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George FaithfulFebruary 29, 2024
A sculpture of St. John of the Cross in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (CNS photo/Peter Lockley) (May 6, 2014)

They had the best of intentions. Our spiritual ancestors, even the ones we call saints, have left behind mixed legacies, nourishing crops intermingled with poison fruit. By force of convention and perhaps shying from the weight of responsibility, some of us may be tempted to ignore or excuse that less savory half of the equation. With humble gratitude and trepidation, let us frankly admit that even the people who have sown good seeds also leave behind their fair share of thorny weeds.

Shortly after I graduated from college, a mentor at church told me, “I never would have guessed you were Black. You’re so smart. I always assumed you were Jewish.” I smiled, shrugged and thanked him. But those words sat with me. As they sank in, I recognized their parts: the backhanded compliment, the lauded presumed genius of one group, the denigration of another. In the coming years, I would grow to understand how, through the internalization of false expectations, an accumulation of such words can hamper individuals’ lives and diminish communities’ flourishing.

Racism is not always a cross burning in the front yard. Polymorphous and adaptive, it varies in appearance from context to context over time. Racism can also be a whole system of assumed biases, revealed in a casual remark or the unspoken rationales for a hiring decision. Because of this, one might posit different points of origin for what has yielded its current forms, all of which bring kinds of death, whether literally-physically, socio-relationally, economically, intellectually or spiritually. This death-yielding quality helps illuminate racism as a form of sin.

St. Juan de la Cruz was a mystic, a theologian, a mentor, a monastic reformer, a poet, a victim of persecution, a prisoner, a survivor and other important things. But yes, he was also a racist.

The saint(s) in question

Some years ago, I began a comprehensive analysis of the work of St. Juan de la Cruz, commonly known in English as St. John of the Cross. I assumed that I would find consolation for the plight of people caught in between social categories, including, ironically, race. In short, I came seeking a remedy. I found that—and traces of poison, as well.

St. Juan de la Cruz was a racist. Granted, he was also a mystic, a theologian, a mentor, a monastic reformer, a poet, a victim of persecution, a prisoner, a survivor and other important things. But yes, he was also a racist. And that fact must shape not only how one perceives St. Juan’s mystic, poetic and other gifts, but must also inform one’s scrutiny of other saints, as well as concepts of sainthood and Christian “perfection” generally. St. Juan and other saints are worthy of veneration. But a recalibration is in order, at least in terms of what might realistically be expected of their earthly lives.

Rhetorical genocide in The Living Flame of Love

St. Juan is premier among mystical theologians for offering a method for achieving union with God. His approach is particularly notable in addressing a common experience among intermediate contemplatives: a perception of long-term lack of spiritual progress. Couching his mystical guidance in the form of commentary on some of his poems, Juan’s work transcends the ordinary bounds of human language.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that it is at the apex of the spiritual ascent and in the realm of allegory that some of the most significant trouble in his writing occurs. In The Living Flame of Love, Juan states that “the Egyptians need to be drowned.” That is the rendering offered by the standard translators of St. Juan’s work into English, Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, both of whom belong to Juan’s own religious order of Discalced Carmelites. By rendering gitano as “Egyptian,” they frame the passage as an allegorization of the Exodus narrative, in which Christians supplant the people of Israel as God’s chosen people—part of a centuries-old practice. One might also readily translate the term as “gypsy.” After all, the conflation of the Roma people and Egyptians, along with the persecution of the former, has a long history as well.

Whatever the label one might apply to them, the group of people represents the senses in Juan’s allegory. They need to be rendered inert so that the soul can continue its upward ascent into union with God.

Earlier in the same work, Juan had insisted on the need to “eliminate the Jews” (Living Flame of Love 2.31, redaction B). In Juan’s schema, the Jews represent the appetites. Like the senses, the appetites must be subdued in the soul’s upward ascent. Juan’s call to kill them is dispassionate, rhetorical and not in any way reflected in hateful actions on record. And yet, his words remain problematic.

Allegory, metaphor, and other forms of symbolic imagery are not value-neutral but reveal fundamental assumptions of their creators and interpreters. The appetite-driven “carnal Jew” is a long-standing trope in antisemitic Christian discourse. And promoting genocide, even allegorically, is never acceptable. One need not demonstrate the impact of the individual threads of such casual assertions to grasp their concrete, cumulative effects: The Shoah was an anomaly in its scale and severity but stands as the culmination of longstanding physical and rhetorical violence committed by Christians against Jewish people.

Allegory, metaphor, and other forms of symbolic imagery are not value-neutral but reveal fundamental assumptions of their creators and interpreters.

Sexist colorism (misogynoir) in Spiritual Canticle

St. Juan’s Spiritual Canticle contains a slightly different set of issues. Like his other substantial works, it takes the form of a prose commentary on his poetry. In this case, it is a commentary on his version of the Song of Songs. In contrast to St. Juan’s other works, itencompasses the whole sweep of the soul’s potential ascent. No wonder he was keen to polish it. He shuffled the order of some of the middle stanzas of the poem then redacted and expanded his original commentary (dubbed Canticle A by later scholars) in order to produce a work more closely aligned with his understanding of the archetypal journey of the soul (Canticle B). It is to this fuller, definitive version that I refer unless otherwise indicated.

