Tag Archives: Mystics

St John of the Cross, Homoerotic Mystic

John of the Cross is important for queer Catholics for two reasons.  First, because he is a great teacher of spirituality, and the cultivation of spiritual practice, by enabling a more direct experience of the divine, is an excellent way to immunise ourselves from toxic and misguided teaching on human sexuality.  Second, and more interestingly, because his language at times uses imagery which is plainly homoerotic, and so easily usable by gay men in their own prayer.

St John of the Cross

From the Calendar of LGBT Saints:

1542-1591

St. John of the Cross was one of the great Spanish mystics, whose outstanding Dark Night of the Soul is still read by all interested in Catholic mysticism. He also wrote a series of intense religious canticles. St. John, like other mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila, used the language of courtly love to describe his relationship with Christ. He also discussed, with rare candor, the sexual stimulation of prayer, the fact that mystics experience sexual arousal during prayer. With the male Christ of course, this amounts to a homoeroticism of prayer. It must be said that St. John was not entirely happy with this aspect of prayer. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675, canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and declared a Doctor of Church Universal by Pius XI in 1926

Quoted at The Wild Reed:

(from ) On a Dark Night

……..

……..
“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

UPDATE ( 15th Dec)

By way of a comment to my original post above, I have some wonderful additional  insights to St John that are worth sharing.  The theologian Bill Lindsy, who blogs are Bilgrimage, had this to add:

I’d like to recommend the work of an openly gay Catholic theologian who is an expert in the life and theology of John.

Richard Hardy, who taught theology for many years at St. Paul’s in Ottawa and now lives in San Francisco, did a biography of John now long out of print, which recovers some fascinating aspects of John’s life that have implications, I believe, for LGBT Christians.

Richard notes that one of John’s formative experiences before he was a religious was working as a nurse in hospitals in Spain that treated, for the most part, people suffering from venereal diseases. Here, he had to learn lovingly to acknowledge and cherish the wounded flesh of sinful human beings.

And he learned from these years as a nurse of the value of cauterizing some wounds–a metaphor that became powerful in his spiritual theology, where the divine fire of God’s love cauterizes our spiritual wounds.

Homoerotic Spirituality

Jesus Christ, in His recorded words, said nothing at all about sex.  Indeed, He spoke against adultery – which in Jewish eyes was a sin against a man’s ‘property’ (as women were viewed), not against sex.  He spoke against lust – at least, against lusting after another man’s wife; and He spoke against divorce.  But as far as we know, He never spoke a word against sex itself:  not inside marriage, not before marriage, not between unmarried partners, not between men, not between women. Nothing.  Zilch.
How is it then, that the Christian Church, and  Catholicism, in particular, have become so firmly linked in the public mind with the idea of sex as sin? For Catholics, all sex outside marriage is officially taboo.  Even inside marriage, sex is viewed with suspicion unless it is open to the possibility of procreation.  It is only recently that grudging recognition was given to the unitive value of sex – even inside marriage.  Yet it is clear to all that few Catholics pay any more than lip service to the official catechism on sin.  Whether as jerking – off schoolboys (or girls, or adults), as horny teenagers, engaged couples, cheating spouses, as faithful loving couples choosing to limit their families, as lonely divorcees, as gay men and lesbians, or as priests and other religious ignoring their vows of celibacy, the overwhelming majority of us are, in one form or another sexual transgressors in the eyes of the Church.
Is it any wonder that in the public mind, the equation “sex=sin” goes hand in hand with another:   “Catholicism = Guilt”?
The Confessional
But I do not want to dig deeper into the unpleasantness today.  (There is time for that later.  I will return to it soon, as part of my continuing series on clerical abuse.)




Other faiths do not make the same connection between sex and sin.  Judaism, for all that it has extensive purity laws and complex moral and legal codes, unequivocally supports and praises the unitive value of  sex, at least within marriage.  Part of the obligation of the spouses is said to include offering each other sexual satisfaction.   Muslims take a similar view:  part of the supposed motivation for suicide bombers in our day is the prospect of a martyr’s reward in heaven:  1000 virgins to satisfy their male needs.   Hindus celebrate sex as part of spiritual practice, with the promotion of tantric sex, the Kama Sutra, and famed erotic images on temple walls.  Many pagan religions employed temple prostitutes (of either gender) to heighten the spiritual experience of worshippers.Hindu Temple art
It is useful, then to recognise the increasing signs that more and more people are recognising that sexual expression is not only not necessarily sinful, but can be a positive expression of the sacred, and has a close association with spirituality. With great synchronicity, this message was brought home to me from four different sources over the past week.
At the Wild Reed, Michael Bayley has a great piece on this theme.

