provoking their burning lust, are extremely guilty, for they pollute themselves with uncleanness when they should be keeping themselves in chastity.”

I had to wonder what was going on in Hildegard’s mind when she was dictating these passages to her young assistant, Richardis von Stade.   Richardis seems to have been Hildegard’s closest friend and companion. Well educated and a talented writer, she transcribed Hildegard’s visionary writings and prepared them for production as manuscripts. “When I wrote the book Scivias,” Hildegard wrote, “I bore a strong love to a noble nun…who connected with me in friendship and love during all those events, and who suffered with me until I finished this book.”

Were Hildegard and Richardis lesbians?  Did they ever have a physical relationship?  Did they touch or hold one another? Did they lie in bed and imagine physical intimacy? Did they look for one another in the chapel? Did they feel an electricity in one another’s presence? Many people, nuns included, separated their same-sex love and sexual desire from the repulsive view of homosexuality that they were taught and in which they believed. Hildegard may have compartmentalized the prohibition to specific practices (“playing a male role in coupling with another woman”) and seen her own relationship with Richardis as qualitatively different in the way they made love or emotionally interacted. There was certainly a strong erotic component in their relationship and work together. 

When Richardis’ family arranged for her to leave Rupertsberg Abbey to become Abbess of Bassum, Hildegard became extremely upset, desperate, almost unhinged. She wrote letters to the young woman’s family, urging them not to let her leave Rupertsberg, and begged Richardis not to go.  Hildegard wrote to the bishop, her superior and even the pope to no avail. Richardis left Rupertsberg in 1151.  She died a year later October 29, 1152 at Bassum Abbey of an unspecified illness. She was 28 years old. Richardis may have accepted the abbess of Bassum as a position befitting her social rank.

“I so loved the nobility of your character,” Hildegard wrote, “your wisdom, your chastity, your spirit, and indeed every aspect of your life that many people have said to me: What are you doing?”

Richardis’ brother, Hartwig, the Archbishop of Bremen, wrote to Hildegard shortly after Richardis died. Hartwig had been influential in obtaining the Bassum appointment for his sister, Richardis.  “I write to inform you that our sister—my sister in body, but yours in spirit—has gone the way of all flesh, little esteeming the honor I bestowed upon her..I am happy to report that she made her last confession in a saintly and pious way and that after her confession she was anointed with consecrated oil. Moreover, filled with her usual Christian spirit, she tearfully expressed her longing for your cloister with her whole heart…Thus I ask as earnestly as I can, if I have any right to ask, that you love her as much as she loved you, and if she appeared to have any fault—which was indeed was mine, not hers—at least have regard for the tears that she shed for your cloister, which many witnessed. And if death had not prevented, she would have come to you as soon as she was able to get permission.”

Hildegard’s grief produced another sublimated creative masterpiece: Ordo Virtutum (“Play of Virtues.”) Richardis was obviously the inspiration for this musical morality play about a soul who is tempted away by the devil and then repents. 

At her death, Richardis experienced a level of awareness and humility that Hildegard, with all her visions, never achieved. She admitted she made a mistake in leaving the woman she loved.  What is not clear is exactly why Richardis left Hildegard and Rupertsberg Abbey.  Did she capitulate to the social and political maneuvering of her family? Was it a need to assert her own independence after many years as Hildegard’s assistant? Or, was the sexual and emotion tension of in her relationship with Hildegard too hard to endure?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Floyd and Willful Blindness

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jun 6, 2020 | Categories: Accountability, Bishops, History, Pious Trash, Politics

“My friends,” he said, “we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” – Pope Francis, June 3, 2020

That message should sting all those “pro-life” Catholic bishops, priests, prominent lay people and voters who supported Donald Trump for president in 2016.

But it should also sting liberal/progressive educators, union leaders and their apologists. They know education is the biggest ticket out of poverty. Instead, they make excuses for schools that continue to fail their students. They don’t use their considerable political capital to fund school social services, get rid of bad teachers, or change the curriculum to reflect the students they teach.

 

Pious Trash: The Reign of Hubris

Posted by Censor Librorum on May 23, 2020 | Categories: Arts & Letters, History, Pious Trash, Politics

The letter below appeared in the Los Angeles Times on May 21, 2020.  It was in response to the article, “Trump Lashes Out with Distractions and Disinformation.”  The letter was reprinted in Yahoo News under the headline: “Letters to the Editor: Why America tolerates a lying, hydroxychloroquine-hawking president.”

To the editor: Kudos for an insightful report on how President Trump’s relentless disinformation campaigns serve him so well despite his administration’s chaotic malfeasance. The fact that such deceptive stratagems have not proved effective in many European democracies speaks volumes about our electorate.

