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GENDER IN THE NIGHT: JUAN DE LA CRUZ AND CECILIA DEL NACIMIENTO Elizabeth Rhodes Boston College Et dixi: Forsitan tenebrae conculcabunt me; Et nox illuminatio mea in deliciis meis. (Psalmus 138.11 [St. Jerome’s Vulgate]) T he notion of “the dark night of the soul,” the subject of the two mystical poems under consideration here, has passed itself through a remarkable metamorphosis. The phrase is generally understood to have originated in Plotinus (?205-270? C.E.), who used it to describe the radiant darkness that characterizes the final phases of mystical union (Underhill 15). St. Juan de la Cruz made the expression famous in his eight-stanza poem “Noche oscura,” whose subject Kieran Kavanaugh describes as “the painful passage through the night, and the unspeakable joy of encountering God” (353). From this celestial height, the same expression has suffered something of a fall into popular discourse, and is used today to describe any difficult circumstance. For example, on a website for a software company recently in financial distress, one finds “The Dark Night of the Soul” heading a page that opens, “The last quarter of Autodesk’s fiscal year has always been the most difficult . . . “ (Autodesk). This leap illustrates the ability of certain powerful signifiers to remain fixed while what they signify crosses large semantic distances, particularly over long expanses of time. What follows is a consideration of a similar leap, at work not along the axis of geography or time, rather of gender. The lexical and anecdotal similarities between Juan de la Cruz’s “Noche oscura” and Cecilia del Nacimiento’s “Canciones de la unión y transformación del alma en Dios” (hereafter “Canciones”) point to some kind of a relationship between the two: both employ apophatic tropes of darkness and cast the human soul as a lover whose desire for her beloved leads her to seek him out and become one with him in joy.1 The fact that Cecilia del Nacimiento’s “Canciones” were actually attributed to Juan de la Cruz for several hundred years is CALÍOPE Vol. 13, No. 2 (2007), pages 39-61 40 Elizabeth Rhodes D D D D D testimony of both the high quality of her poem and its apparent kinship with his work.2 The connection between the two texts has been described as that of a poem and its gloss, or one text that inspires another, with Cecilia del Nacimiento as the imitator and Juan de la Cruz the imitated. Boyce and Olivares refer to the “Canciones” as a verse contemplation on Juan de la Cruz’s text (148); Toft says the Carmelite nun’s poem is based on Saint Juan de la Cruz’s (84); Arenal and Schlau find that it explicates and expands Juan de la Cruz’s mystical theme (144).3 The poems have much in common; they share the theme of the mystical union of the soul with God, embodied in a female protagonist who leaves one space to seek out her lover in another. Furthermore, both use standard mystical signifiers of night, light, and fire, culminate in an exclamatory stanza that masks the moment of union, and end depicting a dissolution into bliss. These representational tools could have been drawn from the common pool of tropes that characterize Catholic mystical writings, writings indebted to Christian interpretations of the Song of Songs. Although written after Juan de la Cruz’s poem, Cecilia del Nacimiento’s is not constrained by his, and in fact may be read as a different answer to the same question to which he responds in “Noche oscura”: what is the state of the soul it its final approach to and encounter with the divinity? In what follows, I would like to suggest that the gendered conditions of mystical representation, conditions that reflect gender socialization, are manifest in the differences between the Discalced Carmelite nun’s verse account of the soul’s union with God and that of the Discalced Carmelite friar. In this context, the distinctions between the two texts illuminate not only the plurality of paths leading to God, buy also the vivid differences between the way in which early modern man rendered his path to God and...


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pp. 39-61
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