Beloved Through Time: Spiritual Friendship, Queer Historiography, and the Kingdom of God

A Sermon by Max Yeshaye Brumber-Kraus, local performer, writer, and theologian in the Twin Cities. This Sermon was for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota for the The Feast of St. Aelred of Rievaulx: January 12, 2022.

Good evening. My name is Max Yeshaye Brumberg-Kraus, and I am a local performer, writer, and theologian in the Twin Cities, and my work often focuses on LGBTQ histories and identities. I am overjoyed to join you all to honor St. Aelred of Rievaulx. Tonight, I will speak about St. Aelred, his place in LGBTQ history, his ideas of spiritual friendship, and how we might learn from and with his thoughts.

St. Aelred was a twelfth century English monk and the Abbot of Rievaulx for twenty years until his death. Aelred was a prolific writer, and, until the twentieth century, primarily known for his historical writing. He wrote biographies of David, King of Scotts and Edward the Confessor, a genealogy of kings, and a number of hagiographies (saint stories) and records of miraculous events. He is now perhaps more famous for two spiritual treatises “The Mirror of Charity” and “Spiritual Friendships.” The latter, on spiritual friendships, has especially fueled speculation on St. Aelred’s sexuality. 20th century historians John Boswell and B. P. McGuire, as part of their life works demarcating a homosexual or gay historical lineage, particularly in the church, argue that Aelred’s text with its deep reverence for spiritual friendship as highest level of human relationship belies his own homosexuality. 

Other historians and queer theorists, like Elizabeth Freeman and Carolyn Dinshaw, have pointed out that to claim someone like Aelred as homosexual, is to project our 20th and 21st century perspectives onto a historical figure even to the point of erasing his complexities as a person for our own political claim.  Dinshaw writes: “Boswell’s actual historical work was constrained by an essentialism and a relatively narrow conceptualization of gay relationships (the dominant form of United States urban gay male relations in the 1970s and 1980s) from which that essence was derived.” Her critique is that Boswell’s own existential woe, that gay people cannot be a people without a direct history, contorts his own historiographic work toward homogenizing possibly same-sex loving people throughout history in a mono image of white, middle-mass, urban, and post-Stone Wall gay relationships. Such historical homogenization is particularly dangerous, because if “gay” has always existed and always been one thing, a contemporary gay person who does not fit into Boswell’s picture, is now doubly excluded from straight history and gay history. By essentializing a gay identity in the past, Boswell risks essentializing a gay identity today.

Dinshaw, a queer historian, does not abandon or condemn Boswell’s project of a gay history, but argues for a queer history that can hold identification across time without forcing a rigid or essentialist gay genealogy. In her 1999 book Getting Medieval, Dinshaw describes her historiographic work: 

I follow what I call a queer historical impulse, an impulse toward making connections across time between, on the one hand, lives, texts, and other cultural phenomena left out of sexual categories back then and, on the other, those left out of current sexual categories now. Such an impulse extends the resources for self- and community building into even the distant past.¹

Dinshaw believes that we as queer people can conceptualize community with people in the past, and identify with them, without forcing them to fit our contemporary identity categories. I say this in another way: we can learn about, be influenced by, befriend, and love people in the past without denying them subjecthood, without forcing their legacy into our own images. Analyzing gay and queer historians including Boswell, Foucault, and Barthes, Dinshaw describes a queer historical impulse, or “ desire […]for partial, affective connection, for community, for even a touch across time.” This historical impulse is “queer” in at least two ways. The desire to be in community, the search for a history, and the pleasure in “touching” across time, is a phenomenon common to many lgbtq people. It is also a “queer” touch, in the sense of queer as strange or out of the ordinary, a claim that the past can influence and reinfluence the present, and even the present the past, and that this engagement can shape the future.  A queer historical impulse refers to an understanding of time and history other than a traditional understanding of time as linear and chronological. It also refers to history by and between people who do not belong to normative sexual or gender relationships and identities. For Dinshaw “queers can make new relations, new identifications, new communities with past figures who elude resemblance to us but with whom we can be connected partially by virtue of shared marginality, queer positionality.”²

This discussion about gay history and queer history is important for how we might celebrate Aelred as an LGBTQ saint. It cautions us from too heavily identifying Aelred with our own circumstances to the point of seriously mishearing his own words. When I work with queer historical subjects in my writing, I tend to demarcate three distinct terms: homosexual, homoerotic, and homophilic. Homosexual referring to consummated same-sex relationships; homo-erotic referring to imagined and artistically/poetically/verbally expressed same-sex desire without necessarily any consummation of same sex acts; and homo-philic as love between people of the same sex, though not necessarily in a sexual way. For instance, the artist Caravaggio might paint a homoerotic painting of a Saint Sebastian, a painting that expresses desire or attraction to the male form, however this does not necessarily mean that Caravaggio ever engaged in homosexual acts. Likewise, while St. Aelred writes about homophilic friendships as the pinnacle of human spiritual life, that does not mean he is advocating for homosexuality (it doesn’t mean he’s not, however).  And none of these three terms is equivalent to queer. Homoeroticism is normative in Renaissance art, homosexual acts were a normal part of ancient Greek social culture, and homophilia has consistently been a part of many historical periods when homosociality (same sex social life) was required because of a patriarchal separation of the sexes in public life. What makes orientation, identities, or relationships queer is when they transgress a given sexual and gendered norm. So, even if we might not be able to claim that St Aelred was definitely homosexual, can we claim him as queer?

