Learning the Contemplative Tradition in Literature

The first in a series on The Cloud of Unknowing

I first read The Cloud of Unknowing, in a tattered paperback edition, some thirty-five years ago, back when I was an eager young puppy yearning to pray — my heart was restless, as my friend St. Augustine of Hippo once said, and I yearned for it to rest in God. I had probably just finished reading St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and found what she had to say just a bit too complicated for me. I liked the Cloud author’s approach, which seemed so much simpler — sending darts of love into the cloud of unknowing. That sounded like something I could do.

Truth to tell, that was as far as I got in The Cloud of Unknowing. I realized I was not ready for what it had to offer. And perhaps I took to heart the admonition of its author in the prologue:

I charge thee and I beseech thee, with as much power and virtue as the bond of charity is sufficient to suffer, that . . . neither thou read it, nor write it, nor speak it, nor yet suffer it be read, written, or spoken, of any or to any but if it be of such one, or to such one, that hath by thy supposing in a true will and by an whole intent purposed him to be a perfect follower of Christ not only in active living, but in the sovereignest point of contemplative living the which is possible by grace for to be come to in this present life of a perfect soul yet abiding in this deadly body . . . For else it accordeth nothing to him.

from the 1922 EETS edition, Evelyn Underhill, ed.

My spirit was willing, but I was a rank beginner and I knew it, so I concentrated on liturgical prayer for a long time (the Daily Office and daily Mass), adding in a few devotions such as the rosary along the way, learning private prayer of the heart on my own and, when that became difficult, sending those darts of love into the cloud of unknowing, on the other side of which God awaits.

A great modern teacher on prayer

Eventually (in fact, quite lately) I began reading David Torkington’s wonderful expositions of the contemplative life. I started with his excellent blog series on the Catholic Spiritual Direction website (still ongoing, as of this writing — start here). Pretty soon I went on to his novel-like Wisdom from the Western Isles, which convinced me of two things:

  • Torkington has a great gift for communicating complex and profound spiritual truths in a very natural, un-intimidating way that anyone can grasp; reading this book, I immediately recognized that God has been leading me along the contemplative way through all these years; and
  • It was time for me to move “farther up and farther in” and perhaps that meant it was also time to return to the great spiritual classics that had been too strong a brew for me in my spiritual infancy.

The English spiritual tradition

Mixed into all this, in some way I am still figuring out, was my growing interest in the English spiritual tradition from which the Cloud springs, so I need to mention another project I’ve recently taken on.

As a long-time member of what was, for many years, an Anglican Use Catholic parish, now part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, I’ve long been aware of some of the luminaries of the long English spiritual tradition in a way that many “garden variety” Catholics are not. The Ordinariates have been been given the charge to share their “legitimate spiritual patrimony” with the rest of the Church. I had hoped that someone well-steeped in the long English spiritual tradition that spans both sides of the Great Rupture caused by Henry VIII’s schism would produce some sort of curriculum or reading list that Catholics, both within and without the Ordinariates, could follow, in order to revive what has fallen into disuse and reclaim what has been forgotten, ignored, or buried under the rubble of Henry’s Reformation.

So far, ten years after the initiation of the Ordinariates for former Anglicans, no such curriculum has emerged. Meanwhile, I have begun a personal project called Nova et Vetera Editions, to bring back into print some historical editions of classics from the long English literary tradition, both sacred and profane. This project is one of the things that has turned my attention to spiritual writers such as Julian of Norwich, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counsel, and many others in the English contemplative tradition, as well as more recent English writers such as William Law, Evelyn Underhill, and Robert Hugh Benson.

A DIY course in classics on prayer

These two interests, one spiritual and one literary, meet in this blog, where I hope they will produce a synergy that will help me (and others) get to know God better. For the most part, I will be slowly reading, digesting, and commenting on these spiritual classics, and I invite those who are unfamiliar with them, as well as any who know them well, to follow along with me. My comments are not intended to be authoritative — this is just me thinking out loud in public. I hope readers will contribute their own insights, raise questions (or answer them), and otherwise become part of an emerging conversation about the life of prayer, particularly contemplative prayer. As I pointed out earlier, I am no expert in these matters, but I am a lifelong learner eager to know more and to share what I can glean from these works.

The first of these spiritual classics from the English tradition that I’ll discuss here is The Cloud of Unknowing, which also happens to be one of the first that I read so many years ago. The edition I’ll be working from is the 1922 Early English Text Society’s edition edited and introduced by Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican who became an expert in the tradition of Christian mysticism (and who probably would have become a Catholic, if her husband hadn’t threatened to leave her if she did so). If there is a great clamor of interest in this edition (even one hand clapping!), I may bring out a Nova & Vetera edition of the same someday. Meanwhile, anyone interested in this edition can download a PDF of the same from the Internet Archive.

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