As a Carmelite friar and priest in the Archdiocese of New York, I hear quite regularly the religious laments from the socially-liberated class that sees itself as progressive. Their cries saturate the local newspapers, radio, and television programs. Coupled with their cries is the constant bombardment from their street evangelizers peddling the newest socially-laced and justice-filled cause upon which, they argue, the future of this world rests. Normally, if you choose not to accept their cause expressed in their pamphlet-driven propaganda, you are greeted with a stare of contempt, but God have mercy on you if you decide to engage these self-proclaimed salvific prophets. Any engagement that is not simply one of acceptance will gain you a public shaming rooted in the claim that you are unclean. Your lack of a sentimentally-driven charitable embrace of their cause damages the existence of those who feel marginalized within the cause you have rejected.
You can imagine, then, how surprised I was when I read an article by one of these above-mentioned proprietors of progress, a manifesto that condemned one of the mortal sins of our progressive times: cultural appropriation. This person used the writings of St. John of the Cross, in particular, his most famous work, The Dark Night of the Soul, to convey a message of homosexual propaganda. The article was written by Ms. Kittredge Cherry and can be found here. Ms. Cherry is a trained art historian and journalist from the University of Iowa. She also holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. I bring up her academic pedigree because it will help to frame the scope of her sin of cultural appropriation.
She begins her article noting that the Dark Night of the Soul is a spiritual classic that contains homoerotic overtones. Her foundation for this claim? She states that “… John of the Cross used the metaphor of erotic love to describe his relationship with Christ.” Remember, Jesus was born a male and since John of the Cross was also a male, his language is – according to Cherry – homosexual in nature. To aid her reader, she quotes two verses from the above-mentioned poem. Unfortunately, she does not give us a reference for those two verses. Does she use a translation of the poem that is verified and approved by the Carmelite Order? No. She uses a translation by A.Z. Foreman who, according to his website, tells visitors that he is self-taught in many languages. He also holds a degree in linguistics from the University of Chicago and a Masters in Arabic from the University of Maryland. Why does she use his translation? The reader cannot know because she does not give a reason. Oddly enough, when she quotes Foreman, she leaves out parts of his work on the verses which she offers to her readers. Why does she do this? Again, the reader is not told.
Misappropriating St. John’s thought
As she continues her commentary on John of the Cross she makes no reference to the two commentaries he wrote about his own poem. In both The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night, John of the Cross tells his reader that his work is about his desire to help a person to understand the soul’s journey to and union with God in the spiritual life. Also, these texts show that he writes about the soul in the feminine. Why? Because John of the Cross, like many other spiritual writers and mystics in the Church, was heavily influenced and inspired by the biblical book, the Song of Songs. This book of the Bible has been attributed to King Solomon who allegedly wrote it as a love letter to one of his wives. Yet, throughout Jewish and later Christian history, this poem has always been interpreted as a portrayal of the relationship between God and His people. Within the poem, God assumes the role of the Bridegroom, and His people take on the role of the Bride. Therefore, John of the Cross wrote about the soul in the feminine, because the soul is on a journey to be with her Bridegroom. Later within her article, Ms. Cherry writes about this biblical text but makes no reference to John’s poem being influenced by it.
At this point you may ask whether Ms. Cherry wrote that homoerotic tones within John of Cross are present because he is male and Christ is male. In fact, she did, and in doing so, she appropriates the saint’s work into her own social world view. Within her article she does tell the reader that “The Dark Night of the Soul is open to various interpretations but is usually considered to be a metaphor of the soul’s journey to union to God.” Yet again, her ambiguity is a ruse for her propaganda, a socially unifying tool when dealing with the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural work of another.
The sinful dimension
How is all of this such an egregious sin? Ms. Cherry sought to appropriate the work of John of the Cross in an attempt to prove that queer spirituality (the focus of this article and the corpus of her work as evidenced by the materials on her website) was always present within the Christian tradition. Because of her article, academic pedigree, and association with the above-mentioned progressive warriors, it appears that she has fallen into mortal sin by her article. And yet, the ideological perspective she writes out of decries all forms of cultural appropriation, so it is hard to understand how she could be so blind to her own article as a grave matter due to the act of appropriation that she herself commits within her text. Furthermore, her academic background and work in a multitude of socially progressive causes shows that her level of knowledge is well above the threshold of awareness to show that she knowns the full gravity of her actions as shown in her article.
Additionally, in her article she mentions the Arabic heritage of John, making him a minority even during his own times. Yet, she still adopts elements of his work to express the spirituality of the LGBT identity in which she has placed herself. That adoption is seen through her title “John of the Cross: night of a gay soul honored in art and poetry.” She published this article through a site connected with her, manifesting a deliberate consent and action of her intentions.
Excommunication from progressives?
One can see her action of releasing this article, in which she willing takes and violates the intellectual integrity of John of the Cross, as a sin of cultural appropriation. I use the term “mortal” because of the gravity of this sin in the progressive milieu. Having committed it she could easily find herself cut off – excommunicated if you will – from the very progressive atmosphere from which she appears to derive the fullness of her life as seen from the work on her website.
The reality, ability, and act of forgiveness and reconciliation has not yet become known within the progressive environs in which she resides. As a Carmelite brother of John of the Cross, I wish to make known through his work the mercy that is known and freely offered to her through union with the true Jesus Christ.
Oh, how happy a chance is this for the soul which can free itself from the house of its sensuality! None can understand it, unless, as it seems to me, it be the soul that has experienced. For such a soul will see clearly how wretched was the servitude in which it lay and to how many miseries it was subject when it was at the mercy of its faculties and desires and will know how the life of the spirit is true liberty and wealth, bringing with it inestimable blessings. (The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. II Ch. XIV, par. 3)