Why might American voters be so singularly gullible? I suspect two primary reasons.

First, in recent decades, American educational outcomes have slipped markedly compared to those of our European counterparts.

Second, Europeans have become increasingly secular in contrast to the pervasiveness of religious affiliation among Americans. Consider how a willingness to take Trump on faith, especially among most evangelical Christians, keyed his 2016 election. 

The ever-darker cloud of disinformation hovers menacingly over our nation. As is said, democracy dies in darkness.”

Devra M., Santa Monica, CA

Who is responsible for the “slipped educational outcomes”?  It is parents, teachers, teachers’ unions, school administrators and school boards. Our education system’s schools and results reflect their values and priorities; and those of the secular elites who help shape finance, media and policy.

Who is responsible for Trump’s election as president in 2016? Evangelical Christians, or the secular elite that sipped their $8 lattes and cortados, checked their iPhones and shrugged off the dire and hopeless economic situation of many working-class Americans.  Feeling their contempt or indifference, they retaliated at the voting booth. 

What happens in the 2020 election and beyond depends on how the 30 million unemployed Americans, small businesses and others negatively impacted by this pandemic are treated by Americans working from the safety of home, ordering out, getting groceries delivered, and writing letters to the editor about Donald Trump.

 

 

 

 

Pious Trash: The REAL Rainbow Plague in Poland

Posted by Censor Librorum on May 16, 2020 | Categories: Accountability, Arts & Letters, Bishops, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays, Pious Trash, Politics, Scandals, Sex

The 2019 Polish documentary on clerical sex abuse, “Tell No One” highlighted a problem:  Many of the priestly sex abusers and credibly accused child molesters are well-loved and respected national and local figures.  Some people are pushing for a total accounting; others stress individual forgiveness and resumption of public ministry.  Notable figures include –

-Father Henryk Janknowski, one of the founders of the Solidarity union. He had his statue removed in Gdansk.

– Father Eugeniusz Makulski, who oversaw the construction of Poland’s biggest basilica. He commissioned a statue of himself offering the building to St. Pope John Paul II.  I found his kneeling in front of the pope an apt pose, considering what he is. Makulski’s representations have been removed from the shrine. 

-Father Franciszka Cybula, personal chaplain to anti-Communist hero Lech Walesa.  Slawoj Leszek Glodz, Archbishop of Gdansk, lavished praise on Cybula and gave him a grandiose funeral.

– Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz, a much-loved figure who helped lead Poland’s anti-Communist movement.

Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, former archbishop of Krakow and papal envoy.  He was quietly recalled from the Dominican Republic in 2013. Wesolowski was accused of possessing child pornography and paying poor boys and teens for sex acts.  Luckily, he died of a “heart attack” before his canonical trial was about to begin.  Wesolowski was also wanted on sex abuse charges in Poland. It seemed to me he had quite a good clerical showing at his funeral. 

On August 1, 2019, Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Krakow celebrated a Mass commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.  Archbishop J?draszewski said in his homily: “The red [communist] plague no longer walks on our earth, but a new neo-Marxist one that wants to conquer our souls, hearts, and minds has appeared. It is not a red, but a rainbow plague.”

Did he mean Poland’s pedophile and sex abuser priests, bishops and cardinals; or, was he referring only to Polish LGBT activists?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The National Catholic Register Stumbles Over Archbishop Vigano’s Poison Pen

Posted by Censor Librorum on May 8, 2020 | Categories: Accountability, Arts & Letters, Bishops, Dissent, Fishy Fridays, Humor, Pious Trash, Politics

I’m glad I’m not Jeanette DeMelo, editor-in-chief of the National Catholic Register.  Today will not be a good day in the office. Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin received a few demerits, too.  No holy card prize for best writer this week.

Yesterday, May 7, 2020, the Register published “Appeal for the Church and the World.” Read the letter here. Drafted by Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the letter claimed that the coronavirus pandemic has been exaggerated to foster widespread social panic and undercut freedom, as a preparation for the establishment of a one-world government.  It is a religious freedom screed along the lines of “Easter People” – a petition released a month ago by Dr. Janet Smith, ex-Sacred Heart Major Seminary professor.

Vigano’s letter was published by several EWTN-owned media companies, including the National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency (CNA). Campaign Life Coalition, an ultra-conservative Canadian organization, also published the letter on their website, LifeSiteNews.

Listed right after Archbishop Vigano as a major signatory was Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.  Cardinal Sarah denied signing the letter.  “I share on a personal basis some of the questions or concerns raised with regard to restrictions on fundamental freedoms,” he tweeted on his Twitter account, “but I have not signed this petition.”

