“The Body & Society” Notes, Part 3: A Threat to the Traditional Family

“The Body & Society” Notes, Part 3: A Threat to the Traditional Family January 30, 2018

[Paul] was concerned to emphasize, rather [than fornication], the continuing validity of all social bonds. The structure of the household as a whole was at stake. This included the institution of domestic slavery. On this, Paul was adamant: slaves, like wives, must remain in their place….

–Peter Brown, The Body & Society: Men, Women, & Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity

In Brown’s portrayal of early Christian communities, celibate people could take a few different stances toward the married, sexually-active householders who were (usually) the majority. Sometimes the very presence of celibates was an implicit critique of the worldly compromises marriage and economic stability required. Sometimes celibates and virgins were a direct threat to the family: I gave one example in that post about Coco, but Brown’s book is replete with stories of parents devastated by their children’s choice of celibacy over marriage. At other times celibacy allowed a brutal honesty about the costs of marriage and childbearing to women, what Brown calls “the carnage of the marriage bed,” as in Ephraim the Syrian’s still-searing lyrics:

There find their sweet repose

Wives with bodies broken,

Through pregnancy’s dire curse,

Through birth’s hard labors.

There do they see the babes,

That they buried with sighs,

Feed like new born lambs,

Deep in the green of the Garden.

Celibates could also be pillars of the community–and the economy. It was said that the prayers of virgins were what made the Nile send forth the tides without which the people would starve. Brown quotes one author: “In every house of Christians, it is needful that there be a virgin, for the salvation of the whole house is that one virgin.”

I mostly write about ways in which gay people’s celibacy can build up our communities. Married couples still really need the friendships and prayers of the unmarried. We’re trying now to build a society in which isolated couples have no one to depend on but one another; shockingly, making marriage the only vocation turns out to be really bad for marriage. Households depend spiritually on the prayers of monastics (this, I think, is expressed analogically in the way so many great Christian novels show their family-ridden characters seeking refuge in the monastery), and on the prayers of others whose celibacy frees up our time and attention for God’s use. Households depend practically on the extended family and on friendships which have become as durable and inescapable as kinship.

I basically never write about gay celibacy-as-implicit-critique except to say it exists. I don’t know that I, with my novelistic mind all abuzz with community and kinship forms, can portray well that fierce Christianity which slices through our mammal wants like so many soap bubbles. (Although there will be a bit about this in Tenderness, and later in this series.)

I sometimes write about marriage as arena of suffering. Others are probably better than me at this task. (“What task–marriage, or suffering?” Yeah, everyone’s a critic.) I’d like to think that gay celibate people can express solidarity here–everybody’s vocation is a cross, God doesn’t ask of you only the sacrifices you want to make–instead of resentment that other people get to make the sacrifices many of us long to make.

But the quotation at the top of this post makes me wonder about another role gay people may be able to play vis a vis the “traditional family.” Most of us know what it’s like to be on the margins of the church, under suspicion and treated as if our needs and emotions are mere obstacles to the smooth running of the Community. If we don’t forget what that’s like, we may be better able to see the ways in which our churches have treated other people as instruments or obstacles.

I edited this anthology, Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church. It’s available now (BUY! SHOP! CONSUME! Also on KINDLE!) and you’ll hear much more about it soon. My own experience in the Church has been almost entirely wonderful. To the extent that it’s been difficult I think that’s mostly been due to my being gay. And when I talk about the difficulties (often much more harrowing than mine) of being gay in the Church, afterwards people sometimes come up and say, “I’m not gay, but…”, and then they tell me their story of mistreatment in the Church. On a less-intense level, Peter, in this post about how you end up as a basically cheery and stable celibate gay Catholic, says that when he came out to his family, “that’s when everyone thought it would be good to share shocking and gross stories [about their sexual misadventures] to make me feel better.” On the one hand that’s incredibly awkward and there’s a reason he laughed sardonically at that point in our interview. On the other hand, what a mercy to be able to prompt that kind of (weird, uncomfortable… maybe unnecessary!!) honesty and vulnerability in your family. They told him this stuff, I think, in part as a kind of self-abasement, to show that they accepted him. What a great thing to let your family do for you.

Brown notes that Ignatius of Antioch offered practical advice to build up “a church made up of generous householders, well-disciplined children, submissive wives, and reliable slaves. These last were even forbidden to ask their fellow-believers to make charitable contributions toward the sum they required to buy their freedom.”

This is such a perfect, poignant detail. I’d like to know more about the context: Is he afraid of chaos if the basic structure of the household is disrupted, is he afraid that slaves will pretend to be Christians to milk the church, is it the equivalent of that anti-beggar notice I mentioned at the start of this article? Is it the result of a spirituality so deeply grounded in acceptance, humility, and surrender of all seeking for “place” and status that it can’t figure out how to confront injustice? (My main man Thomas à Kempis was lucky he wasn’t Thomas à Antioch, maybe.)

But for now I will just suggest that our own churches (&… selves) often prize stability over sacrificing for those in most need. And gay people, standing outside the “normal” church, can offer havens for others whose needs aren’t acknowledged or respected. We can remember what it’s like.

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