Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Black Madonna becomes lesbian defender: Erzuli Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, one of the most famous Catholic icons, is the model for a Haitian Vodou goddess who protects lesbians.

Traditional images of Erzulie Dantor, the Vodou defender of lesbians, are based on the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, whose feast day is today (Aug. 26). They even share the same two scars on the dark skin of the right cheek.

For a new version of this article, click this link to Qspirit.net:
Black Madonna of Czestochowa becomes lesbian defender Erzuli Dantor

Aug. 26 also happens to be Women’s Equality Day -- the date when women got the right to vote in the United States back in 1920.

Every year more than 100,000 people view the original Black Madonna of Czestochowa icon in Poland at one of the most popular Catholic shrines on the planet. John Paul II, the Polish pope, was devoted to her. Few suspect that the revered icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary has a lesbian connection.

Our Lady of Czestochowa is among dozens of Black Madonna icons remaining from medieval Europe. The reason for their dark skin is unknown, but people speculate that the images may have been created black to match the color of indigenous people or they turned black due to smoke and aging. Some see her dark skin as a metaphor for the earth or a reference to the lover in Song of Songs who declared, “I am black but beautiful.”

Black Madonnas are said to embody the shadow side of the Divine Feminine, the unconscious and unpredictable aspects that are usually buried or kept in darkness. Erzulie Dantor reveals Mary’s hidden bonds with lesbians.

Legend says that the Czestochowa portrait of Mary was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist while she told him the stories about Jesus that he later wrote in his gospel. The icon traveled from Jerusalem through Turkey and Ukraine, ending up in Poland in 1382. The painting is considered so important that it even has its own feast day: Aug. 26, the date that it was installed at its current home. In the 15th century looters pried two jewels off her cheek, leaving a characteristic pair of marks.

Events in Haiti soon took Our Lady of Czestochowa in a new direction. In the 18th century hundreds of thousands of slaves were brought from Africa to Haiti, where they were forced to do heavy labor and convert to Christianity. Through the process of syncretism, they developed a hybrid form of Christianity mixed with Vodou, an ancestral folk religion from West Africa.

Copies of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa were brought to Haiti by about 5,000 Polish soldiers who fought on both sides of the Haitian Revolution starting in 1802. She was transformed into Erzulie Dantor when Haitians merged her with Vodou.

Erzulie Dantor is a loa or lwa (Vodou spirit) who is recognized as a patron of lesbians. Her name has many alternate spellings such as Ezili Danto. She fiercely loves and defends women and children, especially lesbians, independent businesswomen, unwed mothers, and those who experience domestic violence. She has a reputation for taking revenge on abusive husbands and unfaithful lovers. Scar-faced warrior Erzulie Dantor liberated slaves by helping to start and win the Haitian Revolution. She is fond of knives, rum and unfiltered cigarettes.

“Erzulie Dantor” by Christie Freeman (christystudios.com)

Like Our Lady of Czestochowa, she holds a child with a book. But instead of the infant Jesus with the gospels, the baby on her lap is her daughter Anais. The Catholic Church in Haiti identifies these images as neither Erzulie Dantor nor Mary, but “Saint Barbara Africana.” Erzulie Dantor is a single mother who has given birth, but some believe she is bisexual or lesbian herself.

The two scars on her cheek are explained either as tribal scarification or wounds from a fight with Erzulie Freda, her light-skinned and coquettishly feminine sister. Erzulie Freda, the goddess of love and sexuality, is the patron of gay men, especially drag queens and those who are effeminate. She is associated with images of the grieving Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows.

Erzulie Dantor and Erzulie Freda are among many Vodou spirits who appear to be LGBT, androgynous or queer. Many others are described in detail in “Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas” by Randy P. Conner and David Hatfield Sparks.

These queer Vodou deities include La Sirene, a pansexual mermaid who rules the seas; La Balen, her mysterious butch lesbian intimate companion who is often depicted as a whale; transgender divinity Mawu-Lisa, patron of artists and craftspeople; androgynous Legba, a Christ figure who mediates between the living and the dead; Ayido Wedo and Danbala, a married pair of queer rainbow serpents who bring prosperity, joy and peace; the sexually complex Gede family that oversees the transition to the afterlife; and many more. Each loa or spirit can possess or engage in spiritual marriage with Vodou practitioners of either gender, leading to many queer possibilities.

Black Madonna figures continue to inspire folk artists and fine artists such as Christie Freeman of Springfield, Illinois, who shares her painting here at the Jesus in Love Blog. One of the best known and most controversial contemporary versions is the 1996 painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” by British artist Chris Ofili. He surrounded a stylized black Madonna with mixed media including elephant dung and images from pornography and blaxploitation movies. While using shock value to critique definitions of sacred and profane, he enraged the religious right.

“Erzulie and Devotee” by Brandon Buehring

Artist Brandon Buehring sketched a contemporary “Erzulie and Devotee” in his “Legendary Love: A Queer History Project.” He uses pencil sketches and essays “to remind queer people and our allies of our sacred birthright as healers, educators, truth-tellers, spiritual leaders, warriors and artists.” The project features 20 sketches of queer historical and mythological figures from many cultures around the world. He has a M.Ed. degree in counseling with an LGBT emphasis from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He works in higher education administration as well as being a freelance illustrator based in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Throughout history some church officials have attacked images such as Erzulie Dantor as illegitimate and incompatible with Christianity. But many Haitian Christians today see Vodou as a way to enhance their faith. Meanwhile Our Lady of Czestochowa is celebrated for revealing the dark face of God’s own mother.
Related links:

Black Madonnas and other Mysteries of Mary” by Ella Rozett (interfaithmary.net)

Queer Lady of Guadalupe: Artists re-imagine an icon (Jesus in Love)

Mary, Diana and Artemis: Feast of Assumption has lesbian goddess roots (Jesus in Love)

Christianity and Vodou (Wikipedia)

Read online: “Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas” by Randy P. Conner and David Hatfield Sparks

To read this article in Polish translation, visit the Don’t Shoot the Prophet website:
Czarna Madonna zostaje obrończynią lesbijek: Erzuli Dantor i Matka Boża Częstochowska

Related books:
The Moonlit Path: Reflections on the Dark Feminine” edited by Fred Gustafson (9 of 16 essays are on the Black Madonna with authors such as theologian Matthew Fox)

Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie,” edited by Susan Perry, includes many black Madonnas in an art book to nourish devotion to Mary with reflections by diverse women.

Mother of God Similar to Fire” with icons by William Hart McNichols and reflections by Mirabai Starr presents a wide of variety of liberating icons of Mary, including a black Madonna. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Catholic priest who has been rebuked by church leaders for making icons of LGBT-affirming martyrs and saints not approved by the church.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology” by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. Two pioneering leaders in the study of women and religion discuss the nature of God / Goddess.

Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary” by cultural historian Marina Warner shows how the figure of Mary was shaped by goddess legends and other historical circumstances, resulting in an inferior status for women.

Top images, left: Ezili Danto Prayer Card from the Vodou Store. Right: The original Black Madonna of Czestochowa

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Qspirit.net presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bayard Rustin: Gay saint of civil rights and non-violence

“Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle” by Ryan Grant Long

“Bayard Rustin - Pride” by Sean J. Randall

Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin was a black gay man and chief organizer of the influential 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington -- which marks its anniversary next week on Aug. 28. A follower of the Quaker faith with its pacifist tradition, he brought Gandhi-style non-violent protest techniques to the movement for racial equality and become a close advisor to Martin Luther King. He died 27 years ago today (Aug. 24, 1987) at age 75.

