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The Cloud of Unknowing



Evelyn Underhill

The little family of mystical treatises which is known to students as "the Cloud of Unknowing group," deserves more attention than it has hitherto received from English lovers of mysticism: for it represents the first expression in our own tongue of that great mystic tradition of the Christian Neoplatonists which gathered up, remade, and "salted with Christ's salt" all that was best in the spiritual wisdom of the ancient world.

Nothing is known of him; beyond the fact, which seems clear from his writings, that he was a cloistered monk devoted to the contemplative life. It has been thought that he was a Carthusian. But the rule of that austere order, whose members live in hermit-like seclusion, and scarcely meet except for the purpose of divine worship, can hardly have afforded him opportunity of observing and enduring all those tiresome tricks and absurd mannerisms of which he gives so amusing and realistic a description in the lighter passages of the Cloud.

These passages betray the half-humorous exasperation of the temperamental recluse, nervous, fastidious, and hypersensitive, loving silence and peace, but compelled to a daily and hourly companionship with persons of a less contemplative type: some finding in extravagant and meaningless gestures an outlet for suppressed vitality; others overflowing with a terrible cheerfulness like "giggling girls and nice japing jugglers"; others so lacking in repose that they "can neither sit still, stand still, nor lie still, unless they be either wagging with their feet or else somewhat doing with their hands." Though he cannot go to the length of condemning these habits as mortal sins, the author of the Cloud leaves us in no doubt as to the irritation with which they inspired him, or the distrust with which he regards the spiritual claims of those who fidget.

Everything points to it being the work of an original mystical genius, of strongly marked character and great literary ability: who, whilst he took the framework of his philosophy from Dionysius the Areopagite, and of his psychology from Richard of St. Victor, yet is in no sense a mere imitator of these masters, but introduced a genuinely new element into mediaeval religious literature.

What, then, were his special characteristics? Whence came the fresh colour which he gave to the old Platonic theory of mystical experience? First, I think, from the combination of high spiritual gifts with a vivid sense of humour, keen powers of observation, a robust common-sense: a balance of qualities not indeed rare amongst the mystics, but here presented to us in an extreme form. In his eager gazing on divinity this contemplative never loses touch with humanity, never forgets the sovereign purpose of his writings; which is not a declaration of the spiritual favours he has received, but a helping of his fellow-men to share them.

Next, he has a great simplicity of outlook, which enables him to present the result of his highest experiences and intuitions in the most direct and homely language. So actual, and so much a part of his normal existence, are his apprehensions of spiritual reality, that he can give them to us in the plain words of daily life: and thus he is one of the most realistic of mystical writers.

He abounds in vivid little phrases--"Call sin a lump": "Short prayer pierceth heaven": "Nowhere bodily, is everywhere ghostly": "Who that will not go the strait way to heaven, . . . shall go the soft way to hell."

His range of experience is a wide one. He does not disdain to take a hint from the wizards and necromancers on the right way to treat the devil; he draws his illustrations of divine mercy from the homeliest incidents of friendship and parental love. A skilled theologian, quoting St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and using with ease the language of scholasticism, he is able, on the other hand, to express the deepest speculations of mystical philosophy without resorting to academic terminology: as for instance where he describes the spiritual heaven as a "state" rather than a "place":
"For heaven ghostly is as nigh down as up, and up as down: behind as before, before as behind, on one side as other. Insomuch, that whoso had a true desire for to be at heaven, then that same time he were in heaven ghostly. For the high and the next way thither is run by desires, and not by paces of feet."

His writings, though they touch on many subjects, are chiefly concerned with the art of contemplative prayer; that "blind intent stretching to God" which, if it be wholly set on Him, cannot fail to reach its goal. A peculiar talent for the description and discrimination of spiritual states has enabled him to discern and set before us, with astonishing precision and vividness, not only the strange sensations, the confusion and bewilderment of the beginner in the early stages of contemplation--the struggle with distracting thoughts, the silence, the dark--and the unfortunate state of those theoretical mystics who, "swollen with pride and with curiosity of much clergy and letterly cunning as in clerks," miss that treasure which is "never got by study but all only by grace"; but also the happiness of those whose "sharp dart of longing love" has not "failed of the prick, the which is God."

