Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Blessed John of La Verna: Kissed by Jesus

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

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

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.

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