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

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.

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.”

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

Dante Alighieri: Medieval (1265–1321)

Canto I

While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.

When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”

He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.

‘Sub Julio’ was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.

A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned.

But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
Why climb’st thou not the Mount Delectable,
Which is the source and cause of every joy?”

“Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?”
I made response to him with bashful forehead.

“O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!

Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.

Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;
Do thou protect me from her, famous Sage,
For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.”

“Thee it behoves to take another road,”
Responded he, when he beheld me weeping,
“If from this savage place thou wouldst escape;

Because this beast, at which thou criest out,
Suffers not any one to pass her way,
But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;

And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.

Many the animals with whom she weds,
And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound
Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.

He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,
But upon wisdom, and on love and virtue;
’Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be;

Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour,
On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds;

Through every city shall he hunt her down,
Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,
There from whence envy first did let her loose.

Therefore I think and judge it for thy best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide,
And lead thee hence through the eternal place,

Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations,
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate,
Who cry out each one for the second death;

And thou shalt see those who contented are
Within the fire, because they hope to come,
Whene’er it may be, to the blessed people;

To whom, then, if thou wishest to ascend,
A soul shall be for that than I more worthy;
With her at my departure I will leave thee;

Because that Emperor, who reigns above,
In that I was rebellious to his law,
Wills that through me none come into his city.

He governs everywhere, and there he reigns;
There is his city and his lofty throne;
O happy he whom thereto he elects!”

And I to him: “Poet, I thee entreat,
By that same God whom thou didst never know,
So that I may escape this woe and worse,

Thou wouldst conduct me there where thou hast said,
That I may see the portal of Saint Peter,
And those thou makest so disconsolate.”

Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy has so permeated literature and theology that much of what he wrote about the afterlife is though by many to come from the Bible.  T.S. Eliot said “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.”

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

The best advice I can give is to read quickly the first time. You will know you’re missing more than you’re gaining, but get what you can and then read the selection again. This time, look up some of the unfamiliar people and works. Third time, try reading the lines aloud and let the sound move you. Focus on a single line you want to understand the fourth time through, and read until you understand.

The Comedy is an entire Christian worldview. It isn’t the only possible Christian worldview, because no human book could contain that whole, but it’s a very good one. It combines the best science, theology, poetry, politics, and psychology from the age in which it was written. That means parts of it are wrong, but even where wrong, it stimulated in others the thinking that produced modernity.

The Divine Comedy portrays Dante’s vision of heaven and hell.  What is yours?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.



John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.


D I G  D E E P E R

 On Anguish and Beauty

Anthony Esolen

How does one begin to praise the greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy?
It is as wildly various as the flora and fauna that sport across the capitals of an illuminated manuscript.

It is as theologically ordered and precise, in its own way, as the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s leading light in matters of the intellect, the virtues, the church, and the nature of God.

It is as delightful as a romance with Lancelot and Guenevere, as terrifying as the apocalypse of John, and as wondrous as the seraphic vision that came to Saint Francis and marked him with the marks of Christ.

What moment in all of literature can surpass the profound anguish of an Ugolino who looks into the faces of his children, all prisoners on his account, and all, with him, about to starve to death, and who says, in a few stunning words, “I did not weep, I had so turned to stone”?

But then, what moment can surpass the wonder of Piccarda, who has become more human precisely because she has immersed herself in the divine Love? “In His will is our peace,” says she.

If we say it’s hard to find a single human moment, or a single one of the wonders of God as made manifest to man, that does not find its place in Dante’s poem, we say no more than the truth, and yet we still fail to grasp the excellence here. For it’s one thing to find these moments—to find, in the excerpt above, the grim blasphemy of sinners who wish, far more than that they had never been born, that their parents and the whole human race and the time and place of their begetting had never existed; a universal curse. Or to find the paradox that love, that sweetest of desires, had brought disaster and condemnation—as Francesca the gentle-spoken adulteress says, “Love led us to one death.”

What astonishes more than all is to find all these things ordered in an artistic, philosophical, and theological whole, so that Virgil’s encounter with Beatrice is meant to anticipate Dante’s encounter with Francesca, and then with other lovers and indeed other writers of love poetry in the Purgatory, before the pilgrim poet finally meets Beatrice herself; she in turn leads him to Paradise, where he will enjoy at the last a vision of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Such an achievement in poetry had no precedent.

Dante could have done as Milton would do, centuries later, and adapt the meter, narrative techniques, and epic apparatus of Virgil’s Aeneid to his own language. He did not.

He could have written in the style of the romancers of his own day, like the prodigious and remarkably original Chrétien de Troyes. He did not.
The Divine Comedy is of its own kind, even as it gathers to itself all the Christian and classical learning Dante had inherited. It’s as if a man should study all the paintings of the dramatic Caravaggio and the brooding Rembrandt, and then, inspired by them, compose the Saint Matthew Passion—when, to boot, nothing of that sort had ever been composed before, and nothing quite of that sort would ever be composed again.


All of this is to insist that when we read Dante, even in the few cantos above, we bring to our reading more than the habits we have acquired in reading other poets. We must read as composers, as sculptors, as architects, as theologians.

Take, for example, the appearance of Beatrice to Virgil. We understand the necessity of the conversation. Dante the pilgrim is having second thoughts about entering hell—naturally. But instead of giving him an eminently practical reason for trusting him, as, for instance, that if Dante remains in the dark wilderness he will be lost for certain, but if he accompanies Virgil he at least has a chance, the Roman poet becomes for him and for us a courtly lover, swept into obedient service by a vision of a beautiful woman such as had no counterpart in anything he had ever written.

Now, if we conclude that this is just a fine quirk of poetic adaptation, we miss the deep humanity and theology both. Dante expects us to think—that is the object of reason—and to begin to see—that is the object of the intellect. This is, after all, the same Virgil who has just revealed to Dante that he will never enjoy the sight of God, and who has burst into an exclamation of longing and hopelessness: “Happy the man He chooses for His house!” That is the man who now tells Dante he has seen Beatrice, and, even before she gives her name, indeed before she speaks a word, “begged her for the grace of a command.” The ancient pagan is a man like all men, made to be fulfilled only by the vision of holiness itself, the vision of God.

I hope, then, dear reader, that you will not approach this poem as if it were a mere artistic artifact. Such would be to sin against any work of truly great art, but it would be all the more disordered in the case of Dante. That is because Dante himself summons us to a deeper engagement with the world of man and the being and goodness of God.

If we were present on that dread day, under the blank staring of the Mediterranean sun, when, amid those who loved Him and those who plotted His destruction, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, would we confine our thoughts to the picturesque scene, or to the eloquence of the Master? No, we would long to look upon the reality itself. The only human thing to do, the only rational thing, would be to press beyond the human, in love. We would—or at least we should—take upon ourselves the ultimate task of our poet: to seek the face of God.

Anthony Esolen, PhD, is a professor of Literature at Providence College and a senior editor of Touchstone magazine. In addition to authoring several books, he is well-known for his translations of classical works of literature, including Dante’s Divine Comedy.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).