The Cloud of Unknowing

There is a different kind of prayer without ceasing; it is longing. Whatever you may be doing, if you long for the day of everlasting rest do not cease praying. If you do not wish to cease praying, then do not cease your longing. Your persistent longing is your persistent voice. But when love grows cold, the heart grows silent. Burning love is the outcry of the heart! If you are filled with longing all the time, you will keep crying out, and if your love perseveres, your cry will be heard without fail.

~St Augustine of Hippo, from Expositions of the Psalms

What exactly is prayer?  The fast answer is that it is talking to God, but what does that entail?  Must it be spoken words, or can it be thought words – or no words at all?  The disciples clearly recognized the importance of prayer in Jesus’ life because they asked Him to teach them to pray.  What we call the Lord’s Prayer was His template or model.

We all know what it means to feel a longing for God that defies our vocabulary.  Over seven hundred years ago an unknown monk wrote an essay to his student who had asked for help with prayer.  That document, now known as The Cloud of Unknowing is among the oldest English language works, and it has been in continuous print ever since.  Listen to its rich prose:

You only need a naked intent for God.
When you long for him, that’s enough.
We can’t think our way to God.
That’s why I’m willing to abandon everything I know,
to love the one thing I cannot think.
God can be loved, but not thought.

The book speaks of seeking God through contemplation, by emptying your mind rather than filling it with thoughts.  In this sense, prayer picks up where our earthly abilities fail.  It is the great equalizer – leveling the simple and the genius, the child and the adult.  We unite with God as Romans 8:26 says “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

T. S. Eliot is one of many literary figures influenced by The Cloud of Unknowing and its opaque, but luminescent spirituality. Eliot’s Cloud-inspired words, from East Coker say

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.

Prayer emphasizes God’s mystery, inscrutability, and immanence—God is closer than our very breath. We get to know God not by the route of information, but by holding in abeyance what we think we know about God, or even ourselves, in order to let His love and fellowship flood our beings in a way that lies beyond our senses.

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton said:

We thank Him less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance. It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.

As Acts 17:28 says “for in Him we live and move and have our being.

D I G  D E E P E R

The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud is an anonymous book on contemplative prayer, written c. 1390–95, most probably by a Carthusian of Beauvale Priory (Notts.). While the Cloud is not primarily controversial, there are marks of the same concern which is found in *Walter Hilton (c. 1343–96) to present traditional spiritual methods and aims in the face of Lollardy, as well as warning against attachment to the ‘heat, sweetness and song’ associated with Richard Rolle (d. 1349). There is evidence of some interaction with Hilton, but whereas Hilton addresses overall a wide circle of readers, the Cloud (and its corpus) are directed particularly to contemplatives.

The book’s title is drawn from the writings of *Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500), where the author affirms that all the teaching of the Cloud may be found in (Pseudo-) Dionysius. The core of Pseudo-Dionysius’s apophatic Mystical Theology is the search for union at a supra-intellectual level with God, who in his transcendence exceeds both all that may be affirmed and all that may be denied of him. This union occurs in the ‘luminous darkness’ (exemplified by Moses’ ascent of Sinai), or the excess of God’s light experienced as darkness, as all that can appeal to sense or intellect is left behind. The Cloud speaks of leaving created things under a ‘cloud of forgetting’, in order to penetrate with a ‘sharp dart of longing love’ the cloud of unknowing that veils God’s presence. The author of the Cloud knew Pseudo-Dionysius through such Latin mediators as John Sarrazin (1140–67) and Thomas of Vercelli (d. 1246), who in various respects modified Pseudo-Dionysius. Latin theology makes more explicit that the soul’s ascent towards union with God is an act of love, a gift of God’s grace. Among other Latin writers in the Dionysian tradition, the Cloud’s author certainly knew something also of the De Mystica Theologia of the Carthusian Hugh of Balma (1289–1304), echoing (inter alia) his account of imageless prayer without premeditation, a movement of love and not of intellect.

In fact the Cloud is firmly rooted in the monastic tradition of spiritual guidance, and in Latin theology. There are echoes of *Augustine (354–430), Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), *Bernard (1090–1153) and *Richard of St Victor (d. 1173). Augustine’s teaching on the ordo caritatis, the rightly-ordered love of God and of neighbour, is fundamental. Humility and charity are the two interdependent virtues in which the whole Christian moral life is implied. The author is also in accord with *St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74) at various points: on the name ‘Is’ as the most appropriate to God (in contrast to Pseudo-Dionysius, who prefers ‘Good’); on the capacity of charity to unite us directly to God while we are unable in this life to know him as he is; and on the theology of ‘operant grace’. In the latter mode, as distinct from that of ‘co-operant grace’, where there is deliberate conjunction of the human will with grace, God moves the will directly and without impediment, yet with the will’s consent, ensuring the soul’s spontaneous conformity to his will. The Cloud sees this as concomitant with ‘perfect humility’, which has regard only to the greatness of God in his love and worthiness, and so is self-forgetful. In contrast, ‘imperfect humility’ has regard to one’s own qualities, especially to one’s own sinfulness, and thus is necessary but is still self-regarding. Entry into the ‘cloud of unknowing’ opens the way to ‘perfect humility’.

