Cloud of unknowing book


The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle . In addition to The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, the Cloud author is believed to be responsible for a few other spiritual. Chapter 2: A short stirring to meekness, and to the work of this book. .. hand which wrote the Cloud of Unknowing and its companion books; and that this hand. The Cloud of Unknowing: and The Book of Privy Counseling ( ): William Johnston, Huston Smith: Books.

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Cloud Of Unknowing Book

The Cloud of Unknowing book. Read reviews from the world's largest community for readers. Widely considered a hallmark of Western literature and spir. The Cloud of Unknowing consists of a series of letters written by a monk to his companion work attributed to the same anonymous author, The Book of Privy. Cynthia Bourgeault's new book, The Heart of Centering Prayer, offers a complete The second is actually published by Shambhala: The Cloud of Unknowing: A.

It offers a method by which the suitably disposed reader may practice an advanced and even austere form of contemplation - the divesting of the mind of all images and concepts through an encounter with a "nothing and a nowhere" that leads to the mysterious and unfathomable being of God Himself. Yet as the account of this exercise unfolds, the genial and hospitable tone of the author humanizes the austerity of the method and persuasively draws the reader into what Evelyn Underhill calls "the loving discernment of Reality" Sequence, p. We can begin to understand the meaning of the Cloud by looking at what may be the most famous quotation in Western mysticism, the passage in the Confessions, IX, 10, where Augustine muses upon the ecstasy at Ostia, an experience that he had in a final conversation with his mother, Monica McGinn, p. Confessions, trans. Sheed, pp. What is striking about this passage is the combination of two movements: a sweeping review of nature, human psychology, and the world of signs, followed by the "silencing" or negation of everything that is not God. These two movements present us with affirmation and negation; or, in terms more proper to mystical discourse, with the kataphatic and apophatic phases of the mystical ascent. Moreover, the passage from Augustine, which is richly affirmative, is a fine example of illumination and union, which, together with purgation, are the mystic's three traditional types of experience.

And insomuch thou shouldest be more meek and loving to thy ghostly spouse, that He that is the Almighty God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, would meek Him so low unto thee, and amongst all the flock of His sheep so graciously would choose thee to be one of His specials, and sithen set thee in the place of pasture, where thou mayest be fed with the sweetness of His love, in earnest of thine heritage the Kingdom of Heaven.

Do on then, I pray thee, fast. Look now forwards and let be backwards; and see what thee faileth, and not what thou hast, for that is the readiest getting and keeping of meekness. All thy life now behoveth altogether to stand in desire, if thou shalt profit in degree of perfection. This desire behoveth altogether be wrought in thy will, by the hand of Almighty God and thy consent. But one thing I tell thee. He is a jealous lover and suffereth no fellowship, and Him list not work in thy will but if He be only with thee by Himself.

He asketh none help, but only thyself. He wills, thou do but look on Him and let Him alone.

And keep thou the windows and the door, for flies and enemies assailing. And if thou be willing to do this, thee needeth but meekly press upon him with prayer, and soon will He help thee.

Press on then, let see how thou bearest thee. He is full ready, and doth but abideth thee. But what shalt thou do, and how shalt thou press? And thereto, look the loath to think on aught but Himself.

So that nought work in thy wit, nor in thy will, but only Himself. And do that in thee is to forget all the creatures that ever God made and the works of them; so that thy thought nor thy desire be not directed nor stretched to any of them, neither in general nor in special, but let them be, and take no heed to them.

This is the work of the soul that most pleaseth God.

All saints and angels have joy of this work, and hasten them to help it in all their might. All fiends be furious when thou thus dost, and try for to defeat it in all that they can. Covering the three categories of the Dionysian tradition, he begins with a symbolic examination of the sensible vestiges of God in the universe, proceeds to the intelligible realm in the image of the Trinity reflected in the workings of the mind, and concludes with the divine names of being and goodness as they apply to the Trinity itself.

