Madre Juana de la Cruz Vázquez Gutiérrez was an abbess in 16th-century Spain who insisted that God changed her gender in the womb, transforming her from male to female. Her feast day is May 3 — which is both her birthday and also the day she died.
She also saw Jesus in queer ways, saying that Christ becomes whatever the seeker needs: father, mother, husband, wife, or friend. She blended sexuality and spirituality by envisioning the streets of heaven lined with marriage beds, each with God and a male or female saint. She had visionary experiences in which she lost consciousness and spoke in a deep voice that identified itself as Christ.
Some of her sermons are available in English for the first time in the 2016 book “Mother Juana de la Cruz, 1481-1534: Visionary Sermons,” edited by Jessica A. Boon and Ronald E. Surtz.
Juana was so controversial in her own time that her beatification was quashed, but modern scholars rediscovered her and the Vatican put her back on track for sainthood after an extensive review of her writings in recent years. Pope Francis issued a decree in March 2015 approving Juana’s “heroic virtues” and raising her to the status of “Venerable.”
Madre Juana’s genderbending life and theology are explored in the following article, written for the Jesus in Love Blog by Kevin Elphick, a scholar of queer Franciscan history. In 2016 he traveled to the convent where she lived, participating in “La Marcha de Santa Juana,” which recreates her flight from her family home, dressed as a man, to the convent.
“It is wonderful that 500 years later people are still celebrating this young woman (Santa Juana) turning her back on marriage and setting out for a community of women. A 15-year-old girl accompanied me on much of the trip and felt like a modern day-Juana. A young lesbian woman and her dog also walked with us. We sang ‘Resucito’ as we walked. It was a brilliantly sunny spring day, dripping with resurrection joy,” he said.
She is often called “Santa Juana” (Saint Juana) or “Madre Juana” (Mother Juana), but she is also known as Juana de Azaña, Juana de Cubas. She is a different person from another famous nun who had a similar name: Sor Juana de la Cruz of 17th-century Mexico.
Imagine this scenario. You are talking to a woman who believes that she was originally conceived as a male, but in utero, became a female. This woman points to her Adam’s apple as evidence of her claim. She shares that when her family wanted her to be married off to a suitable gentleman, she fled her family home dressed as a man to escape. Likely by now, you might be speculating that this person might be transgender. But before you reach this conclusion, one more fact to add: This person was born in the year 1481. Unlike us, the 15th century had no technical language to describe being transgender. But what might the stories of our transgender ancestors sound like? Perhaps something like the story of Juana de la Cruz I suspect.
Although never canonized, in Spain Mother Juana is known as “Santa Juana de la Cruz,” Saint Juana of the Cross. Each year pilgrims in Spain recreate the journey of young Juana leaving her family and traveling to the safety of the Franciscan convent. Every April, they contemplate a young girl dressed as a man, traveling to a refuge where she could remove those clothes and put on the clothing of yet another man, spending the rest of her life dressed in the habit of St. Francis.
Venerable Juana could not be a more timely saint. What does she say to us today? I believe her message for us today is a vision of claiming whatever gender elements we experience as our own, and heroically integrating and accentuating them into our lives regardless of what critics say. Her creative and sensitive reimaging of Biblical stories challenges us to translate our sacred Scriptures and Traditions into stories relevant and palatable for our listeners today. And Juana’s own integration in her own person of male and female roles and attributes, models for us the challenge to achieve the same. In the midst of the Inquisition, she was an abbess, preacher, parish leader, visionary, theologian, and tender advocate for her own community of women. Given the many paradoxes she embodied, it speaks to her remarkable character and sanctity that she not only traversed Inquisitional scrutiny, she locally came to be venerated as a saint.
