Revisiting the Cloud of Unknowing

This week I have been revisiting a classic work of Catholic spirituality, the Cloud of Unknowing, written in the early 14th century by an anonymous English monk. The work was unknown for many years and is not even mentioned in the 1917 "Catholic Encyclopedia", the first modern translation of it in English having only appeared in 1912. It was scorned for the first half of the 20th century as a piece of foolish medieval enthusiasm and only became an object of intense scholarly study in the late 1970's. Nevertheless, in its time it inspired St. John of the Cross and many of its ideas are found in Thomas a' Kempis, though it is uncertain whether the Imitation predated the Cloud, or vice versa.

It is difficult to summarize such an intense and varied work, and various schools of thought have claimed to find in the Cloud evidences of their own spiritualities. Despite this, and understanding the limitations that brevity imposes on us, it seems that the essence of the Cloud of Unknowing is that the attempt to seek union with God ought to be fundamentally based in love instead of knowledge. Knowledge has its own important role to play, but it is ultimately ancillary to love, and in the end falls short before the mystery of faith in which our own hearts are set ablaze by God's love. The work thus becomes a spiritual exegesis on the words of St. Paul, "Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies" (1. Cor. 8:1). The phrase "cloud of unknowing" refers to the infinite barrier that will always exist between Creator and creature that can never be fully penetrated, but must nevertheless be attempted by the soul that would seek God. Book XVII:3 says of this cloud:

"This one thing I tell you, there has never yet been a pure creature in this life, nor shall there ever be one so completely transported by contemplation and the love of the Godhead that there will not still remain a large and wonderful cloud of unknowing between him and his God."

The author speaks here of the fundamental divide between Creator and creature, one that is always present and which no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin Mary for all her grace, is able to fully pass over. Nevertheless, by the power of love shared between God and the faithful heart, a sort of union is possible based on the mutual exchange of love, in which the believer constantly assents to God's will and God assumes the believer's heart into His own love in a way that is truly unitive yet maintains the distinction between Creator and creature. Knowledge can get us only so far; it can teach us what we ought to love and how we ought to love, but the love itself that accomplishes this union is an act of grace.

We have to be careful when approaching some of these medieval mystical works. They were written in a time when the harmonious union of faith and reason crafted in the high middle ages was being torn asunder, and the relationship between knowledge and faith was fiercely debated. Often times mystical works of this era can stray into Pietism, Quietism, Fideism, or sometimes a quasi-pantheism. Meister Eckhart is a good example of the latter, who said "the eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me." That can obviously imply some kind of heresy; yet the problem with a lot of mystical works is the words are so symbolic that it is hard to pin down what the author means, and there is oftentimes a scorn for the intellect.

Not so in the Cloud, for the meaning is clearly explained; there is no Quietism here. Though the work (like all good mystical treatises) is absorbed with talk on interior contemplation, it still exhorts the reader to "labor and sweat, therefore, in every way that you can" (XIV: ii) in seeking God, something a true Quietist would never say. But the labor is ultimately a labor of love. Speaking of Mary, the sister of Martha, the author of the Cloud says in the same place:

"When our Lord spoke to Mary as representative of all sinners who are called to the contemplative life and said, "Thy sons be forgiven thee," it was not only because of her great sorrow, nor because of her remembering her sins, nor even because of the meekness with which she regarded her sinfulness. Why then? It was surely because she loved much."

Unfortunately, the Cloud of Unknowing has obtained a somewhat bad reputation among orthodox Catholics in the past fifteen years because of its utilization by the heretical Trappist monk M. Basil Pennington in his eastern "Centering Prayer" practices. But these practices are not contained nor condoned in the Cloud, which was firmly rooted in the English mystical tradition of the 14th and 15th centuries. We ought not to condemn the work of the 14th century pious English monk because of the abuses of the 20th century heretical American monk. I can heartily recommend this book; it is easy to read and very helpful in developing the virtue of meekness, with which almost over half of the book is concerned, and on refocusing the direction of our hearts on charity, and purity of heart, which according to our Lord, renders us capable of seeing God (Matt. 5:8).