Approaching The Cloud of Unknowing

Lisa Nicholas, a former English professor who is also an Anglicanorum Coetibus Society member, responded to my post yesterdayin which I mentioned the impact The Cloud of Unknowing had on my faith journey and deeper conversion.  I had also written that what I remembered from the Cloud resonated with some of my recent reading on St. John Henry Cardinal Newman.

She wrote:

I believe almost every Christian has “missed a vocation as a contemplative,” because the contemplative life is the essence of that to which every Christian is called: union with Christ, which we approach in this life along the contemplative path. This, at least, is what English spiritual theologian David Torkington argues, and he has convinced me.
In fact, reading Torkington’s work (beginning with Wisdom from the Western Isles) has led me to start a new blog in which I read and comment on great works from the English spiritual tradition, beginning with The Cloud of Unknowing. In one post, I addressed the paradox of how, the more our faith draws us closer to Christ, we all inevitably encounter this “cloud of unknowing,” which is beautifully illustrated in the mandorla (a nimbus surrounding Christ which is darkest at the center) used in Eastern Christian iconography. Read the post here:

So, I went on over to read her wonderful piece on Approaching The Cloud of Unknowing and I encourage you to do so.  Here are some highlights.

It’s a good thing that my re-introduction to the long literary tradition of writings on Christian contemplation has come about, in part, through my interest in reviving forgotten books, because, judging by the editions being offered today, one might be forgiven for thinking that The Cloud of Unknowing was some kind of New Age work of “spirituality.” As it happens, however, I have for some time been mining the Internet Archive for lost treasures from the English spiritual tradition, many of which were rediscovered and published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These had long been buried in personal libraries of handwritten manuscripts, many of which were literally hidden for centuries by Recusant Catholics who wanted to save them from the anti-Catholic campaigns of the Tudor monarchs and, after them, the bloody-minded Puritans.

In the nineteenth century, a combination of several disparate occurrences worked together to bring these forgotten works to new light: the development of modern textual scholarship, the Oxford Movement’s interest in reclaiming the spiritual heritage that Henry VIII and his successors had stolen and buried, and the availability of reasonably inexpensive printing. Thus, works such as Julian of Norwich’s Shewings and an anonymous Carthusian’s The Cloud of Unknowing (not to mention lost literary treasures such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) were being rediscovered by English Christians, for English Christians. Although scholars might argue about the extent to which Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were informed by a Christian outlook, it did not, at that time, occur to anyone to dispute the fact that Julian’s Shewings or The Cloud of Unknowing are thoroughly imbued with Christian — in fact, Catholic — spirituality.

It’s interesting she brings up the potential New Age association with the Cloud.  Later in the piece she also brings up the potential dangers of entering into contemplative prayer before one is well-grounded already in Christian prayer disciplines.   She writes:

Alas and woe is me! It seems that every work the pre-Reformation English contemplative tradition has been hijacked by New Agers and “Catholic” syncretists who don’t seem to recognize the (to me, glaring) differences between Christian contemplation and the mind-altering behavior called “contemplation” which is practiced by Buddhists and Hindus.

So, let me make this very clear: Christian contemplation is always centered on Christ, God made Man, in union with the other Persons of the Holy Trinity. Contemplation is a form of prayer and Christian prayer is always Trinitarian, aimed at knowing the Triune God. This is the God to whom Christians pray and the One with whom we long to be united, both now and in eternity. We do not seek to be dissolved into a great nebulous, evanescent Nothingness, but united to a Divine Person (in fact, Three Persons in One God). Any mature Christian should understand this. And yet there are any number of “contemplative experts” who teach Christians Eastern (i.e. Buddhist, non-Christian, in fact pagan) “techniques,” as if these can somehow help us grow closer to Christ. I don’t know why such people feel the need to go outside the Christian tradition to learn to pray as Christians — except that the modern Church has, to some extent, forgotten her own long, rich history of contemplative prayer. Which is why I’m trying to bring people back to it.

Now, I must admit that, of all the great works on Christian contemplation, The Cloud of Unknowing is probably the one most easily mistaken for New Agey “spirituality,” because it addresses precisely that point in the Christian life of prayer at which images and analogies fail us as we attempt to “see” God. Still, we will be confused only if we come at this book from a perspective of complete ignorance of the religious, cultural, historical, and rhetorical context in which it was written (never, never read anything out of context, dear reader — that is how crazy-wrong ideas are born).