St. Aelred was born just a few years after the Pope decided that clergy could not get married and that the sons of priests could not inherit property or titles their fathers. Aelred was the son of a priest, an identity that would become more and more improbable as the years continued and as celibacy was enforced. Suddenly a central piece of economic, religious, and social organization was denied to an entire community. No longer able to partake in heterosexual marriage and the family structure, priests like Aelred had to imagine new social relationships. Marginalized from heterosexuality, Aelred produced work that argued for a new relationship at the center of social life: a form friendship that was peripheral toward heterosexual reproduction, property inheritance, and gendered expectations of fatherhood. Whether or not Aelred of Rieveulx was homosexual, he lived out and advocated a queer social relationship, and that many people in different times and places, myself included, recognize as queer. 

St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendships is a dialogue in three parts between him and three monks under his care. The first section is between Aelred and Ivo, the latter asking Aelred what friendship is and where it comes from. Aelred describes friendship as an advanced form of love, for while we are to love all we are not required to be friends with all. He writes that friendship is “that virtue […] through which by a covenant of sweetest love our very spirits are united, and from many are made one.”³ Friendship is a kind of pact founded in love and a commitment to grow in love together beyond even the confines of life. How friendship is fostered, tested, and affective in our lives is the subject of the second and third sections of Spiritual Friendship as Aelred speaks with two young monks, Walter and Gratian. Walter and Gratian are friends in a colloquial sense, enjoying each other’s company but not yet devoted to each other in the way Aelred will delineate. Aelred, expounds on what it means to follow the commandment that we heard in Philippians 2 to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” It is not that friends are the same in their rank or class, ethnicity, or sex. It is not that they have the same temperament or skills and strengths. Rather, friendship is a rewarding but challenging commitment to respect, care for, grow with, and even confront your friend when necessary. To do this, you must stand firmly for who you are and love who you are in order to be a true friend. Nearly paraphrasing of drag queen RuPaul’s catch phrase, Aelred wrote: “If you do not love yourself, how can you love another?”⁴ You must love your friend as you love yourself, not because your friend is a mini you but because your friend is a you, a self, a subject with her own desires and temperaments.  

In the medieval world strict hierarchy was part of most relationships: husband and wife, parent and child, vassal and lord, etc.. But friendship is a love without rank, by extension, an equalizing love. It is not paternalistic or unrequited, but requires constantly choosing to love, sometimes standing ones ground and other times diminishing one for the sake of the beloved Aelred writes “the lofty steps down and the lowly steps up, the rich one is impoverished and the poor one enriched.” Spiritual friendship demands that we listen to, respect, and build with someone because we love them not for social obligation or reward. Friendship is good news reckoning with a world of hierarchies and empires, a cut through unequal social realities, and as such, the queerest, holiest, most Christ-Like relationship that there is, for, as Aelred writes “Nothing in human life is hungered for with more holiness, nothing is sought with more utility, nothing is found with more difficulty, nothing is experienced with more pleasure, and nothing is possessed with more fruitfulness. Friendship bears fruit in our present life and in the next.”

This idea that friendship transcends even the confines of a given life brings up another reason to celebrate Aelred. I relate to St. Aelred not only because we are both queer, but because we are both queer historians. My project of building a loving, gay, trans, nonbinary, queer community for the future is rooted in relationships I build with the past. I write plays that put 20th century gay pornographers next to medieval abbesses and ancient Lesbian poets, write poetry in response to drag icons, and run workshops where participants relive the memories of dead loved ones through gesture and somatics. Similarly, Aelred of Rievluex imagines the queer community of spiritual friendship through his engagement with the past, or, to go a step further: he makes friends with queers throughout time. Not only did Aelred chronicle historical lives of men he deemed holy, he took pleasure in reflecting on them. He saw in Jonathan and David, Ruth and Boaz instructors in the art of friendship.  Aelred wrote his own dialogue in response to the ancient philosopher Cicero’s own dialogue on friendship, explaining that he once found great delight in Cicero’s writing, but as he grew, he realized he needed to expand on it. He grew with Cicero’s ideas and in turn reapplied Cicero’s thoughts for his own 12th century context. Finally, Aelred’s conversation with Ivo, in the first part of the dialogue, continues in the second and third sections of the dialogue, even though Ivo was no longer alive. His friendship with Ivo spurs on his engagement with Walter and Gratian. A conversation continues after one of the parties is gone: a friendship continues after death.

A true, spiritual friendship between the now and the then includes the insight that we must love ourselves and recognize in our friends that they are selves. This means we must resist essentializing the multiplicities of sex, gender, race, class, desire, and spirit of people in the past in order to be used for our own religious, social, or political agendas. Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera matter not because their identities align with mine, not only in a linear legacy of gay and transgender rights, but because of who they were in their own vibrant complexities. I do not only love Aelred because he looked like me, or loved like me, or led to me in a clear trajectory. I love him because I meet him in his writing, and I learn from him, and I think, create, and grow with him. I love him for him. And all of us, gay straight, queer, cis, trans should be loved for who we are. 

When we think of historical events and persons as a series of dominoes in a line leading to our more complex times and selves, we can inadvertently habitualize using contemporary people in a similar way, “props in the story of me.” But if we relish those queer touches through time, hold solidarity with historical person without forcing them to match our own images, we strengthen our capacity to unite across difference now, so that we can build a better, more just future. Enjoining this queer historical impulse to our spiritual, communal, and political lives we 

“feast upon the abundance of many houses;
and drink from the river of many delights.”

Thank you, and blessed Feast of St. Aelred of Rievaulx. 

  1. Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Series Q). Duke University Press: Kindle Edition.
  2. Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern.
  3. Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship: 05 (Cistercian Fathers) (pp. 72-73). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship: 05 (Cistercian Fathers) (pp. 155-156). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Copyright © 2020 St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
[email protected]
60 Kent St N, St. Paul, MN 55102-2232
Map & Directions

Skip to content