Juana was born to farmers in the Spanish village of Azaña (today: Numancia de la Sagra) in Spain on May 3, 1481. She would later tell her community that God had been originally fashioning her as a male in the womb of her mother, but upon the intervention of the Blessed Virgin, she was changed into a female. As proof of this miracle, Juana pointed to her Adam’s Apple (in Spanish “nuez … en la garganta,” literally “nut in the throat”), as evidence of divine intervention. By the time she was 15, her family had identified a man to espouse her, but Juana would have nothing of this plan. Instead, she dressed in men’s clothing and fled her family home, walking to a community of women religious to begin a new life for herself. Each March, Christians continue to recreate her journey annually, pilgrimaging to Cubas de la Sagra (near Madrid) to visit the convent of “Santa Juana” — officially known as the Convent of Santa María de la Cruz.
Where a woman dressing as a man might seem odd as part of the story of a female saint, one need only think of St. Joan of Arc as a model for this pattern of holiness. Like St. Joan, depictions of Juana, her iconography, show her sanctity by portraying her dressed as a man. Other cross-dressing female saints include: Eugenia of Alexandria, Euphrosyne, Galla, Paula of Avila, Pelagia, and Wilgefortis. But for Juana, this dressing as a common man was transitory. Her goal was ultimately to clothe herself in the habit of another man, St. Francis of Assisi, by joining a community of Franciscan women. Now where some contemporary attitudes might find the homogenous celibate life of monasteries and convents to be potentially oppressive, in the past these homosocial communities were one of the few socially acceptable options for LGT persons to avoid otherwise socially prescribed heterosexual marriages.
In 1497 Juana professed as a member of the Franciscan sisters there in Cubas, Spain. By 1509, Juana was elected as Abbess of the community and became “Mother Juana.” Her community was unique in that it maintained a parish church and appointed its priest. Juana prudently appointed her own brother. Even more unique was Juana’s role in preaching lengthy locutions, giving detailed elaborations of Bible events and Jesus’ and Mary’s lives. These sermons were eventually collected in the book, El Libro del Conorte. It speaks to Juana’s personal charisma and vision, that in the midst of the Inquisition, she was both preaching and exercising oversight of a parish. To her credit, she sagely named God as the source and inspiration of her sermons, thereby placing the inquisitors in the position whereby if they questioned her, they were questioning God as well.
Juana’s expansive understanding of gender extended beyond herself. For her, Christ was both male and female as well. The blood and sweat of the Crucified Christ are evidence to Juana that at the cross, Jesus gave birth to us as our Mother.
Most interestingly, in her Sermon on the Holy Innocents, Jesus addresses the martyred female infants and says to them: “I also am a little girl (niña) like you, because I am the child of a woman.”
Juana is also partial to the gospel image of Jesus as the brooding mother hen (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” Matt. 23:37). For Juana, to imitate Christ is to imitate Mother Christ who keeps nestling souls safe beneath her protective wings. And still, this same Jesus is so expansive, that one gender alone is not adequate.
In one of Juana’s sermons, Jesus says: “And all those who seek in me a father, will find in me a father. And those who seek in me a mother, will find in me a mother. And those who seek in me a husband, will find in me a husband. And those who seek in me a bride, will find in me a bride. And those who seek in me a brother, or a friend, or a neighbor, or a companion, likewise will find in me everything they desire…”
[“E todos los que me quisieredes en padre, en padre me fallares. E los que me quisieredes en madre, en madre me falleres. E los que me quisieren en esposo, en esposo me fallaran. E los que me quisieren en esposa, en esposa me fallaran. E los que me quisieren en hermano o en amigo o en proximo o en conpanero, por semejante me fallaran para todo lo quisieren…”]
(Unless otherwise noted, the page references are quotes from: Ronald E Surtz, The Guitar of God: Gender, Power, and Authority in the Visionary World of Mother Juana de la Cruz; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. pp. 95-96.) Juana’s characterization of Jesus himself as a bride is unique in Christian mystical literature. Ronald E Surtz, one of the primary authors to introduce Juana to English readers, explains that “…in Mother Juana’s visionary world the differences between the sexes are blurred.” p. 94. More than blurred, in Mother Juana the two genders are each hyper-accentuated, and attributes of both are unearthed and lauded in each person she encounters and sermonizes.
