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The Way of Unknowing

Unknowing

The Way of Unknowing
Friday, February 5, 2021

Descriptions of the “dark night of the soul” from the Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542–1591) have become the marker by which many Christians measure their own experience of unknowing. He fits an entire life spent exploring God’s mystery into memorable poetry, and even dares to call unknowing “an ecstasy”! Here are several stanzas from his poem “Stanzas Concerning an Ecstasy Experienced in High Contemplation”:

1. I entered into unknowing

Yet when I saw myself there

Without knowing where I was

I understood great things;

I shall not say what I felt

For I remained in unknowing

Transcending all knowledge.

. . . .

4. He who truly arrives there

Cuts free from himself;

All that he knew before

Now seems worthless,

And his knowledge so soars

That he is left in unknowing

Transcending all knowledge.

. . . .

6. The knowledge in unknowing

Is so overwhelming

That wise men disputing

Can never overthrow it,

For their knowledge does not reach

To the understanding of not-

understanding,

Transcending all knowledge. [1]

John’s poetry is exquisite in its humility—knowing that he does not know, can never know, and doesn’t even need to know! He goes so far as to call this dark night “a work of His mercy, / To leave one without understanding.” [2] John’s teaching contains paradoxes that are difficult to absorb, but modern readers have the good fortune of many good translations, including that of Mirabai Starr. Like the other friends whose work I have shared this week, Mirabai knows the via negativa, the way of unknowing, personally and intimately, and describes what happens between the soul and God in the “dark night:”

The soul in the dark night cannot, by definition, understand what is happening to her. Accustomed to feeling and conceiving of the Beloved in her own way, she does not realize that the darkness is a blessing. She perceives God’s gentle touch as an unbearable burden. She feels miserable and unworthy, convinced that God has abandoned her, afraid she may herself be turning against him. In her despair, the soul does not recognize that God is teaching her in a secret way now, a way with which the faculties of sense and reason cannot interfere.

At the same time that the soul in the night of spirit becomes paralyzed in spiritual practice, her love-longing for God begins to intensify. In the stillness left behind by its broken-open senses and intellect, a quality of abundance starts to grow inside the emptied soul. It turns out that the Beloved is longing for union with the lover as fervently as she has been yearning for him. . . . God will whisper to the soul in the depth of darkness and guide it through the wilderness of the Unknown until it is annihilated in the flames of perfect love. [3]

References:
[1] John of the Cross, “Stanzas Concerning an Ecstasy Experienced in High Contemplation,” The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Institute of Carmelite Studies: 1979), 718–719.

[2] John of the Cross, Collected Works, 719.

[3] Mirabai Starr, introduction to Dark Night of the Soul, by John of the Cross, trans. Mirabai Starr (Riverhead Books: 2002), 20. [Richard Rohr: The best translation in my opinion.]

Story from Our Community:
I live in an assisted living facility with my husband. I have been writing a haiku a day during the pandemic. The great unknowing / This 2020 vision. / Seeing with new eyes. —Juliana H.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
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