The Cloud of Unknowing

Despite all our scientific and technological advances, we still have an oppressive sense of personal confusion. We are spiritually restless and socially disconnected from each other. Beyond personal matters, many feel overwhelmed by the challenges of living in a global community where they suffer from information overload. Global geopolitical problems are beyond our grasp. But on the personal level, we have an inner need for self-understanding. We also want our uncertainties resolved. It is common to hear people say they don’t know who they are or what they should be doing; many are searching for meaning…but they don’t know where to look for spiritual knowledge, many turn to psychiatry to satisfy what is essentially a spiritual need. But our minds and emotions, both conscious and unconscious, are so intangible and so mercurial they seem to elude scientific exploration and objective analysis. And so some, few to be sure, look elsewhere for answers: they look to the past, to the lives of spiritual masters. One such master was the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Many find The Cloud of Unknowing to be rough-going, because this medieval piece of mystical literature employees symbols and concepts which are a bit alien to our modern minds. But like people in medieval times, we too are searching. But our spiritual experiences seem jejune to our scientific, rationalist way of thinking. We often speak of someone’s “childlike faith,” which while admirable is nonetheless useless in the adult world. For the author of The Cloud of Unknowing an encounter with God was not something so transcendent that it was beyond the reach of regular people. Contact with God is possible for all, not just a select holy few. From the author’s perspective, all that is really required to enter fruitfully into his text is to have a strong, sincere, persistent, child-like desire to encounter God in the spirit. Despite being veiled in common language, the book is deep and profound.

It seems likely that the author was an English monk. Writing anonymously may not have stemmed from a sense of humility; more than likely he concealed his identity out of prudence. Around the time the book was written, the Church was condemning the great mystical writer Meister Eckhart because he stressed the importance of independent inquiry and individual experience, which the Church found as a threat to its formal doctrines and teaching authority. In time, some many generations later, the Church formerly recognized that a direct, personal approach to God was not only possible but encouraged. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, echoing Eckhart, urged people to bring their lives into a direct, personal relationship with God, and to do so without deception or illusion. He knew doing so required great dedication and self-knowledge. The key to encountering God was not dependent on a physical withdrawal from the secular society or the vortex of life, but demanded a withdrawal from the psychological attachments that distract or divert us from God. In Zen-like fashion, the author instructs us to actively control our thoughts as we work toward union with God, who is far beyond all our thoughts. The writer wants us to encounter God not as we imagine God to be, but as God is. We can only come into contact with God after we strip ourselves of all our erroneous thoughts and bad habits. This is extremely hard and few can do it. But we all must try.

The first step is to become mindful all the distractions that toy with our minds. Once we recognize these distractions, we need to control them with an eye toward eliminating them. In our media saturated world, so many influences are playing on our minds that our minds create an endless stream of fantasies, desires and beliefs which gobble up our mental energy. The first step on our journey to God is the elimination of these attachments and projections which create a mental unbalance. Of course, as you begin to peel away the things that distract you from God, people will begin to look at you askance, as if something is wrong with you. Our society does not look kindly on people who are drawn toward contemplative practices, and the same was true when The Cloud of Unknowing was written. Our scientific mindset believes that matter is all that exists and so it does not deal well with matters of the spirit. The Cloud of Unknowing uses kataphasis (what can be said) to point us toward the apophatic (the unsayable).


1 Response to “The Cloud of Unknowing”

  1. 1 Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Ph.D. February 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Thank you for calling attention to the beautiful classic on Christian contemplative prayer, _The Cloud of Unknowing_. In 2009 Shambhala published a new translation that I had the joy and humble honor of making, and I hope you will read it one day. Best wishes, Carmen

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