relief of Christ ascending

Approaching the Cloud of Unknowing

It’s a good thing that my re-introduction to the long literary tradition of writings on Christian contemplation has come about, in part, through my interest in reviving forgotten books, because, judging by the editions being offered today, one might be forgiven for thinking that The Cloud of Unknowing was some kind of New Age work of “spirituality.” As it happens, however, I have, for some time, been mining the Internet Archive for lost treasures from the English spiritual tradition, many of which were rediscovered and published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These had long been buried in personal libraries of handwritten manuscripts, many of which were literally hidden for centuries by Recusant Catholics who wanted to save them from the anti-Catholic campaigns of the Tudor monarchs and, after them, the bloody-minded Puritans.

In the nineteenth century, a combination of several disparate occurrences worked together to bring these forgotten works to new light: the development of modern textual scholarship, the Oxford Movement’s interest in reclaiming the spiritual heritage that Henry VIII and his successors had stolen and buried, and the availability of reasonably inexpensive printing. Thus, works such as Julian of Norwich’s Shewings and an anonymous Carthusian’s The Cloud of Unknowing (not to mention lost literary treasures such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) were being rediscovered by English Christians, for English Christians. Although scholars might argue about the extent to which Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were informed by a Christian outlook, it did not, at that time, occur to anyone to dispute the fact that Julian’s Shewings or The Cloud of Unknowing are thoroughly imbued with Christian — in fact, Catholic — spirituality.

Contemplation: Christian and Personal

This is not, alas, the case today, as I discovered when I began to look for reliable editions in English modern enough not to put off blog readers. I also thought I might learn something useful from introductions written by contemporary experts. Alas and woe is me! It seems that every work the pre-Reformation English contemplative tradition has been hijacked by New Agers and “Catholic” syncretists who don’t seem to recognize the (to me, glaring) differences between Christian contemplation and the mind-altering behavior called “contemplation” which is practiced by Buddhists and Hindus.

So, let me make this very clear: Christian contemplation is always centered on Christ, God made Man, in union with the other Persons of the Holy Trinity. Contemplation is a form of prayer, and Christian prayer is always Trinitarian, aimed at knowing the Triune God. This is the God to whom Christians pray and the One with whom we long to be united, both now and in eternity. We do not seek to be dissolved into a great nebulous, evanescent Nothingness, but united to a Divine Person (in fact, Three Persons in One God). Any mature Christian should understand this. And yet there are any number of “contemplative experts” who teach Christians Eastern (i.e. Buddhist, non-Christian, in fact pagan) “techniques,” as if these can somehow help us grow closer to Christ. I don’t know why such people feel the need to go outside the Christian tradition to learn to pray as Christians — except that the modern Church has, to some extent, forgotten her own long, rich history of contemplative prayer. Which is why I’m trying to bring people back to it.

Now, I must admit that, of all the great works on Christian contemplation, The Cloud of Unknowing is probably the one most easily mistaken for New Agey “spirituality,” because it addresses precisely that point in the Christian life of prayer at which images and analogies fail us as we attempt to “see” God. Still, we will be confused only if we come at this book from a perspective of complete ignorance of the religious, cultural, historical, and rhetorical context in which it was written (never, never read anything out of context, dear reader — that is how crazy-wrong ideas are born).

The Cloud‘s author understood that context is important, which is why he adjured his original reader (i.e., the person for whom and to whom he wrote it) not to lend it out to just anyone. The reason for this, as he makes clear in the Prologue, is two-fold: First, anyone who is not far enough advanced in the life of prayer and not already committed to a life of contemplation (Christian contemplation) might be tempted to skip around, cherry-picking the “good bits,” rather than taking in the entire instruction, and thereby “might lightly be led into error.”

Second, the author wasn’t writing for spiritual dilettantes, whom he calls:

Fleshly janglers, open praisers and blamers of themselves or of any other, tellers of trifles, ronners and tattlers of tales, and all manner of pinchers

Prologue, The Cloud of Unknowing, Underhill ed.

Speaking of context, part of the context of any written work is the intended audience, and the most obvious thing about the intended audience of this work is that it was Christian, as was pretty much everyone living in the English Midlands in the middle of the fourteenth century, when this book was written. Yet even among Christians, there were (and are) plenty of people who should not read it, because they would misunderstand it. And, as I’ve already indicated, many (if not most) of those today who read The Cloud of Unknowing — and, for that matter, who publish editions of it — are “fleshly janglers” hoping to make a buck off of those “spiritual but not religious” readers who readily consume all sorts of New Age nuttiness. In other words, the very people that the anonymous author did NOT want getting their hands on it.

So — en garde and caveat lector. As we proceed, let us acknowledge that we must be attentive to what is actually said — by a Christian author for a Christian audience — and not what is not said, and let us keep in mind the purpose for which this book was written: namely, to help the already-committed Christian, well advanced in the life of prayer, move even further into prayerful union with God, at the precise point in the journey at which it may seem impossible to do so.

The Mystical Cloud

So, what point ought one to have reached in order to get out of this book all that its author intends? That point at which contemplation, properly speaking, begins, when one is finally past one’s “spiritual adolescence” and the benefits of meditation have been exhausted. Now, one must move forward without the benefit of images and analogies into a nebulous unknown.

