The Cloud of Unknowing is considered a great work of Western mysticism. It was written in the 14th century by an anonymous author for a specific 24 year old disciple. The book covers the personal experiences of the author in the work of contemplation to which the young disciple was being called to perform as well. The book was read by a wider audience than only the disciple and to this day is still a valuable source on the nature of contemplation. Although written 600 years ago, The Cloud of Unknowing still holds a wide appeal. What is it that this book of mystical experience offers to a 20th century reader?
Modern America is a hectic, fast paced world. Everyone dashes place to place, task to task, and chore to chore, often doing many things at once to attempt to finish everything on time. Time is a hot commodity and in short supply. There are fewer hours in the day than what are necessary to complete that day's activities, so the average person finds it essential to give up sleep to ensure completion of the day's work. Materialism, instant gratification, and egocentrism are the general rules to life of the average American. "I want that and I want it now" are common rules of society. Each person as well seems to feel he or she is at the center of the world, expecting to be recognized as such by all others which is impossible when all others think they are the center of the world and expect to be treated as such as well. Then with the amount of information doubling every ten years, how much one knows becomes tantamount to getting anywhere. In general, "anywhere" is usually a better job or moving up on the ladder of society.
Although this description is not comprehensive of every 20th century American, it is a rough estimate of the average. The Cloud was written six centuries ago for a completely different culture. Yet, somehow, it can refute the aspects of a 20th century American and easily lead that person down a path of mystical experience. The author describes four stages of life. These stages are split between the active and contemplative lives. The active life is busy and troubled while the contemplative life is peaceful.
The first stage is the lower degree of the active life which is characterized by the average American life. Basically this stage is caught up in the affairs of day-to-day existence, good deeds, and works of mercy. The next two stages, the higher degree of the active life and the lower degree of the contemplative life, are the same. They share in the calling of God to awaken the desire within the spirit for Him and the person will begin to meditate on spiritual matters. The fourth stage is the higher degee of the contemplative life. It is this stage The Cloud is primarily concerned with. In this stage the person performs the contemplative work of love to reach union with God.
This fourth stage only occurs when God specifically calls one to it. It is a special gift of God's grace. The first three stages can all be started and finished during mortal life, however, this fourth stage can begin in life, but will never end. Its rewards will go on eternally. There are several signs which indicate if one has been called to this special work of contemplation. If a person, on the advice of a spiritual father or by the precepts of the church, has purified his conscience of deliberate sin; is more attracted to contemplative prayer than any other kind of spiritual devotion; or if he finds a certain restlessness unless focusing attention towards the cloud of unknowing, then God is calling.
The grace to do this work of contemplative love is a gift. If God did not awaken the desire within one's spirit, then the idea of contemplation would never enter one's mind. This calling is not something that can be earned. It is God's choice as to which people He grants this gift of contemplative love. The author even points out that very often God intentionally chooses habitual sinners to grant this gift to. He also says that no one who is chosen is ever without the aptitude for it, because God will also grant the ability to do this work to whomever he graces with this gift.
If the average American is graced with this gift, he would find himself in a quandary. After all, he is already experiencing a time crunch. How can one find time for contemplation? The author assures the reader it is not time consuming work. He describes it, in fact, as being the smallest division of time and barely conceivable at all by the mind. Within this division of time the Will, the principal spiritual faculty, moves toward God, the object of desire. The author also points out there is no need of moderation in this work, and the desire will help one to continue with the work even when other things come along that need to be done.
Lack of time becomes an irrelevancy with this work. So, too, must materialistic constraints be released for the modern American called to contemplation to proceed. All wants and desires must be subjugated by the desire for God alone. All attention must be put on the desire for God. This desire should be the only one allowed to remain within the heart and mind. The author says to keep all thoughts free from being involved in any way with God's creatures and their affairs. Being caught up in all other wants and desires is an obstacle to reaching the desired union with God. The contemplative must nurture God's gift and lift his heart to God with nothing other than loving desire for God.
The modern American also will need to let go of instant gratification. In this society it is easy to become accustomed to being able to get what one wants when one wants it. The author of The Cloud tells the reader perseverance is what is needed in the work of contemplative love. He says once the gift is granted it will be light work and willingly done, but he cautions expectancy of immediate results. It is toilsome work, he assures the reader. It is work which must be patiently struggled through. The struggle arises with the efforts to rid oneself of distracting thoughts. At first the contemplative will feel tired and constrained by the work. In time, however, the difficulty of this work will lessen. Eventually it will be work that is joyfully and easily done. But in the beginning the work will be hard with no immediate results unless God allows otherwise. Perseverance, the author states many times, is the key.
Having the time, desire, and willingness to persevere, the average American is well on his way on the path of contemplation. Now he needs a big helping of humble pie. The author of The Cloud stresses repeatedly the need for humility in the work of contemplative love. Egocentrism is a big part of life in this society. Coming out of the 1980s with the focus on the individual many have the attitude that it is the "I" that is important. In general, each person is an island, and the most important one at that as far as one's own opinion goes. Aside from having a loving desire for God, this is not work which can be approached with what the "I" wants or with a misplaced sense of importance.
