Today’s post is from guest contributor Nicholas Hayes-Mota. Nicholas is a Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow in Theological Ethics at Boston College. His research includes explorations of the connection between moral and political agency; the public role of religion in contemporary liberal democracies; and the relationship between public, political, and liberation theologies. To learn more about Nicholas, click here.
Today’s post is a review of Miguel H. Diaz’s new book Queer God de Amor from Fordham Press, an installment of the “Disruptive Cartographers: Doing Theology Latinamente” series. You can find more information about the book by clicking here.
Within the rich lineage of Catholic spiritual masters, St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) cuts a distinctive figure. In the English-speaking world, he is perhaps best known for his treatise on The Dark Night, a major work of mysticism to which we owe the popular idea of a “dark night of the soul.” Though St. John himself did not actually use that phrase, he did describe experiences of spiritual anguish, and divine absence, in ways that still speak powerfully to this day—one reason for the abiding interest in his work.
Within the Spanish-speaking world, however, San Juan de la Cruz is equally well-known as one of the greatest poetic stylists in the Spanish language, which was his native tongue. In fact, his signature theological works, including The Dark Night (La Noche Oscura), take the form of elaborate commentaries on mystical poems he specially composed for that purpose. And in Spanish, it is even more difficult to miss the fact that San Juan’s poems are sexy. Very sexy. In strikingly beautiful language, he figures the relationship between God and the human soul as a romance between lovers, which culminates in the ecstasy of union. What’s more, though Juan does not always gender the soul, or God, in the same way, in some of his renderings, both lover and beloved are (implicitly or explicitly) male.
What are we to make of Juan’s erotically charged mysticism, and its suggestions of homoeroticism, today? That question is the starting point for Miguel Díaz’s new book, Queer God de Amor, which offers a queer, Latine, and Catholic theological reading of San Juan. As some readers may know, the book’s journey to publication was a fraught one, with Díaz’s original publisher (Orbis) abruptly pulling out at the last minute before the book’s slated release. It is fortunate that the book found another home at Fordham University Press in short order. As a study of Juan de la Cruz, Queer God de Amor is wonderfully provocative and illuminating. And for queer and Latine Catholics, like myself, it is a theological lifeline.
One might think that San Juan’s eroticism would suggest his work as a resource for all those struggling to make theological sense of human sexuality, whether professional theologians, practicing Catholics (especially LGBTQ Catholics), or spiritual seekers of many stripes. As Díaz observes, however, most scholars and many readers of San Juan downplay the erotic aspect of his writings, tending instead either to “spiritualize” it (“he’s not really talking about that”…) or simply ignore it. Yet there is simply “no denying the sexuality” evident in Juan’s poetry, Díaz argues. Far from being incidental, sexuality was integral to Juan’s spirituality, which recognized human sexual union as the most fitting analogue for mystical union with God.
The famous “Dark Night” itself, for example—the poem, rather than the commentary—is not immediately about spiritual anguish or divine absence at all. Drawing on an established genre of Iberian love poetry, it narrates the furtive midnight tryst between a lover and his beloved, and the “transformation of each into the other” that takes place when they unite. “Upon my flowering chest which I kept for him alone/there he fell asleep/and I caressing him,” San Juan exults in one stanza, before recounting how his lover “wounded my neck, suspending all my senses.” Likewise, in another poem called “The Living Flame of Love” (“Llama de Amor Viva”), Juan begins by begging his lover to stop being shy, and “break the veil of this sweet encounter” (“rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro”). From there, the seduction—of Juan by God, and of the reader by Juan’s poetry—only escalates.
To be clear, however, Díaz’s aim in Queer God de Amor is not to argue that San Juan’s theology is only, or even primarily, about sex. Still less is it to claim that Juan, a Carmelite friar and vowed celibate, was himself sexually active or gay; as Díaz notes, there is no evidence for either claim. Instead, Díaz’s book is up to something both more plausible and profound. At its core, Queer God de Amor is an exploration of how Juan de la Cruz understood the vexed relationship between spirituality and sensuality, especially, but not only, sexuality. It is also an impassioned argument that, on this score, the saint still has much to teach us today.
What I most appreciated about Díaz’s book was its theological depth. In its central chapters, the author draws his readers into the Trinitarian heart of San Juan’s theology, bringing into focus the distinctive vision of God that informed the saint’s piety, his poetry, and, yes, his eroticism. For Juan, Díaz shows, God is above all a relational communion of Persons, whose essence is love, and whose ecstatic love for one another so overflows that they cannot resist creating others to share in their love. Meanwhile, we, as human persons, are the doubly graced recipients of divine love. Through the Incarnation, God invites us into union, and through the fire of the Spirit, God seduces us to surrender ourselves ever more fully into that union, body and soul. And because we are ourselves created in the image of the Triune God, our relationships with other human persons—including our sexual relationships— reflect, and participate in, the very Love by and for Whom we are made.
Díaz invites his readers to draw this amorous vision of God from San Juan as a resource for our own spirituality. For queer readers in particular, he suggests, both Juan’s theology and his poetry hold unique potential to help us discern the grace at work in our daily living and loving, and to see our queer relationships for what they truly are: not sources of shame, but participations in the “living flame” of God’s love.
Of course, Díaz also acknowledges that our relationships are not always vehicles for grace. Our sexuality, like so much else about us, can go wrong in various ways, especially when we forget that its ultimate purpose, and destination, is union with God. As a theological ethicist myself, I finished the book curious for Díaz to say more about what leading our queer sexual lives sanjuanistamente (“in the manner of San Juan”) might actually look like in practice. Likewise, I wished for further discussion of the appropriate role of asceticism, so important to Juan, in our relationships with God and others. Nevertheless, though Queer God de Amor only begins to engage these questions, it furnishes a strong theological foundation for exploring them more fully. That, in itself, is a great contribution.
Let me conclude on a personal note. Apart from being a theologian, I am a gay Catholic Costa Rican-American, married to a gay Catholic Mexican-American; I am also the hijo and sobrino of two Spanish literature professors, both of whom taught me to love San Juan de la Cruz long before I studied theology or came to terms with my sexuality. For me, therefore, a particular joy of reading this book was experiencing it weave so many parts of my life together: my family and my faith, my cultural heritage and my theological training, my sexuality and my spirituality. I suspect I am far from the only reader who will have this experience. Queer God de Amor reminds us that those very aspects of ourselves which we may see as set apart, God sees as bound together, and so indeed they are, enfolded within the ecstatic, all-inclusive love of our divine Lover. For all Catholics, but especially, perhaps, for those who are queer, this is a theology worth taking to heart. More importantly, it is a Gospel by which we can live.
 The series editors for the book rightly observe, in their introduction, that those who belong to the “Latino” community refer to ourselves and our communities in a multiplicity of ways. Díaz, writing as a gay Cuban-American, most often uses “Latin@” or “Latinx,” the latter of which aims to include those who do not identify with the normative gender binary. For that purpose, I prefer the term “Latine,” which is presently less well-known in the U.S., but more widely used by queer communities in Latin America—and far less unwieldy in Spanish.
—Nicholas Hayes-Mota, January 19, 2023