The Shape of Desire

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O guiding night!

O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united

The Lover with his4 beloved,

Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

(The Dark Night, stanza 5)

The popularity of St John's poetry testifies to the power then as now of communicating religious truths in the language of erotic love. Throughout his prose writings as well John seeks to evoke the more demanding desire for God by employing imagery which stimulates and attracts.5 This linking of sexual desire and desire for God is not for John a mere technique. Rather John insists that this is the intended significance of sexual desire. In directing us towards desire for God and in readying us for that supreme intimacy, sexual desire achieves its true purpose.

There is of course, prior to John, a long Christian tradition of sexual allegory rooted particularly in the Song of Songs, the text requested by John upon his deathbed. Though one might argue that this entire tradition reveals certain homoerotic excesses, the more predictable consequence of interpreting John within this tradition is to render him innocuous, emphasizing the purely spiritual quality of John's desire for God while simultaneously concluding from John's conventional gendering of the soul as female that he in fact supports heterosexual marriage as uniquely sacramental. I will pursue a reading which instead emphasizes the erotic intensity of John's desire for God and draws attention to the gendered play of passivity, activity, penetration, and consummation used by John to evoke its fluid character. That John finds in such a euphoric eroticism the most adequate means for communicating his love for God invites contemporary queer Christians, particularly those for whom ecclesial homophobia and queer anti-Christian backlash have undermined confidence in God's presence, to explore the resonances of their own sexual and spiritual desires.

In fact, I propose that John of the Cross's account of divine love draws on and perhaps even contributes to the rather different erotic tradition which has helped to shape these desires.

Historian David Halperin identifies four historical classifications of men and male desire which, though still potentially discontinuous, seem frequently to converge in the modern world to form what we recognize as male homosexuality (Halperin 2002: 106-37). These are: (1) Effeminacy, in which the male prefers activities associated with women, such as art or love rather than those expected of men such as war, athletics, or ascetic practices. (2) Active sodomy (or pederasty), in which a normal male sexually penetrates subordinate males and in which the erotic aspect is assumed to be unidirectional and correlated with differences (in age, station, etc.) between those engaged. (3) Male friendship or love emphasizing mutuality in which the more egalitarian nature of the relationship serves to immunize it from erotic interpretation. (4) Sexual inversion or passivity, in which the male not only allows penetration by another man, but desires and takes pleasure in it, this deviancy being the most flagrant among other potential gender failings. Although St John of the Cross would, according to Halperin, have no conception of homosexuality as such, he would be exposed to these frameworks for interpreting gender and sexual performance.

Halperin's categories problematize even the question of whether St John was himself gay There is no determinate historical evidence for claiming that St John either did or did not himself experience and/or act upon desires such as Halperin describes. Certainly John's poetry seems homoerotic to a contemporary gay gaze, but then we may have a heightened sensitivity to gender deviance. Still, drawing on Halperin's categorization we may claim John, at the least, as in many ways effeminate. Quite small, gentle, fond of gardens and drawing, St John challenged gender expectations. As a young man he nursed syphilis patients, embraced a vocation as a Carmelite marked by celibacy and contemplation, formed a powerful friendship with Teresa of Avila, and became well known for religious poetry with a controversial eroticism and for spiritual direction critical of "manly" asceticism. More passionate than politically savvy in his desire for reform, John was imprisoned as rebellious and contumacious, made a daring nocturnal escape (which figures in the imagery for "The Dark Night") and faced exile during his final, debilitating illness. In short, it is appropriate that John should feel familiar to contemporary gay men, and we are not surprised that he is led to describe communion with God in terms of both excess and hid-denness, attracting us through that hint of heresy which seems inevitably to accompany both mystical and sexual experience.

In the most memorable of his poems, "The Dark Night," St John transforms his own painful experience of isolation into the quivering anticipation of a secret embrace, moved by desire for a divine lover whose masculine beauty calls out, disturbing his sleep, inviting his caress and promising an unparalleled fulfillment. John here takes on the role of the female soul, a standard trope within Christian mystical writing but one which seems particularly significant within John's treatment of desire. In English, the effect is more straightforwardly homoerotic as the gender of John's narrator remains provocatively ambiguous except for the fifth stanza (which introduces this section). In Spanish, however, the female gender is established immediately though suggestively with a string of adjectives and participles: inflamada (fired or inflamed), sin notada (unseen or concealed), segura (secure), and disfrazada (disguised). It is by desire and in secrecy that St John takes on this female role, striking a very different tone than that found in his other poetry; noticeably absent is the bride/bridegroom language standard in the longer poems and rather than shepherds, girls of Judea, and animals, here only the wind witnesses the lovers' rendezvous.

Critical here is John's association of gender transformation with desire for God, a pattern further developed in his two treatises describing progress along the spiritual path. We find in the treatises not a constant gender performance, but rather a desire-driven transformation toward an increasing receptivity and passivity before God. The soul is "tempered and prepared for the sublime reception, experience, and savor of the divine" (DN 2.16.4; John of the Cross 1991: 432). John describes this transformation in terms first of active purgations (or purification), practices of self-denial and self-control which increase the soul's spiritual stamina. But as the soul progresses it is the more demanding passive purgations, those more private transformations initiated by God upon a stilled and attentive lover, which dominate. At this point, "God teaches the soul secretly and instructs it in the perfection of love" (DN 2.5.1; John of the Cross 1991: 401).

