The Cloud of Unknowing

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Part of "The English Mystics"

Conference 4: The Cloud of Unknowing

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So we end this weekend with what is, for me at least, the culminating moment of the English mystics of the 14th century and simply of the English mystics period, and that is this wonderful classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. The same author wrote several other treatises, and they're all so wonderful. So as you get into his literature, you can range around and out. The image edition has the other little essay, The Book of Private Counseling, marvelous. And there's a wonderful collection of the other treatises put out by this wonderful Anglican Order of Nuns, Fair Acres, called A Study of Wisdom, three tracks by the author of The Cloud. And they're also very, very rewarding indeed. One about how to discern anything. Suppose you think you're called to fast more. How do you know that that's right?


Or more vigils, or more silence, or more community. How do you discern these things? Well, he has a wonderful essay here on the discerning of spirits, but it's all tied in with his basic theology. It's all of one piece. And so you see the real strength and solidity of his vision. But we'll be looking today at the classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. Some of the praises that the scholars and the contemplatives sing of this book, Clifton Walters, who edited the Penguin edition, he says, one of the devotional classics of the English church, and perhaps the greatest of them all. No one who reads it can fail to catch something of its splendor and charm. And then this wonderful Anglican mystic, Evelyn Underhill, who pioneered in our own century the rediscovery of all this literature, she writes, it springs from an age when English mysticism was in full flower. This is the pure doctrine of mysticism.


And again, she knows the whole range. And that's, I think, what we want. We want the pure doctrine of mysticism. The great Benedictine scholar of the medieval mystics, Don David Knowles, who, as we've heard, was very hard on Richard Ruhl, he writes, perhaps the most subtle and incisive, as well as the most original spiritual writer in the English language. So that's quite a praise. You can put that on your cover of your books, et cetera. Merton says simply, he's a true master who knows what he's talking about. And Merton goes on in his essay on the English mystics, with a lovely section in there on The Cloud. The thing that is most striking, perhaps, about The Cloud of Unknowing is the serene and practical assurance with which the author speaks of the work that he proposes. This is not merely a way of prayer, a manner of devotion.


It is a way of life. Obviously, he speaks from his own experience. That's why it's with this assurance. Father Tugwell, a Dominican scholar who edited the very fine Paulist edition, he writes, one of the masterpieces of Western literature and spirituality, et cetera. We could go on and on. It's amazing how many of you here have read it, and how many now have read it. It's just a basic point of reference for anyone who wants to journey deeper into Christian prayer. And I think we all should. That might be the heart of the Christian vocation. If we mean by prayer, not so much what I'm doing, but we mean simply opening our heart to God in love to fulfill that first commandment of our Lord. The cloud from the beginning had a wide range of influence, and perhaps in a particular way in our own century.


Maybe the cloud had some influence on John of the Cross, certainly on Father Augustine Baker, the Benedictine who recovered the contemplative tradition in the stormy 16th century. Certainly for people like Merton, Evelyn Underhill, T.S. Eliot, Father Pennington and Father Keating, again, say that the centering prayer, which has been so influential, is simply the cloud repackaged. Simply taking the basic image of the cloud and shifting it to center. But the basic proposal, the basic technique, if you like, is just the very same. So I think it's wonderful to read Father Pennington and Father Keating, but it's even more wonderful to go back to the source to see where this is all coming from. And of course, as we'll see, it's not as if the author makes this all up, but he's in very solid continuity with this tradition of mysticism in Christianity, sometimes called


the apophatic tradition, or the tradition that goes into the God as ineffable. The beyond words, beyond concepts, because God is so totally other, so totally transcends anything we can come up with in terms of ideas. So the apophatic really moves into the heart of God as God, as ineffable mystery. We need the cataphatic, we need the whole area of images and symbols. That's what we'll be doing at 11 o'clock as we celebrate as Eucharistic community. That's what we'll be doing at lunch as we celebrate as Christian community at the table of the Lord also, and as we enjoy flowers and music and all the rest. But as we're drawn into God as God, we're drawn simply into silence. Well, how do we permit ourselves to be drawn thus and not put up all kinds of obstacles?


