Thursday, August 28, 2008

John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John: Loving Coupledom

I continue to be fascinated by the discussion of the plans to move Cardinal Newman’s body. In yesterday’s new roundup, I linked to an article and a blog discussion of this matter at the website of the National Catholic Reporter.

There, in the blog discussion about plans to remove Newman’s body from its resting place beside his longtime companion Ambrose St. John, what fascinates me is the response of several bloggers who seem to think that any attempt to depict Newman’s love for St. John as gay love debases that love. As a way of denying that Newman and St. John might have been gay and in love with each other, one blogger points to the well-known phenomenon of male-bonding in situations of stress such as on the battlefield. As if there haven’t been well-documented cases in abundance throughout history, from the days of the Greeks up to the present, of men discovering same-sex attraction while serving together in battle!

Other bloggers pick up on a theme discussed in the NCR article attached to this blog—the theme of “loving coupledom.” As the article notes, English historian Allen Bray applies that phrase to Newman and St. John in a highly regarded study entitled The Friend (University of Chicago Press, 2003), which demonstrates the gay nature of a number of celebrated male “friendships” over the course of history. Bray states that Newman and St. Johns shared a love that was spiritual, and was not the less intense for being spiritual.

In the view of some bloggers, to claim that Newman and St. John loved each other with deep spiritual intensity is to deny that they were gay. These bloggers suggest it is dishonest and inappropriate for current gay believers to claim Newman as a gay role model.

In my view, these attempts to deny the same-sex attraction that was so obviously present in Newman’s relationship with St. John are unconvincing. They miss an important point: namely, that gay partners can be bonded in a spiritual love that may or may not have an explicit erotic physical component. But to say that Newman and St. John may not have expressed their same-sex love physically is not to say that it was anything other than same-sex love.

As the NCR article notes, following the death of St. John in 1875, Newman wrote: “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater than mine.” Of his beloved’s death, Newman wrote, “This is the greatest affliction I have had in my life,” and “A day does not pass without my having violent bursts of crying and they weaken me, I dread them.”

I’d like to ask those who want to deny that Newman and St. John were gay lovers how they would react if any priest today published statements like this about a clerical friend who had just died. Would church leaders today—would those within the church trying to rid the priesthood of gays—sit by in silence if any priest published such statements following the death of his priest friend?

Frankly, I don’t think so. Given the current crackdown on gays in the priesthood, I doubt Newman or St. John would have been accepted in seminary. And I feel quite sure they would not have been allowed to live together as “special friends” for years, sharing a house and then requesting that they share a grave.

It seems sad, the need to deny what is right before our eyes: the intense, valuable, generative love that two men or two women can have for one another, exemplified so beautifully in this monumental thinker of the 19th century. And pathological to wish to go to such lengths to deny that such love can exist, that we’re willing to ignore the final burial wishes of Newman in order to erase evidence of his lifelong love for St. John.


butterfly said...

Bill, I thought what you had to say here about John Henry Newman and Amrose St. John was beautifully written. I commented on this on NCRcafe to the best of my ability, with the understanding that surely jumps out unmistakably if one has eyes to see.

Your comment says it all right here: "It seems sad, the need to deny what is right before our eyes: the intense, valuable, generative love that two men or two women can have for one another, exemplified so beautifully in this monumental thinker of the 19th century."

It is sad, Bill, that people want to deny love that is right in front of them and dig up and move graves to cover it up. These are the blind Jesus speaks of and to and says: "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You lay burdens on people but do not lift a finger to help them."

Keshalyi said...

This reminds me of the conversations people have had lately about Emily Dickinson's possible homosexual relationship with her sister-in-law - my gut instinct is not so much to say - what does it matter? Martha Hale Smith published a beautiful collection of the letters between the two a few years ago, and I finished them with the feeling that all this talk of who does things in the nude with whom sort of misses the point, and distracts from what matters - the two obviously loved each other with a depth that, physical or not, transcends the physical and enters the realm of the spiritual. So, why spend our time talking about whether they had sex or not? In many ways it demeans the question of passionate love itself. The real tragedy, I think, of controversies like these, is that we as a culture lose our ability to see love, passion, deep spiritual connection, as anything but a good driver to get into bed together. And that's sad. I suppose to paraphrase what Mr. Obama said last night about other related issues - I understand that in America, we can have honest disagreements about homosexuality, but can't we all agree to respect the wishes of two dead men that for reasons that are none of our darned business, wanted to be buried together?