As a devout follower of St. Francis and St. Clare, Mother Juana was very faithful to the tradition of gender-bending that the Franciscan family had engendered. In many ways Juana follows the Franciscan trajectory of gender liminality to its logical outcomes. During his life, St. Francis had had a vision of himself as a mother hen with multitudes of Franciscan children beneath his wings. Juana describes Francis as “the hen [that] labors to brood the eggs” (p. 44) [“…la gallina se trabaja por sacar los huevos…” p. 153] and has God fondly refer to him in Heaven as God’s own “little brown hen.” (p. 45) [“la gallina morenita” p. 153] Juana believes herself to imitate both Francis and Jesus by her own maternal brooding over souls seeking heaven.
St. Clare had had a vision in which she nursed at the breast of a lactating St. Francis. Juana builds upon this vision, having Christ ask to see St. Francis’ breasts. (p. 45) Francis complies and indicates that he nurses all of his followers: “My breasts, O Lord, here they are for these that I bring with me …the breast of my desires.” (Surtz, p. 45) [“ ‘Muestrame tus tetas…’ ‘Mis tetas, Senor, helas aqui, que estos que aqui traigo comigo fueron last etas de mis deseos’ p.59] Where Clare had experienced an interior encounter with Francis as nursing mother, Juana universalizes the lactating Mother Francis as a source of maternal nourishment for all his followers, endorsed by Christ himself.
In her sermon for the Feast of St. Francis, Mother Juana completes the gender transformation of St. Francis by declaring him the Bride and Wife of Christ. The Lord asks Francis “If you want to be my wife” and more pointedly “…if you want to be united and have relations with me …” [Si quieres ser mi muger y si te quieres unir y ayuntar conmigo.] So when Francis consents, he explains: “I will be united with you like the wife is united with the husband.” [me ayuntare contigo, asi como la esposa se ayunta con el esposo., p. 154] Jesus invites him to realize this union by sharing in the intensity of his Passion, to which Francis agrees. Juana then explains as narrator “And he was so united with him in that hour that He [Jesus] imprinted him with his five wounds after the same manner he received them on the cross.” (p. 154) [y que asi fue tan ayuntado con el en aquella hora que le imprimio las sus cinco llagas de la manera que rescibio en la cruz, p. 154] Surtz explains that the verb Juana uses for unite, “ayuntar,” includes the meaning “to have sexual intercourse…” thereby adding a “sexual semantic charge” to the verb. (p. 95) For Juana, Francis not only becomes Christ’s wife, but in the moment of marital consummation, his flesh is also penetrated by the Passion of Christ. For a 15th-century celibate, Juana could not be more explicit.
Juana uses this same verb to equally describe the Lord’s embrace of St. Clare. In a sermon for the Feast of St. Clare, Juana describes God’s intimacy with Clare as so fecund, that she mystically births the Christ Child. For Juana, the ultimate union with God is a mystical marriage. She herself experienced this same union. And as a Franciscan, her spiritual experience was deeply embodied and physical. She described it this way: “The Lord embraced me and placed his feet on my feet and his knees on my knees…and his palms on mine and his head and body against mine.” (p. 68) [Entonces abrazome el Senor y puso sus pies en mis pies y sus rodillas en mis rodillas… e sus palmas en las mias e su caveza e cuerpo todo junto con el mio. p. 68]
A 17th-century Cardinal reviewing Juana’s cause for beatification censured this experience from her writings, noting chidingly “corpus corpori copulante.” But for Juana the spiritual experience is very physical, and in no way diminished by this physicality. Like Francis, her union with Christ necessitates sharing his bodily passion, and still it fills her “with his presence and with the taste and sweetness of his love.” (p. 68) [Inchavase con la presencia suya e con el gusto y dulcor de su amor. p. 68] In a vision described in the “Vida” of her life, Christ explains that their wedded union to each other necessitates shared mutual suffering. “Since you chose me…. as husband and spouse, and you were wedded to me…there has been such intimacy, [that] surely some of my frailty had to infect you. Therefore, whoever loves well must suffer from the lover whatever befalls…” (p. 37). As a fellow bride of Christ, like Francis, Juana received the stigmata. (However, she prayed that it be taken away, and her gentle Spouse complied.)