Well, this book is about that. Who is the author? Well, he didn't want us to know, and he succeeded. We still don't know who he is. And so two of the great classics of apophatic mysticism, again to use that fancy word, Pseudo-Dionysius's mystical theology way back in probably the beginning of the 6th century, and then this in the 14th century, are by authors we just don't know who wrote them. And it's marvelous, this seeking of hiddenness, because again, we can get into ego trips in spirituality also, perhaps more in spirituality than anything else, because we need compensation, because spirituality requires such a surrender of ourselves. So it's wonderful to publish an article or a book and see our name on it, you know, kind of thing. He didn't want that. He wanted the teaching to predominate. He wanted people to focus on what's there, not on who wrote it. So I think it's a wonderful challenge to us to move beyond ego, individual or collective,


as we move into the Godhead, because that's what basically this prayer requires, this final dying to ego, to outer self, to journey with our true deepest inner self, where we are wounded and fragile and uncertain and guilt-ridden, et cetera. But we open that inner, naked, yearning, needful self to God, and then God can lead us into silence and into the fullness of the ineffable Godhead. And at that level, we don't want book reviews and rave notices, et cetera. That's precisely what we don't need. So he's unknown. The scholars, however, can't let that rest there. So they've done all this very careful sifting of all the clues. And we have the cloud in the wonderful original Middle English text. And so they're able to discover, again, what dialects there.


And one little tiny clue is he's writing for this young hermit, and he says, I bestow on you God's blessing and mine. So it's very likely he was a priest, for instance. Other very subtle clues suggest he now, many scholars think he was a Carthusian monk of a particular house that we've been able to localize. But not all are in agreement with that, and there's a wide range of hypotheses who he might be. But again, I think it's a wonderful challenge to us. He doesn't want us to know. And again, the basic challenge is that as we open to our life of prayer, that is to our being with God at that most intimate level, to leave ego behind. And it's extremely difficult and extremely rewarding. When did he write? Well, somewhere in the later half of the 14th century. He criticizes Richard Rohl and also praises and uses him, and Richard Rohl died in 1349. And he's criticized by Walter Hilton, who died around 1395.


So somewhere, we know, in that middle period, The Cloud of Unknowing is written. Again, more recent scholars think he wrote this, then Walter Hilton threw some critiques at it, then he wrote some of these later essays to nuance his own writing, to say, well, you've got some points there, Walter, but my position basically stands solid and in this sense. What are his sources? It's, again, very useful always to ask this question, where is he coming from? Well, scriptures all the way through. This is an apophatic text, but that doesn't mean it just has nothing to do with words, especially the word of God. There's some 199 citations or allusions to scripture in this brief work, really. 16 references to the songs, that suggests someone who's praying the office, but 16 references also to the song of songs, to the canticle, that's wonderful. 23 references to Matthew, his favorite gospel.


20 to John, 20 to Luke. Poor Mark really fails, he only gets two. But then 1 Corinthians, this very important early Christian writing, 15 references, so he draws a lot from the Corinthian community, that very charismatic community. There again, if you're a scholar, if you'd like to go into that, see what exhortations, what aspects of the letter to the Corinthians is the author plugging into. You can do anything with a double-slider like 1 Corinthians. You can argue from it in this position or in this contrary position. Well, it's interesting to see what he does with it. How do you do a mystical, contemplative reading of scripture? Not a polemical or not a self-serving or not a bash those others or we're greater than you or something like that, but how as a contemplative who wants only deeper union with God, how do you read 1 Corinthians? How do you read Matthew? How do you read the Psalms? It's a real lesson there. Then he's in close contact again with our great fathers, Augustine, Gregory, Bernard,


in a special way with Pseudo-Dionysius, this classic by another. That author was rather naughty. He wanted to pretend he was someone he wasn't. That is Dionysius mentioned in the Book of Acts, but this author doesn't pull anything like that. He just wants to be unknown. But Pseudo-Dionysius, the key mystical theology, this author translates into Middle English to make it available to England. One of the writers just a little after that said that Pseudo-Dionysius galloped across England like a wild stag. It just caught on. The English love this kind of cloud mysticism. And you can understand from their weather, maybe that's the temperament or something. So, again, he is also a very solid theologian and we always seek this. He's not into the bizarre. He's not off in right field or left field.


