Prayer as Crucible by Sarah Coakley

Christian Century, March 2011

Sarah Coakley is an excellent writer, perhaps especially for an academic theologian!  She is clear, concise and somehow very direct: a ‘straight shooter’ we might say.  I always get the impression that whatever ends up on the page has been ruminating in her head for a long time – like a slow cooked roast, ready now to fall off the bone and melt in the mouth.

In this article for Christian Century magazine, she explains how her experience of contemplative prayer has transformed her understanding of theology.  In her first academic post Coakley started a program of transcendental meditation and quickly discovered the power of silence.  She then started a quest to understand what was happening to her in the silence through the wisdom of the Christian tradition in which she was academically trained as well as spirituality formed from childhood.

This is something similar to my own experience: the shock of discovering the transformative power of silence.  Of discovering reams of cognition beyond rationality and in particular the depths of knowledge we hold physically in our body.  Yes, I still feel a little self-conscious when I come out with statements like this: in particular my non-spiritual family members clearly think I’m on drugs!  But once you’ve experienced it there is no turning back.

“I hadn’t been going longer than about two months with this simple discipline of 20 minutes of silence in the morning and early evening when what I can only call a seismic shift of seemingly unspeakable proportions began to afflict me. Whatever was going on here was not only “transcendental” but severely real…
But I must not leave the impression that this adventure in prayer was all anxiety-making, although its initial impact on my sense of self as a young theologian was certainly that. Underneath was an extraordinary sense of spiritual and epistemic expansion —of being taken by the hand into a new world of glorious technicolor, in which all one’s desires were newly magnetized toward God, all beauty sharpened and intensified. Yet simultaneously all poverty, deprivation and injustice were equally and painfully impressed with new force on my consciousness…
Lest this seem like a claim to some special supernatural encounter, I hasten to add that the daily practice of silence itself was usually more like the tedious quotidian discipline of brushing one’s teeth than anything else. It was the effects outside prayer—including, of course, the effects on other normal Christian or academic duties (hearing the Word, participating in the sacraments, attending to students in difficulties, writing lectures and so on)—that were initially hard to quantify and yet palpably transforming of all my previous theological assumptions.  “

Coakley identifies three areas where her experience of silence has transformed her approach to theology.

First, Control and Loss of Control: ‘powers and submissions’.  For a feminist, power is a primary preoccupation, particularly personal power.  Is not this kind of submission to God a dangerous relinquishing of our individuality?  No, because this is prayer: the place where we become our best, most powerful selves.

“submission to God and silence before God—being unlike any other submission or any other silence— was that which empowered one to speak against injustice and abuse and was the ground of true freedom (in God) rather than its suppression.”

Second, Coakley discovered Sex, bodiliness and the Mystery of Desire in prayer.  I have been utterly surprised at the intense physicality of sitting still!  My personal meditation practices have veered more and more towards conscientious embodiment, particularly using breathing to refocus my attention on that abstract ‘space’ within me where my true and whole self encounters God.  This transition into the body, integrated with head and heart, was one I desperately needed to make, and for the first time I understand Jesus’ metaphor of being ‘born again’.  As for my concept of sexuality: it was blown out of the water!  Sarah’s description perfectly matches my own:

“No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered. Anyone who has spent more than a short time on her or his knees in silence will know of the almost farcical raid that the unconscious makes on us in the sexual arena in such prayer, as if this is a sort of joke that God has up God’s sleeve to ensure that “ourselves, our souls and bodies” are what we present to God and not some pious disembodied version of such. Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will not allow this, or not for very long.”

The third change Coakley identifies is particularly relevant to her vocation as philosophical theologian.  Rationality and its expansion: variations on post-foundationism.  In silence, we encounter an expanded experience of cognition.  Knowledge and ‘truth’ take new and varied forms and we realise that empirical knowledge is but one small aspect of the whole.  All I can say is, ‘Amen Sarah, amen!’

“In a period when there has been a remarkable set of attacks on classical foundationalism by both philosophers and theologians, I have again felt myself to be plowing a subtly different course as a result of the prayer perspective I have tried to outline above… My own response to this philosophical and theological crisis is one that seeks to analyze the dark testing of contemplation as precisely an epistemological challenge. In other words, I continue to reject another false modern disjunction—that between spirituality and philosophy. It is not that contemplation affords just another sectarian theological perspective, which one can take or leave as one wills. Rather, its painful and often dark expansion of consciousness, its integration of thought and affect and its ethical sensitizing to what is otherwise neglected (including, of course, the poor “who are always with us”) all demand that one give an account of how philosophy, and science and politics too, cannot ultimately afford to ignore the apprehensions that contemplation invites.”

You can access a copy of the whole article on the Christian Century website:

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