Bishop Joseph Strickland, the Bishop of Tyler, Texas, told Catholic News Agency in a May 7 email that he “did not sign off on this letter.”

DeMelo said that Archbishop Vigano had vouched for the authenticity of Cardinal Sarah’s signature.  “The Register contacted Archbishop Vigano the principal author, and asked him specifically about the authenticity of the signature of Cardinal Sarah and he said: “I can confirm 100% that Cardinal Sarah signed it,” DeMelo told CNA.

Either Archbishop Vigano or Cardinal Sarah are lying.  Which one?

It is safe to say the Register won’t be publishing any more letters from Archbishop Vigano and his minions anytime soon without independently verifying every statement and name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LGBTQIA+ Time to Get the “L” Out?

Posted by Censor Librorum on Apr 30, 2020 | Categories: History, Humor, Lesbians & Gays, Pious Trash, Sex

I have seen the abbreviation “LGBTQIA+” and had no idea what all the letters meant.  I googled it and found that it is: “A common abbreviation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Pansexual, Transgender, Genderqueer, Queer, Intersexed, Agender, Asexual, and Ally community.”  Is it time to get the “L” out, as some lesbians have suggested?  I’m starting to think so.

What sparked this post was a Covid-19 article on Yahoo – “I am Worried About A Backslide in LGBTQIA+ Rights.” I thought it was a little whiny, self-centered and full of assumptions that all gay/lesbian people will agree with the writer’s fretting and values. I don’t. I want my female pronouns, thank you. I want my lesbian identity.

Our identity politics designation now encompasses splinter groups I personally have no interest in or connection with at all. Pansexual? Intersexed? Genderqueer? Who are these people? How was our movement for dignity, respect and rights hijacked?  How could most lesbian and gay individuals relate to someone who describes themself as “Asexual?”  The whole reason we endured pain, humiliation, rejection and violence was to have sex with the woman or man we desired who was a member of our own sex.

Many trans women are frustrated and angry with lesbians who refuse to have sex with them.  There’s the trans woman with fire engine red lipstick complaining “cis” lesbians don’t respond to her OK Cupid ad! Then there’s trans professor bicycle champ who bitches about sex and sports. The trans woman porn star who coined the term “cotton ceiling,” is miffed that lesbians are happy to have coffee dates but not a roll in the hay. Most lesbians are not interested in dicks—either on a man or woman.  Is that a big surprise?  Anyway, shouldn’t a woman’s choice of whom she wants to sleep with take priority over ideology?

I thought this gay man summed up the situation the best:

“I am a gay man, which means I am attracted to other men, meaning adult human males. This precludes women and females who identify as men. And you know what? That’s okay. I’ve fought since I was 15-years-old — when I first came out — to live this truth. My existence as a gay man matters. Lesbians’ existence matters. And this notion that we can overcome “genital preferences” is homophobic and erases our identities, as homosexual people. It doesn’t just echo the far-right conversion therapies so many of us have fought decades to end, it actively embraces these beliefs, as it implies we could become heterosexual if we just opened our minds and overcame our “preferences” for members of the same sex.”

What do you think?  Should lesbians be forced to sleep with men because that’s what the Church and Society want?  Should lesbians be shamed into sleeping with trans women because that’s what some transgender advocates want?

 

 

The Sorrow and Reconciliation of Father Marco Bisceglia

Posted by Censor Librorum on Apr 26, 2020 | Categories: Bishops, Dissent, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays

“Hell is not intended for homosexuals, but to those who marginalize them, insult them, mock them, push them to despair and suicide.” – Fr. Marco Bisceglia, May 11, 1975. 

One of the earliest, bravest, gay Catholic activists was Fr. Marco Bisceglia. He deserves to be honored and remembered.

In 1975 Fr. Marco Bisceglia was the first Roman Catholic priest to marry two gay men. They were not a couple, but two journalists from a conservative publication looking to entrap him. Bishop Giuseppe Vairo, head of the Diocese of Venosa in southern Italy, suspended him a divinis, banning him from exercising his priesthood. The bishop had previously removed Fr. Bisceglia as pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Lavello. The bishop objected to the 50-year-old priest’s organizing and politicizing worker strikes and economic struggles. Bisceglia countered, saying the institutional church contains a “profound contradiction.” This contradiction, he says, is between a church based on an alliance with the rich and powerful and “the real message of the Gospel.” At the time of the suspension Bisceglia was not sexually active, or even out to himself. 

