Expressions of Mysticism
The Cloud of Unknowing
by Peter Dodson
Touching the gates of pure contemplation
Cloud image: Fiona Wells Martin
It is perhaps sixty years ago, that I first read The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic of medieval English literature, as well as a gem of Christian spiritual teaching. Over the past two hundred years, it has been edited and published many times. Several recent new editions are currently available. The anonymous author of The Cloud, writes for those who "have resolved with steadfast determination, truly and sincerely to be a follower of Christ; … [especially] in the contemplative life". For the author, there is no conflict between the 'active life' and 'contemplative life'; the latter is seen as the highest degree of the active life.
In my experience, true contemplatives tend to lead exceptionally active lives. I am reminded of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who advises us to think of ourselves, not as channels, but as reservoirs. These, by the regular 'repose of contemplation', are kept full to overflowing with love, most importantly for God and, as an inevitable consequence, for other people, for the world, and all creation.
The author of The Cloud is adamant that his book is not "for worldly chatterboxes, [flatterers], rumour-mongers… gossips, tittle-tattlers [and] fault-finders". Rather, the author is encouraging those who are "inwardly moved by the hidden Spirit of God … [who] are enabled by an abundance of grace to share in the work of contemplation at the highest level".
The Cloud's seventy-five short chapters are, therefore, an excellent guide for those who may be called to a contemplative way of prayer and life. The final chapter explores the signs that show whether or not a person has a true vocation to live contemplatively. Simply having read the book, does not imply that we are contemplatives or even that we are suited to such a life. After all, a person can read, study and know the Hebrew/Christian scriptures inside out, or be very familiar with all the classics of Eastern and Western spirituality; all such knowledge counts for nothing, unless that person is seen to be, as quoted above, "resolved with steadfast determination, truly and sincerely to be a follower of Christ …".
Unfortunately, the word 'contemplation' can be confusing, especially when writers use expressions such as 'contemplative meditation' or 'contemplative prayer'. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, uses the word 'contemplation' but is clearly referring to what is normally termed 'meditation'.
In common with the author of The Cloud, I use the word 'contemplation' in the sense that two twentieth century devotional writers define it. Thomas Merton says that 'Contemplation is nothing else but the perfection of love'. Clifton Wolters, in his Introduction to a 1961 Penguin Classics edition of The Cloud, says that "Contemplation is the awareness of God known and loved at the core of one's being".
The word love also demands careful definition. The author of The Cloud differentiates between various types of love. I find C.S.Lewis's The Four Loves, listed as Affection, friendship, Eros and Charity, most helpful. All four are important but, in The Cloud, it is charitable love that is to be pursued. Many other medieval, and more recent, contemplative and mystical writers, including Merton and Wolters, emphasise the charitable love of authentic contemplation; a love that gives and goes on giving, whatever the cost.
for Christians, charitable love is revealed supremely in the sacrificial self-giving of Jesus Christ. I have observed that images of a serene-faced Buddha now decorate many aspects of British domestic life. These do connect with an essential aspect of the relaxed stillness and silent attention, required for the work of contemplation. However, for Christians, there can be no substitute for life's harsh realities, as demonstrated by the Cross of Christ.
It is no accident that Christian contemplation has also been called 'the prayer of loving regard' and 'the prayer of loving attention.' The spirit of this is emphasised throughout the Hebrew/Christian scriptures in, for example, "Come to ME, all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy, and I will give you rest", "Be still, and know that I AM God", "Be silent before ME", "Be attentive …". Before composing this article on The Cloud, I spent twenty minutes in church, in an attitude of silent supplication for muchneeded spiritual guidance.
I value a quotation from Charles-Damian Boulogné: "To linger in the observation of things other than the self implies a profound conviction of their worth". This is true of the precious times that we enjoy, with a person to whom we are close; when we show affection, friendship or sexual intimacy. These are times when we are able to go beyond the need for thoughts, words or actions; when all that remains is stillness and a simple gazing at the other in total, selfless silence; when charitable love has transcended and transformed all other loves.
Language about the human sphere of loving, as witnessed by the writing prophets, saints and mystics through the ages, is the only language we are able to draw on, in the fumbling attempt to describe the experience of authentic religious, especially contemplative, experience.
There is a perennial problem with any kind of religious language, including the language of all biblical and other devotional literature. In spite of all the positive words that have been, and continue to be, said about the nature of God, it remains an inadequate struggle to describe the indescribable. In true contemplation, we are in touch with the God who cannot be labelled or pigeon-holed; the God who is beyond words or images; the God who is ineffable; the God who proclaims, "I AM WHO I AM".
It is this mysterious, 'unknowable' yet loving God, who becomes present when, from time to time, we find ourselves touching the gates of pure contemplation. It can never be reached by our own efforts. The secret lies in the ability to become still, silent, attentive and receptive to the unconditional love that God eternally offers. As the author of The Cloud famously puts it, 'By love he may be caught and held, by thinking never'. It is only God-given love that stands any chance of entering, what our author calls, 'the cloud of forgetting' which, according to various commentators on The Cloud, probably involves letting go of all intellectual activity, all knowledge so far acquired, and all accumulated words and images. This leads, not to negation of intellect, but to its enhancement.
It is only God-given love that allows us to enter the 'mystery' of God. With this in mind, our author draws on the biblical narrative of Martha and Mary (Luke10 38-42): Mary, he says, "sat unmoving, sending up many a sweet and longing impulse of love, to beat upon that high cloud of unknowing between her and her God". It is only God-given love that provides the spiritual power to undertake our author's advice to:
I end with our author's words on what he calls 'the everlastingly wonderful miracle of love':
Note: For this article, quotations from The Cloud are taken, mainly, from a 1981 edition, available in the Classics of Western Spirituality series. In the Preface to this edition, the noted priest and scholar, Simon Tugwell, says that 'The Cloud of Unknowing … [has won], over many generations, a readership much wider and more diverse than [the author] appreciated'.
Peter Dodson is a Christian priest, author of devotional writings, spiritual director, retreats leader, and longstanding member of the international, ecumenical Fellowship of Contemplative Prayer (FCP).