He's very down the center, solid theology. And thus he's able to go solidly beyond theology. All kinds of editions of the cloud. All kinds now of studies of every sort. Again, if you read the introduction to the Paulist edition or the introduction by William Johnson, a wonderful scholar also in comparative spirituality, in the image edition. The delightful introduction in the Penguin edition by this Anglican scholar. Introduction in this Farracher's edition published by the Convent of the Incarnation. Again by Clifton Walters. So all kinds of resources available. If we read the book, it basically wants to be a practical treatise for anyone who wants to learn how to pray. It's not in any way a theoretical theological treatise. It's not the kind of thing that Father Joseph here would write.


But it presupposes the kind of work that Father Joseph would do. That is, there's a whole theological anthropology presupposed here. You don't just set aside theology. Theology is irrelevant. You've got to go through it and do it either implicitly. We're all called to be theologians just by our baptism. That is, explore, what does my faith mean? How do I put it together? How do I understand myself? How do I understand Christ, the Father, et cetera? So he's a theologian. But in order to move to the final consummation of theology, which is prayer. Well, he's got a theological anthropology or an understanding of the human person. Something like our diagram on the board. And for our listener audience, it's basically a mountain with three stages. On the lowest level, body. And in the middle stage, mind. And at that peak, spirit. Body, mind, spirit. This is the great triadic model of the human person that we find already in St. Paul.


Certainly in the Greek tradition. And then in the richer contemplative. We're not just body, mind. This is a later kind of reductionist understanding of the human person. Some have argued that's what dominates in our secular society. Body, mind, that's all I am. And mind is understood kind of on the model of the computer. Which is kind of analytical information. According to how much stuff I pump into it, I get answers out of it. And body is understood kind of on the model of the ape. So we've got a model of the human person as a computer and the ape. And that's all we are. It's wildly schizophrenic. It's wildly disconjoined. And so the guy rushes off to his office and just plays computer all day. And then rushes home and plays wild playboy of the West kind of thing. And bounces back and forth between these two dimensions. Neither of which truly satisfy the person.


But if you add this mysterious third towards the top of the mountain, the spirit. If you say the spirit is unlike the body. As the body is unlike the mind. That is they're all quite mysterious different dimensions. But with all kinds of overlapping, inner penetration, etc. Then we have a fuller anthropology. If we say that the body wants to be rather illumined by the mind. And the mind wants to be incarnated and rendered concrete and real in the body. And it's the spirit that wants to embrace both of these. And to illumine from within the body. To transfigure the body. And to illumine from within the mind. Carrying the mind. Analytical thought is fine. But carrying it into the deeper levels of intuition and wisdom. A study of wisdom. Then we've got a much fuller and a much more mysterious anthropology. But that's his basic intuition.


Then each one of these levels has its characteristic organs or faculties. And the body functions in contact with other bodies through the senses. The five senses basically. Other mysterious ones we don't know about. But these we share with all the animals. But my body relates to this vase over here with these flowers. Through sensing the colors, the shape, smelling, the wonderful aroma, touching. I can taste them, etc. So the body through the senses goes beyond the body. But then we have the mind. I can just stay within my mind and reflect. Well, what is the relation between justice and truth? Or beauty and just the realm of pure ideas. And I can remain within myself. And then there's all kinds of interim levels there of imagination, fantasy, memory, projection, etc.


That whole realm. That's normally where we're caught up in. With all those cassettes. All those voices playing inside. And all the swirl of images beyond and outside of us. That's where we're caught in. But again, there's that highest level of the spirit. And its faculty is the will. That at its highest level carries us in the purest love upward, above the self. So the faculties of the senses carry us outside our self. Below is a little judgmental. You can contest that. But certainly outside of our self. The mind then can move within itself in the realm of thoughts and ideas, imaginings, projections, etc. But the spirit through the will at its highest level, affective and spiritual, moves us above. Purely into Godhead. Now he's going to be able to do a lot with that model. So ponder it. It's not perfect. The human person is so mysterious. You can come up with all kinds of other models.


And as St. Thomas Aquinas says, every model limps. But I found it basically pretty helpful. And the mountain archetype, as we'll see, is just very basic. To all the world religions. Certainly to the Judeo-Christian. There's something about these basic images. So mountain is what the Christian journey is all about. It's about an ascent up a mountain. It's about who we are. It's about how to understand that different things are happening within us. But at different levels. It frees us up to understand a great deal. So this is the map of the human person. The map of the journey. And he insists, don't take this in a literalistic way. He says, if we talk about that pure intention going above, the intention could also be called a movement into the depths of the spirit. Or to the center. Or to the height. In these matters, it is all the same.


