An Act of Spiritual Malfeasance Against St. John of the Cross


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.

Cultural appropriation

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.

Bad translation

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)


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7 thoughts on “An Act of Spiritual Malfeasance Against St. John of the Cross”

  1. St John of the Cross wrote in Spanish. In Spanish “soul” is a feminine noun, independently of whose soul it is. Do not be confused by the masculine article “el”, it is only used for euphonic reasons (because the inital a carries the emphasis of the word, so we say el alma heridA as we say el águila heridA). St John himself writes “salí sin ser notada” (first person singular, adjective agreeing in the feminine.

    If somebody is doing an interpretation of the intention of a poem I would expect that somebody to be able to read in the original language, otherwise the interpretation can only refer to how the poem is perceived by a specific reader and certainly not original intent.

    Also can an author born in 1542 be considered medieval? Let´s hear from the author himself

  2. My translation of St. John’s poem has been used in a great many ways by a great many people on the internet. It would not surprise me to learn that Cherry used mine simply because it was the version she happened to read.

    I agree that calling him a “Gay Saint” is (to put it most charitably and politely) quite dubious and misconceived. It’s quite a leap to that kind of claim from the fact that he chose to speak for poetic purposes in the voice of the soul enacting the role of the female lover (or, if you prefer, “bride”) as dramatized in the Song of Songs filtered through Christian exegesis.

    While I will not be held answerable for what other people make of my work, I will say one or two things about St. John and about the Song of Songs. There may well be — and often is — a homoerotic quality to this kind of poetry when addressed by a man to the person of God the Son conceived of as male, depending on just how far one takes the erotic allegorization of spiritual yearning. Just how much of a homoerotic quality was genuinely felt by St. John in particular I have no idea, nor does anybody. Nor do I care to speculate. Nor do I even really care at all.

    I don’t really think that that matters too much. Or at least, it doesn’t matter too much to me. Medieval poems of this kind, in which the spiritual and erotic are expressed in terms of one another, are commonplace (and not only among Christians.) Whether any given poem is intended to invoke carnal or spiritual love (and in many cases — though hardly that of St. John — we have no good reason to assume it is necessarily one or the other), its ability to function either way at some level is part of its appeal and part of the poet’s achievement. I do think it’s important to recognize that. Or at least, it is important for me. My interest in St. John is as a poet, it would be injustice to him as an artist to flatten his artistry by freighting it with all the explicit metaphysics and exacting theology which he himself preferred to place not in his poems but in his prose commentaries to them. Readers of the poem today, like Ms. Cherry, may respond to it in certain ways precisely because its stylized allegorical eroticism is so effective. It would not be as great a poem were this not so.

    Having said all that, I really must this characterization of the Song of Songs:

    “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.”

    First, the “Bride” and “Bridegroom” (i.e. the Sponsus and Sponsa) are nowhere in the Hebrew text. That is a (largely Christian) sanitization. Moreover, the poem has quite simply not always been interpreted in this fashion. Jews as late as the Roman period were not yet in agreement as to whether it could be treated as secular love-song or not. We know this from scattered references, like Rabbi Aqiva’s blasts directed at impious souls sang it in wineshops and enjoyed its literal erotic meaning. In other words, a few generations after the death of Christ, the divine allegorical interpretation of the Song was not yet a unanimous done deal among Jews in Palestine.

    There is much that Biblical scholars do not agree on when it comes to the Song of Songs, but one thing there is virtually unanimous agreement on is that the poem, whenever it was composed (probably in Hellenistic times, judging by the
    Greek and Aramaic loanwords and syntactic calques from Aramaic), was probably not intended as an allegorical exploration of the relationship between God and human beings. That is a pious accretion in the tradition, one which was still being argued over by Rabbis in the early centuries AD. (The idea that King Solomon had anything to do with the text apart from getting named in it and having it later attributed to him, is no longer seriously entertained by modern Biblical scholars.)

    The insistence on treating the Song of Songs as a spiritual and divine allegory is an act of “appropriation” that has had enormous effects for the past two millennia. Not all of them good. (A great deal of time had to be wasted arguing against dogmatic claims for an allegorical reading, put forth largely by fundamentalists who were demanding of the Bible that it be something it simply was not and could never be.) That is an appropriation far more profound, and more consequential, any use Ms. Cherry as a lone individual could ever make of St. John’s poem or of my translation of it. One might be forgiven for thinking that blatant ideologically-motivated misreadings of poetry, when they are perpetrated piously, do not quite so exercise your spleen in the way that Ms. Cherry has.

  3. Pingback: John of the Cross: Dark night of a gay soul honored in art and poetry

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  6. Thank you Rev.Father .
    Considering our times , would it be better to see the relationship between the soul and God as that between a child and Parent ( Father and Mother ),
    that the spousal image which is also mentioned with regard to the ‘land’ ( Judah etc : ) too is about Bl.Mother and the Holy Spirit , we in the Incarnation being the children .
    Our Lord Himself too is seen as The Kingdom , in sayings such as how the ‘meek shall inherit the Kingdom’ of a good , holy relationship with The Lord .
    One such spirituality that honors the spiritual childhood is that of the Armata Bianca –
    One good antidote for the carnal misunderstanding could be , if the Song of Songs can also be taken as the prophetic utterance of Solomon , about the future courtship of the holy parents of Bl.Mother – Sts Ann and Joachim . As much as they were in love, they later did a life of prayer , fasting and abstinenec for 20 years , before Bl.Mother was conceived in the noncarnal immaculate manner , as Adam and Eve too would have, if not for the Fall .
    Graces of that holy event are given us in our baptisms .
    The Song of Songs having an earthy side and sanctifying ordinary courtship love could a help to counter the confusions and even hatred in this area as well .
    Our gratitude for our own holy origins in grace , thus honor and gratitude to God and parents could be a way too to counter the confusions , envies etc ; etc ; in our times , along with wearing of the Miraculous Medal that honors same .
    Blessings .

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-filled comment. I appreciate it. Your comment is loaded with quite a lot of things that i would need to research and pray about. Regarding your link and that person I have not heard of them so I can not comment about it. Now, in regards to my article. My article is a response about an abusive interpretation of St. John of the Cross, with that I mentioned his use of the song of Songs which was a one of several views on that book of the bible. I am not trying to set our a larger view on that book of the bible, but only safeguard the legacy and witness of my brother Carmelite St. John of the Cross.

      Thanks Again,

      Fr. Nicholas

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