David Torkington on the Cloud of Unknowing

20200113_170350Before the pandemic, some of us in our parish began a Lenten School of Prayer, during which we have been reading David Torkington’s book   Wisdom from the Christian Mystics: How to Pray the Christian Way.

We began meeting via the internet two weeks ago and we have another meeting this evening.   I’m glad we did, because it has helped me keep my focus on prayer despite all the temptation to binge on social media and bad news.

During this time of social distancing and isolation, many of us are experiencing anxiety, loneliness, and fear.   Some of us have had loved ones who have become sick or have died; some of us have loved ones who work on the front lines in the healthcare industry or as hospital chaplains; some of us have lost our jobs and none of us knows what the future holds regarding the economy.

Prayer helps ease these fears because it draws us closer to God who is the Prince of Peace.

However, maybe some of us are finding the old tried and true methods of drawing closer to God are not “working” in the same way they used to.  Even with the imposed extra time we have at home, maybe we’re finding it’s not that easy to pray—and that maybe the excuse we had that we were “too busy” masked something deeper that now comes to light.

One of the classics in the English Catholic mystical tradition is The Cloud of Unknowing and now might be a time to revisit this patrimonial work.  To help with that, David Torkington kindly send me a chapter of his book  Wisdom from the Western Isles on The Cloud with permission to post it here on the blog.

Chapter 5


The Cloud of Unknowing


Once again Peter arrived almost half an hour late. It was most uncharacteristic of him, but I knew he had a lot on his plate.

“Now that I have briefly outlined the mystic way,” he said, “let me come to the predicament in which you find yourself.

“Everybody who prays seriously and consistently for any length of time will eventually find themselves on the other side of first fervour, at the threshold of the night. This is the moment when the vast majority who come this far in prayer usually pack it all in – I know I nearly did. All my attempts at prayer were a complete failure. Each time I tried to pray in the way I once could I simply got nowhere. The Scriptures, the devotions, the meditations that moved me before moved me no more. Two tormentors always accompanied me to prayer. The first was a raking desire for God, the second was a mind full of distractions that drove me crazy, because I couldn’t do anything about them. So my heart was restless inside and outside the prayer that I thought was pointless. I was continually tempted to pack it all in and do something more constructive with my time.”


“That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling,” I said, “and the truth is I have been making a run for it, but I don’t seem to be getting very far because nothing satisfies me any more. I can’t even get any pleasure out of the hobbies and the enthusiasms that used to excite me before.”

“Right,” said Peter. “All that you are saying confirms that you are on the right, not the wrong, path. In this strange new world in which you find yourself, it’s as if you are caught between heaven and earth. Your heart wants to reach out and touch the love that has already touched you, but endless distractions vie with one another to draw you away from what you desperately desire. What you must now learn to do is to keep your heart’s gaze fixed upon God, come hell or high water – nothing else matters. You can forget all the forms of prayer that helped you so much in the past, because they won’t help you to continue in the future. Now you must learn to travel by contemplation, not by meditation.


“Let me introduce you to the prayer of the heart through a great mystical work, called The Cloud of Unknowing. I’m sure you’ve come across it if you’ve not already read it.”

“Yes,” I said, “I have read it, but a long time ago, and I’m afraid it didn’t mean much to me at the time.”

“Well,” said Peter, “let me explain very briefly its teaching on how to continue in prayer in the mystic way, because it makes a number of useful practical suggestions that will be of help to you. Speaking of the predicament in which you now find yourself, it says it’s as if there is a ‘cloud of unknowing’ between you and your Maker that you cannot penetrate, at least at first. But no matter how difficult it may seem, you must nevertheless try to keep your heart’s gaze fixed on the One who is hidden behind the cloud. Let your heart gaze upwards, as it were, with a ‘naked intent’, without being clothed with any other desire, or without being distracted with any other thought that can hinder what it calls ‘this work’ that is more important than any other work.

