Friday, August 19, 2016

Transgender Saints: The Imago Dei of St. Marinos the Monk

“The one who saves the soul 
is like the one who created it

Life of Saint Marinos

Imago Dei

One is not born a transgender saint, one must be created. A look at iconography of trans saints such as St. Marinos the Monk evidences a divinely inspired life that challenged the limits of the world in which is grew and the limits of its own creation. Certain elements of the saint’s image are common to others who are marked in like ways as “set apart,” such as the long monk’s robes, suggesting an orientation away from the world, and a blazing halo behind him, suggesting an orientation towards God. Yet other elements of his image and story mark Imago Transvesti as a peculiar form of Imago Dei. St. Marinos is gender ambiguous. His contemporaries thought him an eunuch. Yet he also is shown supporting a child which he fathered by choice if not by birth. In this and many ways, the image of the trans saint announces a difference that is marvelous and sacred. These differences remain challenging to some as they are inspiring to countless others.

The Imageo Dei arouse in the Church from the scriptural assertion that the creatures of the world are made in the image of the Creator. In Genesis 1.27, God creates humanity, "et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam ad imaginem Dei creavit illum masculum et feminam creavit eos" (So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them, NIV). For many trans, intersex, and non-binary persons, the Imago Dei of Genesis is used as a weapon against them by those who insist that divine intention is only reflect in the symmetry of cisgender men and women. Yet the scripture does not say that God created humanity in only one way or that God only created cisgender binary people. In the early Christian and medieval Church, the salvation story of the gospels and diverse saints lives testify that the work of creation and recreation is ongoing in a dynamic and diverse Imago Dei.

Of the trans hagiographies that reflect a wider envisioning of the Imago Dei, among the earliest and most influential accounts was that of St. Marinos the Monk. To keep close to the original text, the version of the life of St. Marinos analyzed here comes from Alice-Mary Talbot's translation of the Vita Antiqua, which Talbot claims, is "the version closest to the original Life of the sixth or seventh century " (Talbot). Given the difficulty with setting an exact date shows its wide range of influence. Time and time again, the transgender Imageo Dei narrated in trans hagiography continues to be craved by a society that continually slips back into a fixed and reductive vision of creation as cis male and female. A significant feature of the Vita Antiqua’s Marinos is that it contains culturally rich and theologically instructive dialog not found in some later condensed versions. As Talbot describes, "The anonymous author writes in a simple and vivid style, making extensive use of dialogue and omitting the characteristic prooimion."

Out of this near original version's dialog, comes not only an image of a trans saint but through him to the God that created him as an Imago Dei. When Marino's father tells him that he cannot enter the monastery because he is not a cisgender man, he responds that his soul is on the line in this matter and that the making of Marinos as a man of God is like God's making of Marinos the man, “The one who saves the soul is like the one who created it.” Who is the one who made Marinos into the saint he is? Who is the one who saves Marinos? I argue that the narrative offers answers nestled in one image: the Imago Transvesti. In this short essay, I unpack the Imago Dei of St. Marinos by focusing first on how the marginalization of the saint contrasts with the worlds sexist and transphic reduction of gender’s diversity, then how the transition of the saint as an act of salvation that embodies the creative, transformational, and reforming image of the Creator.

Early Christian concepts of Imago Dei affirm a diverse and dynamic Creation. A contemporary treatise on Imago Dei is found in "De Trinitatae,” by Augustine of Hippo from the fifth century would still have been in circulation by the time of Marinos. In it, Augustine argues that creation begins as a seed within each soul. Life, Augustine writes, “if it is made after the image of God … then from the moment when that nature so marvelous and so great began to be, whether this image be so worn out as to be almost none at all, or whether it be obscure and defaced, or bright and beautiful, certainly it always is.” Often one’s Imago Dei is hidden, yet as that person grows it is revealed. The process of constructing the self, then, can be a co-creative act of affirming the Imago Dei. Augustine writes, “in the soul of man, i.e. the rational or intellectual soul, [is] that image of the Creator.” From a seed, this Imago Dei is not actualized from birth but is revealed when each person affirms the special (set apart/sacred) Reason of their creation.

Granting the Imago Dei as an act of creation and not merely a set of created things it is easier t understand how Imago Tranvesti arouse within Trans Hagiography as testament to the divinely reasoned diversity and dynamism within God’s creation. Indeed, within an Augustinian Imago Dei and Marinian Imago Transvesti, marginalization and transition function to affirm the holy creation of one’s life in contrast to worldly designs. In later discussions, the work of Imago Tramsvesti on the world itself, in resisting and changing systems of gender will be explored as a form of Imitatio Christi, what I call the Imitatio Transvesti. As liberation theologian Thomas Reynolds affirms this in his book, Vulnerable Communion, “The Imago Dei is a Imitatio Dei.” To be an image is both to reflect the substance of the reflected but also the action. Imago Transvesti embodies that sacred dynamism that continually grows and challenges the limits of creation’s seedlings.



