The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography

The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography

The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography

The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography


Has a repressive morality been the primary contribution of Christianity to the history of sexuality? The ascetic concerns that pervade ancient Christian texts would seem to support such a common assumption. Focusing on hagiographical literature, Virginia Burrus pursues a fresh path of interpretation, arguing that the early accounts of the lives of saints are not antierotic but rather convey a sublimely transgressive "countereroticism" that resists the marital, procreative ethic of sexuality found in other strands of Christian tradition.

Without reducing the erotics of ancient hagiography to a single formula, The Sex Lives of Saints frames the broad historical, theological, and theoretical issues at stake in such a revisionist interpretation of ascetic eroticism, with particular reference to the work of Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille, David Halperin and Geoffrey Harpham, Leo Bersani and Jean Baudrillard. Burrus subsequently proceeds through close, performative readings of the earliest Lives of Saints, mostly dating to the late fourth and early fifth centuries--Jerome's Lives of Paul, Malchus, Hilarion, and Paula; Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina; Augustine's portrait of Monica; Sulpicius Severus's Life of Martin; and the slightly later Lives of so-called harlot saints. Queer, s/m, and postcolonial theories are among the contemporary discourses that prove intriguingly resonant with an ancient art of "saintly" loving that remains, in Burrus's reading, promisingly mobile, diverse, and open-ended.


Erotic experience is possibly close to sanctity.

Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality

The Sex Lives of Saints? What could such words possibly signify? Surely everyone knows that the repression of erotic desire is the hallmark of Christian sanctity: a “sex life” is precisely what a proper saint lacks. At most, ascetic eros—encoded as yearning for God—may be seen as the residue of an imperfectly sublimated sexuality. Better yet: it is a merely metaphorical expression for a purely desexualized love. Worse still: it reflects pleasure derived from practices of self-denial rooted in a pathological hatred of the body.

It is difficult simply to contradict such widespread and thus all too easily anticipated doubts. Nonetheless, I find myself moved to pursue a different path of interpretation. the wager is at once intellectual and spiritual: might it be possible to take common knowledge by surprise, to disarm its resigned certainties, to disturb it with the stirrings of a most uncommon love, and thereby to enable a different knowing of both “sex” and “sanctity”? My title, though lightly ironic, is not intended to be oxymoronic: ancient Lives of Saints, I suggest, are the site of an exuberant eroticism. Resistance to the pervasive anti-erotic interpretation of hagiography (and of asceticism more generally) is crucial to the excitement—or, more conventionally phrased, the “significance”—of this argument. That sanctity can be restyled as an erotic art, that the holy Life carries us to the extremities of human desire, that (conversely) “erotic experience is possibly close to sanctity”— these are admittedly queer notions, seductive insinuations, even downright perverse proposals, in relation to traditional readings of the Lives, whether popular or scholarly, literary-historical or doctrinal. I take the risk of transgressing more than a few cherished orthodoxies in the hope of thereby uncovering a theory and practice of eroticism that is responsively attuned to the hallowed texts of the Christian past while also remaining unapologetically attentive to an urgent need of the present moment—namely, to affirm the holiness of a love that is simultaneously embodied and transcendent, sensual and spiritual, painful and joyous; that may encompass but can by no . . .

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