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Saturday, April 07 2001
Volume 01 : Number 199/200

In this issue:

-Ancient Lovers: on the Origin of Same-Sex Love
-St. Aelred of Rievaulx (3)

From: George of Boston Subject: Ancient Lovers: on the Origin of Same-Sex Love

The Greek philosopher and teacher Plato wrote about a dinner party attended by a group of his friends. Plato lived approximately from 427 BC to 347 BC, a period of 80 years. During the dinner the guests speculated about the origin of same-sex love, which many of the attendees considered to be far superior to opposite-sex love.

Here is Aristophanes' speech from Plato's Symposium , as translated by Benjamin Jowett in the 19th century:

"Aristophanes professed to open another vein of discourse; he had a mind to praise Love in another way, unlike that either of Pausanias or Eryximachus. Mankind; he said, judging by their neglect of him [Eros], have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honour; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race.

I will try to describe his power to you, and you shall teach the rest of the world what I am teaching you. In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word "Androgynous" is only preserved as a term of reproach.

In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three; - and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round: like their parents. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained.

At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: "Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg."

He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson of humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last; he left a few, however, in the region of the belly and navel, as a memorial of the primeval state.

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, being the sections of entire men or women, and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.

Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort.

But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature. Some indeed assert that they are shameless, but this is not true; for they do not act thus from any want of shame, but because they are valiant and manly, and have a manly countenance, and they embrace that which is like them. And these when they grow up become our statesmen, and these only, which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saving. When they reach manhood they are loves of youth, and are not naturally inclined to marry or beget children,-if at all, they do so only in obedience to the law; but they are satisfied if they may be allowed to live with one another unwedded; and such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him. And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other's sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another.

For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover's intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side, by side and to say to them, "What do you people want of one another?" they would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: "Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another's company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two - I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?" - there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.

And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. There was a time, I say, when we were one, but now because of the wickedness of mankind God has dispersed us, as the Arcadians were dispersed into villages by the Lacedaemonians. And if we are not obedient to the gods, there is a danger that we shall be split up again and go about in basso-relievo, like the profile figures having only half a nose which are sculptured on monuments, and that we shall be like tallies.

Wherefore let us exhort all men to piety, that we may avoid evil, and obtain the good, of which Love is to us the lord and minister; and let no one oppose him-he is the enemy of the gods who oppose him. For if we are friends of the God and at peace with him we shall find our own true loves, which rarely happens in this world at present. I am serious, and therefore I must beg Eryximachus not to make fun or to find any allusion in what I am saying to Pausanias and Agathon, who, as I suspect, are both of the manly nature, and belong to the class which I have been describing. But my words have a wider application-they include men and women everywhere; and I believe that if our loves were perfectly accomplished, and each one returning to his primeval nature had his original true love, then our race would be happy. And if this would be best of all, the best in the next degree and under present circumstances must be the nearest approach to such an union; and that will be the attainment of a congenial love.

Wherefore, if we would praise him who has given to us the benefit, we must praise the god Love, who is our greatest benefactor, both leading us in this life back to our own nature, and giving us high hopes for the future, for he promises that if we are pious, he will restore us to our original state, and heal us and make us happy and blessed."

George of Boston (Boston Bill)
From: George of Boston
Subject: St. Aelred of Rievaulx

The material is taken from pages 221 to 226 of "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality" by John Boswell, University of Chicago Press, 1980. I have removed all the footnotes and scholarly citations. If you need these details, you may ask me or consult a library. The quotations from the writings of Aelred of Rievaulx are translated from the Latin by John Boswell (pictured at right; Professor of History at Yale University; died of AIDS Xmas Eve 1994).

Aelred of Rievaulx was declared a saint by the Cistercian Order of the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th century, and he is included in the calendar of saints of many of the Anglican churches including the Episcopal Church in USA.

Aelred considered himself a sexual being who was physically attracted only to men. He had sexual relationships with men in his early life and then became celibate as a monk. By his own report, he continued to have carnal and loving feelings for men his whole life. He knew that this was not as common as being attracted to the other sex, but he gave no sign that he thought it was weird or perverted or unchristian in any way.

Aelred's title of Abbot is a term from the Aramaic language meaning "father". Jesus is reported in the New Testament as calling out this word "Abba" to God as he was dying on the cross. Thus Aelred was regarded as the father of his monks. They were mostly Saxons as was Aelred himself, although the abbey was built in the Norman period. Aelred was born in the north of England (Northumbria - West Yorkshire) in 1110 and died at Rievaulx in Northumbria 1167.

Below is the start of John Boswell's account:

... It was Saint Aelred of Rievaulx who gave love between those of the same gender its most profound and lasting expression in a Christian context. Aelred was the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in England, a friend of King David of Scotland (the son of Saint Margaret), and adviser to Henry II of England. In his treatises, The Mirror of Charity and On Spiritual Friendship, Aelred developed a concept of Christian friendship which, in its emphasis on human affection, surpassed any earlier theological statements and explicitly expressed in prose much of the implicit correlation between human and spiritual love long characteristic of clerical love poetry. It was Aelred who specifically posited friendship and human love as the basis of monastic life as well as a means of approaching divine love, who developed and promulgated a systematic approach to the more difficult problems of intense friendships between monks. In his treatise on spiritual friendship Aelred remarks that "he who abides in friendship abides in God, and God in him" and represents another character in the same dialogue as stating that "God is friendship."