He writes in chapter 37. So he's quite aware that this is metaphor. Talking about something. Because here we're at the level of spirit. That can only use these models and metaphors in a limping kind of way. They help. But we don't want to take them in a kind of a literalistic, fundamentalistic way. And the cloud isn't this fluffy white thing somewhere in our head. And if he speaks about darkness, as he definitely will. Or silence. That isn't that we turn the lights out inside or something like that. But we're at quite a different level. As he insists very explicitly. Do not think that because I call it a darkness or a cloud, it is the sort of cloud you see in the sky. Or the kind of darkness you know at home when the light is out. That kind of darkness or cloud you can picture in your mind's eye in the height of summer, just as in the depth of the winter's night. You can picture a clear and shining light. I do not mean this at all.


So here is the apophatic. We use this language, but then we have to absolutely go beyond it. By darkness, I mean a lack of knowing. Just as anything that you do not know or may have forgotten may be said to be dark to you. For you cannot see it with your inward eye. For this reason, it is called a cloud. Not of the sky, of course. But of unknowing. A cloud of unknowing between you and your God. So we want to take this treatise very subtly. We don't want to in some kind of simplistic way. And he says the whole area of meditation, of reflection, of pious devotion, of visions, of prophecies, very interesting stuff. But that's at the first two levels. That's not the way we get into God, who is inviting us into his, her depths. That's good preparatory, interesting things.


But it's not in the area of sensing or hearing or seeing or knowing that we move into God as God, but only by the way of loving. So he's very emphatically a love mystic, if you want to again see those two currents. He's not at all rhapsodic, impassioned in his prose, just like Richard Rohl, but in his extremely reserved, quiet way, it's the very same thing. Therefore I will leave on one side everything I can think and choose for my love that which I cannot think. Why? Because God may well be loved, but not thought. By love God can be caught and held, but by thinking, never. It's extremely simple and penetrating, but it's based on the most profound of theologies that somehow our ideas are always linked with concrete, specific, creaturely limited things,


and God is totally other. But there's something about love that brings me right into the heart of God. And so that's the way we want to go. He says this also in another beautiful way in one of his treatises on the discernment of stirrings. That's where he's saying, he's trying to advise this young guy who's wondering whether he should fast more or eat more, be more silent or speak more, more vigils or sleep more. But he says that one of his preparatory exhortations is... Where is his preparatory exhortation? There we go. He's got his two eyes. The eyes of the soul are two, reason and love. Reason enables us to see how mighty, how wise, and how good God is in his creation, but not in himself. But whenever reason fails, then love is eager to live and learn, to play its full part.


For by love we may find him, feel him, and catch him just as he is. It is a wonderful eye, love, that love which is blind to everything else, but the one thing it is seeking. This is why it finds and feels and hits and wounds the target it is shooting at. So love doesn't pretend to understand. Love can be blind. It can just go right into the heart of the cloud, whereas knowledge can't. That's what the cloud is all about, rendering knowledge just useless, just rendered dead in its tracks, blocked. So we think we're blocked, but we're not just our knowing. We're not just our feeling or imagining. That's how we learn so much more about ourselves as we journey up the mountain. We learn that we are many levels. So many people don't have the foggiest idea that there's also a spiritual dimension in them.


You might have some little glimmering when they're looking at the ocean and it's suddenly rendered dumbstruck or a sunrise or the little baby crying or the moment of dying or these deep moments that call to deep. They realize suddenly it's something much more than a mind-body, who I am, and there's a reality much beyond whatever I can feel or think or see. But it's only in those moments. But the mystics are those who challenge us to rediscover who God is, but also rediscover who we are at this most profound level. So his basic exhortation is, hey, give yourself over to this work. What is the work? Simply loving God, simply cleaving to God without seeking to have all kinds of feelings, imaginings, experiences, jazzy ideas. Just love God, that's it. And open yourself to the mystery of it,