David Torkington, in his wonderful book, Wisdom from the Christian Mystics (chapter 11), refers to this as the threshold that leads into the “mystical crèche where purification begins,” a place where even great saints like St. Thérèse of Lisieux find it hard to focus on God, where there are no prayer helps but plenty of distractions. One must simply persevere in faith, feeling one’s way forward, until God has pity and grasps us to pull us up into His presence.

This is what later Christian mystics (using a term coined by St. John of the Cross) call “the dark night of the soul.” Our anonymous fourteenth-century author refers instead to the soul finding itself encountering a “cloud of unknowing” that hovers between itself and God.

Light and Darkness, Seeing and Not Seeing

Christ in Mandorla, Chelmsford Cathedral
Mandorla, Chelmsford Cathedral, England

Why this image of the “cloud”? It may seem strange to modern Christians who are more familiar with the language of the Carmelite mystics, who talk about a “dark night of the soul.”

To answer that question, let me refer to something familiar to Christians of the Eastern (Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic) tradition. Right now, I have on my desk two small icons, one of which I’ve had for some years ( the Dormition of Our Lady) and another of which I’ve recently acquired (Christ’s descent into Hell, somewhat incongruously known in the Eastern tradition as His Resurrection).

The central figure in both these icons is the risen (glorified) Christ. Not the “historical Jesus” whom we can all imagine from the Gospel stories, the one even his closest followers knew first as a man and only later, after his Resurrection, as the God who triumphs over death.

The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles all show that it took Jesus’ disciples some time to connect the Man who died with God, who is immortal. (Some people still have trouble with this — the scandal of particularity). To help them make the association, after His resurrection, Our Lord appeared to many in the form they could recognize: clearly a man, clearly crucified (His wounds still apparent), but clearly something more than a man. For instance, He could appear in more places than one at a time, He could enter locked rooms without opening the door, etc. But then, after forty days, He disappeared again (into a cloud!), for good. For the next ten days, his apostles seemed to be bereft of His presence, holed up in their upper room waiting, waiting . . . until He poured out His Holy Spirit upon them and they were suddenly afire with new life, speaking in a way that anyone and everyone could understand, healing others, escaping from locked prisons, even rising from their graves, etc. And they realized that, in some way they could hardly imagine, He was still with them, living in them, making Himself known through them. But before they received this assurance, first they had faithfully to endure those ten days when they couldn’t see or feel Him.

Now, we understand light being associated with Christ, because we know that He is the Light of the World, the light of the Truth about God. But we cannot yet see Him as He truly is (hence the darkness in the center). As this helpful explanation elucidates,

The Mandorla becomes progressively darker as it moves toward its center, which is Christ.  If God is represented by light, the Mandorla may seem confusing.  However, those who seek God will find that the more they know Him, the less they comprehend Him.  To know God, to experience Him, is to walk in the darkness of His light, to enter into the mystery of His presence.

Christ’s Descent into Hades – icon explanation, Orthodox Road blog

To comprehend, in this case, means almost literally “to wrap your mind around” something. God became Man so that we could get to know Him, because otherwise He would be incomprehensible to us. In the earlier stages of prayer, we grow closer to Him by reading and meditating upon the Bible, especially the New Testament accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But that historical account can take us only so far into the truth of who Jesus truly is now (always has been and always will be, world without end). And so, at a certain point, meditation gives way as our love for God grows ever stronger and more urgent. Those things which once helped us must be left behind in the “cloud of forgetfulness” and we must face the “cloud of unknowing.”

To put this another way and to return to the imagery of the mandorla, as one gets closer to Christ as He really is in His fulness of being, one is blinded by His incomprehensible light, so that His light becomes a kind of temporary darkness, rather like the temporary blindness you may experience if you stare at the sun too long. That happens when the eye’s photoreceptors have been overloaded. Your sight is blinded for a while, but then your eyes recover and you can see again.

Both the darkness and the eventual glimpse of the greater Light are part of the mystical experience. What the author of The Cloud of Unknowing wants to do is to help the Christian who is ready to move beyond the created light toward the Uncreated Light, even though he must persevere while confronted by a great Cloud of Unknowing.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to learn what this writer has to teach. Next time, we’ll start to see what that is.

4 thoughts on “Approaching the Cloud of Unknowing”

  1. […] I believe almost every Christian has “missed a vocation as a contemplative,” because the contemplative life is the essence of that to which every Christian is called: union with Christ, which we approach in this life along the contemplative path. This, at least, is what English spiritual theologian David Torkington argues, and he has convinced me. In fact, reading Torkington’s work (beginning with Wisdom from the Western Isles) has led me to start a new blog in which I read and comment on great works from the English spiritual tradition, beginning with The Cloud of Unknowing. In one post, I addressed the paradox of how, the more our faith draws us closer to Christ, we all inevitably encounter this “cloud of unknowing,” which is beautifully illustrated in the mandorla (a nimbus surrounding Christ which is darkest at the center) used in Eastern Christian iconography. Read the post here: http://christiancontemplation.home.blog/2019/09/29/approaching-the-cloud-of-unknowing/ […]

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