For a new version of this article, click this link to Qspirit.net:
Bayard Rustin: Gay saint of racial justice and non-violence

Rustin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in a White House ceremony in 2013. “For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King's side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay. No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin's memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love,” President Obama said when he presented the medal for Rustin.

Pushed into the background because he was openly gay in a more homophobic era, Rustin has been called “an invisible hero,” “a lost prophet” and “Brother Outsider.”  He summed up his philosophy when he said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”  He is honored here as a gay saint.

Rustin (Mar.17, 1912 - Aug. 24, 1987) rarely served as a public spokesperson for civil rights because he was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was criminalized and stigmatized. His sexuality was criticized by both segregationists and some fellow workers in the peace and civil-rights movements. In the 1970s he began to advocate publicly for lesbian and gay causes.

From 1955-68 Rustin was a leading strategist for the African American civil rights movement. His decades of achievements include helping launch the first Freedom Rides in 1947, when civil disobedience was used to fight racial segregation on buses. He helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and much more.

Rustin’s sexual orientation became publicly known in 1953, when he was arrested for homosexual activity in Pasadena, California. He pleaded guilty to a charge of consensual “sex perversion” (sodomy) and served 60 days in jail. It was not his first stint in jail. He had been arrested before for his pacifist refusal to participate in World War II and he served on a chain gang for breaking Jim Crow laws requiring racial segregation on public transportation.

Mug shot of Bayard Rustin (Wikimedia Commons) taken for failure to report for his Selective Service physical exam

Rustin saw the connections between racial justice, women’s equality and LGBT rights. He made it vividly clear in a controversial speech to the Philadelphia chapter of Black and White Men Together on March 1, 1986. The speech, titled “The New ‘N*s’ are Gays,” is one of several pieces about LGBT rights in his book Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. Rustin states:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “n*s” are gays. … It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. … The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”

The following year Rustin died of a ruptured pancreas on Aug. 24, 1987. Late August is also significant for him because the March on Washington held on Aug. 28, 1963. Organized by Rustin, the March was where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. An estimated 250,000 people attended, making it the largest demonstration held in the U.S. capital until that time. The full synthesis of Rustin’s black and gay identities -- the “two crosses” of his book title -- came as the culmination of a life well lived.

Walter Naegle was Rustin’s life partner from 1977 until his death a decade later. As executor and archivist for the Bayard Rustin estate, Naegle continues to promote Rustin’s legacy by organizing programs and providing materials for books and exhibits on Rustin’s amazing life. Rustin’s biography is told in the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin and books such as Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by historian John D’Emilio. The book "I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters", edited by Michael Long was a 2013 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.  A chapter on Bayard Rustin by Patricia Nell Warren is included in the 2015 book “The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism.”

In the image at the top of this post, Rustin and Naegle hold hands as an interracial gay couple on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was created by artist Ryan Grant Long for his “Fairy Tales” series of gay historical figures. For more on Long, see my previous post Artist paints history’s gay couples: Interview with Ryan Grant Long. The second image was created by Portland artist Sean J. Randall. He adds rainbow colors to Rustin’s mug shot to emphasize his gay pride. Thanks to both artists for permission to share their work at the Jesus in Love Blog.
Related links:
Bayard Rustin at Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife


Walter Naegle, Activist Bayard Rustin’s Partner, On Rustin’s Enduring Legacy (Lambda Literary)

For Bayard Rustin’s partner, an effort to preserve legacy (Washington Post)

Bayard Rustin: One of the Tallest Trees in Our Forest by Irene Monroe (Huffington Post)
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Saints Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachy: Honey-tongued abbot and the archbishop he loved

“Christ Embracing St. Bernard of Clairvaux” by Francisco Ribalta

See how I yearn, and longing turn to Thee!
Yield to my love, and draw me unto Thee!
--Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux was a medieval French abbot who wrote homoerotic poetry about Jesus had a passionate same-sex friendship with the Irish archbishop Malachy of Armagh. Bernard is best known for founding 70 monasteries around Europe and for his mystical writings. His feast day is Aug. 20 (today).

For a new version of this article, click this link to Qspirit.net
Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachy: Abbot and the archbishop he loved

His first love was Jesus, but he showered Malachy with kisses during his lifetime. After Malachy died in his arms, they exchanged clothes. Malachy was buried in Bernard’s habit. Bernard put on Malachy’s habit to lead the funeral and wore it until his own death five years later. Bernard was buried beside Malachy, again in Malachy’s habit. Malachy (1094-1148) became the first native born Irish saint to be canonized.

Bernard (1090-1153) was advisor to five Popes and a monastic reformer who built the Cistercian order of monks and nuns. He is known as the last of the Church Fathers. The most famous saying attributed to him is: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

He was a man of his time who engaged in rigorous ascetic practices and supported church teachings on celibacy. People today might say that he had a homosexual orientation while abstaining from sexual contact. Medieval mystics created alternative forms of sexuality that defy contemporary categories, but might be encompassed by the term “queer.” They directed their sexuality toward God and experienced God’s love through passionate friendship with another human being.

Monasteries and convents provided a social structure outside marriage, attracting many people that today would be defined as LGBT. Medieval monks and nuns who lived in same-sex communities under a vow of celibacy developed alternative ways of same-sex living and loving.

Bernard’s strict asceticism was balanced by sweetly erotic visions that earned him the title Doctor Mellifluus (“honey-tongued doctor.”) He chose to use the Song of Songs, the most erotic book in the Bible, as a major vehicle for his teaching. He began his “Sermons on the Song of Songs” in 1135 and had completed 86 sermons when he died nearly 20 years later with the series still unfinished.

“Jesus to me is honey in the mouth, music in the ear, a song in the heart,” he wrote in his 15th sermon on the Song of Songs.

His lesser known works include “Life of Saint Malachy of Armagh,” which is his idealized tribute to the man he loved, and “Salve Mundi Salutare” (quoted below), a love poem to Jesus whose original homoeroticism has been suppressed. It became the basis for the popular English hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

He was unfortunately associated with the Second Crusade, but he spoke out against Christian mistreatment of Jews and supported another queer mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, in her efforts to get her visions published.

Bernard was born to a noble family in 1090 on the outskirts of Dijon in Burgundy. According to legend, his mother had a dream during her pregnancy that a white puppy was barking in her womb. This was interpreted to mean that she would give birth to God’s watchdog. The white dog became one of Bernard’s attributes, a symbol used in images of the saint.

“Bernard of Clairvaux” by Rowan Lewgalon

Bernard and a white dog, both with icy blue eyes, appear together in a striking contemporary portrait by Rowan Lewgalon. She is a spiritual artist based in Germany and a cleric in the Old Catholic Apostolic Church.

When Bernard was 19, his mother died and he decided to join a small new community that had just started in the area. They were called the Cistercians, and their aim was to reform monasticism with a return to the more austere rules of St. Benedict. Within three years Bernard was sent to found a monastery nearby in a place whose name has become part of his own: Clairvaux.

