“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11)
The Oregon coast has been calling to me for a long time, so much so that my husband and I just bought our future retirement home there. “If you’re outdoorsy, you’ll like it here,” said the young woman at the coffee stand. “Otherwise, there’s not much to do.”
When you can walk on the beach every morning and hear the ocean from your windows and watch the clouds roll in off the water, do you need much more to do? When I am here, my surroundings keep me mesmerized. The clouds turning to mist turning to rain steal my eyes from my laptop screen until I notice that many minutes have passed between sentences. It is heaven.
The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing gently discourages us from placing God somewhere we can understand.
And like many of us, wasn’t I taught when I was young to think of the clouds as the spiritual and possibly geographical location of heaven? God is up; the other place is down. We still instinctively raise our eyes in prayer, seeking a connection to the divine. We humans yearn to figure out what goes on up in those clouds. We want to know what the deal is with the Man Upstairs.
It is a timeless but futile quest. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, writing in the late 14th century, gently discourages us from placing God somewhere we can understand. This wise spiritual text reminds us that we cannot possibly grasp, within the limits of our human intellect, the mystery of God’s being. The more we let go of our unproven conclusions concerning what God looks like and on which cloud God lives, however, the more we can perhaps approach the “cloud of unknowing” around God. Through contemplative prayer, writes the Christian mystic, we can empty ourselves spiritually, thus encountering God in full acceptance of our own unknowing.
Centuries later, The Cloud of Unknowing remains an apt title for the state in which we live our earthly lives. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,” sang Joni Mitchell, and we know the feeling. A dark cloud hangs over us when we are sad, but in happier times we are on cloud nine. Someone whose head is in the clouds is a dreamer, not a problem-solver; yet we encourage each other to hunt for a cloud’s silver lining. Like the men of Galilee present at the ascension of Jesus, we search the skies for unclouded meaning, even as the clouds gather and skitter and obscure our vision.
Like the men of Galilee present at the ascension of Jesus, we search the skies for unclouded meaning.
I recently felt closer to the clouds when I ventured onto the Skywalk, the glass-bottomed bridge built by several indigenous tribes in Arizona over the Grand Canyon. On this visit to the clouds, you walk out onto the clear glass of the horseshoe-shaped bridge that thrusts 70 feet over the edge and look down into 4,000 feet of canyon. Birds soar below your feet. Helicopters full of tourists look like dragonflies in the distance. Just over your head, white fluffy clouds rest against the blue, blue sky. You fail to find a non-cliché to express the glory of God’s creation. You look down; you look out; you look up. God is in his heaven; all is right with the world and all that.
My life is stored in a virtual cloud, at least my writing life, the iCloud being for me another mystery of the technological universe. Having said a reluctant goodbye to paper, no longer printing out a hard copy of everything I have ever written, I am still a little nervous trusting an unknown cloud with the preservation of my work. I just have to trust that my words are out there somewhere. The iCloud is secure, my husband assures me, but I have my doubts.
I think now of the biblical account of Jesus ascending to the clouds and beyond as I watch the winter storm clouds zeroing in from the Pacific. The black clouds let loose spattering rain against the windows and furious waves onto the shore, and it is hard to believe the sun will ever shine again. I imagine the men—and most likely women—of Galilee, watching as Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). His followers surely felt alone and frightened after the clouds closed around their beloved teacher. Of course, they were looking up, in awe, in dread, in prayer, in faith. They would soon be braced by the light of the Holy Spirit, like sun after rain. They would go on to do great things in the name of Jesus. But I imagine they never looked up at the clouds in quite the same way again.
“It’s clouds’ illusions I recall,” sang Joni Mitchell. “I really don’t know clouds at all.” Doubt and faith and God in the clouds, all in one morning.