“Now in order to keep this naked intent upon God who is hidden from view behind the cloud of unknowing, you must try to place a ‘cloud of forgetfulness’ between you and all and everything that would prevent you from gently trying to concentrate on God. All thought, all desires that would distract you in the slightest, must be covered over by this cloud of forgetfulness. It does not matter what they are – even if they are of God himself, it says, and His holy angels – they will do you no good because they would only draw you away from ‘this holy work’. They would only draw you away from the contemplation of God as he is in himself to meditate on him as you fashion him for yourself. It is not too difficult to put what it calls holy and pious thoughts away, because, as you’ve already found, it’s virtually impossible to pray or meditate as you could before anyway.

“However, there are other thoughts and desires that are more difficult to banish from your mind: the continual feeling that you are wasting your time, that this strange new form of prayer is pointless, that you’d be better employed doing something more practical. All these thoughts and feelings must not be countenanced, not for a single moment. They must all be put under the cloud of forgetfulness, so that they do not distract the naked intent upon God. With help and encouragement even these distractions can be put under the cloud, at least for a time, but then others rise up out of the depths and begin to burst through the cloud of forgetfulness to tantalize you, not just with distractions but with temptations. These temptations do not diminish but grow stronger and stronger as you continue. Past hurts and injuries rise up with such force and passion that they become all but irresistible. Before you realise what is happening you find yourself planning to get your own back, plotting revenge. You find yourself ripping other people’s characters to pieces almost before you realise it. Powerful sensual and sexual feelings and desires erupt as if from nowhere. No matter how hard you try to keep putting these distractions under the cloud of forgetfulness, they keep reappearing as often as you would banish them.”

“But if this is the case,” I said, “wouldn’t it be better to keep all these desires and temptations at bay by making a serious attempt to return to the sort of meditations that filled your mind before? Why not make a new effort to meditate again on Gospel scenes that depicted God’s love in action and in words, speaking to us through all that Jesus said and did? Even if it were more difficult to do this than it was before, wouldn’t it be preferable to submitting to these awful temptations and desires that will draw us away from the love we want to contemplate?”

“No, it wouldn’t,” said Peter, “and you couldn’t do it even if you wanted to. This is the time for contemplation, not meditation. You see, in meditation you tried to gaze upon the love of God as it was literally embodied in Jesus and in everything that he said and did in the past. This was an important stage in your spiritual journey. It helped to strengthen and inspire the heart’s desire that must now learn to gaze upon his love, not as it expressed itself in the past but as it is expressing itself now in the present.

“The good news which is the Gospel is not just that God’s love was poured out in the past through Jesus, but that it is being poured out now in the present through Jesus who is risen from the dead and is alive at this moment in time and at every moment in time. This was the good news that Peter proclaimed on the first Pentecost day, when he had himself been so filled with the love of the Risen Christ that at first everyone thought he was drunk. Remember the scene – remember the sermon. The essence of it was this: the Jesus we all knew and loved, the One who was promised for generations by the prophets and who was crucified, is now alive again, and is pouring out the fullness of his love on all who would receive it.

“Those who heard what was being said and believed it were deeply moved, not least because they could see for themselves that Peter had already received what he was offering to others, so they said, ‘What must we do?’ Peter’s answer was simply this, ‘Repent, be baptised, have your sins forgiven and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ In other words turn your heart back to the God whose love is being poured out through the Risen One, and be baptised.

“There are two baptisms, one of water and one of fire. The first could be received immediately, so that they could be opened up to receive the second baptism of fire, which would gradually purify them from all sin and selfishness. Then they would be able to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who would unite them perfectly with the Risen Christ. In Christian tradition, the mystic way is the place where the believer practises repentance as never before through the prayer of the heart until that heart is purified by the baptism of fire for the habitation of the Holy Spirit.”

Only the day before, Peter had spoken to me about the touch of God that sometimes gave you a tingle down your spine and even brought out goose pimples to confirm you hadn’t imagined it. That was happening to me as Peter was speaking. I’d never heard anything quite like it before. It was as if I were with the crowds on the first day of Pentecost, hearing the good news being proclaimed for the first time.

“Now,”  said Peter, “you’ve already been baptised by water, but you’ve yet to be baptised with fire. You have repented in a general way before, but now you must repent in a particular way again and again and again. In this strange new prayer you are in fact practising repentance as often as you turn back to God from all that tries to turn you away from him. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing is right. There is no more important work than this.