John's rhetoric of penetration and subordination resonates, I suggest, with Halperin's description of a pederastic6 model, one in which desire depends upon and draws attention to differences in power and status, and in which obedience is exchanged for other rewards. God's preparation and eventual possession of the soul confirm the vast difference between God and humanity. The soul's passivity derives from appropriate submission and humility, as well as hope concerning whatever benefits may follow the divine pleasure. Though easily caricatured, the pederastic model of sexual desire seems a reasonably appropriate extension of the traditional Christian account of the relationship between an omnipotent God and a humanity which, though loved, is expected also to submit. The spiritual path John describes is one directed finally according to God's desire, and one in which the good is often distinguished from the pleasant. This shaping of desire proves too limiting and one-sided for understanding St John's relationship to God, however. John's submissiveness, though key to the spiritual transformation he hopes to encourage, is motivated more by the soul's own desire than by duty. From the beginning, John asserts, "the soul is touched with urgent longings of love: of esteeming love, sometimes; at other times, also of burning love" (DN 2.13.5; John of the Cross 1991: 425).

To fully understand the import of this shift from esteeming love to burning love, we must recognize the transformation as involving fear, uncertainty, and an awareness of deviance from what has been normal. The soul's inflamed desire for God increases the sense of submission and transformation and, therefore, when contrasted with a self-possessed masculine desire, increases stigma as well, carrying intimations of unnatural pleasures. In Halperin's terms, the shift is from a sodomitic act of submission to sexual inversion in which the previously masculine soul now not only allows divine penetration but sensually and spiritually longs for it and for the transformed identity it implies. Indeed the soul here turns away from natural enjoyments, all the satisfactions which come from creatures and from human agency, swept up in a desire that cannot be accounted for within the limits of its previous understanding. John describes a pleasure which is unfamiliar, symptomatic of a more widespread and radical reordering of our senses and faculties. Although John assumes some level of desire for God to be universal, this further capacity for both desire and pleasure emerges only as one progresses along the contemplative path. Thus increased passivity before God first brings the fear, pain, and emptiness which characterize the dark night, but then makes possible a new and heightened passion. "[T]he spiritual suffering is intimate and penetrating because the love to be possessed by the soul will also be intimate and refined" (DN 2.9.9; John of the Cross 1991: 415). Furthermore this transformation is accompanied by what John calls a "spiritual hiding," a leaving behind of former categories of experience and of the comfort of public acceptance and confirmation of one's experience. "[L]ove alone, which at this period burns by soliciting the heart for the Beloved, is what guides and moves her, and makes her soar to God in an unknown way along the road of solitude" (DN 2.25.4; John of the Cross 1991: 457).

According to Halperin's categorization, the shift from pederasty to inversion represents an intensification of the difference between the sexual participants, as the gender identity of the invert is called into question and "his" deviancy makes "him" a social outcast. St John's rhetoric of a soul, now known as female, stripped before a masculine God seems in part to follow such a pattern and so to reinforce God's superiority. But John also reverses this interpretation, proclaiming a radical sameness between the soul and God in which differences seem to disappear. Following Aristotle, he insists that it is similarity not difference which characterizes the desire between the soul and God. "The lover becomes like the one he loves; for the greater their likeness the greater their delight."7 In the higher stages of spiritual progress, the soul thus increasingly takes on the appearance of divinity, approaching a divine consummation which is also a kind of identification of God and human. "When God grants this supernatural favor to the soul, so great a union is caused that all things of both God and the soul become one in participant transformation, and the soul appears to be God more than a soul" (A 2.5.7; John of the Cross 1991: 165). Nor does our maturation and growing similarity to God signal a shift in God's or our inflamed desire towards a more heroic, fraternal love in the mold of Halperin's remaining category, but instead further intensifies it, making possible in turn an even closer similarity and intimacy.8

While Halperin's categories are helpful for marking the complexity and fluid character of St John's desire, John seems in the end to transcend them. Likewise, though his desire for God echoes with homoerotic overtones, and though the flexibility he brings to sexual categories resonates intriguingly with contemporary queer interests, he seems to draw us beyond these as well. For those socialized to experience queer desire as unpredictable, uncontrollable, and estranged from Christian categories, it is difficult to conceive of homosexual desire as having some broader theological purpose. For John of the Cross, however, desire for God, the transformed sense of identity which accompanies it, and the (homo)erotic passions which contribute to it are all inconceivable without the basic awareness that they come from God and are directed towards a more perfect intimacy with God. His mingling of the sexual and spiritual thus invites us to broaden our own experiences of desire and to become aware of an urgent longing for God which seems both to emerge from these desires and in turn to give them shape and direction. May it be true for us as for John that, "in the measure that the fire increases, the soul becomes aware of being attracted by the love of God and enkindled in it, without knowing how or where this attraction and love originates" (DN 1.11.1; John of the Cross 1991: 383).

As my exploration into the shape of John's desire for God suggests, I find this invitation particularly appropriate for gay men and interpret John's own desire for God as shaped by a picture of God as male. I should note that John's language for God is not exclusively masculine. At several points he describes God as a loving mother nursing the soul with good milk, though always with reference to souls in early stages of spiritual progress. As the soul advances and its capacity for a fuller and more erotic intimacy increases, John comes to describe God in more masculine terms. The "sensory breasts" through which the appetites of the immature soul were nourished dry up (DN 1.13.13; John of the Cross 1991: 392). Now rather than milk, "His majesty frequently gives [the soul] joy by paying it visits of spiritual delight" (DN 2.19.4; John of the Cross 1991: 443). Although God's virility seems vital for St John's own religious experiences, we find here a recognition that God's gender too is fluid, or rather that our perception of it stems from individual needs to which God is responsive. Insofar as spiritual progress according to John requires a heightened passivity and openness to penetration, those social codes which label these traits as deviant for men do seem to encourage an experienced affinity between male homosexuality and mystical communion.9 There is no necessary link implied, however, between desire for God and homosexual desire or desire for men; the emphasis is rather on a willingness to have all of one's desires taken up into desire for God and to be transformed by this blessed intimacy.

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