I did read the Cloud out of context, and for a long time, I was persisting in a kind of contemplative prayer —-with trying to set aside all my preconceived notions of God, with the intent of knowing Him more as He is rather than my thoughts or feelings about Him.

On one hand it was productive in bringing me to states of experiencing repentance, of purging deep-seated resentments and blame that hampered me in my early 20s.  But I was seeking understanding in order to believe.  God did answer my cries in that contemplative longing, beyond words, with an intuitive awareness and a discovery of aspects of the Christian faith that I came to know to my core by experience.  Often, I confess, the hard way.   I was committed to the so-called “negative way” before practicing the “positive way.”  That all shifted when I came to see the truth in St. Anselm’s famous dictum:  Credo ut intelligam “I believe in order that I might understand.” 

My journey characterized by entering the “cloud of unknowing” and “cloud of forgetting” on a pretty disciplined basis did bring me to the point where I began to see the importance of having an Apostolic faith.  Where could I find it?  I was a Baptist at the time, and my searching led me to my little parish then in the Traditional Anglican Communion,  that is now part of the Canadian Deanery of St. John the Baptist of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  I became Catholic to find that Apostolic faith, and I learned the importance of choosing with one’s will to believe the Catholic faith, even the hard bits one does not understand.

Now I am more likely to be praying the rosary and the daily offices, but I still from time to time feel that call to contemplation—-especially when I have a big decision to make and my mind is churning and grueling and I need to get out of the over-thinking.  I have found that thinking too much can sometimes block the light that God wants to shed on my path–that “Lead Kindly Light” illumination beyond words where you just know which is the right way to go.

I loved this paragraph from Lisa’s essay:

David Torkington, in his wonderful book, Wisdom from the Christian Mystics (chapter 11), refers to this point along the contemplative way as the threshold that leads into the “mystical crèche where purification begins,” a place where even great saints like St. Thérèse of Lisieux find it hard to focus on God, where there are no prayer helps but plenty of distractions. One must simply persevere in faith, feeling one’s way forward, until God has pity and grasps us to pull us up into His presence.

Starting a contemplative discipline is challenging and demands perseverance.  Distractions, unwanted thoughts, the door bell and phone ringing, all conspire to knock one off track.  I would often set a timer and force myself to sit, no matter how bored, or anxious or awful I felt.  Sometimes sitting in God’s Presence and having my sinful nature exposed by His Light was agonizing.  It felt like dying.  And, yes, my old nature was dying, and since I identified with it, I felt what it felt.  And also, doing the discipline did not result in a quid pro quo, or a response like putting some money into a vending machine.   It is so like this:  “One must simply persevere in faith, feeling one’s way forward, until God has pity and grasps us to pull us up into His presence.”

He does show up.  But it is out of your control, and often your efforts only reveal to yourself your utter spiritual poverty and inadequacy.  Oh, how much I would love to see a revival of these disciplines, but in the proper order and context Lisa refers to in her article.  I would love to have a conference on English Mysticism that was as much a retreat and opportunity to do the exercises, have spiritual direction, Confession, and so on.  Something for the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society to look into?

I think Lisa Nicholas has some amazing and importance projects on the go and I want to do all I can to get the word out about them.

Check out her book project here.   All very exciting and important work!


5 thoughts on “Approaching The Cloud of Unknowing

  1. As a Hermit and one coming from that beloved tradition of the Cloud and Julian, with the teachings of those great Doctors of the Church, Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, you can count me in. I try, in my own small way to teach and foster this kind of prayer.


  2. YES THE English mystics, the Rhineland, the Italian, Spanish, mystics are all wonderful to follow in our prayer life as Christians/Catholics. My introduction to them all was by a wonderful lecturer at Blackfriars, Canberra in the 1980/90s. He was the head of adult Catholic education in Sydney, NSW, Later to become the Bishop of Broken Bay, the northern area of Sydney. The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Nowich, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, etc, etc, were all studied, Wonderful prayer experience for all, highly recommended. Thank you for the posting, Deborah.


  3. The quickest and easiest way that I found to get to tap into God’s peace and strength was to be anxious for nothing by casting all of my care on the Lord (see Philippians 4:6-7, 1Peter 5:5-7, Proverbs 3:5, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Proverbs 3:5-6, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:7-9; and Galatians 5:22-23).


  4. Pingback: David Torkington podcasts now available | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog

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