A Catholic Monthly Magazine

A School for Prayer (26) (Final)

The Way of Darkness

God in “The Cloud of Unknowing”

Part 2 of 2

By Fr Craig  Larkin SM, 1943 - 2015

“The Cloud of Unknowing”

A classic work of English spirituality in the apophatic tradition

Written in the 14th century by an unknown author, probably a Carthusian monk, “The Cloud of Unknowing” was addressed to a fellow-monk, but its simple and direct style makes the book easily understood by all types of people.

The 14th century was one of the most tumultuous centuries in European history. Europe was facing the Hundred Years’ War. The Black Death was decimating every country it entered. Social unrest was showing itself in the English Peasants’ Revolt. Medieval Christendom was passing away and modern nationalism was coming to birth.

At the same time, this was an age when, in spite of all the troubles, Europe was deeply religious. Faith penetrated the hearts of the people and influenced their art, music and literature, and every part of their lives. Chaucer may have laughed at the foibles of monks and nuns, but he accepted that religious practice and faith were unquestionable.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing acknowledges that he is influenced by the teaching of Dionysius the Areopagite: “Anyone who reads Dionysius’ book will find confirmed there all that I have been trying to teach in this book from start to finish” (Chapter 70).

From the beginning, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing makes it clear that the work of contemplation is only for those who wish to be perfect followers of Christ. He says he is writing for the “skilled contemplative” whose prayer is “intuitive”, “spontaneous” and prayed at “the sovereign point of the spirit”. The book is for serious Christians. The merely curious, the gossipers, the flatterers or self-deceived need not even attempt to read the book – in fact, they must be prevented from doing so.

The doctrine of “The Cloud of Unknowing”

The teaching of “The Cloud” is very simple, even if its practice is very difficult.

1.  Only those who are serious about prayer should even consider listening to the author’s teaching.

2.  But if God in His love is calling the young disciple to a higher stage in the spiritual life, even though he does not deserve such a calling, the disciple must respond to it with the utmost diligence and humility.

3.  Contemplation is God’s work and God’s gift. Our task is to respond with our will. We are to put aside the lower activities of the soul: check the imagination, silence the powers of reasoning; reduce the intellectual act to a very simple contemplation of God’s being.

4.  When the disciple begins this path, he will find himself face to face with a dark “cloud of unknowing” between himself and God. This darkness is an absence of knowledge.

5.  The disciple should remain in this darkness as long as possible, “evermore crying to him whom you love”. He must do nothing except cultivate a “naked intent stretching to God”. This “naked intent” is also described as a “sharp dart of longing love”.

6.  So, the disciple must “press longingly” on this cloud of unknowing, firing “sharp darts of longing love” through the cloud.

7.  Only love can penetrate the cloud of unknowing. No thoughts can do this. “We can grasp hold of God by love, but never by thinking”. There should be no discursive reasoning, no thinking. Even thoughts about God are a distraction to the soul.

8.  After a while, all thinking must be left behind, and cast down underneath another cloud – the cloud of forgetting. Just as the cloud of unknowing separates the disciple from God, so this cloud of forgetting must separate the disciple from all created things.

9.  In beating on this cloud of unknowing, the disciple will attain some felt knowledge of God which is beyond the powers of the intellect and is a foretaste of the joys of heaven.

“A short prayer pierces the heavens”

One of the important features of the author’s teaching is on the value of short ejaculatory type of prayer. “A short prayer pierces the heavens” says the author.

“A man or a woman, terrified by sudden disaster, gathers all energy into one great cry for help. In this sort of emergency, a person doesn’t make long speeches or use long words. Instead, summoning all his strength, he expresses his desperate need in one loud cry, “HELP!” And with this one little word, he attracts the attention of others and gets their help” (Chapter 12).

This is not an “easy-way-out” prayer. This sort of prayer can only come from one who already takes the Christian life seriously, who practices frequent confession, and who takes seriously the preparatory work of reading, meditation and prayer.

Ten Guidelines for contemplative prayer according to “The Cloud of Unknowing”

1.  The way of prayer I describe is not for beginners; nor is it for the simply curious, or those who want to dabble in the spiritual life.

2.  This way of prayer presumes that you are already living a full sacramental and liturgical life, that you regularly receive the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, that you are living an active life of practical charity, and that you receive spiritual direction.

3.  The beginning, middle and end of contemplative prayer is love. If you feel – even faintly – a stirring of love for God and a desire for God in your heart, you are ready for this way of prayer.

4.  When you begin, you will feel what seems like a dark cloud between you and God, making it difficult to reach God. When this happens, simply let your heart fire “sharp darts of longing love” through this “cloud of unknowing”.

5.  Put everything else under a “cloud of forgetting”. All thoughts, ideas, memories; all logic and reasoning; any ideas, however pious they may be; even thoughts about God or Jesus or the Gospels or theology. Close the doors and windows of your spirit.

6.  All that God asks is that you fix your love on him. A naked intent towards God, the desire for Him alone, is enough.

7.  Don’t be ostentatious in your prayer, and don’t pray with many words or with big words. Keep your prayer simple. “A short prayer pierces the heavens”.

8.  Cultivate study, reflection and prayer (that is, reading, thinking and praying) as part of your daily rule of life.

9.  What I describe is not a technique. In fact, techniques are utterly useless for awakening contemplative love.

10.  If this way of praying does not suit you spiritually or temperamentally, feel free to lay it aside and find another way of praying.  

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