Reading Coakley: The Contemplative Curse of Women and Protestants

This is the second post in a ten-week series on reading Sarah Coakley’s Powers and Submissions with my friend and mentor, Pastor Jason Byassee. See my launching post from last week here.


It’s an honor to be invited into this conversation, and I don’t mind being swooned over in the least, especially as we read together a theologian I’ve swooned over myself not a little. Sarah was kind enough to blurb my small church book, to engage me in dialogue about her work for an academic article I wrote, and to eat Thai with me in Cambridge once.

The essay from chapter two reminds me why I love Coakley’s work. Here she is engaging in conversation with a man I’ve never heard of (hey, I’m a Methodist, we were probably reading church growth technique or something), one Dom John Chapman OSB, arguing with his early 20th century reading of St. John of the Cross as she and both men wrestle together with prayer, feelings, darkness and agony, and implicitly, with gender.

This is how theology works—it’s a conversation among saints through time and space about the God fleshed in Christ, constantly poured out anew in the scriptures and the liturgy. The fact that I’ve not heard of the Dom is also oddly comforting. We’ll never run out of theology to read, just as we’ll never run out of God to contemplate.

But maybe that’s not such great news. Dom Chapman corresponded with countless professional praying people – monks and nuns—and found the bulk of them quite unsatisfied with their experience of prayer. Work at this long enough and the harder slog it’ll be, they thought. His advice was comforting: “Pray as you can, and not as you can’t.” And that saying’s correlate: “The more you pray, the better it gets.”

This advice strikes me as fundamentally right, in line with other bodily activities that make us human (exercise, sex), but which can also destroy us if done wrong.

Then Coakley shows that Dom was nearsighted in ruling out bodily affect, in ignoring sexuality altogether, and in aligning sentiment and spiritual experience with two ultimate horrors: women and Protestants.

Sorry Erin, you fail on both scores . . .

You asked last week where I feel vulnerability as a man. I guess the answer right now is as a pastor—as I’ve been back in the parish only two weeks. My entire family’s livelihood, the whole of my career, is, in some sense, in the dock for my church to judge. If they like me I do well; if not I don’t. That’s overly simple, of course. We have mechanisms in place for pastors to be prophetic, bureaucracies and bishops to stand between us and the mob if the congregation revolts.

Nevertheless I’m struck by how vulnerable it feels to have 1400 judges each week and to feel the need to please all of them or my kids may not eat. Isn’t hysteria supposed to be (quite literally) a female attribute?

You appreciate the way Coakley moves past the dismissal of all gender essentialism and wants to keep some of them, in modified form. I’m struck by how I want to keep most of them decentered. What I expressed above isn’t male or female, it’s just small-minded, fearful. It waits to be entered into by the vulnerable, power-giving God and exploded. I am compelled by the image of the church as Christ’s bride (I’ve found myself using it in public prayer and teaching twice already in two weeks), but I’m not sure that means soft or receptive or submissive.

All of this Dom Chapman would pillory—affect, women, sex, Protestants.

All the good stuff, in other words.


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