In the earlier stanzas of the Canticle, the female protagonist has wandered far in search of her male beloved. Juan explains that she represents the soul and that her lover represents God. She pleads with passing shepherds, resplendent fountains and the surrounding greenery for guidance. Surely the trees must know where he is. After all, he planted them!

She traverses borderlands but she fails to find him. In despair, she turns into a dove and flies away—just as he, in the form of a wounded stag, finally reveals himself to her and urges her to return. In human form again, they enter into a bower, a cave made of intertwined rose vines, and join in the utmost intimacy. In terms of gender, sexuality and species, the lines blur, shaping the potentially liberative dimensions of the text.

Astute observers might recognize that, in Stanza 32, the discourse has already turned to self-deprecation in problematic ways:

When you looked at me,
your eyes imparted their grace to me.
That is why you came to love me so.
That is how my eyes became worthy
to adore what they see in you.

Even in their mutual adoration, her beauty is contingent on his gaze. The sexism of the text takes on a racist dimension in stanza 33:

Please do not despise me if, before,
you noticed my complexion was dark.
You can see me well now,
since you looked at me,
bestowing grace and beauty to me.

St. Juan’s commentary on the passage represents a textbook case of colorism—that is, a variant of racism based primarily on color. God “no longer remembers her former ugliness and sin.” Darkness and sin were synonymous for St. Juan. He goes on to explain, speaking to God, “the grace of your loving gaze removed my dark complexion and made me worthy to be seen.” The fact that this is an allegory in which St. Juan identifies himself (that is, his soul) with her in no way exonerates him.

What is at stake is not merely Juan’s legacy but, by implication, the notion of sainthood as proffered by the Catholic Church.

To be fair, this is based on the already awkward Song of Songs 1:5, which a thoughtful translator might render as “I am dark and also beautiful” but which English Bible translators have consistently rendered as some iteration of “dark but beautiful” for the better part of half a millennium. St. Jerome’s Latin translation in the Vulgate, with which St. Juan was working, is even more problematic: nigra sum sed formosa (“I am black but beautiful”). As the historian Kate Lowe notes, in addition to its socially problematic dimensions, which would bear poison fruit in the centuries to come, St. Jerome’s word choice falls short even in a technical sense as good translation work. Using that translation, Gregory the Great, the Venerable Bede and numerous others have proposed similar interpretations. Rather than diminish the gravity of Juan’s transgressions, this indicates the systemic nature of the problem.

With its own fraught lineage, the Vulgate’s suboptimal interpretation of the Hebrew is among the roots of St. Juan’s own problematic verbiage. Yet, even in the Vulgate, had St. Juan accounted for the narrative context of the surrounding chapter, it might have softened the blow. In Song of Songs 1, the darkness of the female protagonist is due to her having been forced to do manual labor outdoors at the behest of her brothers. It is not due to her race as such.

St. Juan escalates the intensity of his rhetoric and of his theological aesthetic in his commentary on Stanza 34:

The little white dove has returned
to the Ark with a branch
and already the turtledove has found
her longed-for partner
on the green riverbanks.

This beautiful description of the resolution of her earlier avian metamorphosis did not need to be about her allegorical race or complexion. In fact, in Canticle A, the earlier redaction of the commentary on this stanza, race was a non-issue. This chapter (32 in Canticle A) makes no mention of morena (the feminine or female dark-complected person or her characteristics) from the preceding chapter. By contrast, here is St. Juan’s commentary on this stanza in Canticle B:

In the preceding stanza, she belittled herself, calling herself dark and ugly, and lauded him for his beauty and grace since with his regard he gave her beauty and grace. And since he customarily exalts those who humble themselves, he fixes his eyes on her as she requested, and in the next stanza, he extols her and does not call her dark, as she called herself, but a white dove, praising her good characteristics that are like those of a dove and the turtledove.

In this expanded redaction, St. Juan has expanded the severity of his sexist, racist colorism (that is to say, misogynoir, the combination of sexism and anti-Black racism). Under all of it lies the assumed whiteness of God.

The stakes

Why does any of this matter? Consider where St. Juan stands at the crux of colonial-imperial history. Within living memory, los reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of a unified and officially Christian empire, had “reconquered” Spain and sponsored the discovery of the “New World,” inciting the institutionalization of cultural genocide. Therefore, one might rightly frame the Spanish Inquisition and Spanish colonization as two sides of the same lethal impulse to dominate.

It is essential for us to consider how St. Juan’s voice numbers among those complicit in that twin enterprise. Even as he built on roots from those who came before, his work laid a foundation for subsequent mystics, oppressors and those who were both oppressor and mystic. Some may be tempted to forget that these can be the same people.

