Anonymously written around the year 1375, The Cloud of Unknowing— a lucid and deceptively simple manual on contemplative spirituality — offers a fascinating glimpse into the practical side of medieval mysticism. It remains important and valuable in our day not only because of its historical value, but because of how surprisingly relevant and up-to-date it remains, even here in the twenty-first century.
The Cloud of Unknowing appears to have been written for a young person who is just beginning a life devoted to contemplation, either as a monk or a solitary. Its author may have been a priest, or may have himself been a monastic, but unfortunately we can do little more than speculate on the matter. I personally ascribe to the theory that both the author, and the intended reader, were Carthusian monks, but no one knows for sure. So effective is his cloak of anonymity that we know virtually nothing about him (or her).
The author of The Cloudalso wrote or translated several minor works, including a richly paraphrased translation of an ancient text on mystical theology, by another anonymous writer, now known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Pseudo-Dionysius advocated an apophatic (or “imageless”) spirituality anchored in the sheer mystery and unknowability of the Divine. Following Pseudo-Dionysius, this “negative” spirituality, that stresses the unknowability and supra-rational darkness and transcendence that prevents us from ever knowing God fully, has remained a perennial (if little-known and little-understood) stream in the waters of the Christian contemplative tradition. This apophatic stream of spiritual wisdom has inspired great mystics through the centuries, such as Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross. But The Cloud of Unknowing is arguably the most practical introduction to this deeply mystical dimension of Christian spirituality, and it remains accessible even after more than six centuries.
Apophatic mysticism seeks to encounter God not only in the ordinariness of all created things, but also at a level deeper (or higher) than any physical thing, or even beyond the reach of any word or mental image. For the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, this meant that God cannot be fully grasped by the human mind. God can never be fully comprehended through human intellect or reason; God can only be embraced by the means of profound humility and love. Therefore, The Cloud’s author advocates prayerful contemplation: prayer steeped not in language or the imagination, but through a cultivated attention to inner silence. The author describes at length the virtue of putting all thoughts, all images, all concepts beneath a metaphorical “cloud of forgetting” found within, and then single-heartedly seeking to love God, without concept or control, allowing the naked intent of our love to flourish, even though God remains hidden from our finite awareness by a “cloud of unknowing.” To pierce that cloud, the author instructs the reader to send “sharp darts” of “longing love” — for while we may never fully know God, at least we are able to the best of our ability to love God.
One remarkable feature of The Cloud of Unknowing is that it advocates the use of a single-syllable “prayer word” to effectively discipline the mind and to keep it focused while the heart attempts to grow in its supramental task of loving God. This spiritual exercise involves repeating a short word like “God” or “love” as needed, in order to help surrender all extraneous thoughts and seek that restful place of inner silence — the cloud of unknowing — where one may “be still and know” the God who is lavish love. This practice of using a prayer word has been adapted in our own day by the Trappist monks who developed the method of Centering Prayer, a form of silent prayer which again relies on a short sacred word as a tool of “centering” to come to a place of ever-so-gently resting in the Divine presence.
The author of The Cloud is a true teacher, and displays a rich and nuanced relationship with the youth to whom the book is addressed. By turns encouraging, gentle, challenging and demanding, this spiritual guide has inspired countless readers through the centuries to seriously engage with the contemplative life. But his overall tone remains positive and optimistic. Consider this statement, made on the last page of the book and in some ways a summation of its hopeful theology:
It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.
Considering that it is written for one who desires to plumb deeply the contemplative life, this is a wonderful and inspiring sentiment: we who aspire to drink deeply from the wells of Divine silence can do so knowing that God sees us not in terms of our failings or our foibles, but in light of that deepest desire of our hearts. In the eyes of God, we are already mystics and contemplatives. All we have to do, now, is to learn how to simply allow that to unfold. Even within the mysterious mists of the cloud of unknowing.
For further reading:
I. Editions of The Cloud of Unknowing
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel, a new translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, translated by Ira Progoff
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing (TEAMS Middle English Texts, Kalamazoo), edited by Patrick J. Gallacher
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling (Early English Text Society Series), edited by Phyllis Hodgson
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing (Classics of Western Spirituality Series), edited by James Walsh, S.J.
II. Commentaries and Studies
- Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer (includes a luminous commentary on The Cloud of Unknowing)
- Douglas E. Cowan, A Nakid Entent Unto God: A Source Commentary on The Cloud of Unknowing
- Julia Gatta, Three Spiritual Directors for Our Time: Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton
- William Johnson, The Mysticism of The Cloud of Unknowing
- Robert Llewelyn, With Pity Not With Blame: The Spirituality of Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowingfor Today
- William A. Meninger, The Loving Search for God: Contemplative Prayer and The Cloud of Unknowing
- Constantino Sarmiento Nieva, This Transcending God: The Teaching of the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing