The Cloud of Unknowing, Silence, Contemplative Prayer and Patrimony

I have said I would like to see scholarly articles on Anglo-Catholicism and the Church’s social gospel and perhaps a conference on this theme and how this pertains today to the Personal Ordinariates;  I would also like to see articles and a conference on English Catholic mysticism.

When I was in college, I would have majored in religion if doing do didn’t require learning Greek and Latin.  I look back and wish I hadn’t been so lazy!  At the time, unfortunately, I actively disdained organized religion, or I should say, Christian religion.  At the same time, however, I loved works of Christian mysticism:  Thomas a Kempis’  Imitation of Christ, and especially the Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous monk.

Evelyn Underhill writes in an introduction to the work available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library the following:

THE little family of mystical treatises which is known to students as “the Cloud of Unknowing group,” deserves more attention than it has hitherto received from English lovers of mysticism: for it represents the first expression in our own tongue of that great mystic tradition of the Christian Neoplatonists which gathered up, remade, and “salted with Christ’s salt” all that was best in the spiritual wisdom of the ancient world.

That wisdom made its definite entrance into the Catholic fold about A.D. 500, in the writings of the profound and nameless mystic who chose to call himself “Dionysius the Areopagite.” Three hundred and fifty years later, those writings were translated into Latin by John Scotus Erigena, a scholar at the court of Charlemagne, and so became available to the ecclesiastical world of the West. Another five hundred years elapsed, during which their influence was felt, and felt strongly, by the mystics of every European country: by St. Bernard, the Victorines, St. Bonaventura, St. Thomas Aquinas. Every reader of Dante knows the part which they play in the Paradiso.

Then, about the middle of the 14th century, England—at that time in the height of her great mystical period—led the way with the first translation into the vernacular of the Areopagite’s work. In Dionise Hid Divinite, a version of the Mystica Theologia, this spiritual treasure-house was first made accessible to those outside the professionally religious class. Surely this is a fact which all lovers of mysticism, all “spiritual patriots,” should be concerned to hold in remembrance.

It is supposed by most scholars that Dionise Hid Divinite, which—appearing as it did in an epoch of great spiritual vitality—quickly attained to a considerable circulation, is by the same hand which wrote the Cloud of Unknowing and its companion books; and that this hand also produced an English paraphrase of Richard of St. Victor’s Benjamin Minor, another work of much authority on the contemplative life. Certainly the influence of Richard is only second to that of Dionysius in this unknown mystic’s own work—work, however, which owes as much to the deep personal experience, and extraordinary psychological gifts of its writer, as to the tradition that he inherited from the past. Nothing is known of him; beyond the fact, which seems clear from his writings, that he was a cloistered monk devoted to the contemplative life.

How I have loved that book, and how I have been drawn to contemplative prayer, and to silence as a spiritual discipline.

From The Cloud of Unknowing:

LIFT up thine heart unto God with a meek stirring of love; and mean Himself, and none of His goods. 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. All men living in earth be wonderfully holpen of this work, thou wottest not how. Yea, the souls in purgatory be eased of their pain by virtue of this work. Thyself art cleansed and made virtuous by no work so much. And yet it is the lightest work of all, when a soul is helped with grace in sensible list, and soonest done.

But else it is hard, and wonderful to thee for to do. Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest. For if ever thou shalt feel Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth always to be in this cloud in this darkness. And if thou wilt busily travail as I bid thee, I trust in His mercy that thou shalt come thereto.

I was reminded of this marvelous work this morning when reading this article over at Crisis Magazine by Julia Meloni entitled Cardinal Sarah confronts the dictatorship of noise.   She excerpts liberally from this great Cardinal’s latest book  The Power of Silence.  An example:

So The Power of Silence transports us to the “physical” or “interior” desert, which “teaches us to fight against evil and all our evil inclinations.” There, facing “hunger, thirst, and … spiritual combat,” we pursue the “blazing, arid work” of silent asceticism. There we struggle to be “singed by the burning bush of the love of God”—to radiate the saving “beauty of Christ,” like the monks whose faces are “lined and burned by God’s silence.”

Silence “impels us toward an unknown land that is God.”  Hence St. Augustine’s restlessness with the “country of shadows”; hence St. Gregory the Great’s groaning at his “expulsion far from [God’s] face.” Hence St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s flight into silent adoration—for “the language [God] best hears is silent love,” says St. John of the Cross.

