Reading a Spiritual Classic: The Cloud of Unknowing

      I finally got around to reading the spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. Over the years, from time to time, I dipped into it but had never read it carefully, contemplatively. I was moved to do so by seeing a new translation of the classic by Carmen Acevedo Butcher picked up on one of those year end, ' best books of the year' columns. The column writer was not a usual suspect, i.e., a writer on spirituality, but a professor of literature. Acevedo Butcher is a specialist on the medieval English in which the anonymous fourteenth century writer of The Cloud of Unknowing penned his advice to an also anonymous twenty-four year old aspirant to contemplative prayer. She is able, in her translation, to capture something of the puns and word play, as well as the alliteration, found in the original text ( cf. The Cloud of Unknowing, Boston, Shambhala, 2009).

       The author of The Cloud enumerates three forms of prayer: reading ( by which he means lectio pia, a contemplative reading); ordinary prayer ( presumably with words, out loud or silently and using imagination) and contemplative prayer. The latter is a kind of prayer of silence or quiet. It is akin to what is called ' centering prayer'. The only real way to read The Cloud is slowly, meditatively and over an extended period of time, allowing each small chapter to sink in. In other words, one can begin by using The Cloud as, itself, a form of lectio pia.

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       The author of The Cloud recommends two key images for our prayer life. " The Cloud of Unknowing" refers to God. This Unknowing is, paradoxically, a kind of knowing by not knowing. As the author asserts: " We can not think our way to God. He can be loved but not thought." So, we dwell in a not-knowing ( or claiming to know more than we possibly can) of God. We cannot really 'eff' the ineffable! The heart of prayer lies in a supple reaching out in love to God and allowing God to reach back to us. The essence of prayer is found less in thought than in love and in our will. For our part, all we need for prayer is a simple reaching out to God, what the author of The Cloud calls a ' naked intent for God'.

        In prayer there is a kind of darkness about God ( but we, nevertheless, do dwell in him) and also a, concomitant ' cloud of forgetting' where we let creation or our sins also fall away. In a lovely quote, the author urges us to " take God at face value, as he is. Accept his good graciousness, as you would accept a plain, simple, soft compress when sick. Take hold of him and press him against your unhealthy self, just as you are, and try to let your desire touch the kind and generous God, just as he is, because those who touch him know good health that never ends."

         The contemplative prayer found in The Cloud differs from Ignatian contemplation which involves a kind of imaginative placing of ourselves in the gospel scenes and a strong appeal to our five senses to touch, taste, feel, smell etc. ourselves in that scene. Ignatian contemplation is by way of images. The Cloud's contemplation is apophatic, i.e., the way of no images. So, its author enjoins: " those who start the inner work of contemplation with the belief that they're supposed to hear, smell, see, taste or touch spiritual things, inside or outside are truly misled." But for all that, the author does not in any way tie God's hands in his way to come to us in prayer. " God's pedagogy is always personal." Thus, contemplative prayer is different for each individual. He urges no strain. Prayer is like sleep, refreshing and not work, as such. " With an empty mind and open heart, let yourself be naked before grace." " Let yourself sleep in this dark awareness of God as he is." Moreover, " It is not who you are or what you've been that God sees with his merciful eyes, but what you want to be."

        To be sure, contemplation is God's gift. We can only bring a longing to pray. Even a short prayer can penetrate to heaven. The author of The Cloud recommends that we take a single syllable or short phrase ( such as, for example, my God, my hope etc.) and repeat it, breathe it in, fall silent to it. He conjoins: " Select only the words God nudges you toward." God is the door and the doorkeeper to himself. If nothing else, patiently wait at the door and let God allow you to enter in. If you have consolation, well and good. But in any event, persist in the practice of contemplative prayer, even if you experience dryness or find it painful. Whether praying with utter dryness or consolation, we can not know " which of these ways is holier or dearer to God. Only God knows. I don't." Throughout, the author urges us to judge no one else. " Never think you are holier or better than anyone else." We leave all judgment to God.

      The Cloud does concur with Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises on the need for a discernment of spirits. Ignatius thought there was one form of consolation, what he calls ' consolation without a cause', which we could never doubt came to us from God. Other forms of consolation ( sweet or good feelings) might come initially from God but, then, get perverted or used by the evil spirit. In a similar vein, the author of The Cloud also allows a kind of consolation ( " A foretaste of the eternal reward...an ineffable sweetness and an intense delight that does not come from outside the body; it comes from within, waking in our souls and bubbling up from an abundance of joy and true devotion of spirit") which we never doubt. " There is no need to be suspicious of this comfort and this delight." Other forms of consolaion can be misleading. " Mistrust all other consolations, sounds, gladness and sweet ecstasies that come suddenly and externally from sources you can't identify. They can be good or evil. If they're good, they are the work of the good angel, and if they're evil, they are he work of the evil angel."

        In prayer we need both humility and patience. Humility is not just a sense of our sin taken separately ( which is almost never from God, if not simultaneously connected to God's surprising love for us). In real humility we know the extent that we are sordid, sad, weak creatures but no less the object of God's superabundant love, humbled by " the amazing glory and goodness of God."  We need patience since " Grace is rarely in a rush! It touches and changes us bu usually not as soon or as suddenly as we like."

          Daniel Goldman in his book, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama ( New York: Bantam, 2003) notes that meditation is " an antidote to the mind's vulnerability to toxic emotions." The Cloud represents its own antidote to any misguided sense that mystic or contemplative prayer is made only for advanced souls or those with very special gifts ( after all, the book is written for a 24 year old!). Contemplation is never an interruption, argues the author, to our daily life. Whether we prefer Ignatius' way of images or the image-less way of The Cloud, all prayer is a simple reaching out to God ( what The Cloud calls ' a naked intent for God') and allowing God to reach back to us. Remember that God tailors, in his personal pedagogy, contemplative prayer to us. In the end, as The Cloud's author insists: " If you want to find your soul, look at what your love"--and, I would add, at who loves you!

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Carmen Butcher
6 years 11 months ago
The Cloud is a ''classic'' because it is both beautifully written in the original Middle English by a master rhetorician and also profoundly, timelessly wise in its understanding of, articulation of, and help in dialoguing with the Son of God, who is Christ. In short, one learns to love God, one's self, and others better by reading this book. These eternal qualities make it a ''classic.'' Plus, it continues to find devoted readers from all backgrounds, in every century since the late 1300's. That fact in itself is nothing short of remarkable!
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
This is a nice synopsis of the Cloud, John.  I've been reading it off and on for many years, knowing the first time that I read it that it had something to say to me.  Finally, after so many years of reading and talking about (ha!) contemplative prayer, I started to practice it on a daily basis.  After getting tied up in knots with word prayers and imaginings, contemplative really is a gift to me - I feel that I was born to pray like this.

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