The Mind's Journey unto God contains seven chapters, but interestingly, only the last alludes to the experience addressed by the whole of the Cloud. This contrasting proportion illustrates a central difference in scale and emphasis between the Cloud and the Mind's Journey, a difference that can also serve to distinguish the Cloud from its more immediate sources and clarify its own simplicity and power. Most important, the Cloud has, as a determining principle of structure, a practical technique for moving beyond illumination to union, a transitional praxis virtually absent from Bonaventure's treatise.

On the other hand, the Cloud's references to union as such are spelled out only in brief statements at the end of the work. Yet even though the Cloud skips the vigorous and explicit exercise of the imagination and reason that make Bonaventure's treatise so compelling and vital, it conveys, indirectly and by allusion, much incidental insight and information about the role of the senses, imagination, and intellect.

The reason for this is that in order to define precisely what this non-conceptual focusing and its effects are, he must, with adequate detail, clarify what it is not. In other words, although the main concern of the Cloud is apophatic, kataphatic affirmations, although brief and allusive, occur in a persistent dialectic. The achievement of the Cloud in directness and persuasiveness becomes dramatically clear when compared to the methods of two of its more immediate sources, the works of the Victorine, Thomas Gallus, and the Carthusian, Hugh of Balma.

Moreover, the often subtle relationships between the faculties of knowing and loving further qualify these differences.

Thomas Gallus, who influenced Bonaventure as well as the Cloud author, ultimately derives the different stages in the progress towards union from Denis Lees, p. For "the devoted rather than the highly educated" Walsh, in Lees, p.

The combination was a more usable text than the translation made by John Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century, or John Saracenus in the twelfth century.

Since Gallus follows Denis quite closely and since he influenced Bonaventure, a somewhat detailed look at his thought can provide a sense of the tradition in a form that directly influenced the Cloud of Unknowing and at the same time convey the intellectual calm of its contrasting simplicity. As in Denis's treatises and in Bonaventure's The Mind's Journey unto God, there are a somewhat overwhelming nine levels of ascent. This elaboration of the three phases of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, though it comes from Denis, probably owes something to Augustine's festival of triads in the De Trinitate.

The multiplication of triads exists also in Proclus, who is the immediate Neoplatonic source of Denis himself and who extensively develops the traditional threefold ontology of the One, the Intelligence, and the Soul Louth, p. More precisely, in Gallus there are three groups of levels, or mansions, and each group itself contains three subdivisions. Paralleling each of the nine levels in Gallus are the nine orders of the Celestial Hierarchy - angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim.

The justification of such an elaborate schema, which occurs also in Bonaventure's mystical treatise, would seem to lie in how effectively it presents the transcendence of God, and its insistence that the ascent does not take place all at once, but by deliberate and careful gradations, a point suggested by the use of the Latin passus in Bonaventure. Interestingly, this term also describes the stages of the Middle English poem, Piers Plowman.

In startling contrast is the simplicity of the Cloud, where avoiding such complexities seems to be a principal aim. In spite of the numerical complexity of these schemas, the pattern is fundamentally and even simply determined by a dialectical emphasis on nature and grace, reason and affectivity.

In the first mansion of the Temple of God which is the soul, understanding and affectivity operate naturally in the natural sphere, although helped by illuminating grace. In the second mansion, nature and grace work together. In the third mansion, the understanding and affectivity are illuminated and supported by grace alone.

This final mansion is governed by synderesis, a widely used term "given to intellect and will as they work together in the way of contemplation" Walsh, in Lees, p. Historically synonymous with two other Stoic terms for the principal part of the soul, to hegemonikon and to anotaton meros, it becomes in the Christian tradition "the natural impulse by virtue of which the soul is the image of the Sovereign Good and naturally adheres to it.

This impulse, when perfectly purified by the love of God, is called the scintilla, or 'spark' of the synderesis - a phrase used by Bonaventure also, for it flies above the soul like the spark above the fire" Walsh, in Lees, p.