Saints: Those Set Apart

As embodiment of Imago Dei, trans saints offer alternatives to a patriarchal cisgender society that divides, reduces, and constrains God’s dynamic creation. A core power within hagiography as writing about holiness is that sacredness shows the flaws of the world through the contrast of divine differences. In "The Centrality of Margins," Amy Ogden argues that the Imago Dei of saints, including the Imago Transvesti, are framed the margins, marking them as set apart. The saint, Ogden writes, "calls attention to the profoundly marginal identity of all saints: from a terrestrial, political standpoint, their behavior relegates them to the edges of society, while from a spiritual perspective, it locates their identity in the overlap between the human and the divine" (Ogden 8). By persevering through cis models of embodiment and oppression, trans saints offer an image of God’s sacred otherness, an alternative way of life that resists a damaging world

The problem of the world is presented and represented by Marinos's father. The retired man he tells his child that he must go to a monastery to become a monk. Rejecting his worldly life, the father gives it to his child. “My child," says the father, "behold, all that I own I place in your hands, for I am departing in order to save my soul.” The transfer of possessions is likely meant to be a gift. The child will be orphaned but will be cared for by the remnants of the father's inheritance. The circumstance of many trans youth follow just such a similar narrative. The older generations maintain a world full of sexism, homophobia, patriarchies, transphobia, and gender binaries which at a certain age they may condemn but nonetheless despair of changing. Something about the world he regards as impeding his spiritual life. He rejects the sin (the spiritual distance from God) and gives it to the child. As a result, younger generations inherit the sins of the father.

As a savvy trans youth, Marinos is aware that the world he inherits will lead to his destruction and calls out his father for leaving him such a burden. Turning the exchange back on his father, Marinos calls out the gift for what it is. “Father," says Marinos, "do you wish to save your own soul and see mine destroyed?" The father is eschewing the gender of the world for a gender set apart. The child, likewise wants to eschew the gender the world assigned and accept a gender set apart. If the worldly gender is not good enough for the father, why for the child? The trans saints life is a mirror for the father to see how he only continues on a lineage of destructive systems, an inheritance of sexism and transphobia. The trans saint's life serves as a mirror for all readers to contemplate. Too often, social justice movements allow one marginalized group to escape from its system of oppression while leaving other populations (even former allies) at risk.

As an Imago Dei, the destruction of the Imago Transvesti has grave repercussions. In Marinos's Christian context, to be prevented from transitioning to a spiritual life as a monk is to risk the natural as well as the supernatural death of the transgender soul. The sins of the patriarchy work to keep him tethered to it: the reduction of sexual diversity to a gender binary, the reduction of gender to genitals and procreative ability, and the social limits that inhibit the reassignment of gender. To bring the trans child into the monastery as a monk is to be like the Good Shepherd of scripture. "Do you not know what the Lord says?" Marinos asks his father. "That the good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep?” There are dangers in allowing Marinos to transition but the risks are necessary if the father is to save his child. Put another way, Marinos is asking, "would you rather have a dead and damned daughter or a living son?" Or again, "is it not worth the risk accepting your sons transition if that is what saves not only his life but also his soul?"

The patriarch’s worries are continued by the monastery’s superior when he ejects Marinos from the community, following accusations of impregnating a local girl. When questioned, Marinos confesses to the patriarch, “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned as a man.” Readers know that Marinos does not have the genitals to impregnate the woman but the monk decides that protecting his manhood from question is more important than divulging truths that would prove him innocent. The Father hears Marinos saying that "as a man" he has sinned in impregnating the woman, while Marinos means that he has sinned by not being fully forthright in what way he exists, "as a man." Misunderstanding and sexual misconduct causes trouble for Marinos. The one corporate sin extends from another. If not for conventions of prejudice against trans men and women, Marinos would not be in trouble. In this critical way, the Vita tells Marinos that for the Trans Saint there may not be any home for them in a sexist world with so few positive images.

In various ways, the trans saint is marked to continually face off against worldly sins of sexism and transphobia. Hotchkins identifies the repeating feature of the trans saint’s battle between center and margins, "elements of flight, disguise, calumny, and dramatic anagnorisis” (15). As an imago Dei, the trans saint of hagiography embodies a divine model that will continually contrast the concerns of the world. Yet hagiography does not merely mark these differences and conflict but turns them into positive meaning. If, as Hotchkiss writes, "transvestite saints reveal much about gender definitions and cultural biases based on gender," then trans saints also embody an alternative vision of gender that stands in sacred contrast to the sexist and transphobic systems of the world (16). In other words, the Imago Transvesti uses the margins that frame it in order to highlight the powerful message of personal and social transformation it embodies.