“Because it is such a difficult work, the author of The Cloud gives invaluable advice that will help you to keep turning to receive the self-same life and love that the Apostles received on the first day of Pentecost. He suggests taking a single word and then repeating it over and over again. It’s a device that was used by the Desert Fathers. These words are in fact short prayer of the heart that also act as props to help keep the heart’s attention fixed on God. He uses a medieval metaphor to make his point. He says the word that you choose to use will be like both a spear and a shield. The word acts like a shield when its repetition enables you to parry the distractions that cannot be stifled by the cloud of forgetfulness. Simultaneously it acts like a spear that is used to prop up, as it were, your naked intent upon God, so that it can pierce through the cloud of unknowing to the Godhead there in hiding. The words he suggests are: God, sin, love and lump. If they don’t appeal to you, no matter – choose others that do. The words are not important in themselves, it’s what they are used for that’s important, and how they are used.

“What I’m going to suggest to you is a slightly different approach that I’ve found helpful myself. Instead of choosing a single word I started off by choosing a single sentence, one that I felt somehow summed up how I felt at the time, how I related or didn’t relate to the God who seemed to have taken His leave of me. I chose the prayer Jesus Himself made upon the Cross, most especially when everything seemed too much, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – or the prayer he made in Gethsemane, particularly when temptations came thick and fast, ‘Father, that this chalice may be taken away from me’. When I felt really in the pits I turned to the De Profundis – ‘Out of the depths I cried to thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my prayer’ – or the prayer from Cardinal Newman’s famous hymn, ‘Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom’. The Jesus Prayer, designed especially for this particular moment of the mystic way, is perhaps the best known of all – ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.

“At moments when I felt touched by the presence of God who’d seemed absent for so long, I turned to phrases of praise and thanksgiving to express how I felt; but that was not often, at least in the early stages. The important thing is to choose something that genuinely embodies how you feel at the time. It’s no good pretending with God. He knows exactly how you feel anyway – it’s no good trying to soft-soap him. What’s important to remember is that these phrases are only used to keep helping you turn back to God from the distractions that would turn you away from him. Don’t try to dwell on them or intellectually inspect them. They’re not to help you to meditate, but to contemplate.

“Now, please don’t feel you’ve got to choose what appealed to me: choose phrases you feel appeal to you, but use them in the way I suggest to help you to keep repenting. What I found, and what you’ll find, is that in time the full sentence will be too long, and you’ll feel the need to reduce it to, say, just ‘My God, my God’ or ‘Out of the depths’ or ‘Lead, kindly light’ or ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’. Then the time will come when you’ll be back to where we started with the cloud of unknowing, when a single word will be all you need. Like ‘God’, or ‘Jesus’, or ‘mercy’. I can’t give you rules when to change down from many to few, you’ll know for yourself. It’s like changing gears in a car, once you get used to using them you know automatically when to change down. Some people like to count the words or the phrases on beads – it’s not necessary, but if it helps to keep gently fixing your gaze on God, that’s all that matters.

“These suggestions are aids to help you practise, the prayer of the heart where repentance is learnt better than anywhere else. This repentance of heart that is practised in the darkness is worth ten times what is practised in the light. It’s easy to pray when the well is full and brimming over, but it’s far more difficult to pray when the well runs dry.

“This is why it is of paramount importance to give exactly the same time to prayer that you gave when prayer was full of feeling and fervour, so that you can show by the very consistency of your daily presence that you are prepared to go on giving even when you seem to receive nothing in return. Anyone can give when they are receiving in return, but only a mature adult can go on giving in pure selfless love when their love seems to be received with indifference, if it seems to be received at all. This is what my parents had to learn when their well ran dry and what everyone must learn if they are to get anywhere in the spiritual life.

“Now you can see the real meaning of the strange spiritual desert in which you find yourself. It is the place where you offer yourself to God through a process of daily repentance as you endeavour to raise your mind and heart to Him through selfless loving. It is a loving that will always be returned in kind whether it is the kind of love that purifies in turmoil and strife or in peace and tranquility. God will do his part if we do ours. Our part is to keep on gently turning to him again and again, keep on raising our hearts whether they feel empty or whether they feel full.