Shocked? Well, get over it.

Anyway, it’s really not such an outlandish idea – even for Catholics (actually, especially for Catholics!). I mean, if you’re going to dismiss what I’m suggesting, then you’d better be willing to also dismiss any number of saints and their highly erotic experiences of the sacred.

Erotic experiences of God?! (Okay, if you’re still shocked maybe this blog isn’t for you.) But seriously, I appreciate the perspective of Jean Houston, who points out that: “Eros has a mission with the soul. Without Eros, the soul cannot grow; the psyche remains infantile. Eros gives psyche its yearning, its impetus, its desire for the fullness of life.”

Much of the great tradition of mystical writing in the Catholic Church is expressed in clearly sensuous, even erotic language (see, for instance, St Theresa of Avila). Michael  quotes in particular St John of the Cross, whose wonderful mystical poetry is also frankly and explicitly homoerotic:
Nude couple profile

 

“Of course as a gay man, (Michael writes) the thing that appeals to me most about John’s poem is that it depicts his lover as another man:

(from ) On a Dark Night

……..

……..

“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

Go ahead, cross to The Wild Reed and read the full poem, with Michael’s commentary.

Related Posts

Recommended Books (Queer Spirituality):

“Not-a lesbian”, “Not a Saint”, Benedetta Carlini,Visionary Nun (1590 – 1661 )

 

Earlier this week, the Catholic Church marked the feast day of SS Martha and  Mary. In my post here, and in the comments thread for Kittredge Cherry’s corresponding post atJesus in Love Blog, there was some attention given to the nature of their relationship. Were they literally “just” sisters? Was the word a euphemism for a different kind of relationship? Is it fair to call them “lesbians”?  Does it matter?

I believe that the very attempt to force people into sexual categories is a trap. This is what has created the myth in the first place of a normative heterosexual identity within an opposite sex, monogamous marriage. The truth is that in nature and in human societies the world over and in all periods of history, relationships and forms of sexual expression are bewildering in their diversity. Trying to apply modern words to historic patters is particularly dangerous, as the attempt risks burying the past in the baggage carried by those words. This was clearly illustrated for me when I read this morning about Bernadetta Carlini, an Italian visionary whose description as a “lesbian nun” clouds more than it illustrates – even though the one thing that is not contested in her story is that it featured regular sex with a woman (sometimes described as the earliest recorded instance of lesbianism in modern history).

Much of Bernadetta’s story will be familiar to anyone who read volumes of hagiography during childhood in a Catholic school (as I did), or later. Near miraculous circumstances surrounding her birth, dedication by her mother to a life in the convent, a childhood of great “holiness”, eminence in the convent where she became  abbess, acknowledged for herintense spirituality (proven by the marks she bore of the stigmata )- that kind of thing.  It is the end of the story that is markedly different from the routine, and should cause us to sit up and ask some awkward questions: questions about the words we use, how do we define “lesbian” for earlier cultures, how do we recognize sanctity?

The thoughts I share with you here are prompted by a short essay by E. Ann Matter, “Discourses of Desire: Sexuality and Christian Women’s Visionary Narratives”, in “Que(e)rying Religion “(ed Gay Comstock), which in turn was prompted by recent studies by Judith Brown, who refers to Bernadetta as a lesbian nun in Renaissance Italy.”  Matter takes issue with the use of the word “lesbian” in this context, arguing that the undisputed sexual activity with a woman appears to be “lesbian” to modern eyes, but in the context of her life, had completely different connotations. To get directly to the  the crucial points, I shall say no more of her early life, until she started to win renown for her mystical visions and stigmata.

To a sceptical modern mind, such claims would be treated with great suspicion, but recall that in earlier times, they would have been taken entirely seriously. If not exactly commonplace, they were certainly not unheard of – they featured in the lives of many of the saints.

She became famed for her spiritual authority as a great visionary, claiming to be in regular communication with several angels (identified by name), and even with Jesus Christ himself. Within her community and the town of Pescia, her claims were not only taken seriously, they revered her for them. Paolo Ricordati,  her confessor, encouraged her in developing them.  It was that development that led to the dramatic climax, which we must interpret.

It is a standard metaphor of women’s dedication to the religious life that in their commitment to lifelong celibacy, they become “brides of Christ”. Benedetta interpreted this literally, and instructed her convent in 1619 to prepare a great wedding feast for her – which they did.   This wedding marked the highpoint of her spiritual fame. Inevitably, it attracted the attention of the church authorities, who conducted an extensive round of investigations, very largely depending on the witness of a young nun, Bartolomea Crivelli, who was an attendant on Benedetta. On the strength of this first round of investigations, including 14 different visits to the convent. the church declared Benedetta a true visionary.

