One dark night,
Fired with love's urgent longings - ah, the sheer grace! -I went out unseen, My house being now all stilled. (The Dark Night, stanza 1)1
Poet, mystic, and theologian, St John of the Cross (1542-91) has inspired numerous Christians with his passionate accounts of human desire for God and of the mystical consummation, both devastating and delightful, toward which this desire draws us. This sometimes controversial Spanish Carmelite describes a contemplative path along which all passions, capacities, and faculties are stilled and then transformed as the soul enters into more intimate relationship with God. What sustains us through this transformation, according to St John, is a desire for God strong enough to face trials of sensory and spiritual deprivation. This urgent longing leads John into erotic raptures as he describes the search for his divine Lover and then to a point where words fail altogether as he receives the touch of divine union. In this chapter I seek to unfold somewhat the complex relationship between spirituality and sexuality in St John's writings, focusing on desire for God as central to his understanding of spiritual progress and to the spiritual guidance he offers. I also seek to present John as a resource for queer theology or more accurately for those queer Christians and near-Christians who,2 faced with the destabilization of sexual and theological certainties, mourn the absence of God who seems increasingly inaccessible, while also celebrating new freedoms and an openness to new sexual and spiritual possibilities.
I have written elsewhere on the value of John of the Cross's experience-based episte-mology for conceptualizing and defending pro-gay religious convictions.3 In this chapter I address an audience less confident in and concerning God's presence. Queer sexual desire has been claimed by many as a critical point of access to God, an important clue as to what God may be, and John of the Cross both confirms and gives theological context for this experience. But theological accounts of sex should not ignore that sex also, where it is self-involved, shame-driven, or lacking in charity, can be a rejection of God, a point too often obscured for both straight and gay Christians by the church's single-minded focus on the gender of sexual partners. Drawing on John of the Cross, I advocate here a theological perspective in which sexual desire is known as both means to God and obstacle, a perspective which, with John, celebrates the connection between erotic desire and desire for God without equating them, and affirms the authority of God over sexual desire without denigrating sex or advocating legalistic prescriptions concerning its necessary shape, style, or frequency. John of the Cross offers valuable spiritual direction towards the living of such a queer theology, drawing on his own passionate desires, experiences of abandonment and despair, and new certainty concerning God's continuing presence and promise.
I base my discussion upon what is probably the best known of St John's poems, "The Dark Night" (stanzas of which introduce each section of this chapter), and upon the pair of treatises organized by John as commentaries on this poem, The Ascent of Mount Carmel (A) and The Dark Night (DN). My chapter is structured as a three-part commentary on John's desire for God, an attempt both to introduce the reader to St John's mystical practice and to show his relevance for contemporary reflection. The first section emphasizes the close relationship of desire for God and sexual desire in St John, addressing the queer shape of John's desire for God. I find here an invitation for queer individuals (gay men in particular) to experience their own sexual desire as congruent with and tending towards desire for God. The second section then addresses sex as a potential obstacle to God, following St John's account of the risk of confusing sexual desire and its pleasures with desire for God and his insistence that they be separated so as to allow further intimacy with God. Finally the third section addresses briefly the challenge of reconciling a queer theology of the sort John describes with the secularizing agenda implicit within much contemporary queer theoretical writing.
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