The Cloud of Unknowing
|Original title||The Cloude of Unknowyng|
|Subject||Spiritual guide to contemplative prayer|
|Late 14th century|
|Followed by||The Book of Privy Counseling|
The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowyng) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work proposes that the only way to truly "know" God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of "unknowingness," at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God.
The Cloud of Unknowing draws on the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Christian Neoplatonism, which focuses on the via negativa road to discovering God as a pure entity, beyond any capacity of mental conception and so without any definitive image or form. This tradition has reputedly inspired generations of mystical searchers from John Scotus Erigena, through Book of Taliesin, Nicholas of Cusa and John of the Cross to Teilhard de Chardin (the latter two of whom may have been influenced by "The Cloud" itself). Prior to this, the theme of "Cloud" had been in the Confessions of St. Augustine (IX, 10) written in AD 398.
The author is unknown. The English Augustinian mystic Walter Hilton has at times been suggested, but this is generally doubted. It is possible he was a Carthusian priest, though this is not certain.
A second major work by the same author, The Book of Privy Counseling (originally titled Prive Counselling), continues the themes discussed in the Cloud. It is less than half the size of the Cloud, appears to be the author's final work, and clarifies and deepens some of its teachings. In this work, the author characterizes the practice of contemplative unknowing as worshiping God with one's "substance," coming to rest in a "naked blind feeling of being", and ultimately finding thereby that God is one's being.
The book counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and intellection (faculty of the human mind), but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. This is brought about by putting all thoughts and desires under a "cloud of forgetting", and thereby piercing God's cloud of unknowing with a "dart of longing love" from the heart. This form of contemplation is not directed by the intellect, but involves spiritual union with God through the heart:
"For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens."
|Ch. 39-40 quotation: other versions|
Evelyn Underhill (1922/2003)
Middle English original
From a description of how to practice contemplation (from chapters 39 and 40):
When we intend to pray for goodness, let all our thought and desire be contained in the one small word "God." Nothing else and no other words are needed, for God is the epitome of all goodness.. Immerse yourself in the spiritual reality it speaks of yet without precise ideas of God's works whether small or great, spiritual or material. Do not consider any particular virtue which God may teach you through grace, whether it is humility, charity, patience, abstinence, hope, faith, moderation, chastity, or evangelical poverty. For to a contemplative they are, in a sense, all the same.. Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God.
From elsewhere (chapter 23, The Book of Privy Counseling):
"And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest."
In addition to The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, the Cloud author is believed to be responsible for a few other spiritual treatises and translations, including:
- Deonise Hid Divinity, a free translation of the Mystical Theology by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. A vernacular translation of the Mystical Theology was unprecedented; however, it was clearly not widely read, since only two manuscripts survive.
- A Letter of Prayer (A Pistle of Prayer), which survives in seven manuscripts. (Online);
- A Letter of Discretion of Stirrings (A Pistle of Discrecioun of Stirings). (Online, part VI of "The Cell of Self Knowledge")
- It is possible, but doubtful, that he wrote A Treatise of Discernment of Spirits (originally titled A Tretis of Discrecyon of Spirites), a free translation of Sermones di Diversis nos 23-24, by Bernard of Clairvaux, (Online).
- It is possible, but doubtful, that he wrote A Treatise of the Study of Wisdom that Men Call Benjamin (also called Pursuit of Wisdom, and, in its original, A Tretyse of the Stodye of Wysdome that Men Clepen Beniamyn), an abbreviated and free translation of the Benjamin Minor by Richard of St. Victor (Online).
The work was not as popular in late medieval England as the works of Richard Rolle or Walter Hilton, perhaps because the Cloud is addressed to solitaries and concentrates on the advanced levels of the mystical path. It nevertheless is found in 17 manuscripts. Two Latin translations of the Cloud were made in the late fifteenth century. One was made by Richard Methley, a Carthusian of the Charterhouse of Mount Grace in Yorkshire, and finished in 1491. The other is anonymous. Neither, however, enjoyed wide dissemination.
This work became known to English Catholics in the mid 17th century, when later ascetic and Benedictine mystic, Augustine Baker (1575–1641), wrote an exposition on its doctrine (today a transcript of this version of the work dated 1677 is at Ampleforth College). The original work itself, however, was not published until 1877. English mystic Evelyn Underhill edited an important version of the work in 1922.
The work has become increasingly popular over the course of the twentieth century, with nine English translations or modernisations produced in this period. In particular, the Cloud has influenced recent contemplative prayer practices. The practical prayer advice contained in The Cloud of Unknowing forms a primary basis for the contemporary practice of Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation developed by Trappist monks William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating in the 1970s. It also informed the meditation techniques of the English Benedictine John Main.