to the ineffable cloud quality of it and persevere in that. And that's of more use to you than were you to have visions and talk with the archangels and all kinds of other stuff. I tell you this, it is more profitable to your soul's health, more worthwhile, more pleasing to God and the hosts of heavens, yes, more helpful to your friends, natural and spiritual, dead or alive, to the whole communion of saints, that you should have this blind outreaching of love to God himself, this secret love pressing upon the cloud of unknowing, than that you should have this as your spiritual affection, than that you should contemplate and gaze on the angels and saints in heaven, hear the happy music of the blessed, et cetera. Here some scholars say he's getting a little dig in there at Richard Rohl with all his music. And he's saying that you don't need the music,


all you need is this blind cleaving to God in love. And again, he says, this is of more value to you and to the whole church. Contemplatives need this strong encouragement because you can have the impression you're not doing nothing and you don't have all the consolations or the feedback. If you preach to a huge congregation and you preach well, at least a few will say afterwards, what a wonderful sermon. Or if you convert the masses or if you, well, God knows, miracles or visions, et cetera, you get some wonderful applause. But if you're just there in solitude, loving God in a cloud without great feelings and music and heat, et cetera, what have you got? The only thing you've got is God. And he says, stick to it. This is the same message of John the Cross. John the Cross says, there's more good in this for you and for the whole church than were you to convert, so to speak, hundreds and hundreds of people. So this is the kind of encouragement we need,


not to wander, but to stay faithful in this most difficult and also most easy of all vocations. How can we presume to consider ourselves contemplatives? Most people just think, I'm not worthy. And that stops them. And they're not worthy. We're not worthy. He's got here also a wonderful word of consolation. 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. So don't worry about the imperfections. Don't worry about the sins of the past. Just desire to be. Desire to be what? One with God. That's the subtitle in this wonderful Middle English edition. And the translators don't quite know what to do with that because it's not a verb form, wand in the modern English. But I think it's so wonderful.


In which a soul is one with God, or however it's pronounced. So that's what it's all about. That's all we want. And we'll leave aside all the rest. What are the remote preparations? Well, certainly liturgical prayer, which he very much respects. Meditation on Christ. Meditation on the Passion. He's not saying these are bad. He's not a quietist. But he's saying, we're called higher up the mountain. The immediate preparation. We go then into our inner chamber. This is the kind of prayer that Jesus is exhorting. When he says, when you pray, go into your inner chamber, close the door, and pray to your Heavenly Father in secret. This is this moment. The author acknowledges he's not talking about when he's out counseling someone who's troubled, or when he's out chopping his wood. Though this prayer can tend to become more and more habitual, and it can come to the point where it's mysteriously there, at least as the wider kind of horizon of things,


also when you're talking with the other person, also when you're chopping your wood. But he's talking, especially when you go into the inner chamber, close the door, sit down, and want to enter into this deeper silent prayer. It's like, again, simply going home to your beloved and moving into that deepest relation of silence with them. So the first step is simply forget everything. Forget the bills that have to be paid and what Aunt Lucy said to you and your concern about tomorrow's lunch and all that. Forget it all. But here he's amazingly rigorous. Forget even the spiritual stuff. Again, forget visions and prophecies and healings. Forget wonderful meditations about Mary and the saints. Forget wonderful meditations about Jesus. Forget it. Why? Because you've become not religious or pious or devout? No. Because you're being drawn to the higher level


that fulfills and gives all these other things their validity if, in fact, they're valid. If they are valid, they don't mind being forgotten. They're in function to this deepest union with God. So forget the whole thing. And so we've got below us this cloud of forgetting that wants now to encompass the whole area of our psyche, of our consciousness, of body, senses, imaginations, also mind and thoughts, also fantasies, also great creativity, also any of that. Forget. A great mystic of our time, a Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity, one of her favorite words was, I have decided not to know, just to put it all aside. Well, having said that, I'm going to look for this. Quite possibly the devil will bring into your mind


many lovely and wonderful thoughts about God, about God's kindness in this moment of prayer. The devil wants to distract you from this. This is the worst possible thing that can happen from the devil's perspective, that is, union with God. So the devil will suggest all these wonderful thoughts about God, about God's kindness, remind you of God's sweetness and love and grace and mercy. If you will but listen to him, he asks no more. He will go on chattering increasingly and bring you steadily down to think of Christ's passion. Here the devil is urging us to think of Christ's passion. There he will show you the wonderful kindness of God, and he wants nothing so much that you should listen to him, for he will then go on to let you see your past manner of life. And as you think of its wretchedness, your mind will be well away back in its old haunts. Before you know where you are, you are disintegrated beyond belief.