Cardinal Sarah compares silent love to “the smoke of the incense” rising before God (Rev. 8:1-4). He calls the contemplative life a “silent burnt offering” whose fragrance “gladdens” God’s heart. He beautifully describes the silence that envelops the Grande Chartreuse in the evening half-light after Vespers and the “incomparable hours” spent on his knees “in darkness before the Most Blessed Sacrament.”

Cardinal Sarah’s writings make my  heart burn within me as if I’m on the Road to Emmaus.  Amazing.

9 thoughts on “The Cloud of Unknowing, Silence, Contemplative Prayer and Patrimony

  1. “When someone becomes a Christian, when someone returns to full communion with the Catholic Church, he receives something more, something that changes him. Certainly, the cultures and the new Christians bring riches into the Church: the liturgy of the Ordinariates for Anglicans who are now in full communion with the Catholic Church is a fine example of this. But they bring these riches with humility, and the Church, in her maternal wisdom, utilizes them if she deems it appropriate.” ~excerpt from The Power of Silence: against the dictatorship of noise, by Robert Cardinal Sarah


    • It has been suggested (only suggested) that textual references in _The Cloud of Unknowing_ point to the author having been a Carthusian of Mount Grace Priory in north Yorkshire. The ruins of Mount Grace are in the care of the National Trust and include a re-constructed cell. Mount Grace is near the village of Osmotherley, which is steeped in Catholic history. Its hotel/pub, the Queen Catherine Hotel, is said to have been named after Catherine of Aragon and retained the name in spite of the English Reformation. Its Catholic church, Our Lady of Mount Grace, looks like a house along the row of residences, certainly because of recusancy laws. (The Methodist Chapel in town is tucked away in a side alley for similar reasons, I suspect. Ecumenism got an early boost in Osmotherley when the Catholic priest allowed John Wesley to preach from the Catholic Church’s window to listeners in the street below.) There is a Lady Chapel at the top of the hill outside town that is said to have been the burial place of St. Margaret Clitherow. All of this is un-proven and relatively un-documented because of the recusancy situation in times past, but there’s something to be said for local lore. In any case, both the village and the priory are well worth visiting. And if you get to Mount Grace on a quiet day, reading a few passages from _The Cloud of Unknowing_ and Cardinal Sarah’s _The Power of Silence_ would no doubt feel apt.


  2. As a contemplative religious in ECUSA and now awaiting a determination on my status in the Ordinariate I have been much influenced by The Cloud and Dame Julian. Silence is God’s first language and the longing for God our best prayer. A conference on this part of our patrimony would be much appreciated by me.


  3. Martin Thornton acknowledges the importance of _The Cloud of Unknowing_ in English spirituality (in his classic _English Spirituality_ [Cowley, 1986]) as “background music” (222), but gently suggests its “purely affective” approach to prayer would, if taken by itself, skew English spirituality’s synthesis of “speculative-affective, priesthood-laity, corporate-individual, [and] law-liberty” (221). (At the same time, Thornton warns against this synthesis becoming a “facile doctrine of ‘moderation'” (221), against which such works as _The Cloud of Unknowing_ and Richard Rolle’s writings can serve as a counter-balance.)


  4. Hopefully as the Ordinariate develops the Holy Spirit will inspire distinct Anglican Catholic spiritualities and theologies that draw on the best of the past English and Gaelic/ Celtic traditions. I think Gilbertine spirituality is also another interesting area to mine.


    • OVER a period of some 18 years I had the wonderful opportunity to attend Blackfriars, in Watson Canberra, A C T, Australia, where seminars were held on regular weekends,dealing with many, many Catholic topics. Some of the most thought provoking and wonderful spiritual topics were on the Mystics, both Catholic and Anglican. The lecturers gave us deep insights into the Mystics, Rhineland Mystics, Italian Mystics, Spanish Mystics, English Mystics, Etc, etc. I am forever grateful for the Dominicans (ORDER of PREACHERS) who made their house of studies available for such seminars, and for the many lecturers who would give of their time and scholarship, to come to Canberra to lecture to us. These years in my life, even though I would have to drive a round trip of some five hours to attend, were some of the most rewarding in my spiritual life. BILL H.


  5. Not sure where else to post this, but I seem to recall having read about a book of devotions for the Ordinariate being put together by some folks (unrelated to the remaining Divine Worship books awaiting approval in Rome).

    Does anyone know anything about this? Am I hallucinating?


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