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Cloud of unknowing, the

Category: Books sutras and myths

The Cloud of Unknowing is a book written by a 14th century English person – I hesitate to say man, because the phrasing and wording is very feminine at times [or maybe this is just the result of the editing].   Absolutely nothing more is known about the author, not even whether the person was a member of the Church.  The 14th century was particularly rich in spiritual writers – I have included Meister Eckhart for example, but this era also produced Julian of Norwich, John Tauler, Richard Rolle and Henry Suso, whose experiences are also included on this website. 

Our author was a Christian and the book is enmeshed in many places in Church dogma.  But I have ignored the dogma and gone for the heart of the system she proposed and it makes interesting reading.  It is unique on this website, though as a system, it may not have been unique in England at the time.  It does not have to be regarded as even a Christian technique.  It is almost denominationally free once you strip it down to the essentials.  It would equally well stand as a Zen Buddhist or Hindu yoga approach and shares a lot of similarities.

The one problem with the system is that it is extremely unclear from this book whether the person themselves actually had the experiences they describe or whether this is just a description of what they observed or read about.  And this may be a severe disadvantage to the system, because ultimately I do not know genuinely whether it works.

In its favour there is every indication that the author knew what didn’t work, or at least what hadn’t worked for them, meaning they were actively pursuing the path they described ……..

The Cloud of Unknowing
Fast as much as you like, watch far into the night, rise long before dawn, discipline your body and if it were permitted – which it is not – put out your eyes, tear out your tongue, plug up your ears and nose and cut off your limbs; yes chastise your body with every discipline and you would still gain nothing …….  What is more if you wept in constant sorrow for your sins and Christ’s passion and pondered unceasingly on the joys of heaven, do you think it would do you any good?… very little

But against it are quite a number of passages that indicate that the author is using books to understand what may happen.  For example, another book supposedly written by the same author is the Book of Privy counselling and in this she/he writes

The Book of Privy Counseling
How often have you not read or heard in the holy wise and religious writings of the fathers that ……. When one is touched by the grace of authentic contemplation there is a sense in which we can really say that reason dies.  But have you not often heard and read all this in the works of various holy and scholarly men?  What makes you so slow to believe it?

Now this says to me that the people she/he was writing for did not believe it  - either because they didn’t believe the descriptions the author gave of his/her own experience or because they had not seen it in anyone and if they hadn’t seen it in anyone, then they hadn’t seen it in the author either.  So the author is either trying to call on ‘higher authorities’ to prove that others have had the same experience as her/him, or is calling on them to show it is possible, even though they have not seen it in him/her.  And we will never know which one it was.

I have included this source because theoretically it looks to be both sound and well thought through, but in the spiritual world that is not always an indicator that it will work.  It does have the disadvantage that it is not at all easy to do and would take a lot of time to master.  So we will have to accept the word of the person themselves…………

The Cloud of Unknowing
He who has ears to hear let him listen to me and he who is moved to believe me let him simply accept what I say on its merits, for actually there is no other way

Well…… as you have seen there are really lots of ways, but I think it is only fair to believe her [or him] and accept what she says on its merits.  But be aware I have my reservations about the approach.

The spiritual path

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing believed in a spiritual path.  The steps of the path are not described in the book, but the end objective is - the end goal was union with your higher spirit, and then giving up your will and consciousness to be one with your Higher spirit – annihilation  ….

The Cloud of Unknowing
… never does he desire to not be, for this is the devil’s madness and blasphemy against God.  In fact he rejoices that he is and from the fullness of a grateful heart he gives thanks to God for the gift and the goodness of his existence.  At the same time, however, he desires unceasingly to be freed from the knowing and feeling of his being.

There will come times when your mind is free of involvement with anything material or spiritual and totally taken up with [your Higher spirit].  This is the contemplative work I have been describing in this book.  And at such times you transcend yourself, becoming almost divine, though you remain beneath God.  I say you transcend yourself, becoming almost divine, because you have gained by grace what is impossible to you by nature, for this union with your higher spirit, in love, and in oneness of desire is the gift of grace.  Almost divine – yes, you and your higher spirit are so one that you may in a sense be called truly divine

One of the reasons that I think the person who wrote this may be genuine is that they describe union in a way that few with only theoretical knowledge describe

The Cloud of Unknowing
There are some who believe that contemplation is so difficult and so terrible an experience that no man may reach it without great struggle and then only relish it rarely in those moments of ecstasy called ravishing.
Let me answer these people as best I can.
The truth is that God, in his wisdom, determines the course and the character of each one's contemplative journey according to the talents and gifts he has given him. It is true that some people do not reach contemplation without long and arduous spiritual toil and even then only now and again know its perfection in the delight of ecstasy called ravishing.
Yet, there are others so spiritually refined by grace and so intimate with God in prayer that they seem to possess and experience the perfection of this work almost as they like, even in the midst of their ordinary daily routine, whether sitting, standing, walking, or kneeling. They manage to retain full control and use of their physical and spiritual faculties at all times, however, not without some difficulty perhaps, yet without great difficulty

In effect, you can have functioning, fully compos mentis, enlightened individuals who after enlightenment carry on an almost active existence giving and helping and possibly teaching what they have learnt.  And then you have the others.

It is very rare for these fully functioning types of people to be mentioned in spiritual literature, because the ones who fall about all over the place in ecstasy or who wave their hands about with new so called revelations get all the publicity and a lot of the attention.  But the latter people are many times more helpful in the long term to the rest of us.  Jesus was a quietly enlightened person – not an ecstatic.

The Cloud of Unknowing
Before he was permitted to gaze upon the Ark and to receive its design, Moses had to climb the long, weary path up the mountain and abide there at work in a dark cloud for six days.  On the seventh day, the Lord gave him the design for the Ark's construction.  In this long toil Moses endured, and in the much delayed enlightenment he finally received, we may see the pattern of those who seem to labour so long before reaching the heights of contemplation and to relish it in its fullness but seldom.
Yet what Moses gained with such great cost and enjoyed so rarely was Aaron's with seemingly little toil.   For his office, allowed him to enter the Holy of Holies and to gaze on the Ark, as often as he liked. Aaron then represents the people I mentioned earlier who by their spiritual wisdom and the assistance of divine grace enjoy the perfect fruit of contemplation

You get a darn sight more intuitional help and inspiration by being quietly enlightened.

The techniques – the Active steps

All the following steps are intended to be practised on a day to day basis – they are a life style approach that prepares you for the passive stage.  During this stage you go about your normal life, having a family, working, contributing, building up funds ready for the next stage.  But you live your life in such a way that you have prepared yourself for the next stage – got yourself in the right frame of mind.  The main ongoing activities are as follows

The techniques – the passive steps

The passive steps are based on the idea that you seek  union’ through periods of contemplation on a regular basis.  So this is not a continuous activity it is based on sessions of contemplation.

The passive steps are based almost entirely on trying to suppress the memory on a temporary basis.  The author appears to believe this will work because you have already taught the will to be stilled somewhat, have cleansed your memory of things that might serve to make it active and moderated your emotions.  There is recognition, however, that the senses need also to be stilled – but there is no specific guidance on how to do it .

The method advocated by the author to suppress memory is a form of detachment not dissimilar to that advocated in Buddhism, except that in this technique, it is reserved for contemplation only and is less a life style approach.

Observations

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