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A reflection on The Cloud of Unknowing, by Tim Summers

The following is an extract from The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century.


"This is what you are to do: lift your heart to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts. Centre all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God's creatures or their affairs whether in general or in particular. Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them.”


The passage describes, in the language of the C14th, the technique that we now call "contemplative prayer": a solitary silence, with the repeated bringing of one's mind back from distraction, from what the writer calls involvement with "creatures or their affairs," to an emptiness in which God is encountered.


For God is jealous and will tolerate no "meddlers". What are the meddlers? James Finley, a psychologist and a former monk and spiritual directee of Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani, believes they are anything other than "your naked self open and responsive to God's touch of love."


So that means not only persons and objects, but anything to which we are attached, to which we cling "with a heart afraid to die in the emptiness" and which compromises the God-given desire for God. These may even include "holy" aspirations, such as a preoccupation with becoming virtuous, becoming a contemplative or indeed becoming anything at all. It also includes a sense of discouragement over lack of progress in prayer or some weakness that cannot be uprooted. It includes holding onto any propositional, logical truth about God.


Mystics down the ages, from the Cloud of Unknowing author to moderns like Merton and Finley, agree that it is in emptiness, darkness and silence that we meet God. As the C16th writer St John of the Cross says: "If a man wishes to be sure of the road he travels on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark."


Such insights remain as relevant to "spiritual seekers" today as they have ever been. Perhaps more so, in an age of rationalism in which it is hoped that God can be proved (fundamentalism) or disproved (new atheism) by the workings of logic. The case for the path of "unknowing" is well put by David Bryant in a Guardian article of 2013. The argument in the piece remains essentially that of The Cloud of Unknowing: we encounter God when we let everything else go.

The above image is a drawing by St John of the Cross, dating from the C16th, which inspired Salvador Dali's C20th painting "Christ of Saint John of the Cross".

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