And the reason simply that you've freely consented to listen to that first thought and responded to it, accepted it, gave it its head. So this is a very rigorous way of the narrow way St. John of the Cross talks about nada, nada, nada, nothing, nothing, nothing. Not even the most sublime thoughts. When I sit down for this kind of prayer, I suddenly have all these great intuitions for next week's sermon. And I've got to write them down or they'll be lost. No, if they're valid, they'll come back. And this is more important. This is more important than anything else. Also than St. Mary and the saints again. Indeed, if we may say so reverently, when we are engaged on this word, it profits little or nothing to think even of God's kindness or worth of our lady or of the saints or angels or the joys of heaven, if you think thereby


by such meditation to strengthen your purpose. In this particular matter, it will not help at all. So this is the rigor of it. For though it is good to think about the kindness of God and to love him and praise him for it and all the saints, it is far better to think about him as he is. That is to say, to love and praise him for himself. So there's a real stripping away here, even of all our religiosity and piety. And this is the final stripping. This is the final night, says St. John the Cross, the night of the spirit. And this takes some courage and detachment. Certainly forget sins. My God, I've done this in the past, I've done that in the past. He has a lovely passage. He says, if St. Mary Magdalene, one of the greatest of saints and contemplatives, if she just thought about her sins, she'd never end.


All she thinks about is her love. Her love in the sense of Jesus, the bridegroom, not in the sense of her loving or the experience she's getting out of this. Just Christ, that's her only concern. And that is why much has been forgiven her, because she has loved much. The author uses this lovely image of just take all your sins without thinking much about them, just kind of roll them into this huge lump and then just present the whole grotesque thing to God. God can handle it. And then just go on to more important things. God is more important than our sins. God is more important than our thoughts about God, our thoughts about Mary, our thoughts about St. Joseph and St. Rita and prophecies and visions and all the rest. God, that's what it's all about. So we've got this image of the cloud at the summit of the mountain to go back to our image of the mountain,


which again is such an archetypical image. All the great religions have their sacred mountain and the pilgrim it needs to ascend to the top. And so often at the top, there is the cloud. Think of Mount Sinai and Moses who ascends to talk to Yahweh has to enter into the cloud, if you will remember. Then he returns with the people of God after the exodus out of Egypt. And he ascends again to receive the covenant. Then Jesus at the transfiguration, a shining cloud came over them and a voice from the cloud said, this is my beloved son. And then on the Mount of the Ascension, Jesus is taken up into a cloud. So it's a wonderful, basic biblical image. I personally so prefer mountain and cloud to center. I think center is so arid and mathematical, but that's me. Maybe you love center


and maybe this gets too picturey or too, I was born in the Rockies in Colorado. And so this is just a basic nourishment. So if it is also for you, rejoice in it because it's one of the basic, as the Jungians would say, basic religious archetypes. And then I think we contemporaries have a wonderful resource in our experience of flying. I assume all of you have had the experience of flying here or there. But when you take off and ascend and then go into one of those white, fluffy clouds, it is astonishing. The sense of being above, elevated, a whole new level of existence, flying. But then suddenly to join that with into the cloud, you have no idea where you are. You can't see. You have to just let go of control and just hope that the instruments are working and the pilot knows what he's doing. So the cloud is where you don't have


the clear and distinct ideas. Ideas help us control. I know the definition of a table. I know the definition of this and that. I have no idea who God is. So just let go. I have beautiful meditations about Mary and the crib and Jesus on the cross. Let go. I've read about this prophecy that so-and-so is saying out in Arizona that explains this and that. And let go. God is bigger than all of that. Infinitely bigger. And to dare to ascend even into the cloud. So that is the level of union of hearts. And that is where it all happens. So then what happens? Well, having gone into the cloud, except this unknowingness where you find yourself. And then inevitably all these distractions will come up. Also, again, very pious distractions. Also maybe very grody distractions you've not discussed with anyone else.


