The Cloud of Unknowing, Part I — Center for Action and Contemplation

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The Cloud of Unknowing, Part I

Thursday, July 23rd, 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