There can be little question that Aelred was gay and that his erotic attraction to men was a dominant force in his life. This was true, by his own account, from the beginning of his emotional life: "While I was still a schoolboy, the charm of my friends greatly captivated me, so that among the foibles and failings with which that age is fraught, my mind surrendered itself completely to emotion and devoted itself to love. Nothing seemed sweeter or nicer or more worthwhile than to love and be loved." For a period, at least, Aelred even gave himself over to casual sexuality; he later referred to it as the time when "a cloud of desire arose from the lower drives of the flesh and the gushing spring of adolescence," and "the sweetness of love and the impurity of lust combined to take advantage of the inexperience of my youth.'' That these experiences involved overt sexuality is un- questionable: in writing to his sister Aelred speaks of this as the time when she held on to her virtue and he lost his.


Having accepted the habit of monastic life, Aelred accepted with it the vow of celibacy and subsequently considered overt sexuality off limits to him. This applied equally to gay and nongay sexuality, which he always discusses as complementary, although he seems to be aware that there is more popular prejudice against the former.

But celibacy did not alter Aelred's emotional life, nor did his difficult decision to abandon worldly pleasures incite him to the sort of antiphysical reaction which earlier Christians like Augustine (whom he much admired) had adopted. He fell in love with two monks of his order. When he first entered the order he noticed one Simon ("The rules of our order forbade us to speak, but his face spoke to me, his bearing spoke to me, his silence talked," and their friendship was the mainstay of his life until Simon's death. Although at first tormented by jealousy because on his deathbed Simon had called for another monk, Aelred eventually poured out his heartbroken grief in a paean of devotion to his beloved, without whom, he lamented, he could hardly be said to live.

Aware that the intensity of his passions might suggest a less than spiritual relationship, Aelred (pictured at right) either considered such concern beneath comment or simply did not care. "But some may judge by my tears that my love was too carnal. Let them think what they wish .... Others see what is done outwardly; they cannot perceive what I suffer inwardly". After the death of Simon, Aelred became attached to a younger monk and left a careful record of the development of their love, which, in contrast to his passion for Simon, grew slowly and cautiously "until we attained that stage at which we had but one mind and one soul, to will and not to will alike .... For I deemed my heart in a fashion his, and his mine, and he felt in like manner towards me .... He was the refuge of my spirit, the sweet solace of my griefs, whose heart of love received me when fatigued from labors, whose counsel refreshed me when plunged in sadness and grief.... What more is there, then, that I can say ? Was it not a foretaste of blessedness thus to love and thus to be loved ?"

In discussing love with his monks, Aelred stressed that friendships could not simply be intellectual. "Feelings," he observed, "are not ours to command. We are attracted to some against our will, while towards others we can never experience a spontaneous affection.'' Neither attraction nor reason alone should constitute love but, rather, the conjunction of both. Physical beauty was in Aelred's view a completely legitimate inspiration of love, as long as it did not obscure a vicious character. Carnal relationships were not desirable for monks committed to a life of celibacy, but even in these Aelred could see some good: they did afford the joy felt by lovers, and they could be used as stepping-stones to a loftier relationship involving the two lovers and God. Even for celibates Aelred did not discourage physical expressions of affection. As abbot he allowed his monks to hold hands and otherwise express affection, unlike other abbots ..."

Aelred's idealization of love between men was a dramatic break with the traditions of monasticism, which had urged since the time of Basil and Benedict that particular friendships of any sort -- especially passionate ones -- were a threat to monastic harmony and asceticism. Although his views were enormously popular in the twelfth century -- he composed his Mirror of Love for Saint Bernard -- he was conscious of their novelty. But Aelred felt he could invoke an authority higher than that of Benedict, Basil, or even his hero Augustine, in justifying the sort of love which had dominated his life. That authority was the example of Jesus and John, and in giving his description of the perfect love, Aelred even refers to [the] relationship [between John and Jesus] as a "marriage."

"It is in fact a great consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love; in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness; in whose most welcome friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open as freely as you would to yourself your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses -- as by some medicine -- you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the more secretly, the more delightfully; with whom you can rest, just the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.

We can enjoy this in the present with those whom we love not merely with our minds but with our hearts; for some are joined to us more intimately and passionately than others in the lovely bond of spiritual friendship. And lest this sort of sacred love should seem improper to anyone, Jesus himself, in everything like us, patient and compassionate with us in every matter, transfigured it through the expression of his own love: for he allowed one, not all, to recline on his breast as a sign of his special love, so that the virgin head was supported in the flowers [sic] of the virgin breast, and the closer they were, the more copiously did the fragrant secrets of the heavenly marriage impart the sweet smell of spiritual chrism to their virgin love.

Although all the disciples were blessed with the sweetness of the greatest love of the most holy master, nonetheless he conceded as a privilege to one alone this symbol of a more intimate love, that he should be called the 'disciple whom Jesus loved.'"

George of Boston (Boston Bill)
Subject: Re: St. Alred of Rievaulx

I Would like to thank George of Boston for the tract regarding St Aelred of Revaulx. Living very close to Rievaulx i have visited it many times from childhood.It is located in a wooded valley in a very beautiful part of The North Yorkshire Dales very close to the old city of York which is a popular destination for visitors from North America.

Although a ruin after Henry VII's dissolution of the monestaries it is majestic, and when i do visit i always feel a great sense of calm and peace.The next time i go i will remember what George has written and think of the writings of St Alred.

Once again i would like to thank George and yourself.
From: George of Boston
Subject: Re: St. Aelred of Rievaulx

Dear Tee Strapper,
(sorry, couldn't resist)
If you will give me some tea and take me to Rievaulx, I'll be there in the autumn, on my way from Edinboro to London. Then you may thank me personally.

George of Boston (Boston Bill)

End of silverfoxesclub-digest V1 #199/200