Marco Bisceglia traced his homosexual awareness to a dream he had when he was fifteen: “my beautiful and pure sex, love and pleasure a grace.” When he awoke, he said, “I understood that the dream was reality and reality a nightmare.” Bisceglia went into the seminary because he was convinced that he had a religious vocation. “I think that trajectory is very typical in Italy,” said a friend of Bisceglia. “A boy who prefers reading to football; a boy who doesn’t feel attracted to girls and who doesn’t understand the nature of his desires; a boy who doesn’t want to admit his thwarted desires to his family and his mother; all of that led young Italian homosexuals quite naturally to seminaries. But what was fundamental in Marco Bisceglia was that he was not a hypocrite. For several decades, while he remained in the Church, he did not experience gay life. It was only afterwards that he lived out his homosexuality with the excess of the newly converted.”

Bisceglia’s activism shifted from labor to gay rights in 1980, with the murder of a gay male couple in Giarre, a town on the east coast of Sicily. On October 31, 1980, a 25-year-old man, Giorgio Agatino Giammona, and a 15-year-old youth, Antonio Galatola, were found dead, together, each with a gunshot wound to the head. The investigations led to 12-year-old Francesco Messina as the murderer. He was Galatola’s nephew. The couple was killed by Messina on behalf of their families and with the couple’s consent.  They believed they could not live without being constantly harassed and threatened, so they chose to end their lives.

Their deaths sparked the formation of Italy’s first and largest national gay group – Arcigay (Associazione LGBTI italiana) in Palermo in December 1980. Marco Biscelgia was one of the prominent founders and activists. The group became known throughout Italy for its campaign for civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. But by the time Arcigay became a nationally established organization in Bologna in 1985, Bisceglia had drifted away and traces of him were lost.

After Bisceglia came out as a gay man in 1980 he made up for his lost, chaste years.  He also lived with two men; Nichi Vendola, another labor activist, and Dadi, a youth from Algeria who had immigrated to Italy.  Vendola recalled a conversation he had with Biscelgia where Biscelgia bitterly regretted becoming a priest. Instead, he said, he should have spent the time becoming aware and living out his homosexuality.  Vendola recalls “He re-read himself, that is, this faith and priesthood, as the result of a neurosis, of the attempt to conceal his homosexuality.” Vendola argued with him, telling him his that priesthood was an important part of him. “I told him,” Vendola said, “don’t throw Jesus into that shadow core.”  Bisceglia disappeared completely shortly after that conversation. He was HIV positive. Vendola, a communist and devout Roman Catholic, became an elected representative, then leader of the southern Italian region of Apulia. 

In the early 1990s, Msgr. Luigi Di Liegro, a popular and controversial priest who was head of the Caritas for the diocese of Rome made a call to Fr. Paolo Bosetti pastor of the suburban parish of San Cleto in Rome. He asked him to accept a priest who has the “heavy burden” of AIDS. “What should we do?” asked the pastor. “Just do him good” replied Monsignor Di Liegro.

Living in the rectory with other priests, Marco Bisceglia decided he wanted to be able to celebrate Mass again.  With the encouragement of Fr. Bosetti, he addressed a petition to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  The answer came a few months later: the a divinis suspension was cancelled. Bisceglia wrote to his sister, Anita, with the news: “Dear Anita, when you receive this letter I will already be reintegrated into the presbyterial service. I am fully aware of my unworthiness; how firmly I am confident in the forgiveness of God and in his purifying and regenerating action.  I hope I can, with your help, repair my past mistakes and misleadings. I address you with a sincerely pacified soul and with the desire for a profound reconciliation and mutual understanding, despite the diversity of life choices.”

What were his “past mistakes and misleadings?”  Bisceglia never said. He returned to the priesthood in 1996 but he never repudiated his gay rights work.  When Nichi Vendola heard Bisceglia had fallen ill with AIDS he asked to see him, but Bisceglia refused. He erected a wall “between what had been and what he intended to be” and wanted to be nothing but a man “who reflects and prays and thinks and prays and lives and prays.”

Father Marco Bisceglia celebrated his “first” Mass in the Sanctuary of Loreto in the Marche region.  A delegation from the priest’s home diocese and local church arrived, led by Bishop Vincenzo Cozzi.  During the service Bisceglia recited a prayer he had composed on the merciful tenderness of God.  In writing those verses, perhaps he thought of what he had confided to Nichi Vendola, when he said he feared he had done everything wrong and reduced his life to a pile of rubble. “With that same rubble,” he said, “you have thus rebuilt your Sanctuary.”

Father Bisceglia died on July 22, 2001. It was a day of violent protest by leftist groups over the G8 summit meeting in Genoa.  Hundreds of people were injured and arrested.  Bisceglia was buried in the priests’ cemetery in Lavello. Bishop Giuseppe Vairo died three days later.