About 25 years later Bernard met Malachy (whose Irish name is Maelmhaedhoc O’Morgair). He was primate of all Ireland when he first visited Clairvaux around 1139. Bernard was nearly 50 years old and Malachy was four years younger. They soon became devoted, passionate friends. Malachy even asked the Pope for permission to become a Cistercian, but the Pope refused.

Malachy traveled to see Bernard again in 1142. They were so close that Bernard covered him with kisses in a scene that is described well by Orthodox priest Richard Cleaver in “Know My Name: A Gay Liberation Theology”: “Bernard's account makes deeply romantic reading for a modern gay man. “Oscula rui,” Bernard says of their reunion: “I showered him with kisses.”

Their relationship had lasted almost a decade when Malachy reunited with Bernard for the third and final time. Malachy fell sick when he arrived in Clairvaux in 1148. He died in Bernard’s arms on All Soul’s Day, Nov. 2. Again Cleaver tells the details based on accounts by Geoffrey, Bernard’s secretary and traveling companion:

“Geoffrey of Auxerre tells us what happened later. Bernard put on the habit taken from Malachy's body as it was being prepared for burial at Clairvaux, and we wore it to celebrate the funeral mass. He chose to sing not a requiem mass but the mass of a confessor bishop: a personal canonization and, incidentally, an example of using liturgy to do theology. Bernard himself was later buried next to Malachy, in Malachy’s habit. For Bernard, as for us today, this kind of passionate love for another human being was an indispensable channel for experiencing the God of love.”

After Malachy’s death Bernard lived on for another five years. He forbid sculptures and paintings at the monastery during his lifetime, but by the late 15th century the altarpiece at the Clairvaux Abbey had a painting of Christ’s baptism jointly witnessed by Bernard and Malachy.

Bernard died on Aug. 20, 1153 at age 63. He was buried at the Clairvaux Abbey next to Malachy, wearing Malachy’s habit. He had lived for 40 years in community with other men whose loving relations with each other brought them closer to God.

“Bernard of Clairvaux” by Tobias Haller

“Bernard of Clairvaux” was sketched as an intense man with a rusty beard by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx. He is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.

A prayer written by Bernard’s secretary Geoffrey shows how the community at Clairvaux understood and celebrated the man-to-man love between Bernard and Malachy. He thanks God for these “two stars of such surpassing brightness” and “twofold treasure.”

As a monk, Bernard naturally directed much of his erotic energy toward Jesus Christ. This attitude is beautifully expressed in his poem “Salve Mundi Salutare” (Savior of the World, I Greet You). He wrote seven sections, each addressed to a different parts of Jesus’ crucified body: his feet, knees, hands, side, chest, face, and finally his heart.

The poem is traditionally attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, although some modern scholars believe it may have been written by another Cistercian abbot, Arnulf of Leuven. It is also known as the “Oratio rhythmica ad singula membra Christi a cruce pendentis” (Rhythmical Prayer to the Sacred Members of Jesus Hanging on the Cross), or more simply as the Rhythmica oratio.

The original poem, in all its erotic glory, is generally not included in books that collect Bernard’s “essential writings.” It lives on in ancient, hard-to-find editions and heavily edited versions and translations that remove much of the homoeroticism and sometimes even add heterosexual references that are absent from Bernard’s original Latin. The original is also blessedly free from churchy terms like “Lord,” speaking only of the love between “I” and “thou.”

The poem is the basis for important musical works such as the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” and the Baroque oratorio “Membra Jesu Nostri” (usually translated as “The Limbs of Our Jesus”) written by Baroque Danish composer Dieterich Buxtehude in 1680, more than 500 years after Bernard died. The cycle of seven cantatas is considered to be the first Lutheran oratorio. The entire oratorio can be heard on video at this link.

The rapture of this poem is expressed in the painting at the top of this post: “Christ Embracing St. Bernard” by Francisco Ribalta. The Spanish Baroque artist apparently painted this masterpiece for the Carthusian monastery of Porta Coeli in Valencia, Spain around 1625.

The website for Spain’s Prado Museum in Madrid, where it is now housed, states: “The scene is based on one of the saint’s mystical visions, drawn from one of the most popular religious books of the Baroque era: Pedro de Ribadeneyra’s ‘Flos Sanctorum’ or ‘Book of the Lives of the Saints,’ published in 1599.”

The whole poem contains 74 verses of five lines each -- way too many to reproduce here. But it is extremely hard to find, so a selection of the more erotic, lesser known verses are reproduced here in the original Latin with an English translation from by Emily Mary Shapcote. Her translation was published in the 1881 book “St. Bonaventure’s Life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” The online version of that book contains the entire poem in its appendix.

In a few cases a computer-generated English translation is also included here because it captures the directness and immediacy of the original. Much of the homoeroticism is implicit in the fact that this love poem was written by one man to another -- from Bernard to Jesus with love.

References to this poem and numerous paintings of Bernard with Christ are included in a whole chapter devoted to Bernard in the 2013 book “Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Renaissance Art” by Carolyn D. Muir, art professor at the University of Hong Kong.


To the Hands
Ad Manus

O Jesus, place Thy sacred Hands on me,
With transport let me kiss them tenderly,
With groans and tears embrace them fervently;
And, O for these deep wounds I worship Thee;
And for the blessed drops that fall on me.

Manus sanctse vos amplector,
Et gemendo condelector,
Grates ago plangis tantis
Clavis duris, guttis sanctis,
Dans lacrymas cum osoulis

To the Side
Ad Latus

Lord, with my mouth I touch and worship Thee,
With all the strength I have I cling to Thee,
With all my love I plunge my heart in Thee,
My very life-blood would I draw from Thee,
Jesus, Jesus I draw me into Thee.

Google translate version:
You happen to my mouth,
And I ardently embrace
SOAK you in my heart,
And a warm heart, tongue,
Me all over you.

Ore meo te contingo,
Et ardenter ad me stringo
In te meum cor intingo,
Et ferventi corde lingo,
Me totum in te traiice.

To the Breast
Ad Pectus

Abyss of wisdom from eternity,
The harmonies of angels worship Thee;
Entrancing sweetness flows, Breast, from Thee
John tasted it as he lay rapt on Thee;
Grant me thus that I may dwell in Thee.

Tu abyssus es sophise,
Angelorum harmonise
Te collaudant, ex te fluxit
Quod Joannes Cubans suxit,
In te fac ut iuliabitem.

To the Heart
Ad Cor

O sinner as I am, I come to Thee;
My very vitals throb and call for Thee;
O Love, sweet love, draw hither unto me!
O Heart of Love, my heart would ravished be,
And sicken with the wound of love for Thee!

Per medullam cordis mei,
Peccatoris atque rei,
Tuus amor transferatur,
Quo cor totum rapiatur,
Languens amoris vuluere.

Dilate and open, Heart of love, for me,
And like a rose of wond'rous fragrance be,
Sweet Heart of love, united unto me;
Anoint and pierce my heart, O Love, with Thee,
How can he suffer, Lord, who loveth Thee?

Google Translate version:
Spread, open,
Wonderfully smelling like a rose,
Join you in my heart,
MARK and anoint it,
Who does what he loves you!

Dilatare, aperire,
Tanquam rosa fragrans mire,
Cordi meo te conjunge,
Unge illud et compunge,
Qui amat te quid patitur!

