Cloistered Passions (Observations from 1980)


“The monastic community [in Collegeville] no doubt includes some heterosexual men, along with a great many who must be more or less uneasy about their powerful attraction to other monks or to the boys who surround them at the prep school and the university. Alcoholism is a very serious problem among the monks of St. John’s … and is probably connected to the suppression of homoerotic feelings. Those monks who cannot act on their sexual feelings are probably intensely jealous of those who do.”

Cloistered Passions

The somewhat erotic subject I discuss here will have to be more fully treated by gay male writers: homoerotic feelings in monastic communities. My impressions come from two years at the closely connected institutions of St. John’s Abbey and St. John’s University in College, Minnesota. The Abbey is the largest Benedictine Abbey in the world and the University is the alma mater of San Francisco’s sheriff, Mike Hennessey.

In my first year at St. John’s I had a mouth-filling title, Fellow of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. The second year I was merely a fringe academic, writing a book in the library and teaching part-time. As a woman and a non-theologian, I necessarily had an outsider’s limited view of what went on behind the monastic walls, but I was not blind. During an interview for a temporary job, I saw that the department head was wearing a bracelet and felt a click! of recognition: the dyke acknowledging the faggot – silently of course. And I would often see young monks, deeply absorbed in each other, going off for long walks in pairs. Were some of them sleeping together, I wondered?

As Michael Bronski says in a GCN review (Vol. 7, No 27) whether a person like J.M. Barrie acted on his sexual feelings is less important than the emotional intensity of such feelings. To deny their existence or to call them “platonic” is absurd. Yet the fact about St. John’s which I now find most significant, its function as a kind of gay male commune, can hardly be thought of in rural Minnesota, much less admired either by the monks themselves or by visitors to their two thousand acre retreat of lakes and pines.

Recently, for example, the Minneapolis Tribune did a big spread on the Benedictines at Collegeville: four whole pages were devoted to the Abbey and the University. But of course the writers said nothing about homoerotic feelings as a source of community solidarity or as a reason why young men might be attracted to monastic life. The article shed no light at all on why anyone in 1980 would want to live with three hundred other men, in the woods, according to the rules drawn up in the sixth century. In short, the Tribune missed the real story. I would even say that no one who overlooks homosexuality can have more than a fragmented idea of the real life, the emotional life, of a place like St. John’s.

The monastic community there no doubt includes some heterosexual men, along with a great many who must be more or less uneasy about their powerful attraction to other monks or to the boys who surround them at the prep school and the university. Alcoholism is a very serious problem among the monks of St. John’s (and among priests generally, Episcopal as well as Catholic) and is probably connected to the suppression of homoerotic feelings. Those monks who cannot act on their sexual feelings are probably intensely jealous of those who do. And those who do must contend with the ludicrous distinction currently promulgated by Rome, that homosexual feelings are not sinful as long as one does not act upon them.

A curious tradition exists as St. John’s University which reveals the homoerotic atmosphere of the school. Most of the students (all men) live on campus. A monk from the faculty lives in each floor of each dormitory. College brochures used to praise this custom as an example of the Benedictine family tradition – the fatherly monk expressing tender concern for their student charges by living in their midst. What is really expressed here, I think, is lust for young men. Certainly this hunch would astonish some of the dormitory monks, who are probably quite unaware of their sexual feelings and who may have the most innocent kinds of intense friendships with the students on their floors. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine an adult male heterosexual professor choosing to live in a men’s dorm.

Even more curious and far less appealing than monks in men’s dorms is the presence at St. John’s of a particularly virulent form of anti-abortion fanaticism. One of its chief tenets is celibacy within marriage, a view you may have to go all the way to Minnesota to hear espoused. In this atmosphere where some people severely frown on heterosexual expression, homoerotic feelings are naturally thought shameful.

The monks I worked with would probably be shocked to find their lives mentioned in a gay paper. They would feel attacked, not realizing that someone who lived among them briefly could approve of the homoeroticism which flourishes in their community, or trusting that one Catholic could look at another’s sexual repression in a spirit of understanding.

But what I have tried to describe here is as much an aspect of gay culture as it is of Catholic culture. When we think of the words “gay culture,” of course, we do not think of same-sex religious communities. But to understand varieties of lesbian and gay experience in this country we need to look in out of the way corners, even in places where the very notion of queerness is denied.

