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Prayer as Divine Propulsion: An Interview with Sarah Coakley, Part I

Sarah Coakley is a theologian and philosopher of religion who is widely known for her writings on prayer, gender, and systematic theology. Her work argues that the rational exercise of theology must not be severed from the embodied practice of theology. Here, in Part I of this interview, Coakley shares how prayer intersects with her work as a scholar and a priest and makes a case for asceticism in the everyday prayer life of Christians. Then, next week in Part II, she will discuss the erotic nature of prayer, her Gifford Lectures, and how silent prayer is most meaningful in community.


The Other Journal (TOJ): Let’s start by revisiting a piece you wrote last year for the Christian Century in which you shared about your prayer journey and how the practice of silent prayer has transformed your thinking.1 Could you talk a bit about this and how it connects to your forthcoming systematic theology?

Sarah Coakley (SC): A lot of what I’ve written on prayer starts with the New Testament. Jesus’s disciples ask him what to do when they pray and they are given a set of fundamental petitions, and then in a very profound passage in Romans 8, Paul acknowledges that we do not know how to pray or even what to ask for. I don’t think these two passages are incompatible. We know that Jesus spent a lot of time seeking to be alone, praying to his “Abba.” Clearly he didn’t restrict his prayers to punctiliar requests. And indeed, the deeper one goes into the Lord’s Prayer, the more one sees that the seemingly generic requests he gives us, like “thy kingdom come,” summon up a whole way of displacing one’s self or waiting for something else to arrive.

It took me a long time to realize this, but I think that what seems to be our sheer incompetence in prayer is actually the place where something is happening: it is God invading our willed vulnerability. I think a lot of people try to pray and then give up. They feel it isn’t right for them, that they aren’t good at it. But prayer is not like riding a bicycle or getting a good grade on a term paper. It’s something sui generis precisely because relating to God isn’t like relating to anything or anyone else. That’s the first and most important point: we should always pray as we can, not as we can’t.

Many traditions that are enfolded within Christianity plot a sort of progression to prayer, but I’m fairly resistant to the idea of progress as prayer because I have a strong sense that every time I try to pray I know I’m incompetent. At the same time, however, anyone who is seriously committed to prayer on a daily basis will know that things do start to happen: one is being transformed, one’s whole life is being drawn like a magnetized set of iron filings in a unified direction so the bits of one’s self that one thought were completely unconnected suddenly become vibrantly connected. The greatest writers on prayer in the Christian tradition tell us that once you seriously embark on this journey, it’s like giving your life away: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31 NRSV). And we could say that there are stages of progression in this journey, but it’s never for us to say where we are.

Now, I think that one of the most important things to happen in such a progression is a barely perceptible sharpening or transformation of the senses and the mind, partly because what we now call the unconscious is welling up and forcing itself to be integrated. We suddenly realize that we are seeing and knowing and responding to the world in ways that we didn’t before. And this is what I’m theorizing about as a philosopher of religion—I’ve already hinted at it in a couple of places, such as a chapter in Powers and Submissions where I talk about what it takes to see the risen Christ or, more recently, in The Spiritual Senses, a book I produced with a number of colleagues toward the end of my time at Harvard.2 The tradition of the spiritual senses is not unified in the Christian tradition—indeed, it’s rather elusive. But the basic idea is that our life is set on a course of transformation and purification. We are given a sensual life, an imaginative life, an affective life, and a noetic life, and each of these features of selfhood has to pass through transformation and purification en route to the vision of God. So of course that affects the mind, the senses, and the imagination. And that’s what I’m going to try to talk about more precisely in my second volume of systematics.

TOJ: I’m intrigued by your account of prayer—particularly silent prayer—as an embodied practice. Often we understand prayer as a discursive exercise, yet it seems that silent prayer is a form of active listening. It’s a process through which our desires are reshaped by the One who desires us wholly and fully. This brings about an ascetical reordering of desire that is, as you’ve said, “seemingly a lost art in the affluent world in the West.”3 What is ascetical practice and what is it about the economy of affluence that resists asceticism?

SC: These are big, important questions. I’m always suspicious of people who make generalizations about our cultural life, but you only have to spend two seconds on the web or watching advertisements on television to know that the intensification of pleasure and the desire for power and influence are dominant icons in our culture. And I’m surprised how little Western Christianity resists these. How often do we hear nuanced Christian assessments of these aspects of our culture? I’ve written a piece on the sex scandals in the Catholic Church in which I cite Gregory of Nyssa’s text De Virginitate where he asks, are you basically a pleasure lover or basically a God lover?4 Christianity tells us that these senses ultimately unite in the beatific vision—because there could be nothing more joyous or transformative or pleasurable than being desired by God and responding in complete unity with God—but in the lower rungs of life we have to make choices about how we are going to spend our time, let our imaginations play, or direct our will.