All this stuff. What do you do? Gently push them down, then, into the cloud of forgetting at the base of the mountain. That is, most of the mountain, encompassing body and mind. So there's this double work of gently abiding in the cloud of forgetting and gently pushing down, I'm sorry, in the cloud of unknowing, and gently pushing down into the cloud of forgetting all the stuff that inevitably comes up. That's it. There ain't no more. If ever you were to come into this cloud and live and work in it, as I suggest, then just as this cloud of unknowing is, as it were, above you, between you and God, so you must also put a cloud of forgetting beneath you and all of creation. Whenever I say the whole created world, I always mean not only the individual creatures therein, but everything connected with them. There is to be no exception whatever,


whether you think of them as philic, physical, or spiritual beings, or of their states or actions, or of their goodness or badness. In a word, everything, everything, must be hidden under this cloud of forgetting. So that's the amazing thing. Now, distractions will inevitably bubble up. And what do you do? Well, the book is so helpful in terms of just offering various stratagems on how to deal with distractions. You remember there Walter Hilton and his useful suggestions. Basically, the cloud says, you've got to learn yourself. Each person is different. You've got to work up your own series of tactics. And if it is really hard work, you can use every dodge, scheme, and spiritual stratagem you can find to put these distractions down. These arts are better learned from God by experience than from any human teacher. I think this is wonderful.


This is something of Walter Hilton's modesty. He says, I'm not going to tell you the whole thing. You've got to discover it. What works best for you? He gives some of his own charming suggestions. He says, when this distraction comes charging at you, maybe it's a wonderful thought about my mother when I was young or something, try to look, as it were, over their shoulders, seeking something else, which is God shrouded in the cloud of unknowing. If you do so, I believe that you will soon find your hard work much easier. Just kind of look above. I once read a book about the English nobility, and they have this way of looking just slightly above your eyes, into your forehead, above your head, and it's a kind of wonderful thing. Well, this is what you do with your temptations. Just don't give them full acknowledgement because you're more than they are, and God is more than they are. Then he tries just the contrary as a tactic. If they're just overwhelmingly you, like a huge wave,


there's another spiritual dodge to try if you wish. When you feel that you are completely powerless to put these thoughts away, cower down before them, like some cringing captive overcome in battle, and reckon that it is ridiculous to fight against them any longer. In this way, you surrender yourself to God while you are in the hands of your enemies. So this also brings one into the level of humility, not to battle front on. I came from Colorado to the beach when my mother moved there in my high school years, and the first day I just rushed into the water without knowing anything about waves. This was Laguna, this huge wave cave, just knocked me over. But then slowly you learn how to be wave-wise, and when a huge one's coming and you can't turn around and ride it well, what you can do is sweep right underneath, right at its depths, and then it's delightful kind of being flipped by it, but you're not hit flat on and absolutely knocked over.


This is something I've always thought of, something of that distraction. But the key method he uses is our famous Jesus prayer, a short word said over and over again. So here again, he's taking up a theme we found in Richard Rowe and we found in Walter Hilton, and again it's often Eastern church, short, short prayer. He wants it just one word, repeated over and over again. This helps cut through the distractions. It helps keep the lower faculties kind of busy. There is something happening. They want noise, they want action. Well, there is action, this quiet, slow repeating of the word Jesus. Or he says it might be the word God, or the word love. So what is required is a naked intention directed to God and himself alone. If you want this intention summed up in a word to retain it more easily, take a short word,


preferably of one syllable to do so. The shorter the word, the better, being more like the working of the spirit, a word like God or love. Choose what you like, or perhaps some other, so long as it is of one syllable, and fix this word fast to your heart so that it is always there, come what may. So this is prayer of the heart. I have found in him nowhere he suggests the name Jesus. I think this is sad, because Richard Rowe and Walter Hilton explicitly recommend Jesus, but he says whatever word quietly to use, this is what Father John Main calls the mantra prayer, or the personal word prayer. It's the same method. That's what the centering prayer method involves. And then to know that God is profoundly with us, more than we could imagine, more than we could hope. So this word being called out, God immediately hears it and is there embracing us, as any loving father would


when the child, or mother, when the child is so intent on wanting to be united. So this is the work, basically, this naked intent of love, without all the trappings of feelings and thoughts and imaginings and information and skills and gifts and graces and all this. No, just I can love, that's all. It's extremely difficult work, and so he invites us to perseverance. Work hard at this, therefore, and with all speed hammer away at this high cloud of unknowing and take your rest later. It is a hard work and no mistake for the would-be contemplative. Very hard work indeed, unless it is made easier by a special grace of God or by the fact that one has got used to it over a long period. So we should be prepared to sweat a bit. But there are those exceptions, particularly when God surprises us,