When the contemplative recognizes the degradation, misery, and weakness of the human condition, he sees himself for the first time. This self-knowledge must be discovered by the contemplative. Without self-knowledge it is impossible to arrive at perfect humility. Habitual sinners, once coming to this self-knowledge, need to be humbled by their past mistakes coming from the human condition. Those who are able to reach perfect humility will always have everything they need both spiritually and materially. It is also humility which will lead to an experential knowledge of God.
The author only ever says it is possible to have an experential knowledge of God. The modern American may find this concept difficult to accept at first. This society is based on information and knowledge which doubles every ten years. The author, steeped in the apophatic ideals of Dionysius, however, says God is beyond knowledge. It is only possible to know God negatively. One asserts everything one knows, stating it is not God, until knowledge is exhausted. In this negative knowledge of God, it becomes possible to experience union with God.
All of the above aspects the contemplative must face concomitant with the work of contemplative love itself. Once God awakens the desire within his heart, the contemplative must act on the desire to love God alone. The author says to hide this desire from God deep within the spirit. Because God is spirit, it will be more obvious to Him there than if it was left in the open bound to emotion. Contaminated by emotions, desire becomes less spiritual. By relenquishing it to hiding in the spirit, desire becomes bound to the spirit, thereby God as well, while helping to let go of dependence on inconstant emotions.
This spiritual work is to be done nowhere in nothingness. When he says to be nowhere, the author means physically. He explains that nowhere physically is everywhere spiritually. He is not intending a literal "nowhere." He cautions repeatedly in The Cloud not to mistake this work in literal terms. He means to perform this work, one must be deep within the spirit, unaware of all else. Nothingness, as well, is an awareness of nothing in particular. It is a darkness characterized by an intuitive understanding of everything material and spiritual. In this nothingness and nowhere is where the contemplative needs to do the work of contemplative love.
In order to do this contemplative work, the person called to it needs to choose a one syllable word. It cannot be just any word. It must be a word which contains the contemplative's entire being. This one word will serve as the contemplative's prayer. It may even be that God will call the contemplative to pray without words, and if it is God's will, it is best to forget even a one syllable word.
The word should be one which reflects the nature of the prayer. The author recommends "God" and "sin." "Sin" is a word which contains all sin. This prayer is to be used to pray for the destruction of evil. In the same way, "God" is meant as a word which contains God in totality. This word is to pray for goodness. The author also suggests alternating between these words as beneficial.
These two words are not necessarily the words a contemplative has to use. He must choose a word that God inclines him to use. Whatever the word is, it must be prayed with the intensity of one's whole being. It is a prayer from the spirit, not the mouth. The author tells the reader a simple prayer from the spirit touches God more certainly than a long psalm said mindlessly. One word as an expression of one's whole being better encapsulates the spiritual nature of the work.
The prayer of the contemplative is often spontaneous. The prayer is done with the full power of the spirit. The one little word is prayed unceasingly in the spirit until it is answered. All understanding is contained within the word and if possible, the contemplative would cry out his prayer forever. But this one syllable prayer of one's entire being is enough to reach heaven. It will be prayed until it has been answered, and God will hear this unending prayer of the spirit.
However, in order to pray with the whole being, the contemplative must tuck away all concerns within the cloud of forgetting. The one word of the prayer is the focal point to help push everything into the cloud of forgetting. All thought and desires must be put beneath this cloud. They are only distractions to the work of contemplative love. The author says it is only the absence of this cloud which keeps the contemplative from reaching union. The cloud of forgetting must be put between the contemplative and every created thing. The mind and heart must be emptied of everything less than God. All knowledge and experience of everything except for God must be abandoned beneath the cloud of forgetting including self and one's own accomplishments.
The knowing and feeling of self are the hardest things for the contemplative to leave behind in this cloud. After all other thoughts are gone, a knowing and feeling of self will still remain. This sense of self remains because all knowledge and experience depends on the knowledge and feeling of self. This sense of self can be overcome by the humility gained from self-knowledge. Feeling the burden of self, by the grace of God, the contemplative can overcome this burden to long for nothing but God's salvation. Loving God becomes more important than even self, so the self, too, can be left behind in the cloud of forgetting.
Once everything, including the final obstacle of the self, has been abandoned behind the cloud of forgetting, the contemplative can move into the darkness. The author tells the reader to be at home within this darkness. This darkness is the cloud of unknowing. It will always remain between the contemplative and God, but he should consistently beat on it with the loving desire of his entire being. On occasion, God will allow His light to shine through and the contemplative will find himself in loving union with God. From this union, the contemplative will gain something of an experential knowledge of God. However, a complete understanding and knowledge of God will never be attained. God is beyond all knowledge and understanding. The mind can never possibly understand or know God. But in this union, the author says, the contemplative will get a hint of God. This experience of God, though begun in this life, will be an eternal gift of the grace of God. The contemplative will spend an eternity in loving desire.
This experience of contemplative love is based on the personal path of an anonymous author from 600 years ago. He wrote his experience down to help guide a young disciple who found himself called to the same path. Despite the passing of centuries, The Cloud of Unknowing still proves to be a reliable countenance in modern times. If God calls someone today to perform the work of contemplation, the book can help lead the average 20th century American to find a moment of loving union with God.
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