Peter Anthony Mena,
Transgressing the Frontiers/Fronteras of the Traditional Histories of Early Christianity.
Luis N. Rivera-Pagán
The theme of this book is highly surprising: an imaginative, exciting, and revealing dialogue between Gloria Anzaldúa, the author of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987/1999) and three classic hagiographic texts—Athanasius’s Life of Antony (4th century), Jerome’s Life of Paul the Hermit (4th century), and Sophronius’s The Life of Mary of Egypt (7th century). The main theme of that dialogue is the crucial exchange between the desert, as a borderland, and the mestiza holiness of those consecrated figures of early Christianity.
Reading the book, I kept thinking of the verbal reaction of Albert Einstein when warned, in the summer of 1939, by several Hungarian physicists of Jewish genealogy exiled in the United States [Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller] about the possibility of Nazi Germany developing nuclear bombs: “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht!” [“That never crossed mi mind.” I must confess that five decades ago when I was doing my doctoral theological studies, likewise on early Christianity, it wouldn’t have crossed anyone’s mind to consider a subject like that of Mena’s book.
In this book, in a rather surprising but scholarly way Peter Mena develops a novel dialogue between Anzaldúa and the queer holiness of those three worshipped saints. The academic and surprising queerness of Mena’s writing is amazing! It is also extremely original. Not many theological books have chapters with titles like “The Holy Harlotry of Mestizaje” (p. 85).
Is this book relevant to our times? In my view, absolutely. Others might consider it highly heretical, mainly those people who have not yet overcome their homophobia and dogmatic rigidity. Thank heaven that today a theologian can publish this kind of book and not end up in the flames of the Holy Inquisition!
Patristic texts such as those Mena discusses surged in popularity after martyrdom had ceased to be a privileged road towards redemption and sainthood. After the Nicaean council, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. How to assure salvation and holiness if martyrdom is excluded? As a place where urban temptations might be averted, and where the hours and days might be devoted to meditation and prayers, the desert could be the road to sainthood. As Mena rightly observes, “transitions from a Christian-as-martyr identity to a Christian-as-desert ascetic identity were on the minds of late ancient authors” (p. 12).
The desert is also a dramatic symbol, sometimes tragic, at other times redemptive, for the Mexican-Americans who inhabit the south of the United States. There they live, despised as mestizo strangers, as human beings who are constantly accused of staining the integrity of white citizens. That is an accusation in the minds not only of common uneducated American citizens. Let us not forget what distinguished Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington wrote regarding those immigrants crossing the desert: they constitute, he insisted, “a major potential threat to the cultural and possibly political integrity of the United States” [Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), p. 243].
The desert, according to Peter Mena, might be a point of connection between the mestizo queerness of Anzaldúa and the Christians who pursued holiness and redemption after the Nicaean council. The desert becomes the source of a new identity, a novel kind of humanity, a mestizo queer holiness. I am certain that Anzaldúa would have been happily surprised if she had been able to read Mena’s book. (Unfortunately she died in 2004).
Ancient hagiography was many times located in the desert understood as a borderland between the jungle and the cities. Survival in the desert was neither easy nor assured. In the Bible the desert was the place where the Hebrews had to survive their pilgrimage from Egyptian serfdom to a free and independent nation. The desert was the place where Jesus faced devilish and dangerous temptations and prepared himself for a life that would end on a cross. The originality of Peter Mena’s book lies in masterfully linking the desert of the Bible and of the early Christianity monks with the desert and the diverse Borderlands of Gloria Anzaldúa. Again, this is something that Jaroslav Pelikan, the magnificent historian of Christian theology and the director of my doctoral dissertation at Yale, would never have conceived much less have approved.
The desert is the place where the subjects of the three hagiographies that Mena carefully analyzes strive to find and design a novel identity, a mestiza queer desert identity. This mestiza consciousness is, as Mena writes, “always already associated with a history of violence and shock” (p. 63). In the case of Anzaldúa, let us not forget, the violence and rejection come not only from white Americans. She also suffered them from her own community—and even from her own family who would not accept her, a queer daughter and sister. She once wrote a poem that neither her family or her native community probably ever approved:
¿Volverán esas tardes sordas cuando nos amábamos?…
Esas tardes, islas no descubiertas…
Mis dedos lentos andaban las lomas de tus pechos,
Recorriendo la llanura de tu espalda
Tus moras hinchándose en mi boca
La cueva mojada y racima.
Tu corazón en mi lengua hasta en mis sueños
Tus pestañas barriendo mi cara
Dormitando, oliendo tu piel de amapola
Dos extranjeras al borde del abismo…
Compañera, esas tardes cuando nos amábamos?”
(Anzaldúa, Borderlands, pp. 168–69).[*]
Mena designs a peculiar, and for me highly surprising, similarity between Anzaldúa’s “entering into the serpent” (meaning her peculiar identity as a mestiza queer inhabitant of a cultural desert, crossing forbidden borderlands) and the life of those Christians who migrate to the desert in search of a novel identity, a queer identity of a human who leaves behind secular civilization and has to face not a serpent but centaurs and satyrs. Again, as Einstein exclaimed in 1939: “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht!” [“That had never crossed my mind!”]
Discussing Sophronius’ Life of Mary of Egypt, Mena describes a harlot saint (in a parallel to Anzaldúa’s “The Holy Harlotry of Mestizaje”)—a harlot saint, according to Mena, “of unrestrained eroticism that transforms a devotion to sex into a divine devotion no less erotic” (p. 86) and who experiences “the sanctity of sex” (p. 112). He concludes by affirming that “the undermining of the virgin/whore dichotomy is an important part of mestiza consciousness” (p. 112).
Mena ends his book with a brief and upbeat conclusion in which he describes the surprising thematic similarities between Gloria Anzaldúa’s writings, especially her most read book, Borderlands/La Frontera, and three of the main hagiographies of early Christianity. His conclusion, in which the main thesis of the book is adeptly expressed, is that
The conventional privileging of history and subject… continues to oppress and keep hidden the spaces of the margins where radical openness can work to end oppression. As Anzaldúa has made evident, a mestiza consciousness leads to new epistemology that in turn works to bring an end to the violence and injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. (p. 119)
My gratitude and recognition to Peter Mena for this surprising and superbly written book! My hope is that he will keep developing the ideas and specifically the challenging analytical and hermeneutical perspectives that prevail in this, his first book. His hermeneutical perspective intersects, in a surprising and transgressive way, the borderlands, the fronteras, of the traditional history of early Christianity.