Mv living heart, O Love, cries out for Thee;
With all its strength, O Love, my soul loves Thee;
O Heart of Love, incline Thou unto me,
That I with burning love may turn to Thee,
And with devoted breast recline on Thee.

Viva cordis voce clamo,
Dulce cor, te namque amo;
Ad cor meum inclinare,
Ut se possit applicare,
Devoto tibi pectore.

Thou Rose of wondrous fragrance, open wide,
And bring my heart into Thy wounded Side,
O sweet Heart, open! Draw Thy loving bride,
All panting with desires intensified,
And satisfy her love unsatisfied.

Rosa cordis aperire,
Cujus odor fragrat mire,
Te dignare dilitare,
Fac cor meum anhelare,
Flam ma desiderii.

[Note that the original Latin has absolutely no references to brides or any gender at all. This is the only verse quoted here that is also included in Buxtehude’s oratorio “Membra Jesu Nostri”.]

O Jesus, draw my heart within Thy Breast,
That it may be by Thee alone possessed.
O Love, in that sweet pain it would find rest,
In that entrancing sorrow would be blest,
And lose itself in joy upon Thy Breast.

Google Translate version:
Put in your pocket
Heart, that you should take a neighbor,
Joyful in pain,
With ugly and beautiful
That hardly contain himself.

Infer tuum intra sinum
Cor, ut tibi sit vicinum,
In dolore gaudioso,
Cum deformi specioso,
Quod vix seipsum capiat.
*Quotation at the top is Shapekote's translation of:
Cordis mei Cor dilectum,
In te meum fer aflectum,
Hoc est quod opto plurimum.

Direct translation:
Heart of my heart, beloved,
You bring in my feelings,
This is what I love most.

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
San Bernardo de Claraval y San Malaquías: "el doctor meloso" y el arzobispo a quien amaba
It includes an original Latin-to-Spanish translation of the poem exclusively for Santos Queer by an important professor in Argentina: Dr. Luis Angel Sanchez, Professor of Latin Language and Culture at the University of Cordoba.
Related links:
Catholic Queer Families: SS Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachy (Queering the Church)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s Life of Saint Malachy of Armagh (full text)

Rhythmical Prayer to the Sacred Members of Jesus Hanging Upon the Cross” by Bernard of Clairvaux. Full text in Latin and English. (scroll down to find is as an appendix of “St. Bonaventure's Life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”)

Life of St. Malachy by Bernard of Clairvaux

Malachy of Armagh: Same-sex soulmate to Bernard of Clairvaux (Jesus in Love)
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mary, Diana and Artemis: Feast of Assumption has lesbian goddess roots

Mary, left, took over the Aug. 15 holiday from the goddess Diana, right

A mid-August holiday was once the festival of the lesbian goddess Diana (Artemis), but it has been adapted into a feast day for the Virgin Mary.

For a new version of this article, click this link to Qspirit.net:
Mary, Diana and Artemis: Feast of Assumption has lesbian goddess roots

Midsummer feasts have celebrated the divine feminine on Aug. 15 since before the time of Christ. Now devoted to Mary, the holiday known as the Feast of the Assumption (or Dormition) carries the torch of lesbian spiritual power to a new generation on the same date.

Saint Mary, mother of Jesus, is honored by churches on Aug. 15 in a major feast day marking her death and entrance into heaven. Catholic and Orthodox churches call it the Feast of the Assumption or Dormition because they believe that Mary was “assumed” into heaven, body and soul.

The connections between Diana and Mary raise many questions. The concept of virginity has been used to control women, but sometimes it is a code word for lesbian. What shade of meaning is implied by the “virginity” of these two heavenly queens? Did the church patriarchs substitute wild lesbian Artemis with mild straight Mary -- or is Mary more versatile and dynamic than many thought?

The Virgin Mary’s holiday was adapted -- some would say appropriated -- from an ancient Roman festival for Diana, the virgin goddess of the moon and the hunt. Diana, or Artemis in Greek, is sometimes called a lesbian goddess because of her love for woman and her vow never to marry a man. The ancient Roman Festival of Torches (Nemoralia) was held from Aug. 13-15 as Diana’s chief festival.

According to mythology, Diana preferred the company of women and surrounded herself with female companions. They took an oath of virginity and lived as a group in the woods, where they hunted and danced together. Homoerotic art and speculations often focus on Diana’s relationship with the princess Callisto. The god Jupiter (Zeus) lusted after Callisto, so he disguised himself as Diana and seduced Callisto in a woman-to-woman embrace. The lesbian love scene is painted by artists such as Francois Boucher in “Jupiter and Callisto” (below).

“Jupiter (disguised as Diana) and Callisto” by Francois Boucher (Wikimedia Commons)
There are many more stories about Diana and the women, nymphs and goddesses whom she loved. The goddess Britomaris was another favorite of Diana. When the lustful king Minos pursued Britomaris, she escaped by leaping into the sea. Diana rescued her and, some say, fell in love with her. Diana also showed love for various princesses.  She gave the princess Cyrene a pair of magical dogs and granted the princess Daphne the gift of shooting straight. The princess Atalanta almost died of exposure as a baby girl after her father abandoned her because he wanted a son. Diana saved her and, with the help of a she-bear, Atalanta grew up to become one of Diana’s beloved companions. And this is just the beginning.

Diana’s main holiday was the Festival of Torches or Nemoralia. Hundreds of women and girls carried torches and candles in a night-time procession through the woods. They wore wreaths of flowers -- and even put flowers on the hunting dogs who walked with them. The group hiked a few miles from Rome to a sacred site, the circle-shaped Lake Nemi. The dark waters reflected the moon and the torchlight of the pilgrims. There they left offerings of apples, garlic, statues and prayers handwritten on ribbons. Click here for a vivid description of the festival. Ovid, a Roman poet who lived before Christ, described the magic of the festival:

Often does a woman whose prayers Diana answered,
With a wreath of flowers crowning her head,
Walk from Rome carrying a burning torch...

Click here for a beautiful painting of “Diana Asleep in the Woods” by surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. Diana sleeps beside an offering of fruit, her bow and arrow, and her large black-and-white spotted dog.

Artemis of Ephesus
Aspects of Diana and Artemis were taken over by the church more than 1,300 years ago. The Festival of Torches became the Feast of the Assumption. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, with an awe-inspiring statue of the “many-breasted” Artemis. The temple was destroyed and replaced by the Church of Mary. The Virgin Mary even assumed some titles once given to Artemis, including Queen of Heaven.

Books such as Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary by cultural historian Marina Warner show how the figure of Mary was shaped by goddess legends and other historical circumstances, resulting in an inferior status for women. In the novel “Mary and the Goddess of Ephesus: The Continued Life of the Mother of Jesus,” former seminarian Melanie Bacon explores the little-known tradition that after Jesus died, his mother spent most of her adult life in a community dedicated to worshiping Artemis.

Feminists praise Diana/Artemis as an archetype of female power, a triple goddess who represents all phases of womanhood. She is the maiden, wild and free, with no need for a man. She is the “many-breasted” mother who nurtures all life. She is the crone, the mature hunter who provides swift death with her arrows in harmony with the cycles of nature.

LGBTQ people and allies may be inspired by the queer origins of this midsummer holiday. May the Queen of Heaven, by whatever name, continue to bless those who remember her.
Related links:
Are there any lesbian goddesseses?

