Spiritual notes from a small island…… The Cloud of Unknowing

Spiritual notes from a small island…… The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing is a fourteenth century work by an anonymous English author. Over the years, there has been much speculation about the identity of the author, and it has often been said that he was a Carthusian monk. One thing that is clear from the text is that its author was certainly learned, well versed in scholastic theology. There is also a very clear influence of Pseudo-Dionysius, whom the author quotes directly in chapter seventy: ‘The most Godlike knowledge of God is that which is known by unknowing’. Pseudo-Dionysius, who was then widely thought to be a follower of Paul (see Acts 17), is used as source and authority for the ideas that The Cloud proposes. The author asserts that we can know more about what God is not than about what God is. This theology informs his approach to the contemplative life, and in this he stands among many influential writers, including St John of Cross, who wrote some two centuries later.

Pseudo-Dionysius held that there were two ways of knowing God, through reason (logos) and through contemplation (mustikon theama). The former comes from investigation of what God has revealed, especially in the Scriptures. This knowledge can be negative – God is not x – as well as positive – God is x – but not in any way that we can comprehend – God is utterly other. The Dionysian contemplative way relies on negative theology as its basis. We are limited in what we can know about God, but we can enter into the mystery through contemplation, illuminated by God’s grace. Contemplative knowledge comes only when the senses are purified of reliance on the created order for ideas about God. 

It is this which concerns the author of The Cloud. Whilst the author is reliant on his Scholastic and Dionysian background for his theoretical framework, his work is concerned mainly with the practice of contemplation. The first sense we get from reading the book is that the call to the contemplative life is just that: a call. And this is a work for those who think that they have that call, and are willing to respond humbly, and desire to love God with their whole heart. To undertake this contemplative path involves ‘forgetting all created things’, and the contemplative will find ‘only darkness, as it were, a cloud of unknowing’. This is nothing more than the beginnings of a reaching towards God. This darkness is not a state of mind, something akin to depression, but rather a state of a lack of knowledge. The person is reaching out for the one who is unknown. To live in this cloud, there has to be a ‘cloud of forgetting’ between the person and the created order.

What then does the contemplative think of during meditation? How can one think of and strive for that which is unknown? The author’s answer is: ‘I do not know!’ Feeding the neophyte with images would immediately destroy the foundation of his or her striving for God. This is not to say, however, that the contemplative has no need of knowledge at all. Study of the Word of God is essential, since it is like a mirror, in which we see the face of our conscience. Any dirty marks on the face should be washed by confession. Later, when these aids have been used, the contemplative is better prepared to be still and silent in the presence of God, using a single word to help focus attention. Words such as ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’ can be clung to as a way of keeping all other thoughts about the created order at bay. During prayer many thoughts may come, but these can be harmful. Memories can have a negative effect, even become sources for the deadly sins of anger, pride, sloth, envy, avarice, gluttony and lust. Above all, the author of The Cloud makes it clear that the contemplative path requires humility. This requires self-knowledge, being realistic about who we are, both the good and bad aspects. It is imperfect to start with, because our motives for humility are mixed. We may be motivated by a curiosity about ourselves, rather than a desire to be humbled to receive from God. Only God himself can draw a person through grace to perfect humility, where God, and God alone, is sought.

The Cloud has much to say on the story of Martha and Mary. Mary is the example of the contemplative, who simply sat silent and still with the Lord, ready to drink in what he had to reveal to her. Martha’s activity was important and good, but she had not understood that Mary had a different calling, that of contemplation. The Cloud also makes the link between contemplation and relations with others. It seems strange that in contemplation we are to forget the created order. Does this not have a negative effect on relations with others? The answer seems to be no. When a contemplative has dealings with others, he does not make distinctions ‘between friend or foe’. The effect of the contemplation is that each person is seen as having equal value or dignity. The contemplative endeavour should feed back into the world.

Although not all of us will have the call to be a contemplative of the kind that The Cloud is written for, there are nevertheless many things in the work that are of value for us all. In particular we should remember that God is utterly other, and resist the temptation to think that we know and understand God’s ways. A God that can be pinned down and domesticated is a ‘god’, an idol. We are to be humble in approaching God, opening our hearts and minds to what he reveals in the Scriptures, through the Church, and in prayer. Humility is not only something which concerns the contemplative religious, but is essential for all who wish to grow in their spiritual and moral life. We are also to bear in mind that contemplation is only genuine if it transforms us, making us more aware of the awesome love of God, and empowering us to love others as we should. Leaving behind all images and ideas in contemplation is not a form of escapism, a way of denying the goodness of creation, but rather a way of searching for God that will transform the lives we lead as part of that created order.

An online text of The Cloud of Unknowing may be found here.

Rober Gay OP

Fr Robert Gay is Prior of the Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford, and he is also a lector in moral theology at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.