Lisa Nicholas looks at Chapter Three of The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic work of English Catholic Mysticism at her Learning God: Readings in the Contemplative English Tradition blog:
The subtitle of this chapter promises that it will explain two things: how to put in practice what the book will teach, and why the reason doing so is the most worthy thing one can do.
So first the how: Lift your heart to God, our author says, thinking only of Him, but not of His benefits (“goods”) or any part of His Creation. Think on Him as He is, but not of what He does. This will be difficult, but we must persist in the effort, no matter how difficult it seems, until it is no longer difficult. At first, and for a long time, we will face a great “cloud of unknowing,” but if we persist eventually the cloud will disperse and we will see/know Him as He is, to the extent that this is possible in this mortal life.
Why persist in something so difficult and frustrating? Our teacher encourages his pupil to make the effort, not only for one’s own sake (the benefit of experiencing God as He is), but also because doing so will frustrate the fiends of Hell and benefit the souls in purgatory.
The method of prayer introduced in this chapter (to be explained in detail later) sounds a little like that old gag, “Don’t think about elephants.” As soon as someone says that, you find yourself thinking about elephants. So, how do we fix our minds and hearts on God without thinking of all the good things He does for us or all the wonderful things He has created that bear witness to Him? How can we make it our naked intent simply to adore Him as He is, when it is impossible for us to know Him except through the created order, His interventions in the created order, including His becoming Man for our sake?
It sounds impossible, rather like trying to know what we don’t know. Our teacher acknowledges this difficulty — we must not try to think of God with our intellect (we’re not engaging in theology) nor to feel Him with our affections (we can’t conjure Him up with our emotions). But, if not thinking or feeling, what? Our “naked intent” — our will. Our desire itself to know Him.
This, he says, is what the Angels and Saints do: they desire God with a pure and unflagging desire, and their reward is to know Him as He is. This is the encouragement that will help us persevere in what will seem, at first and for a long time thereafter, a most impossible and frustrating task.
Please listen to the two-part podcast with David Torkington on Christian mystical prayer and the role he believes the Ordinariates can play in reviving it. You can find the podcasts at the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society website here.