William D. Lindsey said...

Butterly, great comments. I really appreciate your thoughtful reading of my post.

That denial of the love right in front of our eyes is always amazing to me, Butterfly. A friend of mine told me a few years ago about her family reunion in NC.

When the whole clan was gathered, my friend's sister announced, "Aren't we fortunate we don't have a single gay or lesbian in our whole family?"

And, my friend says, there sat the daughter of the woman making the announcement, with her partner of many years, rolling her eyes. Because the daughter has never come out to her mother, the mother still can't see what's right there in front of her to see.

People--some people, that is--seem to have a problem with the idea of gay love. As long as it's sex we're talking about, they don't get so perturbed.

But talk about gay men or gay women living lives of love that might model love to the human community as much as straight love does, and they get uncomfortable.

This is something my friend Richard Hardy addresses in his book "Loving Men," which studies the care provided to gay men with HIV-AIDS by their partners at the height of the AIDS crisis. Richard's conclusion, after observing and interviewing such couples across the U.S. and Canada, is that many gay relationships exemplify the kind of love the churches hold up as a model: self-sacrificing, committed, willing to go the extra mile.

William D. Lindsey said...

Jason, another great comment. And right to the heart of what I'm saying.

Yes, it's about love and not about sex. And that seems difficult for some folks to get, when the very definition of gay life has been reduced to sex.

This is why many gay folks resist the term "homosexual," a psychoanalytic term imposed on us by late 19th-century researchers. It tends to reduce who we are to sex.

It's interesting that there's such controversy about the same-sex love relationships of significant folks in the past--Newman, Lincoln, and, as you note, Emily Dickinson.

Where many opponents of gay rights today are quick to charge the gay community with inappropriately trying to claim these folks as gay, we in the gay community believe we're looking for role models in the past, for clues that who we are mattered then, too.

Of course, the vocabulary used to describe this kind of love in the past was not the same vocabulary we have today, and the psychological insights have changed, too.

Nonetheless, I don't think it's reaching, to look back in the past and see examples of same-sex love that can inspire those trying to live lives of love today in same-sex relationships.

Thanks again for your insightful reading of my blog, and taking time to comment.

colkoch said...

Bill, the story you tell of your friends family reunion is really mind boggling, and probably as much about generational conditioning as it is anything else.

Sometimes I think it's easy for us to forget that previous generations were totally blind to the concept of same sex love, seeing it more as a special form of friendship rather than a form of same sex attraction.

I suppose it's probably true that if the whole concept of sexuality hadn't been more or less kept in the closet perceptions might have been vastly different, as you point out in your post when you write that the relationship between Newman and St John would never be tolerated today.

That's one of the major issues I have with the sexual revolution. Emphasizing and freeing the physical nature of sexuality has been at the expense of the emotional and spiritual components.
I pray for the day we find an integrated balance. For those of us who are gay, that can't come to soon.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, have been away, and am only now catching up.

You make an outstanding point. In promoting sexual freedom (or perhaps freedom from some sexual restraints that were false), the sexual revolution may have opened some doors.

But it also created some terrible catch-22s for some folks. One reason I resisted for a long time making any public declaration of my sexual orientation was precisely to avoid having who I am, and whom I love, reduced to the sexual level.

It's so much more than that.

I think that every movement in history that has some progressive impulse also inevitably creates regressive tendencies--progressive movements contain dialectical negations of their own forward movement.

Which means forward movement is bought at a price, which includes clarifying, making distinctions, learning to think otherwise.

In the case of gay liberation, having names to identify what people have experienced and lived for millennia is good. But it has also resulted in a kind of reductionism that allows those who resist gay rights to tag and dismiss.

And sad to say, many gay folks have helped foster the stereotypes that allow such tagging and dismissing.