A great simplicity characterises his doctrine of the soul's attainment of the Absolute. For him there is but one central necessity: the perfect and passionate setting of the will upon the Divine, so that it is "thy love and thy meaning, the choice and point of thine heart." Not by deliberate ascetic practices, not by refusal of the world, not by intellectual striving, but by actively loving and choosing, by that which a modern psychologist has called "the synthesis of love and will" does the spirit of man achieve its goal. "For silence is not God," he says in the Epistle of Discretion, "nor speaking is not God; fasting is not God, nor eating is not God; loneliness is not God, nor company is not God; nor yet any of all the other two such contraries. He is hid between them, and may not be found by any work of thy soul, but all only by love of thine heart. He may not be known by reason, He may not be gotten by thought, nor concluded by understanding; but He may be loved and chosen with the true lovely will of thine heart. . . . Such a blind shot with the sharp dart of longing love may never fail of the prick, the which is God."

To him who has so loved and chosen, and "in a true will and by an whole intent does purpose him to be a perfect follower of Christ, not only in active living, but in the sovereignest point of contemplative living, the which is possible by grace for to be come to in this present life," these writings are addressed. In the prologue of the Cloud of Unknowing we find the warning, so often prefixed to mediaeval mystical works, that it shall on no account be lent, given, or read to other men: who could not understand, and might misunderstand in a dangerous sense, its peculiar message. Nor was this warning a mere expression of literary vanity. If we may judge by the examples of possible misunderstanding against which he is careful to guard himself, the almost tiresome reminders that all his remarks are "ghostly, not bodily meant," the standard of intelligence which the author expected from his readers was not a high one. He even fears that some "young presumptuous ghostly disciples" may understand the injunction to "lift up the heart" in a merely physical manner; and either "stare in the stars as if they would be above the moon," or "travail their fleshly hearts outrageously in their breasts" in the effort to make literal "ascensions" to God.

Eccentricities of this kind he finds not only foolish but dangerous; they outrage nature, destroy sanity and health, and "hurt full sore the silly soul, and make it fester in fantasy feigned of fiends." He observes with a touch of arrogance that his book is not intended for these undisciplined seekers after the abnormal and the marvellous, nor yet for "fleshly janglers, flatterers and blamers, . . . nor none of these curious, lettered, nor unlearned men." It is to those who feel themselves called to the true prayer of contemplation, to the search for God, whether in the cloister or the world--whose "little secret love" is at once the energizing cause of all action, and the hidden sweet savour of life--that he addresses himself.

These he instructs in that simple yet difficult art of recollection, the necessary preliminary of any true communion with the spiritual order, in which all sensual images, all memories and thoughts, are as he says, "trodden down under the cloud of forgetting" until "nothing lives in the working mind but a naked intent stretching to God." This "intent stretching"--this loving and vigorous determination of the will--he regards as the central fact of the mystical life; the very heart of effective prayer. Only by its exercise can the spirit, freed from the distractions of memory and sense, focus itself upon Reality and ascend with "a privy love pressed" to that "Cloud of Unknowing"--the Divine Ignorance of the Neoplatonists--wherein is "knit up the ghostly knot of burning love betwixt thee and thy God, in ghostly onehead and according of will."

There is in this doctrine something which should be peculiarly congenial to the activistic tendencies of modern thought. Here is no taint of quietism, no invitation to a spiritual limpness. From first to last glad and deliberate work is demanded of the initiate: an all-round wholeness of experience is insisted on. "A man may not be fully active, but if he be in part contemplative; nor yet fully contemplative, as it may be here, but if he be in part active." Over and over again, the emphasis is laid on this active aspect of all true spirituality--always a favourite theme of the great English mystics. "Love cannot be lazy," said Richard Rolle. So too for the author of the Cloud energy is the mark of true affection. "Do forth ever, more and more, so that thou be ever doing. . . . Do on then fast; let see how thou bearest thee. Seest thou not how He standeth and abideth thee?"

True, the will alone, however ardent and industrious, cannot of itself set up communion with the supernal world: this is "the work of only God, specially wrought in what soul that Him liketh." But man can and must do his part. First, there are the virtues to be acquired: those "ornaments of the Spiritual Marriage" with which no mystic can dispense. Since we can but behold that which we are, his character must be set in order, his mind and heart made beautiful and pure, before he can look on the triple star of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, which is God. Every great spiritual teacher has spoken in the same sense: of the need for that which Rolle calls the "mending of life"--regeneration, the rebuilding of character--as the preparation of the contemplative act.

