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Knowing from the Whole

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Exploring the Mystics with Cynthia Bourgeault

Knowing from the Whole
Thursday, October 19, 2017

Guest writer and CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault reflects on another significant element within the Christian mystical lineage. The Cloud of Unknowing is a 14th-century spiritual classic written by an anonymous English monk. Perhaps this shows ego in a subservient role. But the writer was also anonymous for practical reasons. Meister Eckhart had just been silenced by the Pope in 1329 for emphasizing independent study, thinking, and experience, to which this author was also committed. It took many generations for the Church to affirm the value of inner, personal experience. Today Centering Prayer—which was drawn from The Cloud of Unknowing—is practiced by many Christians around the world.

The Cloud of Unknowing is a mystical text, and like most mystical texts it can only ultimately be accessed at the level of consciousness from which it was written. “Like attracts like,” as the old hermetic saying goes. The best way to engage a text written from a state of deep contemplative stillness is to match that state as closely as you can in yourself by meditating your way into the text rather than diving in with your analytical mind. In my latest book, The Heart of Centering Prayer, I explore this text from a different angle than how The Cloud is typically interpreted. Traditionally, The Cloud is understood as focusing on mystical marriage where the goal is to direct desire away from earthly objects toward heavenly ones until spiritual union with God can be achieved. This approach, while certainly true of many other mystical texts, misses the subtle shift the author makes. Rather than emphasizing the seemingly obvious subject/object split between lover and beloved, the author invites us into an entirely different way of knowing and experiencing Love.

Consider the following lines from chapter 16, describing Mary Magdalene as a model of the contemplative transformation the author has in mind:

Instead, she hung up her love and her longing desire in this cloud of unknowing and she learned to love a thing that she might never see clearly in this life, neither by the light of understanding of her reason nor by a true feeling of sweet love in her affection. [2]

Clearly, the kind of love this author has in mind is of a fundamentally different quality than what we usually mean by love.

The love presented here is not affectivity or feeling, but describes what we would nowadays call nondual perception anchored in the heart. The heart’s energetic bandwidth is intimacy, the capacity to perceive things from the inside by coming into sympathetic resonance with them. In contrast to the mind, which perceives through differentiation (I am me, because I am not you), the heart takes its bearings directly from the whole (the “I” and the “you” drop out), through a process that scientists nowadays describe as “holographic resonance.” Imagine trying to describe that in the 14th century! Ahead of his time, the author gropes for metaphors to describe an entirely different mode of perception and understanding.

Gateway to Silence:
Fall fearless into Love.

[1] For more on Centering Prayer, see Cynthia Bourgeault’s earlier meditation on the practice or her book detailed below.
[2] The Cloud of Unknowing, trans. Ira Progoff (Dell: 1983, ©1957), 101. Emphasis added. From chapter 16-5 of Cloud.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala: 2016), 117-121.

Image credit: Child (detail), Juarez, Mexico, 2009. CAC Archives.
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