Saturday, August 16, 2014

What if Christ and Krishna made love?

Above: “Krishna and Christ,” artist unknown

What if Christ met Krishna? They are two of the greatest teachers of love that the world has ever known. Would they speak of love, even make love? This delightful possibility is considered here today in honor of Krishna’s birthday or Janmashtami (Aug. 16, 2014).
"Jesus and Lord Rama" by Alex Donis
Many have noticed the similarities between Christ and the Hindu deity Krishna, but now the two god-men are portrayed as gay lovers in the work of artistic visionaries like artist Alex Donis, whose work appears at right, and poet Brian Day. His poem “Krishna and Jesus in Algonquin Park” is reprinted in full below.

Those who value love, sexuality and interfaith dialogue may find enlightenment by imagining an erotic encounter between Jesus and Krishna.

Like Christ, Krishna is a savior who taught love. Both are believed to be divinely conceived by God and a human woman, making them human AND divine. Each had a carpenter as his adoptive father. Jesus called himself a shepherd and Krishna herded cattle, but both healed the sick, worked miracles and forgave enemies.

One difference between the two is that Jesus is considered celibate in Christian tradition, while Krishna is a fantastic lover who is “all-attractive” to men as well as women. Legends glorify Krishna’s many amorous encounters with all kinds of admirers: female and male, milkmaids and cowboys, human and divine.

Would sparks fly if these two great teachers of love met? Toronto teacher Brian Day writes about their ineffable intimacy in “Krishna and Jesus in Algonquin Park,” a poem from his book “The Daring of Paradise.” The book, which explores the commonalities between multiple religions in a homoerotic way, was  released by Guernica Editions in 2013. Many thanks to Brian for permission to reprint the whole poem below. Algonquin Park is a provincial park in Ontario, Canada.

Another Day poetry book, “Conjuring Jesus,” features homoerotic poems about Christ. His book “Azure” includes “The Love Between Krishna and Jesus,” a poem that begins, “They approach one another with cool flowers of language…”

In a related work, California artist Alex Donis painted a sublime interfaith kiss in “Jesus and Lord Rama.” (Krishna and Rama are both blue-skinned incarnations of Vishnu.) It is part of his “My Cathedral” series of kisses between unlikely same-sex pairs.

The Donis exhibit electrified viewers when it opened in San Francisco in 1997. Heated arguments erupted in the gallery, followed by threatening phone calls and letters, and then physical violence. Vandals threw rocks and traffic barriers through the gallery windows—not once, but twice in three weeks. They smashed two of the artworks: first Jesus and Rama, and then Che Guevara kissing Cesar Chavez. The Christ-Rama image and its harrowing story appear in my book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More. Many thanks to Alex for permission to post the controversial painting here.

The idea of a queer Jesus shocks and offends some traditional Christians, but he can be liberating for LGBT people and our allies. The bisexual Krishna may serve the same purpose among Hindus. People throughout history have pictured Jesus looking like one of them: black Jesus in Africa, white Jesus in the West, and Jesus who looks Asian or Latin American in those parts of the world. It’s OK to add queer Christ to the mix because he taught love for all and embodied God’s wildly inclusive love for everyone, including sexual minorities. Gay Jesus images are needed now because conservatives are using religious rhetoric to justify discrimination against queer people.

If Jesus and Krishna met, would there be conflict or kisses? Brian Day’s new poem offers a beautiful glimpse into how they might love each other.

Krishna and Jesus
in Algonquin Park
By Brian Day

They hoist their canoe to the lichened rocks
and face the smooth light they’ve paddled across.

Shucking the weight of their pale-coloured clothes
and plunging to the knuckly cupped hand of the lake,

they meet in the green, share their scents with the water,
feel their bodies enlivened with cool liquid sensation,

and turn in the still black waters of their minds.
As they ripple the mirror between world and world,

each sights the stroking phantoms of the other’s limbs,
and touches skin as papery smooth as birch.

They climb the smoothed ladder of rocks at the shore,
their abdomens slick and quick with their breath,

and lie with their backs baked sweet with stone.
Blue and clouds tumble to creation in their eyes.

Leading each other down pine-cooled trails,
the air sultry with blueberry and warm golden grasses,

they step to the island’s needled shade,
and each scents the lake-sweet on the other’s skin.

When evening has come and their hungers are sated,
their senses warmed by the perch where they sit,

their thoughts float calm as loons on the water—
then plunge to surface, later, someplace else.

Their bodies as languid as the swaying of trees,
they listen to the applause of breeze in the aspens,

know the touch of each star as it plays on their skin,
and lie down in the circling of heavens on earth.

Reprinted with permission from the book “The Daring of Paradise,” published by Guernica Editions.) ”

Krishna-like figures are shown in more sexually explicit homoerotic scenes by artist Attila Richard Lukacs. They can be viewed in his “Varieties of Love” series at the following link:

Diane Farris Gallery

Here are other popular images that add Buddha to the mix to depict interfaith friendship at the highest level.

“May Loving-Kindness Abound” by VisionWorks (

“May Loving-Kindness Abound” from shows figures from three religions offering blessings. Jesus holds a lotus blossom as he sits cross-legged between Krishna and Buddha.

Christ, Buddha and Krisha walk together. Artist unknown.

The above image of three religious figures is often posted online with a quote from bisexual spiritual teacher Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.”

For more info on Krishna and other Hindu deities who transcend sexual and gender norms, visit the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association at:
The GALVA website is packed with fascinating material on Hindu saints and deities who embody the full spectrum of gender and sexual diversity, including but not limited to LGBTQ and “third sex.”

“The Love Between Krishna and Jesus” by Brian Day is reprinted in a previous version of this post and in his book “Azure.”

Related book:
Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex: Understanding Homosexuality, Transgender Identity, And Intersex Conditions Through Hinduism” by Amara Das Wilhelm.

Does anybody know who created the picture of Krishna and Christ at the top of this post? Or the one of Christ, Buddha and Jesus walking together. They are all over the Internet, but I haven’t been able to identify the artists. I would love to honor the artists by name.

Thanks to Mario Gonzalez for the tip about images.

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

This post is part of the LGBT Saints and Queer Christ 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. The queer Christ series gathers together visions presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.
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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.

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. (For the full story, see 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.

LGBT 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:
Tribute to Artemis

Are there any lesbian goddesseses?

The Nativity Project: Liberating new images of Mary and other New Testament women

Artemis” by Sudie Rakusin

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

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

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

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Monday, August 11, 2014

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

A rare photo of John Henry Newman and Ambrose Saint John together

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.

“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.

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? (

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

Hurrell Froude, John Henry Newman, and the Oxford Movement (

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

Blessed John Henry and Ambrose: Newman’s Last Sermon (Queering the Church)

“Out of the Shadows, Into the Light”: Blessed John Henry Newman (Queering the Church)

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

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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

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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 this summer 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 (

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 is joining the Sisters of St. Francis in New York as a lay associate on Aug. 17, 2014.
Related links:

John of La Verna (

Blessed John of Fermo (

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.

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Saturday, August 02, 2014

Jacob and the angel: Wrestling to reconcile body and spirit

“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” by Leon Bonnat (1876) via Wikimedia Commons

When Jacob wrestled with the angel in the Bible, they embodied the struggle between sexuality and spirituality. Artists have created many homoerotic images of the scene over the centuries. The story of Jacob wrestling (Genesis 32:24-31) is the Sunday lectionary reading for tomorrow (Aug 3).

Many have interpreted the story as a struggle between material and spiritual needs, but it is especially powerful for queer people who are trying to reconcile their sexuality and their faith. Jacob refused to give up the fight until he forced a blessing out of God. Like Jacob, LGBT people can also win God’s blessing by continuing to wrestle with our faith, regardless of those who condemn as sinners.

Jacob, ancestor and namesake of the Israelites, is alone one night when a mysterious stranger comes to him. Scripture refers to the stranger as a man, God, and an angel (Hosea 12:4). He wrestles with Jacob until dawn. Then the angel wants to leave, but Jacob insists, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

The angel gives him a new name and identity as Israel, which can be translated as “one who has prevailed with God.” Jacob asks to know the angel’s name, but he just gives a blessing and leaves. Alone again, Jacob marvels, “I have seen God face to face and lived.”

Jacob is honored in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For Christians, some see the pre-incarnate Christ himself as the mysterious stranger who wrestled with Jacob.

The story raises intriguing questions. What was the nature of the “wrestling” that went on all night long? Whether or not there was an erotic interaction, the friendly conclusion affirms that God wants to relate to human beings as equals. God rewards those who challenge God.

“Jacob and the Angel” by Hendrik Andersen, lover of Henry James. For the uncropped version (warning: full frontal nudity), visit Wikimedia Commons.
Related links:

Wrestling with God” at the Queering the Church Blog is a queer reflection on Jacob and the angel.

Click here for a gallery of art showing “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” at Wikimedia Commons.

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

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