Consider, too, the radical nature of St. Juan’s claims regarding Christian “perfection.” They are stated most clearly in The Living Flame of Love, where “all the inclinations and activity of the appetites and faculties—of their own the operation of death and the privation of the spiritual life—become divine.” The soul “lives the life of God,” “the intellect becomes divine,” “God’s will and the soul’s will are now one” and the soul’s appetite “is no longer anything else than the appetite of God.” In short, “it has become God through participation in God.” He invites spiritual aspirants to embark on nothing less than the path to “the highest degree of perfection attainable in this life, which is transformation into God.”

What is at stake is not merely Juan’s legacy but, by implication, the notion of sainthood as proffered by the Catholic Church. Similarly at stake is any meaningful doctrine of Christian “perfection,” of which iterations appear in various confessions.

Those who would neither ignore St. Juan’s faults nor abandon their quest to embrace his goodness must wrestle with the tension he embodies.

Hermeneutic approaches

“Maybe it’s not that bad,” one might argue. “After all, look at all the good in St. Juan’s theology!” For many people, this can be a knee-jerk safeguard against facing uncomfortable facts and, flowing from those facts, an even less comfortable moral responsibility to transform the status quo. Even if one could bracket out the passages where St. Juan adopts a sexist, anti-Black/anti-brown colorism, he tacitly accepts the value of genocide. To ignore or whitewash such racism is to become complicit in it. In the face of such realities, one can either remain comfortable or maintain one’s integrity but not both.

At the other extreme, one might reject St. Juan’s work in its totality. However, this approach, too, has its problems. It seems likely that, due to their own shortcomings and the biases inherent in their respective contexts, every human source of theological insight is fraught, whether due to racism, sexism or a litany of other issues. If one were to consistently and comprehensively eliminate all perceived transgressors from consideration, one would be left with a very short list—one probably closely resembling one’s own pre-existing preferences.

If you were inclined to “cancel” St. Juan de la Cruz, the odds are slim that you would have begun this essay, much less that you would still be reading it.

Those who would neither ignore St. Juan’s faults nor abandon their quest to embrace his goodness must wrestle with the tension he embodies.

Definitions of sin

It is perhaps more fruitful for us to expand, complicate and contextualize our definitions of sin. There is an inherent paradox in recognizing that every saint is a product of his or her age and its mores, while simultaneously expecting them to stand apart from and above the rest. Historical theologians especially must seek to understand preceding generations of Christians in their historical contexts. We must neither rush to excuse them nor condemn them solely based on the tools of our own contexts, even as we admit that certain absolutes transcend contexts.

Whether spoken or written, some kinds of statements, like some actions, have always been and will always be morally wrong, no matter how normalized they may be in their socio-cultural contexts. In fact, the distance of time often obscures the original divisiveness of certain developments, such as the Spanish Inquisition. The recent work of the early modern religious historian Fernando Cervantes illustrates this. Spain’s Christian rulers initially opposed the forced conversions of their Jewish and Muslim subjects but eventually succumbed to pressure from aggrieved Christians, jealous and suspicious of their neighbors’ perceived economic success.

Some sins, it seems, are sins of context toward which those alive at the time, depending on their social position, might be especially prone. Socio-cultural peer pressure is what it is—and perhaps always has been. But saints should be rebels, at least in part, against such contextual sin. They might even evidence some significant self-awareness and humility in the face of its gravitational pull. We theologians need to expand our definitions of sin to account for that, even if it means modifying our expectations of saints and of “perfection.” Someone who is close to perfect in some ways might be found wanting in numerous others.

St. Juan’s words alone are enough to necessitate a radical re-evaluation of his foundational assumptions, not least of which is about how much “perfection” any human might possibly attain in this life, even by the grace of God. To be human is to be human. We Christians must properly contextualize what “perfection” means for human beings.

As I said earlier, St. Juan and other saints are worthy of veneration, but we need to recalibrate what might realistically be expected of their earthly lives. That may make our perception of what they did prior to glorification more complicated but no less meaningful. In our own stumbling, we have as at least as much to learn from their real mistakes as from any mythos of perpetual victory. Such a lowering of expectations for our fellow humans has the potential to elevate our appreciation for the love of God.

Our handling of mystical theology, too, must demonstrate an awareness of human limitations. St. Juan claimed to attain the highest heights attainable by any mortal, traversing arid lands in the silence of his spirit, enduring long seasons of shadow before passing into the bright consolation of union with God that lay beyond. And then, in action and in word, aloud and in print, however imperfectly, he helped to guide others to make that ascent. That is a gift.

It is necessary that we grapple with hard facts, even if it means wearing scars. But let us not yield when confronted with the racism, sexism or other sins of any saint. Let us, too, train the next generations of theologians and mystics, who may someday need to pick a fight with some of us. And if we must lose sleep, let it be because of the as-yet nameless sins of today that will occasion that reckoning.

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