Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual
New York: Oxford University Press, 2016
Venerable John and divine Symeon, united to God and united in soul to one another…
ever watch over us.
So reads the troparion for the feast of SS. Symeon and John of Emesa. In her book, Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual, Claudia Rapp contends that the origins of the ceremony for “brother-making” (adelphopoiesis) are to be found in early monasticism (p. 4). Noting the prayer by which abbot Nikon commissions Symeon and John’s life together, Rapp comments, “This kind of prayer, I like to suggest, is the origin of the blessing of adelphopoiesis as we know it” (p. 159).
The 7th-century hagiography which describes their relationship explains the blessing in this way through words spoken by John to Symeon:
But for His sake that did join us together…. Thou knowest that after God, I have no one else but thee, my brother; instead, I have disowned all men and cleaved only unto thee…. We made a compact not to be separated from one another…. The two of us were just like a single soul, so that all were put into amazement by our friendship….
This life of St. Symeon from Syria was written by the Bishop Leontius of Cyprus. He hoped that his readers, by hearing that Symeon and John were “yoked” together as brothers in Christ, would emulate this example, so as to “guide our souls to life eternal” by imitating these “great luminaries” who led “an angelic way of life.” The heroes of Leontius’ narrative transcend gender. The holy pair acclaim of abbot Nikon that he, “after Christ, [is] our father and mother!” It is important to discern here that Nikon and Christ are invoked as both father and mother. And in a further act of gender-bending, Nikon perceives Symeon and John as “the pure bridegrooms of Christ,” escorted by candle-bearing eunuchs. Where typically one would expect true disciples to be the “brides” of Christ, instead a gender-transcending marriage is evoked, with Christ awaiting nuptials with the two men.
When abbot Nikon blesses these two, “bending the knee and putting Symeon at his right hand and John on his left,” his prayer recognizes them solely as one: “Let their body and soul and spirit be illumined…unto a perfect man, unto the measure of their stature.” The troparion reflects this same union of soul. Nikon’s prayer continues with singular nouns where one would expect plural: “their heart,” “your face,” instead of “their hearts” and “your faces.” Nikon concludes his prayer with a unifying embrace as he “entwined his arms about their necks.”
Rapp depicts Symeon and John’s relationship as a “case study” of “the original context for the practice of blessing a bond between two men, making them ‘brothers’” (p. 4). She develops her thesis explicitly in contrast to any belief that the adelphopoiesis ceremony was “created with the purpose of sanctioning and sanctifying homosexual relationships” (pp. 2-3). Rapp ascribes to the late Yale historian, John Boswell, this gay-origins thesis for adelphopoiesis with his 1994 book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. She quickly adds that her “evaluation of the historical evidence does in no way undermine the legitimacy of seeking recognition for same-sex partnerships in current societies” (p. 3).
What ends up as problematic in her statements is the underlying assumption that “homosexual relationships” and “same-sex partnerships” are static equivalencies which have not undergone change and evolution in response to social conditions over the centuries. It goes without saying that societal and cultural attitudes toward same-sex relationships have waxed and waned through the centuries and across cultures. “Homosexual relationships” and “same-sex partnerships” are not concise historical categories which can be traced objectively across the tumult of the centuries. The word homosexual itself did not enter the lexicon until 1892, making it a category unfit to project backward in attempts to discern history.
For Rapp’s purposes, what might have worked better is homoaffective relationships. This term has the broader inclusiveness whereby to incorporate the wide range of same-sex, affective (emotional) relationships—from the erotic to solely greater affective comfort with members of one’s own gender. The terminology of homoaffectivity recognizes the given human condition whereby deeply affective, and intensely emotional, intimate relationships can and do develop between members of the same gender. The category can include, but is not limited to, homogenital affective relations as well.
Rapp discerns from the written record that adelphopoiesis relationships are about “mutual support” (p. 3), “an ideal of equality” (p. 6), “close spiritual friendship” (p. 87), “shared purpose” (p. 101), “mutual help in the common quest for spiritual perfection” (pp. 108-109), “close emotional relations” (p. 187), “an experience of the sacred in the community of others” (p. 256), and “the desire for love” (p. 296). What she finds in the adelphopoiesis relationship is clear documentation of the Church’s “sanctioning and sanctifying” of homoaffective relationships. Nowhere in the record is there any inkling that the adelphopoiesis relationship is an adverse, ascetical practice which mitigates against the flesh. Instead, the affective, emotional component is an integral, essential, and necessary element. As captured in a 9th-century adelphopoiesis prayer, “these Your servants who love one another with spiritual love have come to Your holy Church to be blessed by You” (p. 294). The homoaffective element is implicit in the adelphopoiesis blessing and subsequent relationship.
The patristic principle of Lex orandi, lex credendi est (St. Prosper of Aquitaine)—that “the law of praying undergirds the law of believing”—gives us to understand that the tradition of the adelphopoiesis ritual bequeaths to us an important theology. That the adelphopoiesis blessing is clearly part of our historic prayer tradition necessitates equally that we believe adelphopoiesis to be a means and path to holiness. Same-sex love can be celebrated and blessed as a path to sanctity. Rapp’s clear contribution lies in further chronicling this important tradition and tracing its co-development alongside and in relation to early Christian monasticism.
Rapp goes on to identify that the adelphopoiesis prayers “seem to have found particular resonance among Orthodox Christians in Southern Italy” (p. 3), with the manuscript tradition evidencing this prevalence up until the 16th century. Latin texts of the ritual were compiled by Franciscan friars in Croatia around 1370 (p. 70). Rapp astutely discerns an affinity between the adelphopoiesis relationship and Francis of Assisi’s “Rule for Hermitages,” describing it as a “similar arrangement…envisioned by Francis of Assisi….” (p. 174). However, in marked contrast to adelphopoiesis, Francis’ Rule proposes a hermitage household headed by two same-sex parents, two friar “mothers” who nurture their hermit-son. This Rule appears to have been written after Francis’ travels to Egypt and Acre in 1219 and 1220, where he could have encountered examples of the adelphopoiesis ritual, if not earlier in his native Italy.
Rapp’s documentation of the widespread phenomenon of the adelphopoiesis ritual is thorough, convincing, and substantial. The weight of the manuscript evidence she wields necessitates embracing this ritual relationship as part of our inherited datum of lived faith. It is handed on to us as a passageway to shared holiness in the apostolic tradition.
Rapp explains that “the evidence for adelphopoiesis presented here is only the tip of a very large iceberg” (p. 200). And icebergs are ignored or dismissed only by those who will not return safely to harbor. “This love has brought the holy Apostles together to the calm harbor of the Church through brotherly love” (10th-century adelphopoiesis prayer; p. 295).
Rapp has given us greater access to a holy and venerable tradition, both timely and needed to precipitate renewed conversations and dialogue about how same-sex affection and intimacy engender and reveal the divine. We owe her a debt of gratitude and thanks.
Kevin C.A. Elphick holds a DMin from Graduate Theological Foundation with a concentration in ecumenism. Earlier he obtained an MA in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University and an MA in Religious Studies from Loyola University in conjunction with a joint studies program at Spertus College of Judaica. He is a Companion of New Skete, and works as a supervisor with a suicide prevention hotline serving veterans and active duty members.