Praying Woman

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“In Christ,” we’re told, “there is neither male nor female.” In the church, however, it’s a different story.

Before I go on, I need to admit that as feminists go, I’m pretty lame. This mostly comes of having spent my career as a sociologist studying inequalities of race, class, and Global North vs. South. This has made me a little impatient with First World, middle class white women talking about their “oppression.”

But I’ve always said that the church would make me a feminist if nothing else did, and it has. I was reminded of this today by a post on The Junia Project’s page called “Ten Ways Male Privilege Shows Up in the Church.” You can (and should) read it here.

In this piece, Gail Wallace writes about male privilege in the conservative evangelical context. This is not the neighborhood of the church where I live; the Episcopal Church is pretty progressive, and has just celebrated forty years of women in the priesthood. Yet we and our near denominational neighbors still seem to be caught in a protracted game of Sexist Whack-a-Mole, and one of the places where it pops up often but is seldom recognized is in our styles of prayer.

Prayer has its fashions, like most things. And in our day, thanks in large part to the Centering Prayer movement, there’s a heavy emphasis on silence, on stilling all thoughts and dismissing all “experiences” of God. Centering Prayer has its roots in the apophatic way, which insists that God is found, not in dialogue or in ecstasy, but in silence. Contrast this with the exuberant, kataphatic mysticism of Francis of Assisi, who encountered God in creation, in French love songs, in experiencing the stigmata.

Don’t misunderstand me: silence is going to be a critical part of any serious prayer life, but the part is not the whole. In the early days of my exploration of contemplative prayer, I kept running up against people who insisted that any sort of affective component to prayer—any outpouring of feeling, joy, poetry, ecstasy, you name it—was spiritually juvenile, and that silence was the mark of the grownup contemplative. It wasn’t just men, either; there were plenty of women who pushed me to suppress my own experience and toe the apophatic party line.

I bless the day I complained about this to a spiritual director and observed that Teresa of Avila, Angela of Foligno, Mechthilde of Magdeburg and the other great Beguine mystics didn’t seem to have such a grudge against prayer that engaged the emotions. Speaking very slowly, so that even I could understand, she looked me in the eye and said, “Do you think that could be because they’re women?”

It was a revelation. Being a lame sort of feminist, I’d missed the gender implications of apophatic fundamentalism, in part because there are many women in the apophatic school and plenty of men whose prayer is kataphatic. But our gender norms mean that the denigration of affective prayer is bound to hit women harder, because women’s socialization is far more emotion-centered than men’s. We bring that to all our relationships, including our relationship with God.

Here’s a suggestion: How about we support people in praying the way the Spirit moves them? Emotions are not the “childish things” we’re supposed to put away when we become men—er, grownups. They are divine gifts, and I suspect that in the life to come, those who’ve devalued them will be sent straight to Teresa of Avila, and have a lot of explaining to do.