In point of fact, Juana’s eschatology appears to be largely that of a heaven of marital bliss. She uniquely imagines a heaven where the streets are lined with marriage beds.
In her sermon, she places this vision in the mouth of God. “Just two persons were seated on each one of those loveliest of marriage beds that were along all the streets and corners of the kingdom of Heaven; one of them was [God] himself and the other was a male or female saint…the number of the elect …. will be many and incomparable, but …only two are to be united in faith and love, namely God and the soul.” (p. 96) [“…estavan en aquellos talamos preciosos que avia por todas las calles e cantones del reino de los cielos asentados en cada uno d’ellos solas dos personas, la una d’ellas hera El mesmo e la otra hera un santo o santa … el numero de los escogidos… mas que solos dos an de ser los ayuntados en una fe e amor, conviene a saber, Dios y el anima…” p. 96]
Juana does not flinch in envisioning marriage beds with same-sex or opposite-sexed pairings. For her what matters is the consummation of the Two united together.
She explains of Christ that “when he came into the world to be incarnated…. He did not come for any reason other than to invite [us] to nuptials…” (p. 119) [“Porque quando El vino en el mundo a encarnar…Mas quando El venia …no venia a otra cosa sino a conbidar a bodas…” p. 119]
Juana can envision herself as male and Francis as female because for her, gender is not an exclusive and firm-boundaried experience. No one has exclusive rights to define either gender. In her native Spanish with its gendering of nouns, Juana explains that our soul (anima – feminine) and spirit (espiritu – masculine) point toward the reality that the human person is a composite of both female and male.
“Because if woman has a soul, which is by name female, likewise man too has a soul… by name female, so that every man and woman can be called female. And, conversely, man and woman can be said ‘male’, because if man has a living and everlasting spirit, likewise woman has a living and everlasting spirit. Thus… man can be said ‘woman’ and woman can be said ‘man’, for both have a spirit and a living soul.” (p. 25) [Porque si la muger tiene anima, la qual se llama fenbra, por semejante tiene tanbien el honbre anima… llamada fenbra, de manera que todo honbre e muger se puede llamar fenbra. E por el contrario puede ser dicho el honbre e la muger varon porque si el honbre tiene espiritu biviente e permaneciente para siempre, por semejante tiene la muger espiritu biviente e permaneciente para siempre. Assi que honbre e muger todo es una cosa e un espiritu e un anima en cuanto el honbre puede ser dicho muger puede ser dicha honbre, pues entramos tienen espiritu e anima biviente. p. 25]
C. G. Jung would be pleased to have been so anticipated by Juana. Her tenacity and conviction that each gender is necessarily present and mutually essential extends even to the salvific event itself. For Juana, a solitary male Savior at Calvary is not sufficient. In Juana’s soteriology, the Passions of both Jesus and Mary are essential and salvific. An unwitnessed Passion cannot save. There must be the Suffering Servant and a witness, the Virgin, who voluntarily co-participates.