The Cloud thrice refers in passing to ‘another man’, who may well be Walter Hilton. The third reference is mildly critical, as if the (Augustinian and Gregorian) approach to God by introversion—the search for the ‘image of God’ within and yet beyond the soul—favoured by Hilton and by many others might seem to ‘localize’ God. The Book of Privy Counselling, intended to elucidate difficult points in the Cloud, answers just such criticisms of the Cloud’s presentation as the profoundly incarnational Hilton might have made. Comparison of Cloud and Privy Counselling shows no doctrinal difference between the two books. But what is stated in passing in the Cloud is, where necessary, restated more clearly and emphatically in Privy Counselling. The latter explicitly identifies the rejection of distinct images of God and the entry into the ‘cloud of unknowing’ with response to Christ’s call to deny oneself and take up the cross (Mt. 16:24), a text used by Hilton in Scale, 1. Privy Counselling also seems to echo Hilton in its use of John 10:9; 10:1; to insist that conformity to the virtues of Christ in his incarnate life is the only true way to contemplation. Again, Privy Counselling has a forceful passage on the sanctifying value of spiritual aridity which goes far beyond anything in the Cloud but accords with Hilton. The use of John 16:7 in this context (echoing Augustine) stands close to the use made by Hilton of more particularly Bernard’s teaching on the transition from the carnal to the spiritual love of God in Christ. Privy Counselling also marches with Hilton’s Scale, 2 on a fluctuation between aridity and awareness of God’s presence within contemplation. Conversely, Hilton’s Scale, 2 seems to draw on the Cloud for its teaching on imperfect and perfect humility, and ‘operant grace’ as ensuring (for the duration of the experience) conformity to God’s will.

There is no evidence that the Cloud was known outside England until the late sixteenth century, through an English Carthusian copy used by Benet Canfield (1562–1611) and later by Augustine Baker (1575–1641). Parallels have been drawn between *St John of the Cross (1542–91) on the ‘dark night’ and the Cloud (and Hilton), but St John cannot have known the English writers. However, the Cloud’s apophatic and affective theology, in conjunction with Harphius (Henry Herp, d. 1477), Blosius (Louis of Blois, 1506–66), Canfield and Constantin Barbanson (1582–1631), became an important constituent in Augustine Baker’s teaching.

Art as Negative Theology

“Consider, for example, the twentieth-century abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt, who was deeply influenced by Theosophy. He “developed a religious perspective that blends Eastern and Western mysticism to form what is, in effect, an artistic via negativa,” says postmodern theologian Mark Taylor. Reinhardt is best known for a series of black paintings that represent, in his own words, a “mystical ascent.” The mind leaves behind “the world of appearances” composed of separate images until it reaches an “undifferentiated unity.” In this state, there is “no consciousness of anything” and “all distinctions disappear in darkness.” The mind attains “the divine dark.” It has immersed itself in the cloud of unknowing.

“We might borrow a label from Francis Schaeffer and call this a form of “mysticism with nobody there.” An experience like this may lift us out of the mundane world, but to connect with what? Not with a transcendent person who loves us, but with sheer silence and emptiness. Novelist Susan Sontag calls it a mysticism that ends “in a via negativa, a theology of God’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.” In the same way, Sontag says, abstract art tends toward “the elimination of the ‘subject’ (the ‘object,’ the ‘image’), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.”

Matthew 6:6

But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Sources & Resources

Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (Nashville: B&H, 2010).

Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Aspen nos. 5 & 6 (a multimedia magazine of the arts published from 1965 to 1971).

John P.H. Clark, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000), 129–131.

Texts (critical editions): The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling (ed. Phyllis Hodgson; London, rev. edn, 1958);

Deonise Hid Diuinite and other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer (ed. Phyllis Hodgson; London, 1958);

The Cloud of Unknowing and Related Treatises (ed. Phyllis Hodgson; Salzburg, 1982).

Texts (modernized versions): The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Treatises (ed. J. McCann; London, 6th rev. edn, 1952), includes Augustine’s commentary on the Cloud;

The Cloud of Unknowing (ed. James Walsh; Mahwah, NJ, 1981);

The Cloud of Unknowing and other Works (ed. C. Wolters; Harmondsworth, 1961).

Studies: D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (London, 1961);

W. Johnston, The Mysticism of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ (New York, 1967);

J.P.H. Clark, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’: An Introduction (3 vols.; Salzburg, 1995–6); R. Tixier, ‘Mystique et Pédagogie dans “The Cloud of Unknowing” ’ (PhD thesis; University of Nancy, 1988).

Image by Tom Darin Liskey

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life