A similar image is used in the Cloud line and Book Three, poem 9, of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, where the First Mover calls back the souls scattered throughout the universe "like leaping flames" trans. Green, p.


This final stage of union, which is where much of the diversity in the tradition comes, is subdivided into three further gradations, once more determined by a dialectical emphasis on grace, affectivity, and types of understanding: the first, corresponding to those angels called Thrones, is the reception of infused grace and the divine attraction of the intellect. The second, a point on which Hugh of Balma will strongly disagree with Gallus, is the perfection of intellectual knowledge by infused illumination.

In Hugh of Balma, by contrast, the intellect exercises no initiative at all in what corresponds to these last three subdivisions. The third gradation of the last stage in Gallus is the perfection of union in the apex affectus, the "summit of the emotions" Lees, p. Although the loving power is non-conceptual, Gallus insists that it is nevertheless cognitive.

He makes his point by an analogy with the senses. The powers of sight and hearing apprehend their objects without becoming intimately involved with them. Knowledge through love, however, is experiential and, like taste, touch, and smell, involves contact between receiver and received Lees, p.

The Cloud of Unknowing

For Gallus, as opposed to Hugh of Balma, the intellectual faculty achieves its peak in the second movement of this last stage of union; but the affective faculty remains dominant in the final phase. Nevertheless, Gallus continues to stress the cognitive power of love: "the very removal of intellectual cognition in a certain way leads into superintellectual cognition" Lees, p.

The soul apprehends God ecstatically in the unitive wisdom of sapientia or "knowledge-in-love" Lees, p. In fact, the language of Augustine is echoed throughout the whole tradition, especially his use of touch imagery Poque, p. In a persuasive interpretation of Thomas Gallus Lees, pp. For Gallus, this transintellectual union encounters God "more deeply than the mind because it unites the soul to the whole plenitude of desire. The "negative dialectic of Dionysian theology as a whole does not dominate Gallus's works" and is everywhere qualified by "the positive devotional language" expressed in "loving aspirations to union" and "knowledge-in-love" Lees, p.

It is significant that Gallus explicitly distinguishes his own superintellectual account of the unitive experience from that of his fellow Victorine, Richard. For Richard, who in contemplation, as Dante says in Paradiso X, , was more than man, the case is different.

In his treatise, Benjamin Minor, which was translated by the Cloud author Hodgson, pp. Hugh of Balma, thoroughly influenced by Gallus and perhaps the most immediate source of the Cloud, stresses the importance of the intellect in the first two stages of the mystical ascent, like virtually everyone else in the tradition.

For both Gallus and Balma, sapientia is the highest achievement of the contemplative Lees, p. Sapientia for Hugh of Balma is a "loving awareness of God which transcends the discursive knowledge achieved through the intellect" Lees, p.

This wisdom rises in the affectivity, and no intelligence can thoroughly apprehend it. But even here the intellect is by no means excluded entirely, because in Balma's first mystical stage, the mind is in any event disposed to learn this true wisdom Lees, p. It is an awareness that seems to begin at least in the illuminative stage, when the soul by meditation "begins somewhat to be moved towards [God] by sending forth sparks" Lees, p.

In the unitive stage, however, he denies any effective initiative to the intellect whatsoever, and differs from Thomas Gallus in this respect. However, the emphasis on affectivity that so characterizes these two writers moves, somewhat paradoxically and surprisingly, to a final celebration of the mind. Hugh of Balma's division between the illuminative and the unitive phases, although more pronounced than that of Thomas Gallus, can easily be overemphasized.

Reading a Spiritual Classic: The Cloud of Unknowing

That is, though the intellect ceases to function at the beginning of the unitive stage, it has been instrumental in stimulating love earlier; and the implication seems to be that the love evoked in the illuminative stage finally just takes over. But even Hugh of Balma is so far from being an anti-intellectual that his praise of the knowledge received by the mystic after the final union is somewhat breathtaking - and may have an echo in the Cloud.