In Juana’s view, a man and woman occasioned the fall; equally so a woman and man remedy it. Juana envisions Mary’s co-participation in the work of the passion so that “…she was fully crucified in her soul, as he was in the body.” [“… era toda crucificada en el anima, asi como el lo era en el cuerpo”] [Jessica A. Boon’s “Mother Juana de la Cruz: Marian Visions and Female Preaching” in A New Companion to Hispanic Mysticism, ed. Hilaire Kallendorf, Boston: Brill, 2010., p. 147] The mutuality of this shared salvific experience is so thorough, that Juana changes the words of the cry of abandonment of Jesus from the cross to include also his mother. Instead of solely: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” Juana adds these words: “My powerful Father! Why have you abandoned me, that I and my mother die?” [Padre mio poderoso! Por que me has desamparado que morimos yo y mi madre? p. 147] In the depths of the passion, Juana necessitates a gender mutuality in which both male and female are actors in the remedy of human salvation.
Uniquely, Mother Juana died on her birthday in the odor of sanctity on May 3, 1534 at the age of 53. Her community continues to this day, although it has transitioned to a community of Franciscan Poor Clare nuns. In 1997, the Fraternity of Santa Juana was created in association with the Poor Clares, advocating anew for Juana’s canonization. In his book, Writing Women in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain: The Mothers of Saint Teresa of Avila, Surtz depicts Santa Juana as a literary “mother” to St. Teresa. Pope Francis has declared 2014-2015 as a Jubilee in Spain to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Teresa’s birth. It would seem fitting in this jubilee birthday celebration to ensure that the fiesta includes honoring the Mother also. Santa Juana is well worth celebrating. Pope Francis has been canonizing saints who have a long history of local veneration as “saint.” We may yet hear a declaration proclaiming her universally as the Saint she is.
It is my hope that one day Santa Juana will come to be formally recognized for her courage, sanctity, and leadership, all the more so as a patron saint for the LGBT community.
While it is miracle enough that Juana’s cause for canonization was resurrected nearly 500 years after her death, and after extensive re-scrutinizing of her writings, the Vatican will now be looking for two more miracles to advance her cause to formal sainthood for the universal Church. Would it not be telling and affirming if Madre Juana decided to bestow these two miracles upon LGBTQ individuals? Imagine the witness and affirmation Juana would be giving from her place of divine nuptials in heaven to today’s Church.
Holy Juana, pray for us your LGBT family and progeny.
2016 update from Kevin Elphick:
Since the initial writing of this blog post, the first English translation of some of Juana’s Sermons was published just last month, “Mother Juana de la Cruz, 1481-1534: Visionary Sermons.” In these Sermons we see Mother Juana’s continued emphasis on gender parity in the divine economy and further examples of Christ sharing marriage beds with both male and female saints. The book makes entire Sermons of Juana newly available to the English-speaking world. It is included on the list of the Top 35 LGBTQ Christian books of 2016.
Another effort by Ronald Surtz to make Juana’s writings better known is his article, “The Privileging of the Feminine in the Trinity Sermon of Mother Juana de la Cruz” in the book, “Women’s Voices and the Politics of the Spanish Empire” (University Press of the South). In this article, Surtz explores Juana’s groundbreaking image of the Father and the Son as each, mutually pregnant with the other, a unique conceptualization of the theological principle of Perichoresis, the teaching that the Persons of the Trinity mutually indwell each other. Increasingly, Mother Juana is being made better known to English-speaking audiences through the efforts of Professor Surtz and others.
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, Blessed Bartolo and Vivaldo, and Blessed John of La Verna. Elphick joined the Sisters of St. Francis in New York as a lay associate in 2014.
Juana de la Cruz Vázquez Gutiérrez bio (Wikipedia)
Images of Santa Juana de la Cruz (most are from the convent of Santa Maria de la Cruz in Cubas)
To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Madre Juana de la Cruz: ¿Una Santa Transgénero en la España del siglo XVI? (Santos Queer)
To read this article in Italian, go to
Madre Juana de la Cruz, una santa queer per le persone LGBT di oggi (www.gionata.org)
Top image credit:
Portrait of Juana de la Cruz Vázquez Gutiérrez from Cubas de la Sagra, Madrid, Spain, circa 1600 (Wikipedia)
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
Icons of Madre Juana de la Cruz and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com
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