Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 3: How and Why to Confront the Cloud

Today we continue our reading of The Cloud of Unknowing: a brief summary of Chapter 3, followed by my commentary. Please feel free to leave your own comments at the end.

Summary

The subtitle of this chapter promises that it will explain two things: how to put in practice what the book will teach, and why the reason doing so is the most worthy thing one can do.

So first the how: Lift your heart to God, our author says, thinking only of Him, but not of His benefits (“goods”) or any part of His Creation. Think on Him as He is, but not of what He does. This will be difficult, but we must persist in the effort, no matter how difficult it seems, until it is no longer difficult. At first, and for a long time, we will face a great “cloud of unknowing,” but if we persist eventually the cloud will disperse and we will see/know Him as He is, to the extent that this is possible in this mortal life.

Why persist in something so difficult and frustrating? Our teacher encourages his pupil to make the effort, not only for one’s own sake (the benefit of experiencing God as He is), but also because doing so will frustrate the fiends of Hell and benefit the souls in purgatory.

Commentary

The method of prayer introduced in this chapter (to be explained in detail later) sounds a little like that old gag, “Don’t think about elephants.” As soon as someone says that, you find yourself thinking about elephants. So, how do we fix our minds and hearts on God without thinking of all the good things He does for us or all the wonderful things He has created that bear witness to Him? How can we make it our naked intent simply to adore Him as He is, when it is impossible for us to know Him except through the created order, His interventions in the created order, including His becoming Man for our sake?

It sounds impossible, rather like trying to know what we don’t know. Our teacher acknowledges this difficulty — we must not try to think of God with our intellect (we’re not engaging in theology) nor to feel Him with our affections (we can’t conjure Him up with our emotions). But, if not thinking or feeling, what? Our “naked intent” — our will. Our desire itself to know Him.

This, he says, is what the Angels and Saints do: they desire God with a pure and unflagging desire, and their reward is to know Him as He is. This is the encouragement that will help us persevere in what will seem, at first and for a long time thereafter, a most impossible and frustrating task.

Learning God by Not Imagining Him

Remember that in the Old Testament, God forbade the Hebrews to make any image of Him. In part, that was because He desired to teach them that He is not like all the gods of the pagans, who were regularly depicted as having bodily form, whether human form (as the Greeks imagined their gods) or as monsters (human/animal hybrids), such as the gods worshipped in ancient Egypt and throughout the Middle East. Nor did He let them give Him any name: when asked His name, He simply replied “I am who am.” That is, He is God and there is no other, so He needed no name to distinguish Himself from other gods. So by forbidding believers from literally imagining Him (making images of what they thought He was like), He made it impossible for them to fall back on preconceived notions of Who He was and what He wanted. Instead, they would “learn God” because He would teach them Himself.

God Took Our Image

Of course, eventually God (the one true God) gave Himself an image by being born in the likeness of men. When the Son of God was born as a man, he took a name, Jesus, and a form. This made it possible for people to get to know Him in a very literal, human way. But notice that even those who knew Jesus best still had trouble understanding Who He truly was and what He was doing. For instance, He told them that He would suffer and die, but would rise again on the third day. This did not stop them trying to stop the Temple guards who came to arrest Him, or hide in fear after He was taken, or believe that someone had stolen His body from the tomb. And then, during the time between His resurrection and His ascension, He spent His time trying to get them to understand what He had done and Who He really was, explaining how He had fulfilled all the prophecies of Scripture, how all God’s earlier interventions in human history (Noah, Moses, etc.) had prefigured or foreshadowed what He had done and was still doing in their own time. But He knew that there was only so much they could learn from Him as long as they saw Him in his human form.

The time came when, if they were to learn the whole truth, and really believe it, they must see Him no more. It seems that even the beloved image and form that He had chosen for Himself had its limitations. And so, He told them that He would leave them but would send another like Himself, who would lead them into all truth. That day would come soon, if they would just wait. And so they retreated to the upper room where they were staying and waited.

They had to face a “cloud of unknowing,” a period in which all they could do was look forward to the promised day when the Advocate Jesus had promised would visit them.

And when the day came! There is no adequate image to describe what they experienced. St. Luke describes it as a mighty wind and tongues of flame, but these images are not intended to depict the Holy Spirit Himself, but merely to describe the phenomena (or perhaps only sensations) that accompanied the Holy Spirit’s descent upon them. That Holy Spirit was (is) God Himself, the same God who instructed Moses, the same God Who became Man and lived among them, ate with them, taught them, loved them enough to die for them. And now He came to live in them, so that He could transform them, from the inside out, into likenesses of Himself.

What happened to them in an instant takes the rest of us years — perhaps our whole lives. But the Church year, in the novena between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost Sunday, reminds us of the importance of this period of waiting and trusting that God will not leave us in the cloud of unknowing, that He will come to us in a way the we cannot imagine (literally, cannot form an image of), a way that is entirely of His doing, yet will enlighten and enlighten us in a way that we could never achieve of our own efforts and natural abilities.

Close the Eyes of Your Mind

So, it seems inevitable that, at some point along the contemplative way, we need to put images behind us, in the sense that we accept that they cannot teach us all that we desire to know of God. Everything except God has been created by Him and is therefore less than Him. It cannot teach us “God in Himself.” But the soul who has already reached the stage appropriate for the teaching of this book has probably already realized that they can’t go on under their own steam.

