An elegant and concise summary of the Cloud of Unknowing

I found this brief summary of a well-known mystical work to be compelling. I found it while researching an obscure subject. I set aside the article, and went on with my day. The narrative was so compelling, though, it worked on my unconcious for many hours after I read it. My mind stayed on it through the night, and the next day I awakened still thinking about it. I immediately got out of bed and, no longer remembering where I originally found the information, I searched all my recent history for the tiniest clue for a reference to this linked article, before remembering "apophatic prayer and kataphatic prayer" and sure enough, in the sixth hit on Google for that search phrase, there is this article, with this section, that I hope you find equally compelling:  

The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing is a literary masterpiece [from the 14th century] whose influence is still widely felt in our own day. It provides a clear, concise and convincing statement on what is ‘apophatic’ prayer and how one can enter into it. From the very beginning the author is careful to insist that his work is not meant for all people. One ought first to meditate on one's sins and on Christ's life and Passion. But for those who sense the need for a deeper experience — provided they are purified in conscience and endowed with a relaxed, healthy, and vigorous disposition of body and soul — he urges a kind of prayer where one learns to be at home in a dark cloud beyond all thoughts and images.

The author also insists that no method or technique can bring about the kind of experience that he is about to describe. While confessing that they are all ultimately useless, he does suggest a way that may be helpful: centering prayer. One is to choose a single word (e.g. God) and then reject whatever thought, image, or feeling that may well up so as to center one's attention solely upon the reality beyond the word. This state is called the cloud of forgetfulness. For it blocks out every creature and creaturely activity from one's awareness and turns to confront the cloud of unknowing hovering between God and self.

While totally lost, as it were, in this impenetrable cloud, one awaits the stirring of a gentle but powerful movement arising out of the depths of one's being. This stirring is a grace given not for innocence nor withheld for sins. Only the person who truly experiences this prompting within one's spirit has the aptitude for contemplation and no one else. Though this stirring is the lightest of touches, it fills one with unsurpassing joy and enthusiasm. It is also blind — in the sense that every passion seeks to fulfill its desire no matter what a person may intend.

When sensed, this stirring impels one to rise upward towards God hidden in the cloud of unknowing. One needs to surrender wholeheartedly to the spontaneous desire present in this passion and go where it leads. One in fact does this eagerly because such submission is felt to be what the self most fundamentally desires. One leaps to God like a spark from a flame, discovering that while God cannot be grasped by concepts He can be grasped by love.

As a person rises ecstatically within this cloud of unknowing, one is simply to let one's mind rest in the consciousness of God in His naked existence, solely loving and praising Him for what He is in Himself. In this state where one is taken outside oneself to live in God, one is immediately and directly experiencing one's existential relationship and union with God, being conscious of not who He is or what He is but only that He is. In this state of union, one becomes totally self-forgetful, yet paradoxically finding one's true self in a fuller way. For in this union one is realizing in reality what the true self on its deepest level is thirsting for. For the heart knows on a level beyond our conscious awareness and control for what state and for whom it has been made and when this has been attained.

Such an experience has its own value. It is good just to be with the Lord. But beyond this, the author sees other practical results flowing from this state that will affect the quality of one's life. It will for instance heal one's inner self, rooting out traces of sin and inordinate feelings. One will also become increasingly more interior as one lives more and more in tune with the deep solitary core of one's being. This in turn will make one more fully human, enabling one to be sensitive to new dimensions of beauty and potentiality and impelling one to love as Christ has loved in a truly universal way.

In the Book of Privy Counseling, the author recognizes and faces the issue of how to judge whether an ecstatic experience is truly authentic. He realizes that deception can creep in. He lays down two criteria. First, attention must be paid to the desire impelling one to forget all else and center on God's existence. The desire to spring towards God must be "a blind longing of the spirit and yet there comes with it, and lingers after it, a kind of spiritual sight which both renews the desire and increases it'. Secondly, there ought to be accompanying this a joyful enthusiasm welling up and persisting within the person. The author also adds: "if you think you have really experienced one or two of them, test yourself against the rigorous criteria of Scripture, your spiritual father, and your own conscience".

The above clearly highlights what is the apophatic method and prayer experience. One seeks to reach beyond conscious awareness — beyond thoughts and images — and arrive at the depth of one's being, there to await the coming of the Lord. It is the Lord who stirs an irresistible passionate longing for Himself and gives this as a gift. When this occurs, one must willingly and unconditionally commit oneself wholeheartedly to this passion. This then opens up to a sense of union with God where the bond of relationship is experienced as real, passionate and fulfilling. One does not know or even care who God is or what He is. One is simply satisfied with the Lord as He exists at this moment in a relational union with oneself.


This brief summary of “A Cloud of Unknowing” is an excerpt from a longer article on apophatic and kataphatic prayer:

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