For the author of the Cloud all human virtue is comprised in the twin qualities of Humility and Charity. He who has these, has all. Humility, in accordance with the doctrine of Richard of St. Victor, he identifies with self-knowledge; the terrible vision of the soul as it is, which induces first self-abasement and then self-purification--the beginning of all spiritual growth, and the necessary antecedent of all knowledge of God. "Therefore swink and sweat in all that thou canst and mayst, for to get thee a true knowing and a feeling of thyself as thou art; and then I trow that soon after that, thou shalt have a true knowing and a feeling of God as He is."

As all man's feeling and thought of himself and his relation to God is comprehended in Humility, so all his feeling and thought of God in Himself is comprehended in Charity; the self-giving love of Divine Perfection "in Himself and for Himself" which Hilton calls "the sovereign and the essential joy." Together these two virtues should embrace the sum of his responses to the Universe; they should govern his attitude to man as well as his attitude to God. "Charity is nought else . . . but love of God for Himself above all creatures, and of man for God even as thyself."

Charity and Humility, then, together with the ardent and industrious will, are the necessary possessions of each soul set upon this adventure. Their presence it is which marks out the true from the false mystic: and it would seem, from the detailed, vivid, and often amusing descriptions of the sanctimonious, the hypocritical, the self-sufficient, and the self-deceived in their "diverse and wonderful variations," that such a test was as greatly needed in the "Ages of Faith" as it is at the present day. Sham spirituality flourished in the mediaeval cloister, and offered a constant opportunity of error to those young enthusiasts who were not yet aware that the true freedom of eternity "cometh not with observation." Affectations of sanctity, pretense to rare mystical experiences, were a favourite means of advertisement. Psychic phenomena, too, seem to have been common: ecstasies, visions, voices, the scent of strange perfumes, the hearing of sweet sounds.

For these supposed indications of Divine favour, the author of the Cloud has no more respect than the modern psychologist: and here, of course, he is in agreement with all the greatest writers on mysticism, who are unanimous in their dislike and distrust of all visionary and auditive experience. Such things, he considers, are most often hallucination: and, where they are not, should be regarded as the accidents rather than the substance of the contemplative life--the harsh rind of sense, which covers the sweet nut of "pure ghostliness." Were we truly spiritual, we should not need them; for our communion with Reality would then be the direct and ineffable intercourse of like with like.

Moreover, these automatism are amongst the most dangerous instruments of self-deception. "Ofttimes," he says of those who deliberately seek for revelations, "the devil feigneth quaint sounds in their ears, quaint lights and shining in their eyes, and wonderful smells in their noses: and all is but falsehood." Hence it often happens to those who give themselves up to such experiences, that "fast after such a false feeling, cometh a false knowing in the Fiend's school: . . . for I tell thee truly, that the devil hath his contemplatives, as God hath His." Real spiritual illumination, he thinks, seldom comes by way of these psycho-sensual automatism "into the body by the windows of our wits." It springs up within the soul in "abundance of ghostly gladness." With so great an authority it comes, bringing with it such wonder and such love, that "he that feeleth it may not have it suspect." But all other abnormal experiences--"comforts, sounds and gladness, and sweetness, that come from without suddenly"--should be set aside, as more often resulting in frenzies and feebleness of spirit than in genuine increase of "ghostly strength."

This healthy and manly view of the mystical life, as a growth towards God, a right employment of the will, rather than a short cut to hidden knowledge or supersensual experience, is one of the strongest characteristics of the writer of the Cloud; and constitutes perhaps his greatest claim on our respect. "Mean only God," he says again and again; "Press upon Him with longing love"; "A good will is the substance of all perfection." To those who have this good will, he offers his teaching: pointing out the dangers in their way, the errors of mood and of conduct into which they may fall. They are to set about this spiritual work not only with energy, but with courtesy: not "snatching as it were a greedy greyhound" at spiritual satisfactions, but gently and joyously pressing towards Him Whom Julian of Norwich called "our most courteous Lord." A glad spirit of dalliance is more becoming to them than the grim determination of the fanatic.

    "Shall I, a gnat which dances in Thy ray,
    Dare to be reverent."

Further, he communicates to them certain "ghostly devices" by which they may overcome the inevitable difficulties encountered by beginners in contemplation: the distracting thoughts and memories which torment the self that is struggling to focus all its attention upon the spiritual sphere. The stern repression of such thoughts, however spiritual, he knows to be essential to success: even sin, once it is repented of, must be forgotten in order that Perfect Goodness may be known. The "little word God," and "the little word Love," are the only ideas which may dwell in the contemplative's mind. Anything else splits his attention, and soon proceeds by mental association to lead him further and further from the consideration of that supersensual Reality which he seeks.

