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A journey in queer religious devotion – love, sex, death and God

On religious devotion and erotic love.

Religious devotion is a curious phenomenon in the life of a queer religious person. Reflecting on my time as a Catholic seminarian, the intersection between queer identity and faith was constantly present. Prior to formation, one acceded to either a vow of chastity (where one is a virgin) or a vow of celibacy (to abstain from marriage). We seminarians attended masses at least twice a day, ate common meals together and studied the Scripture so that one day, we could propagate the faith. Faith was not merely a belief in a deity; it also oriented all our activities “for the greater glory of God” in Ignatius Loyola’ words – the logic being that the sole subject of any transcendental love we display, privately or publicly, must be to Christ.

Yet, paradoxically, such transcendental, devotional love – though seemingly innocuous – may in fact represent an intensely erotic expression of love. When combined with queerness, an identity revolted by conservative strands of the Abrahamic traditions, the queer religious devotee’s asceticism comes to embody erotic love even more.

Let us start with Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648 – 1695) or Ines, a Mexican philosopher, poet and Carmelite nun famous for her criticism of the Catholic Church’s patriarchal structure and an important figure of Latin American feminism. In a cryptic poem, Phyllis, widely deemed to be Sapphic due to her fascination with Maria Luisa – the wife of the Marquis de la Laguna, Ines laments her unrequited desire for a same-sex love interest:

‘I, my dearest Phyllis,

who revere you as divine,

who idolize your disdain,

and venerate your rigor?

That you’re a woman far away

is no hindrance to my love:

for the soul, as you well know,

distance and sex don’t count.’

At first glance, it is tempting to read Ines’ exaltation solely as a Sapphic confession but considering her vocation, we must consider this confession as unrequited and ascetic eros. Ines’ seeming lack of any significant moral torment in Phyllis over her same-sex love other than unreciprocated affection, despite modern Catholic social teaching’s condemnation of queer identity as ‘intrinsically disordered’, may be due to the relative ignorance of lesbian love in the law prior to the Victorian period.

Asceticism is often negatively associated with the religious, authoritarian closet. Yet, when assumed as not involving intercourse, these confessions become even more intensely erotic. As theologian Sarah Coakley explained in her The New Asceticism, eroticism does not merely refer to sex but also encompass essential needs that satisfy our bodies: hunger, thirst, comfort, intimacy, acknowledgment, power, and pleasure.

Ines in Phyllis exemplifies many of these desires – hunger and thirst for affection, a yearning for intimacy, comfort from someone who is evidently an unattainable lover, and whose satisfaction would yield for Ines great pleasure. All of these, voluntarily constrained by Ines’ pursuit of an ascetic life. Hence, it is at this stage in the queer religious person’s experience, that voluntary asceticism transforms erotic desires into the transcendental.

Another example of this dynamic lies in the palpable yearning evident in ‘O Deus, ego amo te (Latin for O God, I love you) — a poem by the queer Victorian Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Jesu so much in love with me?

Not for heaven’s sake; not to be

Out of hell by loving thee;

Not for any gains I see;

But just the way that thou didst me

I do love and I will love thee:

What must I love thee, Lord, for then?

For being my king and God. Amen.’

In justifying his own blind faith as the seemingly tautological ‘being my king and God’, desire becomes palpable. Desire for qualities that humanity sees as desirable and, fundamentally, scarce. Namely, the divine perfection, omnipotence, and invulnerability that we lack ourselves. Hopkins’ and Ines’ desires, however, should not merely be read as unrequited dedication but within constrained queer asceticism.

Hopkins’ intense devotion to God must be perceived through twin lens of both his queer identity and voluntary vow of celibacy as this inevitably colours the nature of the queer ecclesiastic’s faith. Curiously, O Deus, ego amo te mirrors the matrimonial metaphor that characterises the Catholic Church’s view of the relationship between Christ and the institution. In this context, Hopkins is, so to speak, a bride seeking union in Christ’s body. In other words, a deliberate direction of carnal, erotic love into an asexual, Platonic yearning for God. Thus, Hopkins’, Ines’ and perhaps, all queer ecclesiastics’ prayers must be understood as an attempt to appeal to the desired beloved erotic subject – God themselves.  

The successful fulfilment of such asceticism is transcendental: it means attaining a personal, erotic relationship with God whereby prayer or communion nourishes hunger, social justice become the fountain that quenches spiritual thirst, and the act of preaching pushes one’s boundaries. All this requires self-sacrifice, unconditional loyalty and at times, even grief. Indeed, the 13th century Sufi Islamic scholar Jalal Mohammad Rumi once described his torment at Shamseddin’s — widely acknowledged to be Rumi’s lover — absence in his Love Letters: ‘Tears become bloody; the heart, naked and exposed’.

The queer ecclesiastical religious experience, whether it be in Ines’, Hopkins’ or Sumi’s examples, does not mean that the lay (ie. sexual) queer religious life is inferior. Indeed, queer theology paves the way for a radical reconstruction of the cis heteronormative way in which the marriage state is currently structured. The sexual intimacy and union in which lay queer religious people partake in also exemplify the ideal union in which the ecclesiastics who pursue celibacy and therefore, erotic asceticism, aim for. Erotic love constitutes just another context where the desire to be God in the eyes of one’s beloved is enacted but also perpetually frustrated by the unpredictable yet endlessly fascinating, vissicitudes of life.