The Cloud of Unknowing

Selections from the Cloud of Unknowing - with footnotes by Gloriana


Of all the writings of 14th century mystics explored on this site, I would say that the Cloud is the most difficult to understand. Much of the terminology, which assumes knowledge of ascetic and mystic theology, can be taken entirely incorrectly in a time when meditation is seen as a technique. As well, and as the author of the Cloud makes very clear, the work described not only assumes divine grace but that the “reader” is already at an advanced state of prayer. There is strong emphasis on discipline, guidance, wariness of deception and renunciation of sin.

I first read the Cloud when I was about 20 years old – which action was concurrently one of the most enriching and stupid of my entire life. Certain elements of gnosticism spring eternal, and my young adult years were those when ascetic theology was studied as an academic exercise, but, besides pretending one understood various contemporary German theologians and rap sessions that were an odd take off on group therapy, there was the strong conviction that contemplation could be reached in the course of a month if the correct technique were found. Though I was amongst those who did have a sincere, if imprudent, desire for union with God, it was a time when even those of us who never used drugs were searching for a new “high.” Apparently we believed our new and improved generation, well fortified with post War vitamin pills, could take a short trip to ecstasy – and become channels of direct inspiration – just by “praying without words.”

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing is puzzlement for the same reason Teilhard de Chardin was for the geniuses of my own era. He is not writing a “new gospel” for an elite group with the intuitive knowledge unknown since Adam. His writings assume Christian commitment. In the case of this writer (and also of Julian of Norwich), we must remember that the ascetic concepts (faith, Church, sacramental life, sin and virtue, prayer) which Walter Hilton presented in detail were assumed, not denied. It is easy for us to fall into the same error as was rampant amongst would-be mystics of the 14th century: believing that some infused knowledge will place us beyond the practises that are essential to the very contemplation we may seek. The author makes it clear that contemplation is a direct gift of God which we cannot achieve by our own efforts – and that the such union comes (to those whom God chooses for it) after extensive dedication to prayer and contrition.

The author is addressing his work to those who already are in an advanced state of spiritual union. We need to constantly remember this, to avoid counterfeit manifestations of what he says, and against which he repeatedly cautions. My personal impression is that some of his expression also is intended to be very charitable and discreet – for example, his assumption that people of prayer are already past the point of attachment to sin.

This analogy is imperfect, because the spiritual life is not a matter of achievement, but perhaps can set forth something of the idea. No one could suddenly have infused academic knowledge. It would not be possible to use this knowledge without having the experience of study, training in logic and presentation, discipline. Another excess of the Reformation is that, though good works had never been seen as capable of obtaining salvation, progress in the spiritual life, and our need for discipline to achieve this, was down played. Salvation was sudden – one was assured a place in heaven – anyone who “fell” had never had the faith in the first place. Mainstream Anglican tradition cannot be said to fall into this extreme mould, but (rightful) wariness about the system of “good works” that was popular amongst Romans during the Reformation and beyond, which turned much of it into a highly judicial approach, often eliminated considerations of classic ascetic theology in common practise.

Important to any understanding of ascetic theology: it is very honest! It assumes progress – and repentance is only the first step. Salvation is a free gift, but holiness comes dear. Those, such as Saint Augustine, who had severe falls in their lives were not thought of as instantly holy – Augustine would not have been venerated later, probably, had he not lived for many years beyond that point of repentance.

Classic view: great holiness and serious sin do not co-exist. One could not be considered holy because of a particular good work, however heroic or whatever good effect it had, if one was concurrently an embezzler, adulterer, thief, or slanderer. One who was repentant was indeed forgiven, but the growth of sanctifying grace in the relationship with God was not automatically raised to great heights. Good works could lead to an increase in actual grace, but were no guarantee that those who were extraordinary in their service possessed great holiness.

The idea of mortal and venial sin is important to the understanding of this Thomist’s work, because its essence is whether actions of our lives involve full reflection and consent. The use of reason (a decision begins with thought) and will are critical to both asceticism and morality!