Black Madonna becomes lesbian defender: Erzuli Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa (Jesus in Love)

Queer Lady of Guadalupe: Artists re-imagine an icon (Jesus in Love)

Related books:
Mother of God Similar to Fire” with icons by William Hart McNichols and reflections by Mirabai Starr presents a wide of variety of liberating icons of Mary, including a black Madonna. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Catholic priest who has been rebuked by church leaders for making icons of LGBTQ-affirming martyrs and saints not approved by the church.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology” by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. Two pioneering leaders in the study of women and religion discuss the nature of God / Goddess.

Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary” by cultural historian Marina Warner shows how the figure of Mary was shaped by goddess legends and other historical circumstances, resulting in an inferior status for women.

Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie,” edited by Susan Perry, includes many black Madonnas in an art book to nourish devotion to Mary with reflections by diverse women.

Image credits:

“Diana of Versailles,” Roman artwork, Imperial Era (1st-2nd centuries CE). Found in Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Assumption of Mary” by Guido Remi, 1642 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Artemis of Ephesus,” 1st century CE Roman copy of the “many breasted” Artemis stattue of the Temple of Ephesus (Wikimedia Commons)
Icons of the Assumption of Mary and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Qspirit.net presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Blessed John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John: Gay saint and his "earthly light" share romantic friendship

John Henry Newman, a renowned scholar-priest and Britain’s most famous 19th-century convert to Catholicism, was beatified in 2010 amid rampant speculation that he was gay. Newman’s feast day is today (Aug. 11) in the Anglican church and Oct. 9 in the Catholic church.

Newman and another priest, Ambrose St. John, lived together for 32 years and share the same grave. Some say they shared a “romantic friendship” or “communitarian life.” It seems likely that both men had a homosexual orientation while abstaining from sex. Newman described St. John as “my earthly light.” The men were inseparable.

For a new version of this article, click this link to Qspirit.net:
Blessed John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John: Gay saint and his "earthly light" share romantic friendship

“Blessed Cardinal
John Henry Newman:
Lead Kindly Light”
by William Hart McNichols ©
Newman (Feb. 21, 1801 - Aug. 11, 1890) is considered by many to be the greatest Catholic thinker from the English-speaking world. He was born in London and ordained as an Anglican priest. He became a leader in the Oxford Movement, which aimed to return the Church of England to many Catholic traditions. On Oct. 9, 1845 he converted to Catholicism. He had to give up his post as an Oxford professor due to his conversion, but eventually he rose to the rank of cardinal.

Ambrose Saint John (1815 -1875) apparently met Newman in 1841. They lived together for 32 years, starting in 1843. St. John was about 14 years younger than Newman. He compared their meeting to a Biblical same-sex couple, Ruth and Naomi.  In Newman’s own words, St. John “came to me as Ruth came to Naomi” during the difficult years right before he left the Anglican church.

After converting together to Catholicism, they studied together in Rome, where they were ordained priests at the same time. When St. John was confirmed in the Catholic faith, he asked if he could take a vow of obedience to Newman, but the request was refused. Newman recalled their early years in this way:

“From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable. At Rome 28 years ago he was always so working for and relieving me of all trouble, that being young and Saxon-looking, the Romans called him my Angel Guardian.”

Portrait of John Henry Newman, right, and Ambrose Saint John by Maria Giberne, 1847

A portrait of Newman and St. John together in Rome was painted by Maria Giberne, an amateur artist and a lifelong friend of the Newman family who followed him into the Catholic church. She painted the couple sitting together with their books in one of their rooms at the Propaganda College in Rome on June 9, 1847. Standing between them is Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, who appears to be blessing and watching over the priests who loved each other.

St. John, a scholar and linguist in his own right, helped Newman with his scholarship and shared other aspects of daily life as if they were a couple in a same-sex marriage. John Cornwell, author of Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, told National Public Radio that St. John’s support for Newman included “even doing things like packing his bags before he went away, making sure he was taking his medicine, making sure he kept dental appointments, that sort of thing. So it was almost like a wife, but without the marital bed.”

They lived together until St. John died on May 24, 1875. He was only about 60 years old. According to a memorial letter written by Newman himself, St. John died of a stroke that “arose from his overwork in translating Fessler, which he did for me to back up my letter to the Duke of Norfolk.” Newman needed a translation of the German theologian Joseph Fessler's important book in the wake of the First Vatican Council.

In the memorial letter Newman goes on to describe their dramatic last moments together, including how St. John clung to him closely on the bed and clasped his hand tightly. Newman, unaware that his beloved companion was dying, asked others to unlock his fingers before saying the goodbye that turned out to be their last.

Newman was heartbroken by the loss of his beloved partner. “I have always thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that anyone’s sorrow can be greater than mine,” Newman wrote.

He insisted three different times that he be buried in the same grave with St. John: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave -- and I give this as my last, my imperative will,” he wrote, later adding: “This I confirm and insist on.”

John Henry Newman, left, and Ambrose St. John

Newman died of pneumonia on Aug. 11, 1890 at age 89. According to his express wishes, he was buried with St. John. The shroud over his coffin bore his personal coat of arms with the Latin motto, “Cor ad cor loquitur” (Heart speaks to heart), which he adopted when he became cardinal. Their joint memorial stone is inscribed with a Latin motto chosen by Newman: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem.”(Out of the shadows and reflections into the truth.”) They share a small grave site in the central English town of Rednal.

John Henry Newman’s coat of arms with the motto “heart speaks to heart” (Wikimedia Commons)

During the beatification process, the Vatican tried to violate Newman’s desire to be buried with his beloved companion. Vatican officials hoped to excavate and move his remains to a specially built sarcophagus in Birmingham in preparation for his beatification. Controversy arose as some LGBT activists saw the decision to disturb the shared grave as an attempt to separate them and cover up the queer side of Newman’s life. However when the grave was opened in 2008, the remains had completely decomposed, leaving nothing that could be separated.

“John Henry Newman”
by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. ©
Newman’s legacy is wide-ranging. Because Newman was an excellent scholar, Catholic centers on U.S. college campuses are named after him. Newman tells his own story in his acclaimed spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua . He is known for writing the poem “The Dream of Gerontius” and the popular hymn “Lead, Kindly Light.”

His theology of friendship and his emphasis on conscience are both significant for LGBT people and allies. Although the Catholic church tends to frown on special friendships among priests, nuns or monks, Newman taught, “The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men.” He preached, “The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate our intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”

Terence Weldon at Queering the Church explains how Newman’s teaching on conscience laid the groundwork for LGBT Christians today. “As a theologian, Cardinal Newman played an important role in developing the modern formulation of the primacy of conscience, which is of fundamental importance to LGBT Catholics who reject in good conscience the standard teaching on sexuality – or the high proportion of heterosexual couples who reject ‘Humanae Vitae,’” Weldon writes.

This post is illustrated with icons of Newman by Robert Lentz and William McNichols. Both artists faced controversy for their alternative and LGBT-affirming images.

Newman is honored by Catholics on Oct. 9, the anniversary of his 1845 conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Naturally Anglicans chose a different date for Newman’s feast day -- the anniversary of his death on Aug. 11.

With beatification, Blessed Newman is now only one step away from official sainthood. He is already a saint in the hearts of many, including the LGBT people who are inspired by his life and love.