This experienced sapientia, which is operative in illumination, and for which the purgative stage prepares, achieves a final transformation: it becomes more universal and more useful than other sciences, cognitions and apprehensions. It not only elevates the affection above itself and unites the creature perfectly with the most high spouse by ecstatic love, but it also so elevates the intellect that it is much more illumined by every prudence and knowledge through the divine lightnings than it could have been by any exercise of natural ability.

Lees, p. However, the Cloud author seems to realize just where he stands in the tradition. Although he resolutely proceeds by negation, his appreciation of the mind and imagination appears in a memorable image lines ff.

Just as there are some who will foolishly break a fair cup after drinking from it, some contemplatives will show disrespect for the imagery and intellection of the first stages, an attitude that the author deplores. Or there is the image of the tree whose fruit is the imageless and non-conceptual focusing on God - fruit, however, which grows out of the trunk, branches, and leaves of imaginative meditation Cloud, lines ff. It is instructive in this context to remember that most of the writings of Denis himself employ the intellect and imagination extensively; or, as William Johnston p.

Follow the Author

The Cloud of Unknowing is at once simple, subtle, and profound. While avoiding an extensive, technical epistemology, or the elaborate, angelically coordinated stages, the Cloud author provides the reader with a persuasively modest discipline that is at the same time a deeply authentic spiritual experience.

Moving the reader's focus with care and ease from the sensible world, where time, the senses, and spatial direction dominate, he provides a realization of the spirit's independence of these modes. Some sense of how this happens can be gotten from a closer look at the text itself. Analysis of The Cloud of Unknowing Although the structure of the text's seventy-five chapters is by no means as systematized as its sources, the very importance of focusing the mind on God without imagery or concepts creates a discernible order Hodgson, p.

The author states his whole method of contemplation briefly in Chapter Three: the contemplative must lift up his heart in love to God, "mene" God and none of his goods, forget every created thing and its associations lines , and feel in his will a naked intent unto God line This is the core of the mystical contemplation enjoined in the Cloud, and the author gradually illumines and clarifies this activity from different points of view.

The characteristic structure of the book is generally circular or perhaps that of a spiral, in that it comes back again and again to the same points in widening courses that include further insights and information important to the "blinde beholdyng unto the nakid beyng of God Himself only" lines But with each return, the author imagines more circumstances, warns against more pitfalls, and explores the experience in greater depth. Important concepts and motifs weave throughout the book and provide a unifying pattern that is both conceptual and verbal.

Paradoxically, the role of negation in the Cloud introduces a richly existential dimension to the progress of the work Myles, , p. This specific pattern, in my view, interacts with bodily imagery to provide a blend of the metaphysical and the concrete that may be at least rhetorically unique to the mystical tradition. In effect, like a good medieval teacher, the author of the Cloud begins with the more known - the experience of the senses - and proceeds to the less known and even incomprehensible - the being of God as He is in Himself.

In the first chapter of the book, at lines , the reference to creation from nothing nought , paralleled in the same chapter by the word something oughtes, line , introduces a founding theological pattern. Although creation itself remains an implied background, the word nought "nothing" becomes an important meditational instrument, even the gate to final mystical union in the Cloud.

In Chapter Three, ought and nought, something and nothing, occur once more in meditational antithesis lines Nought occurs also in Chapter Eighteen, lines , as a term derogatorily applied to contemplation by those who do not understand it; and, in Chapter Forty-four, by recommending to the contemplative a sorrow connected with the fact that he simply exists or is line , the author evokes a deeply ontological variation of this "nothing" that suggests the longing of contingency for absolute being.

In Chapter Sixty-seven, the brief account of union with God is contrasted to the nought of the contemplative before his creation and after sin line In Chapter Sixty-eight, a final negation of spatial direction, which we will discuss later at some length, invokes a bodily "nowhere" that is spiritually "everywhere," and is followed by an exhortation to let be the sensible everywhere and something in favor of a nowhere and a nothing.