The distinction between mortal and venial sin was a concept affected, too, by excesses of the Reformation. During the Council of Trent, the approach became overly legalistic, and Roman Catholics had, not the opportunity for, but the obligation of sacramental confession before they could receive Communion if they were aware of a serious sin committed with full reflection and consent. Though this Council did not state that forgiveness depended on sacramental confession, the mistaken notion that it did endured, and those of other faiths easily received the impression (which Romans often shared!) that this was another power manifestation for the clergy. This is not a new concept – in fact, some of the Orthodox groups have stricter requirements than this – and excluding those involved with public scandals from communion is hardly unknown in the Anglican tradition. But it had consequences later. Though frequent communion had never been popular (until the 20th century), those such as Jean Vianney would have people return again and again before their admission to the fold…

Sacramental life in the Middle Ages could puzzle us. There was an emphasis on the Eucharist – but no participation, most of the time. People recited Paters and Aves, kissed the chalice without drinking from it, etc. Anchorites may have received the Eucharist once a month. (Most people had Sacramental Confession and Communion  only at Easter.) The idea of the sacraments being “used” was not common. This does not mean that Mass attendance was not the rule for anchorites, nor that the Eucharist was not important.

Key points  treated in the Cloud of Unknowing:

  • Thomistic: reason must grasp the object as good – will then embraces the good with reflection and consent.
  • Addressed to one he has noted to be called to contemplative prayer. There is no reference to the sacraments – a strong sacramental life is assumed. The author of the Cloud is addressing only points which would be unclear to a mystic – the work is in no sense introductory!
  • These works assume knowledge or experience that is not part and parcel of all lives! We must take care not to assume that one reaches the point of being “beyond” the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, of being beyond sin (a common 14th century heresy), of having special infused knowledge (Gnostic), or of “prayer without words” ruling out the need for the Church’s liturgy.
  • Reading, thinking and prayer essential at the outset and for those “a little advanced.” (The author was far too wise to tell anyone he was anything except a little advanced.)God’s word is a mirror. Reason is the eye and conscience the reflection. Scripture and preaching makes us see the blemishes and wash our faces. (Yes, a horrid analogy, if an apt one!)
  • Close adherence to the Augustinian idea of fallen and created nature previously discussed in the essay on Walter Hilton. Intuitive love of God, loving Him for His own sake, is natural to our created nature.
  • Contemplative life as a life of service to the Mystical Body: desire God for His own sake and not for his gifts – “your fellow men are marvellously enriched by this work of yours, even if you may not fully understand how; the souls in purgatory are touched, for their suffering is eased by the effects of this work; your own spirit is purified and strengthened by this contemplative work more than by all others put together.” (page 48) “When you fix your love on him, the saints and angels rejoice and assist you in every way.” (Ibid.)
  • God cannot be known by reason, but only by will / love
  • The author’s caution not to think of theological concepts, etc., refers to the time of meditation. It does not discredit use of our intellect, but admits to its limitations.
  • The mantra was greatly confused! (Chapter 36) The author assumes that one has reached a point where one has reached contemplation (intuitive awareness), is guided by grace, and has been judged by the Christian equivalent of the Zen master to be at a point of praying without words. The mantra is not the means to that end.
  • Sorrow for sin – chapter 44. This can easily be misinterpreted today, when self-esteem reigns supreme. Note that the author is addressing one advanced in prayer, who is assumed to have no attachment to grave sin. The sorrow is beyond that of contrition, but an awareness of one’s own sin and its hindrance of divine intimacy, and of how God is offended by the sins of all the world. The sorrow is coupled with a new recognition of divine love.
  • The “stirring of love” reminds us not to overestimate or strain our own efforts. It is not an exhortation to create feelings of a stir! One of the largest pitfalls, in the author’s day and our own, was the emphasis on physical feelings.
  • 21st century blinders! Our self-sufficiency, totally unthinkable in the Middle Ages, can be untruthful and in total contrast to spiritual growth.
  • Love is based on use of the will. The author (chapters 46-47) speaks of joy, and of a playful, childlike approach to God. His references to sorrow in the previous chapters do not imply that one should be morbid or seek suffering. (He speaks of hiding one’s desire from God as counsel not to strain oneself physically to demonstrate it, “for we show things to man in one way and to God in another.” (page 109
  • Loving others for God’s sake – again, Augustinian model. It can seem chilly “loving because it is God’s law” – though a perfectly delicious section speaking of the grief which the active give to the contemplative precedes that section. Then and now, people could not conceive of how anyone could prefer prayer to material gain – such love is seen as a waste, or as selfish.
  • The programme outlined here is actually enormously structured. For example, by meditation on our human frailty, the Passion of Christ, and other truths , “Reason is gradually healed, regaining its rightful ascendancy over the imagination,” which would have projected other memories on to the mind’s “screen.”
Further explanations are in the footnotes to the Cloud of Unknowing