His name is invoked in an official Catholic prayer:

O God, who bestowed on the Priest Blessed John Henry Newman
the grace to follow your kindly light and find peace in your Church;
graciously grant that, through his intercession and example,
we may be led out of shadows and images
into the fulness of your truth.

Author’s note: I decided to write this comprehensive piece about the love between Newman and St. John when I discovered that it had not been done yet on the Internet from a LGBT-positive viewpoint. I was one of many bloggers on both sides who wrote about whether Newman was gay at the time of his beatification, citing a few facts. I thought I would just do a quick update to focus on his achievements and his relationship with St. John.

But as I got into the research, I was surprised both by how compelling their love story is, and how hard it was to find an overview of their relationship on the Internet. Details of their deep love for each other are available on the Web, but mostly on websites that aim to prove they were not homosexual. It’s odd how they end up supporting the very point that they are trying to discredit. So I put it all together from a queer point of view.

Related links:
Was Cardinal John Henry Newman Gay? (NPR)

Was a would-be saint gay? (Time.com)

Cardinal John Henry Newman and Father Ambrose St John (Idle Speculations Blog) (with extensive quotes from Newman’s writing about St. John)

Reflections on the Life and Legacy of John Henry Newman (Wild Reed)

Author interview: "Queer Martyrdom from John Henry Newman to Derek Jarman" by Dominic Janes (Jesus in Love)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Beato John Henry Newman y Ambrose St. John: Un santo gay y su "luz terrenal" comparten una amistad romántica

To read this post in Italian, go to:
Il beato John Henry Newman e Ambrose St. John, la sua “luce sulla terra” (gionata.org)

Top photo credit:
A rare photo of John Henry Newman and Ambrose Saint John together

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Qspirit.net presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Icons of John Henry Newman and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Blessed John of La Verna: Kissed by Jesus

Jesus embraces Blessed John of La Verna at the beech tree
(from an 1883 biography by Ermenegildo Da Chitignano)

Blessed John of La Verna is a medieval Italian friar known for his visions of kissing and being kissed by Jesus. His feast day is today (Aug. 9). John also had an intense relationship with fellow friar and poet Jacopone da Todi.

Traditional writers have done “gender gymnastics” to hide the homoerotic content of John’s experiences, but Franciscan scholar Kevin Elphick proposes Blessed John as a queer saint in the following article written for the Jesus in Love Blog.

Elphick’s research included a trip in summer 2014 to John’s chapel, hermitage and tomb at Mount La Verna in central Italy. He ends his article with a vivid personal Postscript describing what happened when he visited Mount La Verna and touched the ground where John and Jesus embraced.

A stone wall surrounds the place where Jesus and John embraced in front of a chapel on Mount La Verna (Photo by Kevin Elphick)

Blessed John of La Verna

Hidden in musty libraries and on the sagging shelves of convents and monasteries are countless lives of the saints and blessed, gathering dust, and in many cases forgotten. With thousands of lives of the saints in existence, it is inevitable that some of these are our stories, the stories of LGBTQ saints and blesseds throughout the ages. One of the purposes of the genre of saints’ lives, “hagiographies,” is to ensure that the contemporary faithful might find examples from the past with which to identify, and personally recognizable models of sanctity to emulate. As such, the time is overdue for the LGBTQ communities to name and claim our patron saints.

One such candidate is Blessed John of La Verna (also called Giovanni della Verna, Blessed John of Fermo and Giovanni da Fermo), a Franciscan friar who lived in Italy from 1259-1322 C.E. While “gay” and “lesbian” are contemporary categories and not appropriate to use as accurate labels of historical figures,  still our collective gaydar is often attuned enough to detect our kinfolk and LGBTQ ancestors even across the centuries. John of La Verna is one such figure that should attract our attention.

Blessed John is unique in that the tradition describes him as “another Mary Magdalene…” and is heavily dependent upon multiple female metaphors to capture his spirituality and personality. Given that he joined all-male communities of religious, beginning as a child at 10 years of age, it is little wonder that his psychosexual development might be effected accordingly.

John of La Verna is introduced in the classic work of Italian literature, The Little Flowers of St. Francis (Fioretti di San Francesco), a book which continues to be well-known and commonly used even today in the schools of Italy. Its author unknown, this work has described as "the most exquisite expression of the religious life of the Middle Ages"[1]and for much of history has been the most popular life of St. Francis, in spite of the lateness of its authorship and its lack of historicity as a genuine source for the historical St. Francis. The stories of Blessed John are the final chapters of “The Little Flowers” (the “Fioretti”) and paint the culminating picture of early Franciscan spirituality and personalities for its author. As such, John is a pivotal and defining figure in this book. He is named John of La Verna because he lived with the Franciscan friars on Mount La Verna, the sacred mountain where St. Francis of Assisi had received the wounds of Christ as stigmata in a mystical vision.  (The same mountain is called Alverna in Latin and is geographically known as Monte Penna.)

While meditating under a beech tree at La Verna, John had a vision of kissing and being kissed by Christ.  The biographer Ermenegildo Da Chitignano places the apparition sometime before the visit of the Roman Emperor, Henry VII, to Alverna and Bl. John in 1312, following his coronation in Rome.  Much later, after the beech tree fell, a small chapel was built there.  It is known as the Chapel of the Beech (Cappella del Faggio).  The courtyard in front of the chapel is surrounded by a low stone wall with an inscription explaining that it encloses the place where John and Christ spent time together.

The inscription on the wall around the courtyard where Jesus and John embraced says, “This is the oratory of Blessed John of La Verna where he conversed (spend time) with Christ our Lord. There are 200 days indulgence.” In the old system of indulgences, a devout visit to the chapel was said to remove 200 days from the visitor's time in purgatory. (Photo by Kevin Elphick. Thanks to Marco Wooster for translation help!)

Blessed John is described in the Fioretti as one of the spiritual sons of St. Francis, who because of his great wisdom, is the “glory of such a great Father.”[2] After a brief biographical introduction covering John’s childhood, a defining episode from John’s adult life as a friar is recounted. This incident is set in the context of a period of a "dark night of the soul" for Blessed John. Following upon a three-year period of honeymoon-like intimacy, God withdrew the former palpable presence. Prior to this withdrawal, John had enjoyed "the mystical kisses and intense embraces of Christ's love, not only in interior spiritual graces, but also in exterior signs, as with an intimate friend."  

In keeping with the Franciscan tradition, the author uses the language of bridal mysticism to describe John’s relationship with Jesus, so that the language of romance and physical intimacy serves as a metaphor for human union with the Divine. Perhaps anticipating discomfort from an audience reading of even metaphorical intimacy between males, the author engages in a sort of gender-gymnastics, the back and forth volley of which serves to off-balance the reader as to the given genders of Jesus and John. At various moments, they are each, independently re-gendered as female. Explaining Christ’s withdrawal from John in a dark night of the soul, the author compares Jesus to a mother temporarily withholding food:

"But He was acting like a mother with her baby when she withdraws her breast from him to make him drink the milk more eagerly, and he cries and seeks it, and after he has cried, she hugs and kisses him and lets him enjoy it all the more. So Brother John followed Christ ... with greater fervor and desire, weeping like a baby following its mother..."

Alternately Blessed John is likened to Mary Magdalene, weeping at the feet of Jesus.

