The Dark Nights of Grey Souls: 'Both/And' and 'Neither/Nor' Identities in Saint Juan (a.k.a. John) of the Cross

“If you find (or can imagine!) yourself on the margins of the margins, as someone who sees themselves as “both/and” or “neither/nor” in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or difference of ability, understand that this in-betweenness can represent a first step on the path into union with God. ”

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Saint John of the Cross invites his readers to step outside of themselves. A man reading John’s work must imagine himself as a woman disguised as a man, in pursuit of her male lover—who represents God. Elsewhere in John’s work, dark skin becomes light, a woman becomes a bird, a man becomes a stag, and two become one. Because such crossed lines of identity are explicit in John’s poetry in the Spanish original, they have received ample attention in literary scholarship. However, because John’s own commentaries emphasize his poems’ sacred meaning, theological analyses have generally avoided the gendered, sexual, racial, and ecological implications of John’s work. By embracing both the literary and the theological, my work will bridge the gap.

Alienation can yield reconciliation. Ambiguity can give way to transcendence. By affirming this, John validates the lived experience of at least some of us who inhabit the in-between. John invites others, too, through the power of imagination, to step outside of themselves into the margins of the margins, to identify with the Other and to other themselves. Even though John’s ultimate goal for his readers is for them to move beyond worldly concerns into union with God, the in-between is a viable, perhaps essential, starting point.