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Symeon of Emesa and John
(6th cent.) Syria

Symeon & John

Saints and lovers - Feast day July 21


Symeon the the "Holy Fool" of Emesa lived in the sixth century. His Life was written in the seventh century by Leontius of Neapolis (The Life and Conduct of Abba Symeon Called the Fool for the Sake of Christ Written by Leontius, Most Pious Bishop of Neapolis on the Isle of Cyprus).

The story is about a same-sex relationship. Symeon, with his mother, and the deacon John, with his new wife, meet on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They become friends and "would no longer part from each other". In fact they abandon their families and go together to dedicate their lives to God.

In the monastery they first join, they are tonsured by the abbot who blesses them together. This seems to refer to some early monastic version of the adelphopoiia ceremony. As with St. George both Symeon and John are referred to as the "pure bridegrooms (nymphoi) of Christ". Both men express concern that older ties of family may hold their "brother" back.

The two men then leave the monastery and live together as hermit for twenty-nine years. There is no suggestion that they had a sexual relationship, but that they were very much a same sex couple. After all those years the Life moves to the next part of the story - Symeon's activities in Emesa as a "Fool for Christ". The extent of the relationship is revealed at this point. John is not keen for Symeon to leave. He says to Symeon

"... Please, for the Lord's sake, do not leave wretched me... Rather for the sake of Him who joined us, do not wish to be parted from your brother. You know that, after God, I have no one except you, my brother, but I renounced all and was bound to you, and now you wish to leave me in the desert, as in an open sea. Remember that day when we drew lost and went down to the Lord Nikon, that we agreed not to be separated from one another. Remember that fearful day when we were clothed in the holy habit, and we two were as one soul, so that all were astonished at our love. Don't forget the words of the great monk... Please don't lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from You."

These words fail to move Symeon, who insists on going. He urges John to pray with him. After which this scene occurs:

"After they had prayed for many hours and had kissed each other on the breast and drenched them with their tears, John let go of Symeon and traveled together with him a long distance, for his soul would not let him be separated from him. But whenever Symeon said to him 'Turn Back, Brother', he heard the word as if a knife separated him from his body, and again he asked if he could accompany him a little further. Therefore, when Symeon forced him, he turned back to his cell drenching the earth with tears."

There is no question, that what we have here is a description on an intense and emotional same-sex relationship which cannot be reduced to "friendship". The story is awash with marital and sexual imagery and references. So how did these saints maintain a place (a small one it must be admitted - there was no extensive cult) in calendars of saints?

There are a number of considerations. First, the relationship although "erotic" (based on "desire") is not presented as "sexual". Second, although later Roman Catholic authorities in the Tridentine Church did recognize the issues involved with "particular friendships", it is open to question whether late antique and Byzantine writers could have done as much. For Greek's what we call "homosexuality" was subsumed under the rubric of "pederasty" - an unequal and often temporary relationship between an older and a younger man.

Relationships based on spiritual equality and lifelong commitment did not fit the model. Indeed, I would argue that this is why Byzantium could support both adelphopoiia ceremonies, which, although more work is being done, do seem to have been common and do seem to have created real social bonds seen as familial, and at the same time law codes which unequivocally condemned "sodomy".

For us both "sodomy" between men and "same-sex" committed relationships would seem to fall under the rubric of "homosexuality". This does not seem to have been the case for Byzantine commentators. This does not mean that it is illegitimate for modern gay people to see such relationships as relevant to modern understandings of sexual identity.


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