 “Blessed John poured out so many tears, that he seemed to be another Magdalene… lying at the feet of Jesus most sweet, he received so much grace that he was totally renewed, and like Magdalene, consoled and at peace.” 

In addition to Mary Magdalene, the author of the Fioretti recasts John as the maiden of the biblical book, the Song of Songs. This book of the Bible celebrates an erotic intimacy between a woman and her male beloved, and is typically interpreted as an extended metaphor of the human and divine romance. Where the Fioretti describes Christ’s withdrawal from John, it uses the language of the Song of Songs and the person of the Song’s maiden to describe John’s resultant pursuit of him:

 "... when his soul did not feel the presence of his Beloved, in his anguish and torment he went through the woods, running here and there, seeking and calling aloud with tears and sighs for his dear Friend who had recently abandoned him and hidden..." 

Compare this with the maiden of the Song of Songs:

"I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him, but found him not."
(Song 3: 1-2, RSV) 

For the author of the Fioretti, Christ is "the beloved Spouse of his [John's] soul." In turn, John's female transformation is so complete, that without Christ the Bridegroom, the Fioretti has him declare: "Without you I am sterile... " 

Jesus embraces Blessed John at the beech tree in a 1521 painting by Aretino Intorno, located in the Chapel of Adoration at Mount La Verna

When Christ finally does appear to Blessed John, the Fioretti uses St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s commentary on the Song of Songs to explain the stages of intimacy which John will enjoy. First a kiss to Christ's feet in a movement of penitence. Secondly there is a kiss to Christ's hands, signifying the "grace to live a good life." "The second is given to those who are making progress." (Sermon 4, 1.1) Finally, there is the third kiss, a kiss of his mouth. The kiss of the mouth is contemplative union with God toward which all should strive. "O happy kiss...which is... the union of God with [hu]man." (Sermon 2, II., 3) As an aside, it is worth noting that for Bernard, this unitive “Kiss” is ultimately a participation in the loving “Kiss” of the First and Second Persons of the Trinity, who we know as the Holy Spirit.

The Fioretti’s dependence on St. Bernard’s commentary is explicit, as the earliest manuscript reads: “if anyone wishes to know this, read Bernard on the Song of Songs, who puts these stages there according to their order: namely, the beginners at the feet, those making progress at the hands, and the perfect at the kiss and embrace.” [3]And so the Fioretti has John excelling through these stages:

 “For he immediately threw himself down at Christ's feet, and the Savior showed him his blessed feet, over which Brother John wept … Now while Brother John was praying fervently, lying at Christ's feet, he received so much grace that he felt completely renewed and pacified and consoled, like Magdalene... he began to give thanks to God and humbly kiss the Savior's feet.” 

Following Bernard's stages, Brother John next kisses the hands of Jesus: 

"Christ held out His most holy hands and opened them for him to kiss. And while He opened them, Brother John arose and kissed His hands."

However, the author of the Fioretti deviates from Bernard’s stages, seemingly modifying them slightly for an encounter between the male Jesus and the male friar. Instead of Bernard’s stage-specific “kiss of the mouth,” it is toned down to a kiss of Christ’s chest:

"And when he had kissed them [Christ's hands], he came closer and leaned against the breast of Christ, and he embraced Jesus and kissed His holy bosom. And Christ likewise embraced and kissed him." 

While there is explicit textual dependence on the Song of Songs and Bernard’s commentary on it, our author appears reluctant to paint the verbal image of Christ and John kissing mouth to mouth, content instead to modify the stages with a modest and reverential kiss to the breast of Christ. Franciscan tradition may have influenced this use of the image of kissing the breast as perhaps  a greater intimacy—Clare had dreamed of nursing at Francis’ breast and St. Angela of Foligno in ecstasy kissed Christ’s breast—but it is more likely that our author was reticent to portray John and Jesus mouth to mouth in a kiss. With the backdrop of John as Mary Magdalene and Christ as a nursing mother, the reader might be understandably confused and distracted, but not so much so that two men kissing would escape their Medieval scrutiny.

Still, we are left with clear physical intimacy between John and Jesus. What is described here is not intended as metaphor or solely figurative stages, but an actual apparition of the bodily Christ to Blessed John. Where the apparition took place, Mount La Verna in Italy, a chapel and fenced courtyard mark the physical site where Christ appeared and embraced John. The author intends that the reader understands  as fact that John and Jesus kissed, embraced, and became progressively more intimate in this holy place.

Unique to the Franciscan tradition is a practice of redirecting “fleshly” interests from earthly objects and instead to the incarnate flesh of Jesus. If the human inclination is to be enticed by human flesh, the Franciscan tradition responds by exploiting this inclination and instead pointing it toward the God made flesh. The Franciscan meditative book, Stimulus Amoris, written in Italy during John’s lifetime, expresses this best. Writing from the perspective of God the Father it explains:

“It was necessary therefore, because the soul had become too enamoured of the flesh, for my Son to become enfleshed so as to entice it to his and my love.”[4] 

Divinity was hidden under flesh so that our propensity toward flesh might be exploited. Again the Stimulus Amoris:

“If, therefore, O soul, you love flesh, then love no flesh but the flesh of Christ.”[5] 

Kissing the flesh of Christ, John of La Verna is a perfect exemplar of this tradition. His kisses effectively move him upward from the feet of Christ in order to experience increasing intimacy with God, from his feet, then to his hands, further up yet to the very breast of the Savior.

While our author of the Fioretti appears to fail to reproduce Bernard’s prescribed “kiss of the mouth,” he clearly is comfortable with the image of John kissing the body of Jesus, feet, hands, and breast, and the two embracing. Equally, John’s community of friars at Mount La Verna, is not only comfortable with this image, they enshrined it in a chapel and fenced yard preserving the memory, as well as depicting it in paintings of the sacred event. And perhaps in the end the author of the Fioretti was faithful to St. Bernard’s required “kiss of the mouth,” for the apparition concludes with Christ responding to John’s physicality as Christ himself “embraced and kissed” John in return. It is left to the reader’s imagination to envision how Jesus kissed John in return. But it would be fully in keeping with Bernard’s theology that this beatific “kiss of the mouth” is the initiative of God, not the human. Our author would then be seen as pointing the reader’s imagination in this intended direction, but blushfully failing to paint it fully in words, only hinting in veiled reference to this erotic theophany.

Jacopone da Todi
in a fresco
by Paolo Uccello
A final snapshot rounds out the picture of Blessed John of La Verna: his friendship with his fellow Franciscan friar and poet, Jacopone da Todi (1230 –1306). Jacopone’s writings, his Lauds, are considered “the most powerful religious poetry in Italy before Dante’s time.”[6] He too experienced a spiritual marriage to Christ, and has much affinity with John’s mystical experiences. His 63rd Laud is written specifically to Brother John and intended to console him during his dark night of the soul. Within Jacopone’s highly emotive writings, this poem of consolation to Blessed John is considered “one of the most moving pages of the Lauds.”[7]  In it, Jacopone sympathizes with John’s spiritual aridity and reminds him that “it is a great thing to be filled with God… wedded to reverence.”[8]

Jacopone’s Lauds are filled with images of Christ as the one true Spouse for humanity, which in turn is his Bride. The shared spiritual vision of Jacopone and John is evident.  As fellow friars, they knew each other as brothers. The depth of their relationship is revealed on Jacopone’s deathbed, when he summoned John of La Verna to travel from a distance to his side. Jacopone refused to die until consoled by John’s presence one last time.  It was Christmas Eve, and he clung to life until Blessed John arrived, finally expiring only after Blessed John gave Eucharist to him, communicating to him the flesh of their shared Bridegroom, as Jacopone passed over to the eternal wedding feast. Jacopone trusted only Blessed John to deliver him safely into the embrace of their Beloved.