In prayer, particularly in silent prayer, these choices press on us in a way that is very disconcerting. We only have to spend about five seconds in silence before we’re thinking, “This is boring. Why don’t I go do something more interesting?” Our minds are immediately distracted with intense desires for cream buns or with random sexual fantasies. Laying ourselves out before God in a sort of naked way releases the imagination. It isn’t relieving; it’s humbling. It’s also quite funny—this is the lot of humanity! Yet if I were starving or dying of thirst, I would only have one interest: the desire to find something to eat or drink. This wandering of the mind—that I can wonder what video game I’m going to play or whether I’m going to have a diet Coke or a non-diet Coke—is thus a privilege of affluence. In North Atlantic culture I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that desires are all related in a kind of nexus, that our desire for a cup of tea is intimately, though not obviously, connected to our desire for sex, for power, and for influence, and these things are ultimately bound up with our desire for God. Silent prayer forces us to think about these puzzling connections and to order our desires in relation to God.

But how do we even begin to order those desires? This cup of tea we’re having now seems pretty harmless, especially since I’ve got a sore throat, yet like that cup of tea, sleeping with someone else’s husband might also seem highly attractive at times, but it would work out to be truly destructive. How do these desires relate to the tug inside our naked hearts, to our longing in the darkness, to that source of our being that is the only final goal in which real satisfactions lie? Desire isn’t simply about sex; the tether of desire is the lot of humanity, and it requires spiritual and moral discernment. And theologically, I think our goal is to spread out these desires before God, to have them find their proper place. Some of these desires are strongly inflected by sin, and they need attention through grace and the Spirit. Other desires are not necessarily sinful but can get wrongly intensified; they can be in the wrong place or in the wrong order at the wrong time.

You asked me what we mean by “ascetic practice.” In contemporary American culture there is a fascination with asceticism in one form—what do you think all those people are doing in the gym? We’ve developed a sternly punitive vision whereby we pummel the body for the sake of longevity, sexual attractiveness, and the denial of death. Asceticism has been marshaled into a hedonistic metaphysic. Yet I don’t think that everyone who is engaged in working out is wrongly motivated. There are certain things we can do that balance our lives, that make us feel better, and that make our relationships with others and our relationships with God better, and these are things I might call properly ascetic. At its best, I don’t see asceticism as puritanical and punitive but as a set of directives, practices, and guidelines by which we can be held accountable to God and to our various communities so that we can best serve them and best serve God.

TOJ: That’s helpful. After all, asceticism isn’t necessarily familiar vocabulary for us.

SC: No, it’s not. It’s a Catholic-Orthodox word. And if you see all the recent revulsions that Catholicism has gone through—Michel Foucault’s quite interesting on this5—you’ll realize that by the end of the nineteenth century, Western Catholics were engaged in some highly distorted and punitive forms of ascetical practice, like self-flagellation, which were not only self-hating but very destructively gendered as well. We’ve got to recover from that kind of distortion of asceticism before we can get going again. And asceticism’s unfamiliarity helps us to see it as something we need to recover: this is a practice that involves ordering our desires and ordering them aright. I don’t think it is out of tune with many of Jesus’s sayings about the priorities that we make in life. Nor is it out of line with what Paul has to say about life in the Spirit.

TOJ: Your definition of asceticism, it seems, ties back into your thinking about a nexus of desires, instead of the divergence that many American Christians perceive between pleasure and rightly ordered desire, or what is often seen by them as repression.

SC: Yes, and what can be puzzling is that there’s another resource that’s feeding into Christianity here: the Platonic tradition. In the discussion of the nature of true love and beauty in Plato’s Symposium and in his wonderful metaphor of the good horse, the bad horse, and the charioteer in the Phaedo, we see the problem of always competing desires. Plato makes us consider how our desires are to be purified, how they are they to be rightly directed. And what Christianity did from the third century on was to blend everything from the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’s and Paul’s teachings with that Platonic tradition of the purification and purgation of desires. I stand explicitly within that tradition of Christian-Platonist convergence, and I think it was an extraordinarily creative nexus. Yet this wisdom has been overlain in the modern period with a revulsion against any kind of asceticism or self-restraint. And in certain kinds of Calvinism—if you’ll forgive me, I don’t think it’s Calvin himself—this revulsion is paired with a tendency to put sex in one box and God in another. And the idea that we could get both sex and self-restraint in a relationship now strikes us as out of reach or as something only possible in an exceptionally idealized form. This reflects, I think, the deep optimisms and pessimisms that we find ourselves in over the institution of marriage in this culture: we lurch from hope to despair, but we lack ascetical staying power.