“If you  persevere, the time will come when the action of God’s love will begin to draw you into an ever-deepening Recollection or Quiet or even Full Union. Then you will find less and less need for any of the forms of prayer that supported you along the way. All you’ll want to do is to remain still and gaze in awe-filled silence upon the One whom you feel drawing you onward into the peace that surpasses the understanding.

“Now, these suggestions that I’ve made are like the oars on a boat that you use to guide it downriver towards the sea. At first you have to row hard to get the boat moving towards its destination, but when the momentum has been built up you can sit back and rest for a while as it moves silently forward. The moment the boat starts to slow down, drifts towards the bank or gets caught in a cross current, then you have to start rowing again to keep it moving in the right direction. And so you keep journeying on, at one moment rowing to keep the boat on course, at another resting, enjoying the surrounding countryside. As you approach the sea you need to row less and less, as you experience the pull of the tide drawing you onwards. Once you have left the river you can put aside the oars and set up the sails. Now you can travel with ease and with speed, with the tide on your side and the wind in your sails; another power takes over to do for you what you could never do for yourself.”

“That sounds wonderful,” I said.

“Does it?” said Peter. “Have you ever done any sailing?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“I thought not,” said Peter. “If you had, you’d know it’s not all plain sailing when you put to sea. The weather can change in an instant, no matter what the forecasters have promised, and you can find yourself at the wrong end of a force eight or worse in a matter of minutes.”

Peter was smiling but I took his point. I knew it wouldn’t be all plain sailing ahead. Although I was only a beginner in the strange new world that had led me to ask for Peter’s help once more, I knew enough to know that Peter was a complete master of his subject. He was not only able to explain the mystic way with a unique simplicity, but he was able to integrate it into an authentic biblical spirituality with ease and facility. I’d always been led to believe that the mystic way was an obscure, eccentric and esoteric way for a few chosen souls, whom you may admire from a distance but whom you would follow at your peril. I remember the first spiritual director I ever had shaking his finger at me and saying,  “Beware of mysticism. It always begins in mist and ends in schism!” Peter had made everything that I had initially thought strange, so ordinary, so commonplace, so part and parcel of a normal Christian response to the Gospel.

“Thank you so much for explaining everything so clearly,” I said. “I only wish everyone could hear how you’ve explained everything to me. Then I’m sure many more would be encouraged to go on in prayer beyond first beginning, not only priests and religious, but even lay people too.”

Peter started laughing. “Have I said something funny?” I said.

“No, not really,” Peter said, pulling himself together. “I’m sorry, it was just the way you said, ‘even lay people’ that made me laugh. You see I believe far more lay people and far more married people than you would ever imagine journey on to the heights of mystical prayer though they don’t even know it. Take my mother as a case in point. She never studied theology and the Bible was literally a closed book to her and her generation for reasons we well know, but that does not mean she was deprived of the Gospel. Nor did anyone instruct her in mystical theology, but I’ll wager she knew more about the mystic way than either of us, in the only way that really matters.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,”  said Peter, “she had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart all her life. It was a devotion that she tried to hand on to me when I was a small boy. We used to have a large picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall halfway up the stairs. When she found me looking at it one morning she told me who the Sacred Heart was and what the flames around his heart meant. I remember pointing my finger at the picture and saying, ‘It’s Mr Loving!’ The whole family burst out laughing when they were told of the first theological statement I ever made. I couldn’t work out why everybody was laughing at me. I remember saying to myself, ‘Why is everyone laughing at me? He is Mr. Loving, he is – I know it.’ Years later when I studied philosophy I found that I was right. Aristotle said that God is ‘Pure Act’. That means he is what he does, and he does what he is. In other words, He is not just love, but he is loving, and he is loving all the time. All this was reconfirmed later when I studied Scripture.

“However, I have to admit I became something of a spiritual snob when I began to study theology in Paris at the time of the Second Vatican Council. I began to look down on the simple spirituality I’d been brought up on, and my artistic sensibilities were offended by some of those ghastly statues of the Sacred Heart that were to be found in our churches, and the awful paintings of Him that most Catholics hung with pride in their homes. For years I studied the liturgical movement. The Paschal mystery became the centre of my spirituality. I began to understand the meaning and importance of the Resurrection as never before. It was not just a great historical event that took place two thousand years ago, it was an event that is happening now. Jesus is risen now. He is alive now, and the same power, the same love that raised him from the dead, is accessible now to all who receive it to do in us what has already been done in him.