Two years later, a second round of investigations which followed Benedetta’s “death and resurrection” in 1621, produced a dramatically different outcome. (Her resurrection had supposedly been prophesied by one of her angel visitors.) This time, Bartolomea gave more details on the precise nature of the mystical encounters with Christ – and the investigators didn’t like it.  The story was that when Benedetta was visited by her mystical “bridegroom”, Christ himself (or by Splenditello, one of his angels who regularly visited in her visions), she did what any good bride would do – she gave herself to him sexually. But to do this in embodied form, she needed a human stand -in. Bartolomea testified that she had been that stand-in.  She had regularly had sex with Benedetta, in the place of the mystical bridegroom.

From there, as you can imagine, it was downhill all the way. Had Bartolomea never spoken of the sexual encounters, we can easily imagine what might have been a clear path to recognized sainthood: visions, stigmata and spiritual leadership are strong claims, and (alleged) resurrection after death would surely have been the clincher – but there was this crucial problem of her “immodest acts”. This was a time, remember, when “sodomy” was still a capital offence, and frequently resulted in burning those found guilty of it. The conclusion was that Benedetta’s “visions” had been faked. Even so it took two years before the investigation could reach a final verdict, that she had been “misled” by the devil. She was sentenced to imprisonment in the convent until her ultimate death, many years later.

What are we to make of this? I do not have all the evidence, nor the tools for a proper evaluation, and shall not attempt to pass any verdict on the historical “truth”  behind the story. However, I do want to make some general observations, that I think are worth pondering.

First, although the story in its entirety is extraordinary to modern ears, to medieval or Renaissance Christians it would have been entirely credible, right up to the point of the actual bodily intercourse. Many of the great mystics described relationships with God in terms of deep, loving personal relationships with Jesus, and men and women alike routinely described the intensity of these in frankly erotic terms. In the church, we accept the real possibility of intensely mystical experiences, and do not dispute the testimony of other great mystics. Conversely, many queer Christians in the modern world know from their own experience that they too, have the possibility of intensely spiritual encounters with God in their own lovemaking.   If we are prepared to accept the possibility of intense mystical experiences as real encounters with God, why should we not take seriously the possibility of the story being literally true, exactly as first told?

On the other hand, we also know that many claims of “miraculous” events really have been fraudulent.  We also need to take seriously the possibility that the whole thing really was a giant fake.

Finally, we need to consider the role of the Church investigators. In two separate investigations, involving several visits and innumerable inerrogations of many witnesses, they were willing to accept any number of remarkable claims:  that she represented spiritual leadership, that she was a genuine visionary, that her wounds were authentically the stigmata of Christ, that she was visited regularly by a series of angels and by Christ himself, and (most remarkably) that she had experienced death and resurrection. All of that, the investigators were prepared to believe – up until the moment they learnt of the sexual relationship with Bartolomea.

Was Benedetta lesbian? To my mind, clearly not -at least, not in the modern sense, not on the basis of the “facts” as presented. The nature of the relationship was not based on loving partnership, but entirely on the one person acting as a stand-in for (male)  Christ.  Unless, that is, Barolomea was inventing the supernatural visits as a cover for a more conventional relationship. It was however, a “queer” relationship, as lying totally outside conventional expectations  for a woman, either as dutiful wife or as quiet sister in a convent cloister.

Was she a saint? Clearly not, in the official histories. Should we regard her as a popular saint for our community, suitable for canonization by queer popular acclamation? That depends on your view of the “Truth” – was it faked, or did she really experience mystical union with Christ?

We cannot know. But however we decide, I believe there is something important to take away and remember in this story:  that on the basis of the evidence from two extensive investigations, there is a strong possibility that she would have become a recognized saint – except for the simple fact that she had sex with a woman. That small detail was enough, in the eyes of the Church, to counteract all the evidence in support of her claim- even though that sexual expression was part of a mystical union. Sadly, this is typical of so much of how some in the Church today react to the “homosexuals” in its ranks:  no matter what the evidence of piety, devotion to God, or action for good in the world – as soon as they recognize the “homosexual”, all else is ignored. Only that one feature of our lives is recognized,  labelled (in the Catholic Church at least) as “gratuitous self-indulgence” – and condemned out of hand.

And so it is that I suggest we should reflect on the story, and remember the life,  of not-a-lesbian, not-a -saint, Benedetta Carlini.

See Also :

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking