The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowyng) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work proposes that the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of “unknowingness,” at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God.

The Cloud of Unknowing draws on the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Christian Neoplatonism, which focuses on the via negativa road to discovering God as a pure entity, beyond any capacity of mental conception and so without any definitive image or form. This tradition has reputedly inspired generations of mystical searchers from John Scotus Erigena, through Book of Taliesin, Nicholas of Cusa and John of the Cross to Teilhard de Chardin (the latter two of whom may have been influenced by The Cloud itself). Prior to this, the theme of The Cloud had been in the Confessions of St. Augustine written in AD 398.

The author is unknown. The English Augustinian mystic Walter Hilton has at times been suggested, but this is generally doubted. It is possible he was a Carthusian priest, though this is not certain.

A second major work by the same author, The Book of Privy Counseling, continues the themes discussed in the Cloud. It is less than half the size of the Cloud, appears to be the author’s final work, and clarifies and deepens some of its teachings. In this work, the author characterizes the practice of contemplative unknowing as worshiping God with one’s “substance,” coming to rest in a “naked blind feeling of being”, and ultimately finding thereby that God is one’s being.

The book counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and intellection (faculty of the human mind), but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. This is brought about by putting all thoughts and desires under a “cloud of forgetting”, and thereby piercing God’s cloud of unknowing with a “dart of longing love” from the heart. This form of contemplation is not directed by the intellect, but involves spiritual union with God through the heart:

“For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.”

Given its survival in only seventeen manuscripts, The Cloud of Unknowing was not as popular in late medieval England as the works of Richard Rolle or Walter Hilton, perhaps because the Cloud is addressed to solitaries and concentrates on the advanced levels of the mystical path. Two Latin translations of the Cloud were made in the late fifteenth century. One was made by Richard Methley, a Carthusian of the Charterhouse of Mount Grace in Yorkshire, and finished in 1491. The other is anonymous. Neither, however, enjoyed wide dissemination.

This work became known to English Catholics in the mid 17th century, when later ascetic and Benedictine mystic, Augustine Baker (1575–1641), wrote an exposition on its doctrine (today a transcript of this version of the work dated 1677 is at Ampleforth College). The original work itself, however, was not published until 1877. English mystic Evelyn Underhill edited an important version of the work in 1922.

The work has become increasingly popular over the course of the twentieth century, with nine English translations or modernisations produced in this period. In particular, The Cloud has influenced recent contemplative prayer practices. The practical prayer advice contained in The Cloud of Unknowing forms a primary basis for the contemporary practice of Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation developed by Trappist monks William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating in the 1970s. It also informed the meditation techniques of the English Benedictine John Main.

The contemplation method urged in The Cloud is similar to Buddhist meditation and modern transcendental meditation. For example, the last paragraph of chapter 7 says:

“If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as “God” or “love” is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defence in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you.”

More excerpts:

“When I say “darkness”, I mean a privation of knowing, just as whatever you do not know or have forgotten is dark to you, because you do not see it with your spiritual eyes. For this reason, that which is between you and your God is termed, not a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing.”

“When we intend to pray for goodness, let all our thought and desire be contained in the one small word “God.” Nothing else and no other words are needed, for God is the epitome of all goodness.. Immerse yourself in the spiritual reality it speaks of yet without precise ideas of God’s works whether small or great, spiritual or material. Do not consider any particular virtue which God may teach you through grace, whether it is humility, charity, patience, abstinence, hope, faith, moderation, chastity, or evangelical poverty. For to a contemplative they are, in a sense, all the same.. Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God.”

“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”

“Now you say, ‘How shall I proceed to think of God as he is in himself?’ To this I can only reply, ‘I do not know.’

With this question you bring me into the very darkness and cloud of unknowing that I want you to enter. A man may know completely and ponder thoroughly every created thing and its works, yes, and God’s works, too, but not God himself. Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him we can love him. By love he may be touched and embraced, never by thought. Of course, we do well at times to ponder God’s majesty or kindness for the insight these meditations may bring. But in the real contemplative work you must set all this aside and cover it over with a cloud of forgetting. Then let your loving desire, gracious and devout, step bravely and joyfully beyond it and reach out to pierce the darkness above.”

“[God] can certainly be loved, but not thought. He can be taken and held by love but not by thought.”

“Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.”

“Humility is nothing else but a true knowledge and experience of yourself as you are.”

“A short prayer pierces heaven.”

“Because it is not what you are nor what you have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.”

“For I tell you this: one loving, blind desire for God alone is more valuable in itself, more pleasing to God and to the saints, more beneficial to your own growth, and more helpful to your friends, both living and dead, than anything else you could do.”

Sources include: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cloud_of_Unknowing

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About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have several other sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: http://www.pbase.com/1heart Essays on the Conscious Process: http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/ Poetry and Prosetry: http://feelingtoinfinity.wordpress.com/ Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: https://westernmystics.wordpress.com/ Free Transliterations of Spiritual Texts: http://freetransliterations1.blogspot.com/ Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: https://spiritguidesparrow.wordpress.com/ Thank You!
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