But the nought of the Cloud author does not denote an absolute nothingness. On the contrary, this nought can be actually felt, although not seen because of the abundance of spiritual light that prevents vision line , a fact that recalls the stress put by Thomas Gallus on the senses that involve physical contact. Finally, it is the outer man that calls it nothing: the inner man calls it Al line As I have said, what seems to me a distinctive characteristic of the Cloud is the way in which the author, in moving towards the spiritual goal of the apophatic way i.

This procedure, a key example of the author's humanity and literary skill, not only delineates the possibilities for profound harmony between body and soul, but also renders comprehensible the otherwise prohibitively abstract stages of the apophatic way. In the Cloud, the very spirituality of the author endows the human body with a unique grace.

God forbid, he says in Chapter Forty-eight, that he should part what God has coupled, the body and the spirit, which, together in service, are together in reward and the joy of heaven lines Many exhortations occur which enjoin the reader to keep from straining the imagination or body in any way.

In Chapter Twelve, for example, the importance of the central contemplative act markedly subordinates the role of bodily penance.

The unpretentious affirmation of love, he insists, removes the ground and the root of sin much more effectively than fasting, abstaining from sleep, early rising, or uncomfortable beds.

Again in Chapter Forty-five, the author points out that those who understand words in a bodily rather than in a spiritual way actually experience adverse repercussions in the senses themselves. Consequently they "streyne here veynes" line or chafe their complexions into an unnatural heat and their bodily powers in such a crude and beastly way that they fall into a weariness and listless feebleness in body and soul.

This is a false feeling which produces a false knowing line Such an observation proffers a freedom to the reader who feels physically relieved and dispensed from meditational calisthenics or any "unordeynd streynyng of the fleschely herte" line Such "fleschlines of bodely felyng" lines injures the soul and festers in the imagination. In Chapter Fifty-one, he continues to probe how the attempt to understand spiritual matters in a physical way affects the body.

Those caught up in this misunderstanding turn their physical senses inward and strain themselves as if they would see there with their bodily eyes.

Going against the course of nature, they turn their brains in their heads lines One result is that they feel light, sound, smells, strange heats and burnings in their bodily breasts, bowels, backs, kidneys, and privy members lines Such a catalogue evokes a concise, but detailed anatomical consciousness and allows the reader to unbend, breathe easily, and achieve transcendence through relaxation as well as negation.

In Chapter Fifty-three, this corporeal self-consciousness provides an opportunity for comic relief, as the author satirizes the eccentric postures, grimaces, and physical bearing of some misguided contemplatives. His discussion of the word up line in Chapter Fifty-seven introduces the next stage in his account of how contemplation should relieve the body of stressful anxieties.

Since his technique is mainly apophatic, he sets forth what is essential to the contemplative act by negating, at this point, the value of spatial directions, which are taken up again later when he introduces the triad of without, within, and above lines Giving a concrete, narrative form to his exposition, he introduces three instances of upward movement: the vision of St.

Martin who, looking up, saw Christ clothed in the half-mantle given to the poor beggar; the vision of St. Stephen, who, while he was being stoned, turned his gaze upwards and saw Christ in glory; finally, and most important, the vision of the disciples who beheld Christ ascending into heaven. In his analysis of the Ascension, he employs an affirmative strategy of empathy by evoking a sense of bodily weightlessness; then, having induced this physical lightness, he negates it in his resolute progress towards apophatic experience.

His intermediate goal is to have the reader feel the bodily effects of spiritual experience and then, by negating these effects, ease the movement into the divine darkness. Before his final comments on the Ascension, in Chapter Fifty-nine, the author introduces a doctrine that further investigates the relations between contemplation and physical, spatial direction - the belief in the risen body, the participation of the just in the resurrection of Christ. At lines , he refers to the traditional belief that the glorified human body can move physically to wherever the mind directs it.