“The Cloud of Unknowing,” written in the fourteenth century by an anonymous English Christian, is the fourth of my Five Books to Support the Churchless that I’ve been writing about. I’m trying to sum up the essence of each book in a single word. For “The Cloud of Unknowing” it is devotion.
But this is a devotion utterly unlike that practiced by most Christians, and also unlike that practiced by almost everyone of any faith. For the author, whom I’ll call Anonymous, espouses an apophatic spirituality. As this web site explains, “apophasis” is a Greek word that means “without images.”
So in the course of providing advice about how to pursue a contemplative life, Anonymous relentlessly demolishes the usual notion that devotion to God consists of thinking about the scriptures, feeling love for Jesus, doing good works, or any of the usual outward manifestations of religiosity.
Engaging in these things is fine, he says, but they are decidedly lower forms of devotion: “There are two ways of life in Holy Church. One is the active, the other is the contemplative life. Active is the lower, contemplative the higher.” But what should be contemplated? I can contemplate my wife because she is right in front of me. I can’t contemplate God because he/she/it is nowhere to be seen. Or heard, touched, smelled, tasted.
Yet according to Anonymous I’ve just answered my own question. If God is nowhere to be seen, then nowhere is exactly the place where I have to go to practice my devotion. The passage below conveys the core of what “The Cloud of Unknowing” prescribes to Christians and, really, everyone who aspires to know what lies beyond appearances:
‘Well,’ you will say, ‘where are I am to be? Nowhere, according to you!’ And you will be quite right! ‘Nowhere’ is where I want you! Why, when you are ‘nowhere’ physically, you are ‘everywhere’ spiritually. Make it your business then to see that your spirit is tied to nothing physical, and you will find that wherever that thing is that you are giving your mind to, there you are too in spirit, just as surely as your body is where you are bodily!
And though your natural mind can now find ‘nothing’ to feed on, for it thinks you are doing no thing, go on doing this no thing, and do it for the love of God….Let go this ‘everywhere’ and this ‘everything’ in exchange for this ‘nowhere’ and this ‘nothing’….One can feel this nothing more easily than see it, for it is completely dark to those who have just begun to look at it.
Unfortunately, based on my thirty-five years of daily meditation and countless conversations with other students of contemplation, I can say that it also is completely dark to those who have been looking at the nowhere and nothing for a long time. Anonymous advises, though, that there is no better way to God than staying still and silent in the cloud of unknowing that stands between us and ultimate truth.
All this might sound rather abstract, but it isn’t. Close your eyes and there you are, staring straight into the dark cloud that Anonymous speaks of. How big is that space that each of us enters when we aren’t paying attention to the physical world? A first impression places it within our head, yet when you take a look around you can’t discern any boundaries to the blackness that extends in all directions.
Perhaps it is just the backside of my eyelids that I am looking at. Even so, the question then arises, “What is the true nature of the being who is doing the looking?” Whatever it is, says Anonymous, it isn’t anything physical: “You know well that God is a spirit, and that whoever would be made one with him must be in truth and in depth of spirit far removed from any misleading bodily thing.”
So this is why a cloud of forgetting has to be placed between the contemplator and everything physical, which means all of creation. For Anonymous reminds us that the Creator isn’t what has been created. When our devotion is directed toward a material thing or a mental thought, this is idolatry. It doesn’t matter if the thing is a holy icon or the thought a holy prayer: these obvious objects are far distant from the Mystery of God.
We are apt to think that we are very far from God because of this cloud of unknowing between us and him, but surely it would be more correct to say that we are much farther from him if there is no cloud of forgetting between us and the whole created world. Whenever I say “the whole created world” I always mean not only the individual creatures therein, but everything connected with them.
…Indeed, if we may so reverently, when we are engaged on this work it profits little or nothing to think even of God’s kindness or worth, or of our Lady, or of the saints and angels, or of the joys of heaven, if you think thereby by such meditation to strengthen your purpose. In this particular matter it will not help at all.
Then what will help? The work Anonymous speaks of is entering into the cloud of unknowing, for he just told us that God is farther away when we are aware either of perceptions of the created world or of our thoughts that are connected to some material entity. And this includes every thought, for since we have no experience of God’s immateriality, even supposedly divine thoughts are tied to our thoroughly anthropomorphic guesses about what God is like.
What Anonymous wants us to do is become, as nearly as possible, pure being, existence itself. This contemplative work is a striving not to be anything physical or personal, but simply to be: “For if you think about anything in particular except your own bare, blind existence—and this, remember, is God’s purpose and your own—then you are on the wrong track; you are back again at your speculating and guessing; and this distracts and separates you not only from God but from yourself as well.”
The highest form of Christian devotion, then, is expressed through a mantra, just as in Eastern traditions. A single word is to be repeated over and over again. If our attention is fully on this word, and our eyes are closed to the world, we will be able to enter the cloud of unknowing after putting the cloud of forgetting between us and everything we know now. It doesn’t really matter what this word is, says Anonymous. He simply advises that the shorter it is the better, “being more like the working of the Spirit.”
It could be a word like “God” or “love.” The choice doesn’t matter much, so long as it is one syllable (though Anonymous favors “God”). It would be best to have nothing at all standing between our consciousness and God, but if there is to be anything, it should be as small as possible: a single syllable.
What we have here in “The Cloud of Unknowing” is a pure Christian mystical practice that is virtually identical to Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim mystic practices. The ridiculous theological squabblings between adherents of different faiths disappear when the thoughts that produce all that dissention are stilled.
Call it centering prayer; call it mantra meditation. The practice is the same, and it brings mystics together under the sheltering tent of wordless reality. Well, there is still at least one word or sound, but that too fades away when the contemplator pierces through the cloud of unknowing and reaches the clear sky that contains no objects, no differences, no separateness.
One word. One practice. One truth. What could be simpler?
Fix this word fast to your heart, so that it is always there come what may. It will be your shield and spear in peace and war alike. With this word you will hammer the cloud and the darkness above you. With this word you will suppress all thought under the cloud of forgetting.
So much so that if you are tempted to think what it is you are seeking, this one word will be sufficient answer. And if you would go on to think learnedly about the significance and analysis of that same word, tell yourself that you will have it whole, and not in bits and pieces. If you hold fast, that thought will surely go.
I’ve read “The Cloud of Unknowing” so many times, on many pages the passages that I haven’t highlighted stand out from a mass of yellow or green emphasis. This is one of the best guides for meditation, and it likely was written by an English country parson—not an Indian yogi or Sufi sheikh.
I wish that all Christians could become as well acquainted as I am with their own mystic heritage, which extends far beyond “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Most Christians have little or no understanding of what great teachers in their own tradition—Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, Pseudo-Dionysus, Nicholas of Cusa, the “desert fathers,” and others—have taught: true devotion to God is expressed by stillness and silence.
One word. That’s all you need to know the One. A church isn't required to practice this devotion. You are your own church, and you can hold your own one-word service within your consciousness whenever you want.
[All of the excerpts in this post are from “The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works,” translated into modern English by Clifton Wolters, Penguin Books.]