The primal need of the purified soul, then, is the power of Concentration. His whole being must be set towards the Object of his craving if he is to attain to it: "Look that nothing live in thy working mind, but a naked intent stretching into God." Any thought of Him is inadequate, and for that reason defeats its own end--a doctrine, of course, directly traceable to the "Mystical Theology" of Dionysius the Areopagite. "Of God Himself can no man think," says the writer of the Cloud, "And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think." The universes which are amenable to the intellect can never satisfy the instincts of the heart.

Further, there is to be no wilful choosing of method: no fussy activity of the surface-intelligence. The mystic who seeks the divine Cloud of Unknowing is to be surrendered to the direction of his deeper mind, his transcendental consciousness: that "spark of the soul" which is in touch with eternal realities. "Meddle thou not therewith, as thou wouldest help it, for dread lest thou spill all. Be thou but the tree, and let it be the wright: be thou but the house, and let it be the husbandman dwelling therein."

In the Epistle of Privy Counsel there is a passage which expresses with singular completeness the author's theory of this contemplative art--this silent yet ardent encounter of the soul with God. Prayer, said Mechthild of Magdeburg, brings together two lovers, God and the soul, in a narrow room where they speak much of love: and here the rules which govern that meeting are laid down by a master's hand. "When thou comest by thyself," he says, "think not before what thou shalt do after, but forsake as well good thoughts as evil thoughts, and pray not with thy mouth but list thee right well. And then if thou aught shalt say, look not how much nor how little that it be, nor weigh not what it is nor what it bemeaneth . . . and look that nothing live in thy working mind but a naked intent stretching into God, not clothed in any special thought of God in Himself. . . . This naked intent freely fastened and grounded in very belief shall be nought else to thy thought and to thy feeling but a naked thought and a blind feeling of thine own being: as if thou saidest thus unto God, within in thy meaning, `That what I am, Lord, I offer unto Thee, without any looking to any quality of Thy Being, but only that Thou art as Thou art, without any more.' That meek darkness be thy mirror, and thy whole remembrance. Think no further of thyself than I bid thee do of thy God, so that thou be one with Him in spirit, as thus without departing and scattering, for He is thy being, and in Him thou art that thou art; not only by cause and by being, but also, He is in thee both thy cause and thy being. And therefore think on God in this work as thou dost on thyself, and on thyself as thou dost on God: that He is as He is and thou art as thou art, and that thy thought be not scattered nor departed, but proved in Him that is All."

The conception of reality which underlies this profound and beautiful passage, has much in common with that found in the work of many other mystics; since it is ultimately derived from the great Neoplatonic philosophy of the contemplative life. But the writer invests it, I think, with a deeper and wider meaning than it is made to bear in the writings even of Ruysbroeck, St. Teresa, or St. John of the Cross. "For He is thy being, and in Him thou art that thou art; not only by cause and by being, but also, He is in thee both thy cause and thy being." It was a deep thinker as well as a great lover who wrote this: one who joined hands with the philosophers, as well as with the saints.

"That meek darkness be thy mirror." What is this darkness? It is the "night of the intellect" into which we are plunged when we attain to a state of consciousness which is above thought; enter on a plane of spiritual experience with which the intellect cannot deal. This is the "Divine Darkness"--the Cloud of Unknowing, or of Ignorance, "dark with excess of light"--preached by Dionysius the Areopagite, and eagerly accepted by his English interpreter. "When I say darkness, I mean a lacking of knowing . . . and for this reason it is not called a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing that is betwixt thee and thy God." It is "a dark mist," he says again, "which seemeth to be between thee and the light thou aspirest to." This dimness and lostness of mind is a paradoxical proof of attainment. Reason is in the dark, because love has entered "the mysterious radiance of the Divine Dark, the inaccessible light wherein the Lord is said to dwell, and to which thought with all its struggles cannot attain."

"Lovers," said Patmore, "put out the candles and draw the curtains, when they wish to see the god and the goddess; and, in the higher communion, the night of thought is the light of perception." These statements cannot be explained: they can only be proved in the experience of the individual soul. "Whoso deserves to see and know God rests therein," says Dionysius of that darkness, "and, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows, is truly in that which surpasses all truth and all knowledge."

"Then," says the writer of the Cloud--whispering as it were to the bewildered neophyte the dearest secret of his love--"then will He sometimes peradventure send out a beam of ghostly light, piercing this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt thee and Him; and show thee some of His privity, the which man may not, nor cannot speak."

For the full text of The Cloud of Unknowing
Christian Classics Ethereal Library

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