When we say we want to “know” God, we probably mean both that we desire enlightenment (understanding of who God is and how He behaves, being able to see Him as He really is) and the warmth of intimacy (a feeling that we are close to Him, as we feel with people we know well). But our author warns us that what we are about to experience will seem like the opposite of that: no light, no feelings, but a cloud of unknowing which hangs between us and what we desire.

This is not a bright cloud, but a dark one. Our experience of it must be a darkening of the intellect and the feelings. So at first it will seem that we are wasting our time. But, our teacher assures us, on the other kind of that cloud is the Light that is also the Truth. We must keep tossing those “darts of love” at the cloud of unknowing, trusting that they will reach God on the other side, where He dwells in light.

Notice that we cannot even begin to describe God or our desire to know Him, without images taken from the created order: light and darkness, clouds and darts. What an impossible task it seems to put even these feeble helps aside!

Ironcically, just trying to think about this “cloud of unknowing” puts new images in my mind. In fact the “cloud” itself an image, an evocative one that depicts what this stage of contemplation feels like. The “darkness” sounds a bit scary — many of us are afraid of the dark, because we can get lost in it, or stumble and hurt ourselves, or be set upon by robbers or wild beasts. In this spiritual darkness, we might worry that we’ve gone astray and should turn back, but our teacher assures us that we must persevere, even if it feels like we are not getting anywhwere, tossing our darts of love toward God, wherever he is.

This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the story of a king and his friends sailing in search of the Utter East, where the Emperor Beyond the Sea (God) dwells. At a certain point in their voyage, they find themselves past any landmarks that appear on maps, literally in uncharted territory. What is more, they find themselves in complete darkness, on a still sea, their sails slack. They seem to be making no progress at all, and some of the sailors start to rebel. They want to break out the oars and row back to the world they know. These are left on an island, to seek a way to return to the world they know, but others on the ship insist upon going on until they once again find themselves in the light. And they do, and what they find almost escapes description.

Embrace the Darkness

We must ally ourselves with those who insist on going on, braving the darkness and the apparent doldrums. Though the light is hidden from us and there seems to be no wind in our sails, we must trust that, as long as we persevere, an unseen, imperceptible current will draw us toward the light, a current moved by love — our love for God and, more importantly, His love for us, which will eventually draw us into His marvelous light. That will make everything we may have suffered worth the while. Meanwhile, we must accept the darkness.

Iconography (ironically) provides an image of this “cloud of unknowing”, in the “mandorla” that surrounds Christ in icons such as I’ve mentioned before. The outer edges of this nimbus that surrounds the figure of Christ are light, but the closer it gets to Him who is Light Himself, the darker. We must pass through this deepening darkness to know Him as He is, yet when we reach Him, “in His light, we shall see Light itself.” Perhaps this alone is enough encouragement to persist in this “dark” kind of prayer devoid of images or sensible consolations.

Detail of icon: Christ ascending in a “cloud of unknowing” (mandorla).

Beyond Images

Images ultimately, though, fall short of the true grandeur of God. Even Jesus Christ in His mortal humanity could present only an accessible image that allowed His disciples to begin to grasp what the love of God is all about. He gave them glimpses of His true glory, both before His death (Tranfiguration) and after His resurrection, but ultimately He had to remove Himselft from their sight (Ascension) so that they could be filled with the Holy Spirit (for Whom there is no adequate image) and truly know His godhood.

Perhaps this understanding of the inadequacy of imagery is what drove the iconoclasts in the early Church, who literally went around smashing images in churches. The greatest Greek philosophers, too, such as Plato, understood that our grasp of ultimate Truth must pass beyond images and metaphors as we advance to the point of pure contemplation, which Socrates and his followers regarded as the highest endeavor of man.

But it is so hard to do! We are composite creatures, a unity of body and soul, and it seems impossible to get past our bodily senses and our sensible imaginings into a truth that relies on none of this. Yet God was before anything was created. He does not depend on anything besides Himself for His being. So it makes sense that, to know Him truly, we must learn not to rely on images and feelings in our love for Him. So, those of us who have come this far must press on, into the cloud of unknowing.

One encouragement in this seemingly impossible endeavor is our teacher’s mysterious promise that, by “shaping ourselves to bide in this darkness” we will be frustrating fiends and aiding suffering souls. The Enemy would like us to be discouraged and turn back — so we must persist. We will be doing good, even if it doesn’t feel good.

And, eventually, our love for God, our desire to see Him as He is, will result in the vision we desire. God will draw us into His light and let us glimpse Him. In this life, we won’t see Him fully — our eyes would be dazzled by His full glory — but He will give us a glimpse.

I first tried to read The Cloud of Unknowing long ago, much too early in my prayer journey and, before giving up on the book (but not on prayer!), I read at least this far, chapter 3, because that image of the soul tossing darts of love into the dark cloud of unknowing has sustained me all these years and has encouraged me to remember that God’s Light is always steady, never wavering, even though He allows us to glimpse it only when and as He chooses.

I can see now why the book’s anonymous author warned in the preface that this book might do more harm than good to those who are not ready for it. After decades of learning to persist in prayer, even through seemingly impenetrable darkness, I find myself ready to benefit from what this book can teach. There may be those who, like the disheartened sailors of the Dawn Treader, would rather turn back toward sunny beaches and low-hanging fruit, but I’m not one of them. I want to see Light Himself, waiting for me on the other side of the cloud of unknowing.

3 thoughts on “Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 3: How and Why to Confront the Cloud”

    1. Thanks, Mike. I’ve added a little since you posted your comment — suggesting an analogy between the path of contemplative prayer and the experience of the apostles. You might want to take another look — let me know if you think it makes sense.

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