I now have some time to look at Fr. Cantalamessa’s talks at the USCCB retreat, and came across this in the first talk:
The Cloud of Unknowing, at the beginning of his treatise on contemplation, gives to his readers an advice which is fundamental also for making a good retreat. In order to pierce the cloud of unknowing which exists above us, between us and God, we need to put first “a cloud of forgetting beneath us”, living aside for a time every problem, project or anxiety we may have at the moment. (Footnote to Chapter 5 of the Cloud of Unknowing)
I remember coming across The Cloud of Unknowing while in college, perhaps as a result of a course in religion. I loved it and its exhortations continue to speak to me.
Here’s a link to the whole work translated by Evelyn Underhill, an Anglo-Catholic who was an expert in Christian mysticism. Perhaps we can claim her and the Cloud of Unknowing as part of our patrimony in the Ordinariates for Catholics of Anglican Tradition.
Carl McOlman writes:
Nearly all Christian mystics maintain that an essential characteristic of Christian mysticism is participation in the Body of Christ, which is to say, in the Christian community of faith. In other words, to be a Christian mystic, it is as important to be a follower of Christ as it is to be a mystic. And to be a follower of Christ means to express spirituality in a communal way. The above statements annoy a lot of people. Sorry about that, but that’s how it rolls.
Community. If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us. Recently a reader of this blog forwarded me an email from a friend of his who criticizes some of Evelyn Underhill’s ideas in her book Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. These two people, whom I’ll call “the reader” and “the friend,” were looking at a passage in Mysticism where Underhill describes two core mystical principles. I’ll post the complete email at the end of this post, but for now, here’s just the highlights.
Here are Underhill’s two principles, from Mysticism:
- While mysticism is an essential element in full human religion, it can never be the whole content of such religion. It requires to be embodied in some degree in history, dogma and institutions if it is to reach the sense-conditioned human mind.
- The antithesis between the religions of “authority” and of “spirit,” the “Church” and the “mystic,” is false. Each requires the other. (pages ix-x)
Underhill goes on to say:
The “exclusive” mystic, who condemns all outward forms and rejects the support of the religious complex, is an abnormality. He inevitably tends towards pantheism, and seldom exhibits in its richness the Unitive Life. It is the “inclusive” mystic, whose freedom and originality are fed but not hampered by the spiritual tradition within which he appears, who accepts the incarnational status of the human spirit, and can “find the inward in the outward as well as the inward in the inward,” who shows us in their fullness and beauty the life-giving possibilities of the soul transfigured in God.
What Evelyn Underhill is doing here is very simple: she is drawing a distinction between mysticism in a generic sense, and mysticism as specifically manifested within Christianity.
I was a do-it-myself Christian mystic in a sense during about a decade where I had a regular contemplative prayer discipline but no orthodox Christian community where I was prepared to sign on the dotted line that I believed any particular creed.
One one hand, I benefited greatly from the practise of entering that Cloud of Unknowing, and I believe God honors any honest searching for Him, regardless of the context, whether it’s in a big charismatic revival or through sitting still in a room, gently trying to stay aware of the present moment, the way I was doing. But the best and fastest spiritual growth came when I was anchored in a Christian community and learned how important it is to believe in order to understand rather than understand as a pre condition for believing.
Anyone else familiar with this book? With a similar contemplative practice?