After many years devoted to contemplation at La Verna, John spent his later years preaching in Florence, Pisa, Siena and other Italian towns.  He died at Mount La Verna at age 63 on Aug. 9, 1322.

By his example, John of La Verna urges us also to enter into the same embrace of Jesus our true Spouse. He teaches us that the flesh of Christ is sure refuge, and physical intimacy with Christ certain salvation. He recalls for us the maxim that “The flesh is the hinge of salvation.”[9] Blessed John of La Verna clung to the flesh of Jesus and kissed his holy body, knowing it to be his salvation. He enjoyed the touch of Jesus upon his own flesh and the warm embrace of the Savior. Like Mary Magdalene with whom he is compared, John kissed the sacred feet of his Savior. But in contrast to the Magdalene, Jesus did not say to him “Touch me not.” (John 20:17 KJV) Instead, John finds in Jesus a responsive Lover who “likewise embraced and kissed him” in return. In John of La Verna we find an erotic spirituality healthily directed by a male devotee toward a fully human male Jesus. And this literary and Franciscan tradition not only tolerates John of La Verna’s homoerotic mysticism, it presents it as paradigmatic and exemplary. Let us also celebrate John’s erotic spirituality and imitate his passionate kisses and embraces. For our LGBTQ communities, John of La Verna is already a patron saint and model for own spiritual journeys. In him we have heard our own stories and now travel similarly wooded paths toward our own encounter with the Divine Beloved.

Postscript: My trip to 
Blessed John’s mountain in Italy

In June of 2014, I had the privilege to visit Mount La Verna with a pilgrim group. While St. Francis and his stigmata were the central focus of La Verna, I was keenly conscious that this holy mountain had also been Blessed John’s home, along with his community of brother friars. I wanted to visit John’s sepulchre, his chapel, and his hermitage, and to know something of the wildness of Mount La Verna that had contributed to John’s earthy spirituality.

Tomb of Blessed John of La Verna (Wikipedia.org)

At the Sanctuary of La Verna, the sepulchre of Blessed John is found just to the left, inside the Basilica. There, with the interior darkened, I approached and knelt to pray, placing my hand upon his sepulchre. I had brought along with me small religious medals to touch to the sepulchre, so that I could later share these with friends as relics, touched to his blessed resting place. A Franciscan friar, Fr. Mario, sat nearby in a confessional, agreeing to bless these medals only after I hesitantly entered the penitent’s side. He invoked a lengthy prayer in Italian, made the sign of the cross (which I imitated, touching my forehead, shoulders and chest), followed by my profuse thanks to him in English.

From the Basilica, I climbed further up the mountain, eventually reaching the Chapel of Blessed John, with its low, fenced courtyard protecting the sacred space where Jesus and John had embraced. On a nearby path, a group of exuberant schoolchildren were led past on an outing, flags carried at the beginning and end of their line. I found the chapel door closed and secured with a rusty lock, so I was content to pay reverence by solely kissing the lintel of the door. Turning to the courtyard, I knelt and touched the ground. I removed the cross from about my neck and placed it on the soil, hoping that it would touch the same spot where Jesus and John had stood, venerating the ground on which they walked. After some time spent reflecting on their profound love, I rose and continued further up Mount La Verna.

Hermitage where Blessed John lived (photo by Kevin Elphick)

I found myself especially drawn to his hermitage, perched higher on the mountainside, but surrounded by steep, craggy rocks, and plunging precipices. I was reminded of the verse from the Song of Songs:

“O my dove, hiding in the clefts of the rock,
in the hiding places on the mountainside,
show me your face, let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet, and your face lovely.” (2:14)

 John had been that beautiful dove, hidden away in this mountaintop hermitage, accessible only to his Beloved. With steep terrain surrounding his hermitage, I could only touch one side of the building, able to peer in just one window. I was increasingly convinced that the hermitage’s inaccessibility was intentional, so that John might be alone with his Beloved:

 “I charge you O daughters of Jerusalem…
do not disturb or awaken my Love
until he pleases.” (2:7)

 I could draw only this close, only this near. I knew that just beyond, together they rested, scarcely visible, not to be disturbed from their shared connubial rest. Quietly I pressed my hand to the hermitage’s stone wall ‘til my breathing slowed to their same pace, and together we sighed as these Lovers nestled, pulling their bodies closer in satiated contentment. Sanctity was palpable here, like a mist which begets dewfall.

As I walked away, a slight glimmer caught my eye, something small nestled in a rock outcropping, delicate and fashioned. Looking closer, I discovered the smallest of crèches-- just the Babe in a manger, accompanied solely by a calf-- nothing more. An act of devotion by another pilgrim, left to honor the memory of Jesus and John. And nothing could have been more fitting. For when that Babe was born, heaven and earth were wedded. The human and the Divine were betrothed. Jesus was already on his way to meet Blessed John. And I had found what I sought at La Verna.

                        [1] "Fioretti di San Francesco d'Assisi". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
                        [2] Quotations from the Fioretti are taken from The Little Flowers of St. Francis, trans. Raphael Brown (NY: Image Books, 1958) and Francis of Assisi: Early Documents: the Prophet (NY: New City Press, 2001). The latter is the more definitive resource for accuracy of translation and manuscript tradition.
                        [3] Early Documents, p. 533.
                        [4] Love's Prompting and Canticle of One who is Poor for the Beloved (Phoenix, AZ: Tau Publishing, 2013), p. 38.
                        [5] Stimulus Divini Amoris: That is The Goad of Divine Love (NY: Benziger Brothers, 1907),  p. 3. Love’s Prompting and The Goad of Divine Love, although differently named, are both English renderings of the Stimulus Amoris.
                        [6] Jacopone da Todi: The Lauds, NY: Paulist Press, 1982. p. xix.
                        [7] Ibid. p. 59.
                        [8] Ibid. p. 193.
                        [9] “Caro cardo salutis.” Tertullian, De resurrectione carnis, VIII.


Kevin Elphick

Kevin Elphick is both a Franciscan scholar and a supervisor on a suicide prevention hotline in New York. He wrote a thesis on “Gender Liminality in the Franciscan Sources” for a master’s degree in Franciscan studies from St. Bonaventure University in New York. Elphick also has a master's degree in Religious Studies from Mundelein College in Chicago and a Doctorate in Ministry from Graduate Theological Foundation with a focus in ecumenism. He writes regularly for the Jesus in Love Blog about queer Franciscan subjects, including Francis of Assisi and Madre Juana de la Cruz. Elphick joined the Sisters of St. Francis in New York as a lay associate on Aug. 17, 2014.
Related links:

John of La Verna (Wikipedia.org)

Blessed John of Fermo (NewAdvent.org)

Photo album of Kevin Elphick’s trip to La Verna

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Beato Juan de La Verna: Un fraile besado por Jesús

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year. It is also part of the Queer Christ series, which gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.