“It took me many more years to realise that, as T. S. Eliot wrote, ‘The end of all our journeying is to end up at the place where we started and to know that place for the first time.’ The wonderful truths that I’d learnt from my study of the new theology weren’t new at all. I’d been brought up on them, as had my parents and their parents before them. The plaster statues of ‘Mr. Loving’ might be a little old-fashioned by today’s standards, and the pictures that used to be so common in our homes may not be as acceptable today as they were in the past, but the truth behind the devotion to the Sacred Heart is the most important truth of our faith. That truth is timeless. Who is the Sacred Heart but Jesus risen from the dead? He is not just represented as love incarnate but as incarnate loving. he is Mr. Loving.

“After  years of studying theology and travelling all over Europe in search of wisdom, I came home to find that my mother had known before I left all that was necessary for the journey I still hadn’t begun. While I’d spent years searching for the point of departure, she’d been travelling relentlessly on and on ahead of me, with such simplicity and humility that contrasted so unfavourably with the arrogance of her son. I didn’t learn anything about her prayer life at the time, I was too busy reading about everyone else’s – studying the Christian mystical tradition, from the Desert Fathers to St John of the Cross and beyond. It was only when I paid a short visit home after living alone in the Outer Hebrides for about ten years that I found out how she’d been praying over the years, how she’d been responding to Mr. Loving, and what had led her onwards to the higher reaches of the mystic way.”

Peter paused as he began to search through his pockets for something. But I was unable to contain my impatience, so I said, “And what was it that led her to the heights?” I was hoping to hear of some short cut.

“It was  these,” said Peter, taking a small leather case out of his breast pocket. He opened it and took out a tiny pair of golden rosary beads. He could see I was disappointed.

“Don’t be disappointed,” he said. “These beads have led countless generations of people to the heights of mystical prayer without them ever realising it. It is a magnificent method of prayer, because it contains within it every method of prayer that is necessary to lead a person on to the heights of contemplation. To begin with, a person may just say the individual prayers as best they can; then they may move on to meditation on the mysteries of Christ’s life that will lead them eventually to the high point of Adolescent Prayer. And when they are led beyond they will learn, as my mother did, how to use the rosary to sustain them through the dark nights ahead of them, how to help keep their hearts and minds fixed upon God with naked intent, when he seems to have hidden himself in the cloud of unknowing.

“I had come home to visit my mother because she was ill and confined to bed. When I visited her in her room she always had these beads in her hand. When I asked her about the rosary, she said almost apologetically that she could no longer say it as she once could she found it quite impossible. All she did was to take a word from the ‘Our Father’, the ‘Hail Mary’ or the ‘Glory Be’ and say it slowly and prayerfully. It might be just the phrase ‘Glory be to God’, or ‘Thy will be done’, or simply the word ‘Jesus’. Then, she said, she sometimes didn’t say anything at all for hours on end. She just wanted to be there with God. She wasn’t very forthcoming when I asked her to describe what happened in those moments. I realised I’d gone too far, asking her to talk about something that was obviously too personal and too profound. When I went back to Barra I thanked God for the mother he’d given me, and for the example of someone who was far more advanced than me. I’d travelled all over the globe searching for wisdom that I could have found in my own home and from my own mother, had I but a fraction of the humility I’d found in her.”

Peter was on his feet. “Well, I suppose I’d better be on my way,” he said.

“Thank  you again, Peter,” I said as I led him to the door. “Oh, one final problem, I’m afraid. I feel you’ve still got a lot to say to me but I have to leave tomorrow evening to be back in time for the weekend.”

“Oh dear,” said Peter. “I hadn’t realised it was Friday today. But don’t worry. I think I can come for the whole day tomorrow because my brother David arrives tonight, and he will want to spend some time with my father tomorrow. He had to dash off immediately after the funeral as he was in the middle of giving a retreat in London.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Positive,” said Peter. “But I’ll have to impose on you for lunch if that’s all right.”

“No problem at all,” I said. I’d been living out of tins since I arrived, so the prospect of taking Peter out to lunch appealed to me immensely.




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