Seeing the phrase “gay culture” more narrowly, taking it to mean our creative work, we can say that St. John’s Abbey is an intellectual and artistic center where certain highly individual men who would be very unhappy in Greenwich Village or the Castro can find a nurturing atmosphere for their work. To the extent that an institution like St. John’s frees such men to develop their creativity, it is a center of gay culture, even though its artists and intellectuals may not call themselves gay and may even try to repress their gay identities.

An obvious irony here is that the Roman Catholic church has used its money and influence to oppress gay people. It has presented its own children, many of whom discovered their lesbian and gay identities in its own same-sex institutions. All those schools with funny names like Aloysius, Benedict, Bonaventure, and Immaculate Heart have their small place in gay American history, as do all the nuns and priests in those schools who renounced heterosexual life so easily.

The hypocrisy of the Catholic Church is enormous: it has crusaded against our rights bills and called us a threat to the family, but it would stop functioning overnight if all gay priests and nuns left their posts.

And yet, I feel affection for the monks of St. John’s, despite the very pure form of male arrogance and complacency which fills the air behind the Pine Curtain (the students’ name for the tree[s] which encircle the campus). For all their sexism, they are gentle, loving men, far better role models for the young men they teach than 90% of the heterosexual males who teach in high schools and colleges. I also feel affection for the monks because it was in the bowels of their library that I first read Lesbian/Woman by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (it was not part of my ecumenical research!)

Can the silence about the Church and homosexuality last much longer? Last fall, an article on gay Catholics in Christopher Street noted that Sister Jeannine Grammick got in trouble with the Vatican and with her superior for planning a retreat for lesbian nuns. I admire her spunk, but I think any convent lesbians with enough self-esteem to build networks for themselves have enough self-esteem to kiss Holy Mother Church goodbye.

In the same issue of Christopher Street was part of a novel about gay Jesuit seminarians in Boston. Less flamboyant than the Jesuits and often more cultivated, the Benedictine monks of Collegeville may be much slower to produce and gay literature, One of their neighbors, the short story master J.F. Powers, has written of the complicated relations between priests but has not, as far as I know, ventured into gay territory.

A writer who is also the novice master at St. John’s Abbey, Alfred Deutsch, has produced some wistful, wry, ironic sketches about the ordinary lives and foibles of monks, but I do not think that in his seventies he will want to tackle the difficult new subject of monks who are sexually drawn to one another.

One book I’d like to see in the next decade, therefore, is an anthology of short autobiographical sketches by lesbians who have been in convents and gay men who have been priests or monks. I wonder if any of the Benedictine monks I occasionally saw in the gay bars of St. Paul will ever write about their experiences. Three years after I left St. John’s, I met at a gay gathering a former monk who had left the English department before I arrived. “Did you know that we were all faggots?” he asked cheerfully. Until some of those men, or men like them, write about their lives, an area of gay life will remain invisible.

In the Catholic slang of the past, “come out” always meant to leave the convent or the priesthood, and the phrase usually has a tinge of failure associated with it. The contributors to my imaginary anthology will have to come out in our current sense of the phrase before they are ready to share their stories. Some may not even know what great stories they have to tell; others may lack the self-esteem to write about their experiences.

Certainly that was true of me in 1973 when the men of St. John’s published my first autobiographical piece is a journal called The Lower Stumpf Lake Review. The sketch was about being different, but in those days I could not say that the only real different thing about me was my lesbianism.

There is something else I could not say in 1973, and I hope the editor of my imaginary anthology will put it in her introduction: the spiritual glue which holds together communities like St. John’s is not religion at all but homoeroticism. Catholicism can pass for a living religion as long as convents and monasteries still stand, but it is time to say out loud that the life in them has very little to do with belief of any kind and a great deal to do with homoerotic feelings.

Margaret Cruikshank
Gay Community News
September 6, 1980

See Also: Jul 28, 2010 – St. John’s Abbey’s Stance on Homosexuality

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Topics: Celibacy, Homosexuality, Intramonastic Misconduct, Opinion, Pedophilia, Residence Halls, St. John's Prep

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