Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation

The Cloud of Unknowing, Part I

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 2

The Cloud of Unknowing, Part I
Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Cloud of Unknowing is a 14th century spiritual classic written by an anonymous English monk. Again note the lack of ego here. 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.

The author of The Cloud wrote in the language of the common people because the book’s purpose is to give practical guidance for direct experience of God. Education or high social status is not required, only a sincere longing to encounter God. The author discourages those who are gossips, the overly scrupulous, and the merely curious from reading the book. “However,” says the writer in the foreword, “there are some presently engaged in the active life who are being prepared by grace to grasp the message of this book. I am thinking of those who feel the mysterious action of the Spirit in their inmost being stirring them to love. I do not say that they continually feel this stirring, as experienced contemplatives do, but now and again they taste something of contemplative love in the very core of their being. Should such folk read this book, I believe they will be greatly encouraged and reassured.”

The author believes that the spiritual journey demands full self-awareness and honesty, a perpetual shadow-boxing with our own weaknesses and imperfections. While physical withdrawal from the world is not essential, letting go of attachments to people, expectations, and things is. This requires contemplative practice, a true spiritual discipline. Rather than teaching passivity, the path into the cloud of unknowing requires active intent, willingness, and practice—knowing enough to not need to know more, which ironically becomes a kind of endless, deeper knowing.

Much of our contemplative practice will feel like failure, but the author encourages “anyone who wants to become a real contemplative” to “let the wonderful transcendence and goodness of God teach you humility rather than the thought of your own sinfulness, for then your humility will be perfect. Attend more to the wholly otherness of God rather than to your own misery. And remember that those who are perfectly humble will lack nothing they really need, either spiritually or materially. God is theirs and [God] is all. Whoever possesses God, as the book attests, needs nothing else in this life” (Chapter 23, Paragraph 2).

In the cloud, “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot fully know him we can love him” (Chapter 6, Paragraph 2). In the later stages of the journey, of course, loving becomes its own kind of knowing—the deepest kind of knowing.

Gateway to Silence:
“Nothing can come between God and the soul.” –Julian of Norwich

Photograph (detail) by pedrojperez
Navigate by Date

This year’s theme

A candle being lit

Radical Resilience

We live in a world on fire. This year the Daily Meditations will explore contemplation as a way to build Radical Resilience so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or burning out. The path ahead may be challenging, but we can walk it together.

The archives

Explore the Daily Meditations

Explore past meditations and annual themes by browsing the Daily Meditations archive. Explore by topic or use the search bar to find wisdom from specific teachers.

Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Radical Resilience. How do we tend our inner flame so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or out? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.