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Center for Action and Contemplation

Unknowing: Week 2 Summary

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Unknowing: Week 2

Summary: Sunday, October 7-Friday, October 12, 2018

We cannot grow in the integrative dance of action and contemplation without a strong tolerance for ambiguity, an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and a willingness not to know—and not even to need to know. (Sunday)

Information is not the same as transformation. Even good and correct thinking is trapped inside my little mind, my particular culture, my form of education, my parental conditioning. (Monday)

One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of. —Karen Armstrong (Tuesday)

God delights to hide so only those who seek can find God. And even for those who seek, God often seems to be elusive. Why? Perhaps it is because God is closer than we can objectively or outwardly see. —Rick Hocker (Wednesday)

Lift up your heart to God with a gentle stirring of love. Focus on [God] alone. . . . Don’t let anything else run through your mind and will. Here’s how. Forget what you know.The Cloud of Unknowing (Thursday)

The failure of our understanding can help us. When we reach the end of what we know, that’s where we find God. —The Cloud of Unknowing (Friday)


Practice: Entering Darkness
Bill Plotkin, a wilderness guide and author of Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, invites us to spend time in physical darkness, “outdoors on moonless nights or in caves, with the goal of discovering and retrieving some treasures from the symbolic dark, your personal wilderness”:

The darkness is as obvious a symbol and site for the soul as any. The dark is the unknown, the mystery, the medium that holds the unpredictable—the possible. It is the best blank screen upon which to project all that is unsolved and unloved in our hearts. We are afraid of the dark simply because we can’t see what’s there and we naturally assume the worst. When it comes to the dark, “better safe than sorry” turns out to mean “better paranoid and vigilant than murdered.” Most children—and the children inside us—are terrified of the dark, especially the dark beneath things, and thus afraid of what might be in the basement or under the bed—or in the subway. . . .

Wendell Berry knows the dark:

To go in the dark with a light is to know light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. [1]

In befriending the dark, offer your careful attention to everything you hear and feel and smell there, knowing much of what you experience will be “just” your imagination projecting unassimilated elements of your own psyche. You will learn much from what you project. But what you encounter in the dark will also include flesh and blood entities of the night—owls, bats, deer, raccoons, spiders, mice—that may be curious about you and even drawn to you. . . .

Rilke, too, learned to appreciate and love the dark:

You, darkness, of whom I am born—

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circles it illumines
and excludes all the rest.

But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations—just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.

I believe in the night. [2]

Rilke understood that our very origin is the darkness. We emerge from the darkness of the womb and, simultaneously, from the darkness of spirit, the Great Mystery. When Rilke writes that the fire fences out the world, I hear “world” as that greater portion of the universe we know little or nothing about. The darkness holds it all and so the Wanderer bravely enters that darkness to discover what is there and what is drawn to him. And the Wanderer, like Rilke, hopes not just to find something but to be changed, to be broken into, bodily. We must learn, like the poet, to have faith in the night.

[1] Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark,” The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint: 1998), 68. Used with permission.

[2] Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (Riverhead Books: 2005), 63. Used with permission.

Bill Plotkin, “Faith in the Night,” September 29, 2017,–Part-2–SM-37–Bill-Plotkin-s-weekly-Soulcraft-Musing.html?soid=1102010840526&aid=b6ifM09LZ5Q.


For Further Study:
Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Alfred A. Knopf: 2009)

Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (New World Library: 2003)

Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (Riverhead Books: 2005)

Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014)

The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009)

Image credit: Stars and Clouds at Nighttime (detail), Arnie Chau.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing which now happily envelops you. You won’t know what this is . . . You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do.The Cloud of Unknowing
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