Becoming a Monk

Imago Transvesti is an image of transition as a form of becoming Christian. In the Middle Ages, Christian salvation focused on introducing radical changes into individual and collective lives in order to bring out the hidden Imago Dei in creation. Especially for transvestites, the transgender affirming processes focused on clothing recreates many of the central elements of baptism. In “Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex,” Stephan Davis writes, "the act of changing garments evokes… the Pauline baptismal formula of Galatians 3.27-28: 'As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ " (Davis). While God makes all people Imago Dei, the baptism ceremony acknowledges that the life the world assigns is not the one God intends for it. Much as how many trans persons assert that sex change processes are in fact gender affirmation, changing clothes, therefore, is a transformation that is also a reformation of imago transvesti and imago dei.

The Image of God and Gods image of the trans saint is not always readily visible to the world. Arriving at one's authentic self often involves battling the gender divides and demands of a cisgender world. A monastery is a location that divides men and women from one another, even certain kind of men from other kinds of men: monks. Affirming monastic exclusivity, Marinos's father asks, “Child, what am I to do with you? You are a female, and I desire to enter a monastery. How then can you remain with me?" Calling Marinos his child, he begins by affirming their familial bonds, yet ends with the implicit rejection of this bond once he enters the monastery. A father cannot be a father when he is a monk and Marinos will not be welcome. This is a bit of dramatic irony, a thesis that the Vita will argue against. Marinos will prove that he can be accepted as this exclusive form of man, a monk, and as another form of man, a father.

Before gender reassignment moves forward, Marinos must reframe the problem from one of body to one of relation. Reflecting a patriarchal anti-trans, anti-woman bias, Marinos's decries, “it is through the members of your sex that the devil wages war on the servants of God.” While the life of a man, especially an abstinent monk, has very little to do with genitalia, they are devices through which cisgender exclusivity is enacted. The patriarch ignores the way in which his child would use his body, treating him as a passive object for another's agency. The devil wages a war and Marinos is merely a medium. Following Aristotle's theory of sex, the patriarch treats women's genitals as instrumental substances on which active male genitals asserts form. Marinos does is not expected to have agency, consent, or control over his genitals. By insisting on this powerlessness, he is once again asserting his role as a member of the patriarchy to define Marinos's gender.

Marinos responds that changing his genre of embodiment is much easier if one focuses on the more relevant parts of the body and eschew concerns over the genitals. "I shall first cut off the hair of my head, and clothe myself like a man," he says. There are differences in the culturally defined genres of medieval manhood and womanhood. There were styles of hair coded masculine and those coded feminine. Even among men, monks wore their hair differently than other men. Yet hair is changeable. Therefore, gender is changeable, not only in society but in the body. One can change the body to change how society treats that body. Agency is reclaimed by the body that is revalued by the patriarchy. Following a tradition of feminist thought, Judith Butler insists that one is not born a woman but becomes a woman. Likewise, in medieval monastic culture, one is not born a monk but becomes a monk. Rejects cis assumption that gender is unchanging, Marinos declares he will be able to "enter the monastery with you" and become a monk.

In fact, the subtle differences in Marinos's body are well within the diversity of medieval masculinity. "After she lived thus for a few years in the monastery," records the Vita, "[they] considered her to be a eunuch, for she was beardless and of delicate voice." Because of their respective inability to impregnate a woman unaided by modern science, a medieval trans man and eunuch are effectively abstinent from this kind of reproduction; while both may engage in sexual acts. In the end, the monastery not only accepts Marinos as a man but regards the trans man as exemplary. Many regarded the particularities of his trans monkhood as a natural extend of monkhood, "the result of her great asceticism." Being a monk or eunuch is not a masculinity into which one is born. All are men set apart artificially to become a new kind of men. "Day by day, the child advanced in all the virtues, in obedience, in humility, and in much asceticism," the Vita records. A tran monk knows, perhaps more than most, that one is not born a monk but become a monk.

To conclude, the image of God in the Imago Transvesti is a reformation of a divine image through sacred transitions marked by the changing of clothes. By setting aside the clothes and habit of a woman, then taking on the monk’s robes, Marinos not only is affirmed as a man but a sainted Christian. As image of early Christianity, the trans saint embodied the radical changes to which all Christians are called. "The Pauline metaphor appears to have been incorporated into the earliest baptismal ceremonies," writes Valerie Hotchkiss in Clothes Make the Man, "in the removal of clothing and, after immersion, the putting on of new white robes…. The initiate is described as transformed, reborn, and united with Christ." An escape from the worldly constraints of womanhood, ends for Marinos in being reborn as an exemplary man of Christ. As an image framed by margins, Imago Transvesti is nonetheless central to a medieval image of God’s creation.





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