TOJ: You’re an Anglican priest who has written on the connections between prayer, place, and the poor in Praying for England.6 What have your experiences as a priest taught you about prayer?

SC: What has being a priest taught me? That’s a lovely question. I think the first thing is humblingly, and repetitively, how inadequate my prayer for others seems to be. And I say that because when you begin talking about silence, you set off suspicions, especially among Calvinists, that this is a mystical form of elitism of which the Reformers were rightly suspicious. I want to repeat again that the kind of prayer I’m talking about is not a highly mystical endeavor. It is simply coming back again and again to that admission that as humans we can’t fix anything. In contrast, there’s a huge propulsion in contemporary missiology to bring church activities under the aegis of business thinking and to think of the church as fixing things. This is a serious delusion. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think we can learn things from business—I’m very open to that—but as soon as churches become fixes, no matter how well they do it, in my view they are stifling the Spirit.

That’s not a way of saying, “Let’s be incompetent!” On the contrary, it’s a way of placing the church under the banner of contemplation and love. I was on retreat two weeks ago and I found in the retreat house Thomas Merton’s last book that he wrote for the Cistercian publication series before he died. And in the last section that he wrote—it’s a book on the monastic contribution to the life of the church—he is so prescient. He says that unless there is contemplation in the life of the church, the church will always become seduced by its own power, especially when it’s successful, and the nation, in that case the United States, will become seduced by its own influence.7 Prayer is this constant return to the place where one’s projects are frail and fallible and where one can only fall on God’s mercy. That’s the place God works. And God works powerfully there. Thus, whenever I have a project for improving something in the parish, I know it’s a dangerous area [laughs], and I know that I must step back and wait for that sensibility, that questioning, about whether this is really where the Spirit is going. Whenever I meet a difficult parishioner, any interaction that isn’t first and foremost a listening—so that I may be destabilized from what I think I’m going to say—is a danger site. And I know that whenever I cease or fail to practice prayer, things go wrong because I’m starting to rely on myself rather than on God. It’s such a basic point, but we have any number of devious ways of avoiding this point. And the more successful we are, the more dangerous it is.

There’s another thing that’s dangerous about being ordained in our time. It’s not just that the church authorities want churches to be busy and efficacious but that they give clergy hundreds of new things to do, and that’s been exacerbated by the web, e-mail, and other social media. I believe that all those things can be used for the glory of God, but I’ve noticed that since I’ve become a priest my capacity to evade prayer has been even more intensified by these many distractions and seductions.

And there’s a final point here, a more public, liturgical point. When we are in the locus of the presider at worship and the leader of prayer—whether it’s as priest or preacher, whether it’s conscious or unconscious—we are actually drawing the desires and prayers of the people we serve to us. We are in a very dangerous, important, incubating sort of role. And I don’t think that clergy are sufficiently conscious of that on the whole. We are both necessarily collecting desires and projections, which are of course sort of unreal, and also gently deflecting them to God by being willing to receive them; and it is only by being extraordinarily careful with them as a matter of discipline that we learn not to identify with them. People’s longings for the representative function of the minister are there not because we ministers are inherently sexy, but because we have a very special role for which we have been ordained. And it is our duty first and foremost always to hand this desire over, to deflect it gently to its true source in God. This is not the same thing as saying, “Oh, I’m so embarrassed about this” and flapping about—we have to receive it but also give it away. I wasn’t taught that, and I think it’s an area where, if it goes wrong, it can easily lead to abuse or false control. Clergy are both vulnerable and empowered, which is both a dangerous and interesting position; it’s a potentially creative role that’s also potentially destructive.


1. Coakley, “Prayer as Crucible: How My Mind Has Changed,” Christian Century 128.6 (2011): 32–40.

2. See Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002); and Paul L. Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley, eds., Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

3. Coakley, “Prayer as Crucible,” 39.

4. See Coakley, “Pleasure Principles: Toward a Contemporary Theology of Desire,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 33.2 (2005): 20–33.

5. See, for example, Foucault, History of Sexuality (New York, NY: Random House, 1978).

6. See Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley, eds., Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture (New York, NY: Continuum, 2008).

7. See Merton, The Climate of Monastic Prayer, Cistercian Studies (Louisville, KY: Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust, 1969).

*Please note that the cover image is courtesy of Samolinov, whose work can be found at http://pixtream.samolinov.com/.

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Sarah Coakley :
Sarah Coakley is the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. She was the Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity at Harvard University from 1995 to 2007, and she has also held positions at the Universities of Lancaster, Oxford, and Princeton. Coakley delivered the 2011–2012 Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen, United Kingdom, and her first volume of systematics, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity,” is forthcoming in 2013.
SueJeanne Koh :
SueJeanne Koh is a doctoral student in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School and is theology editor of The Other Journal.