On the contemplative life

Sarah Coakley finds a transformative vision for womanhood in an unexpected place.



Sarah Coakley finds a transformative vision for womanhood in an unexpected place.


If you look at the history of contemplation, and of ascetic practices in relation to contemplation, you will find that some of the most powerful, courageous women and other contemplatives in the tradition – great reformers such as the Carmelites; Teresa of Ávila was no pushover (and she is a particular heroine of mine) – who precisely through a life of contemplation, precisely through a life of handing over at the deepest level of the self to the life of God, have the capacity to resist injustice, oppression, both from their own order, from the church, and from the world at large. And there are transformative visions of womanhood that truly, as it were, bring to fruition that promise in Paul in Galatians of there being no man and woman, that are separated as it were or subordinated in Christ, that we see occurring.

I think it’s very difficult to explain to anyone who is not engaged in practices such as this how this could be. And this is one of the problems of, as it were, presenting this message to – not just a secular world, in fact I often find secular interlocutors much more interested in this than some members of the church. But for those who do not practice this kind of long-term commitment to really quite painful inner searching in the spirit, this is unlikely to be an attractive invitation. But one has to acknowledge, it seems to me, that there is a strand here in Christianity which has the capacity to correct that in Christianity which has taken the part of the oppressor.