Anonymously written around the year 1375, The Cloud of Unknowing — a lucid and deceptively simple manual on contemplative spirituality — offers a fascinating glimpse into the practical side of medieval mysticism. It remains important and valuable in our day not only because of its historical value, but because of how surprisingly relevant and up-to-date it remains, even here in the twenty-first century.

The Cloud of Unknowing appears to have been written for a young person who is just beginning a life devoted to contemplation, either as a monk or a solitary. Its author may have been a priest, or may have himself been a monastic, but unfortunately we can do little more than speculate on the matter. So effective is his cloak of anonymity that we know virtually nothing about him (or her). The author of The Cloud also wrote or translated several minor works, including a richly paraphrased translation of a work by the late fifth-century Syrian mystical theologian now known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Arguably the most important Christian mystic of his age, Pseudo-Dionysius advocated an apophatic (or “imageless”) spirituality anchored in the sheer mystery and unknowability of the Divine. Following Pseudo-Dionysius, this “negative” spirituality that stresses the unknowability and supra-rational darkness and transcendence that prevents us from ever knowing God fully has remained a perennial (if little-known and little-understood) stream in the waters of the Christian experience. Following Pseudo-Dionysius, mystics such as Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross; modern spiritual teachers like Peter Rollins and Maggie Ross, and — of course — The Cloud of Unknowing all fall within the magnificent, if virtually imprenetrable, vein of spirituality.

Apophatic mysticism seeks to find the Holy at a level deeper (or higher) than any physical thing — or even beyond any word or mental image. For the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, this meant that God cannot be grasped by the intellect; he can only be approached in a context of profound humility and love. Therefore, The Cloud’s author advocates contemplation: prayer steeped not in language or the imagination, but in cultivated inner silence. The author describes at length the virtue of putting all thoughts, all images, all concepts beneath a metaphorical “cloud of forgetting” found within, and then single-heartedly seeking to love God, without concept or control, allowing the naked intent of our love to flourish, even though God remains hidden from our finite awareness by a “cloud of unknowing.” To pierce that cloud, the author instructs the reader to send “sharp darts” of “longing love” — for while we may never fully know God, at least we are able to the best of our ability to love God.

One remarkable feature of The Cloud of Unknowing is that it advocates the use of a single-syllable “prayer word” to effectively discipline the mind and to keep it focused while the heart attempts to grow in its supramental task of loving God. This spiritual exercise involves repeating a short word like “God” or “love” repeatedly, in order to help surrender all extraneous thoughts and seek the place of inner silence, where one may “be still and know” the God who is lavish love. This practice of using a prayer word has been adapted in our own day by the monks who developed the method of centering prayer, a form of meditation which again relies on the repeated single-syllable word as a tool of “centering” or allowing the mind and body to come to a place of resting in the Divine presence.

The author of The Cloud is a true teacher, and displays a rich and nuanced relationship with the youth to whom the book is addressed. By turns encouraging and gentle, then harsh and demanding, this spiritual guide has inspired countless readers to seriously engage with the contemplative life. But his overall tone remains positive and optimistic. Consider this statement, made on the last page of the book and in some ways a summation of its hopeful theology:

It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.

Considering that it is written for one who desires to plumb deeply the contemplative life, this is a wonderful and inspiring sentiment: we who aspire to drink deeply from the wells of Divine silence can do so knowing that God sees us not in terms of our failings or our foibles, but in light of that deepest desire of our hearts. In the eyes of God, we are already mystics and contemplatives. All we have to do, now, is to learn how to simply allow that to unfold. Even within the mysterious mists of the cloud of unknowing.

The Cloud of Unknowing

For further reading:

I. Editions of The Cloud of Unknowing (and other works by the same author)

II. Commentaries and Studies