The contemplation method urged in The Cloud is similar to Buddhist meditation and modern transcendental meditation - see the last paragraph of chapter 7: "If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as "God" or "love" is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defence in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you."
- Ed Kowalczyk recites The Cloud of Unknowing in the 2013 song "Cornerstone" from The Flood and the Mercy.
- Leonard Cohen refers to The Cloud of Unknowing in the 1979 song "The Window" from Recent Songs 
- Jan Garbarek's 2004 album In Praise of Dreams includes a track called "Cloud of Unknowing"
- Plastic Beach, the 2010 album by Gorillaz, includes a track entitled "Cloud of Unknowing"
- James Blackshaw released an album in 2007 by the same name, See The Cloud of Unknowing (album)
- John Luther Adams' orchestral work Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, completed in 1995, was inspired by The Cloud of Unknowing
- Steve Roach's album The Magnificent Void (1996) includes a track named "Cloud of Unknowing"
- Don DeLillo refers to The Cloud of Unknowing in the 1985 novel White Noise and the 1998 novel Underworld
- Current 93 had a song titled 'The Cloud of Unknowing' in the 1994 album "Of Ruine or Some Blazing Starre".
- The Claudia Quintet had a song with the same title on their 2004 album I, Claudia.
- The Cloud of Unknowing, inspired the title for the movie of the same name by Richard Sylvarnes.
- The Cloud of Unknowing, is the name of a 2006 album by Ad Vanderveen.
- J. D. Salinger's novel Franny and Zooey refers to The Cloud of Unknowing in a passage where the characters are discussing contemplative prayer.
- W. Somerset Maugham referenced The Cloud of Unknowing in The Razor's Edge.
- Todd Rundgren refers to The Cloud of Unknowing in the 1989 song "The Waiting Game" from Nearly Human
- Butcher, Carmen Acevedo (2009). The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 978-1-59030-622-2.
- Johnston, William; Huston Smith (1996). The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. New York: Image Books. ISBN 0-385-03097-5. (original publication, 1973; foreword by Huston Smith, 1996 edition)
- The Cloud of Unknowing and other works. Penguin Classics. 2001. ISBN 978-0-14-044762-0. Translated by A. C. Spearing
- Underhill, Evelyn (2003) . The Cloud of Unknowing: The Classic of Medieval Mysticism. Mineola, NY: Dover. ISBN 0-486-43203-3. (original publication, 1922)
- The Cloud of Unknowing: And The Book of Privy Counseling (1944). ed., Phyllis Hodgson. Early English Text Society. Oxford University Press, hardback: ISBN 0-19-722218-8.
- The Cloud of Unknowing (1981). translator, James Walsh. Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality. 2004 HarperCollins edition, paperback: ISBN 0-06-073775-1
- The Cloud of Unknowing (1957). translator, Ira Progoff. Dell/Doubleday. 1983 paperback: ISBN 0-440-31994-3, 1989 paperback: ISBN 0-385-28144-7
- John J. Kirvan (1996). Where Only Love Can Go: A Journey of the Soul Into the Cloud of Unknowing. Ave Maria Press. ISBN 0877935912.
Editions of related texts include
- Deonise Hid Divinite: And Other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer Related to The Cloud of Unknowing (1955). ed., Phyllis Hodgson. Early English Text Society. Oxford University Press, 2002 paperback: 0859916987
- The Pursuit of Wisdom: And Other Works by the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing (1988). translator, James Walsh. Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality. paperback: ISBN 0-8091-2972-8.
- Apophatic theology (known also as the via negativa)
- Jesus Prayer
- Theosis (deification, the search of union with God)
- Introduction by Evenlyn Underhill, 1922.
- The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. James Walsh (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p. 2.
- For this argument, though acknowledging the many possible objections to it, see The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. James Walsh (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), pp. 3-9.
- Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, (New York: Herder & Herder, 2012), p396.
- The Cloud of Unknowing and other works. Penguin Classics. 2001. ISBN 978-0-14-044762-0. Translated by A. C. Spearing
- Cloud (version), Underhill (2003), pp. 69-72, Accessed 23 May 2010.
- Cloud (original), Gallacher (1997), lines 1426 - 1471, Accessed 23 May 2010.
- Johnston (1996), pp. 98-101.
- Johnston (1996), p. 188 (paperback).
- Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, (New York: Herder & Herder, 2012), p398.
- The Cloud of Unknowing, ed James Walsh, (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p16.
- Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (2006/1986). by Thomas Keating. Continuum International Publishing Group. paperback: ISBN 0-8264-0696-3, hardback: ISBN 0-8264-1420-6.
- British Library MS Harleian 674, British Library MS Royal 17 C xxvi and Cambridge University Library Kk.vi.26.
- See verse four of the song.
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