when we are surprised by joy, as C.S. Lewis says. So the author goes on, for sometimes God will do it all himself, but not always and never for any length of time, but when he likes and as he likes. And at that time, you will be happy to let him have his own way. So we can never kind of schedule what precisely will happen. It always comes as surprise, as new experience, and that's wonderful. The author is a very cautious spiritual director, and he says be careful with all these means, whether they be solitude or community, silence or speaking, fasting or feasting. All these are only means. But one thing is not a means. It's the end, and that's God himself. And there we can give ourselves totally and without condition. So he says in chapter 41, if you were to ask me what discretion


you should exercise in this work of contemplative prayer, my answer is none whatever. In everything else you do, you have to use your own discretion, as for example in the matter of food and drink and sleep, and keeping warm or cool, the time you spend in praying or reading, your conversations with your fellow Christians. In all these, you have to use your discretion, so they are not too much or too little. But in this work, cast discretion to the wind. I want you never to give this work up all the time you live. So finally we're liberated. We can just go wild in this particular area, and this is the freeing up of unconditional love. This does not mean, though, he goes on to a subtle distinction, kind of to abandoning ourselves to what is classically called spiritual gluttony,


to go into a kind of a religiosity high, a seeking after the feeling, rather than the giver, who might offer the feeling or not, as the giver wishes. So yes, give ourselves without limit, but not to having, again, the feeling or the experience, but to opening our heart to God in love. So the author goes on to recommend a real sense of reserve, of politeness in our relation with God, almost of kind of playing hard to get, just so we don't lapse into this spiritual gluttony. He uses some delightful, almost humorous phrases in chapter 46. So beware of behaving wildly like some animal, and learn to love God with quiet, eager joy, and rest in body as in soul. Remember your manners, and wait humbly upon the Lord's will.


Do not snatch at the feeling, like some famished dog, however much you hunger for it. If I may use a funny example, I would suggest you do all you can to cloak your great and ungoverned spiritual urge, as though you were altogether unwilling that he should know how very glad you would be to see him, to have him, to feel him. So this is the paradox, to be there with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength, but with good manners. He says, perhaps you think I'm speaking childishly or playfully, yet I believe that whoever had the grace to put what I say into practice would have a lovely game spiritually with him, just as an earthly father does with his child, hugging and kissing him, and would be glad to have it so. That's a lovely analogy at the end, and quite surprising.


He changes the card, so to speak. He shifts it. We would have expected that God is the father, playing with us. But as he puts it there, we will have a lovely game with God as a father with the father's child. It's as if we have the divine child in our heart, and we have to be careful not to crush the child with this over-exuberance of embraces, et cetera, but a delightful, playful, reserved game there of love. And so we have to exercise here our paternal, our maternal love towards this fragile, divine child in our heart, though we, of course, also always remain the child in God's arms. So it's a both and. So this is sometimes in this moment of contemplative prayer. But if we keep at it, he says, it can become habitual. It can become our life.


It can become available just with the moment of returning again to the Lord, of faith, of opening our heart again. So he writes in chapter 71, there are some who by grace are so sensitive spiritually, so at home with God in this grace of contemplation, that they may have it when they like, and under normal spiritual working conditions, whether they are sitting or walking, standing or kneeling, and at these times they are in full control of their faculties, both physical and spiritual, and can use them if they wish, admittedly not without some difficulty, yet without great difficulty. So here this work, this practice in the moment of prayer can extend throughout our day, can become our very life. It's like love that we express to a significant other, to the beloved, in certain moments. But if it's all pervasive,


that's self, that's what love wants to be, without limit. So we have to get used to abiding in this cloud, because our mind really can't contain, define God. Our mind has to be in this cloud of unknowing, but our heart can cleave to God. What is this cloud, ultimately? Well, it is the place then, in faith, we encounter God. And so it becomes heaven for us. Sometimes it becomes for us, in mysterious moments of insight, God himself. So we can conclude with this final quote of chapter 69. At times the contemplative believes this cloud to be paradise or heaven, because of the varied and wonderful delights, comforts, joys, and blessed virtues he finds there. At times he believes it to be God himself,


such as the peace and rest he finds.