In amongst all the talk of sin and the devil and our shame and guilt and puniness, there is the essence of mysticism. Check this out: after our anonymous author bids us not to be “inside yourself, outside yourself, above yourself, behind yourself, or on one side or the other” (chapter 68), he tells us spiritual work should feel as if we are doing exactly nothing.
“Continue doing that nothing, as long as you are doing it for the love of God. Do not stop. Work hard at it with a powerful desire to be with an unknowable God. . . . [C]hoose ‘nowhere’ and this ‘nothingness.’ Do not worry if you are not able to figure this out in your mind. That is the way it is supposed to be. This nothingness lies beyond your grasp. It can be felt more easily than seen. It envelopes those who contemplate it even briefly in blinding darkness. An abundance of spiritual light creates this darkness. Only our outward nature calls it ‘All.’ It teaches the essence of all things, both physical and spiritual, without giving specific attention to any one thing alone. The experience of this ‘nothing’ that happens ‘nowhere’ dramatically transforms our love” (68-69).
Do nothing; be nowhere; become transformed. That's the message of the mystics throughout the ages. Elsewhere he says, much as the Tao does, to “Think of yourself as wood in a carpenter’s hands, or as a house in which someone else lives” (34). But I am getting ahead of myself.
The method he advocates is contemplative prayer. This is not the kind of prayer I grew up with. Not “Now I lay me down to sleep” or reciting the rosary. This is not the freeform supplications of Sunday morning or even Wednesday evening preachers. To describe what he means, our nameless author says, “The essence of contemplation is a simple and direct reaching out to God. People who pray at this depth do not seek relief from pain nor do they seek increased rewards . . . ” (24). They are not praying for anything; well, not for anything other than moving closer to God.
Also super important, our author does not see God as a father-figure God, a jealous God, or any other form of God that can be described. “[Y]ou are far better off contemplating God’s pure and simple being, separated from all his divine attributes” (5). Much later he says, “We speak one way with people, and another way with God” (47). In fact in this type of prayer, “Words are rarely used” (37).
Contemplation is wordless prayer to a formless God.
- “Devote yourself now to a time of contemplation. Beat upon this cloud of unknowing. Rest will come later. This will be hard work, unless you receive a special grace. Let it become habitual from continual practice” (26).
- “Though I highly recommend brief prayer, there is no limit on the frequency of prayer” (39).
- “You do not have any freedom to practice moderation during contemplation” (41).
- “Engage in it tirelessly for the rest of your life” (41).
He does not, however, advocate “vulgar straining.” Rather he beseeches the reader to “discover how to love God joyfully with a gentle and peaceful disposition of body and soul” (46).
To accomplish this “devout intention directed to God” (39) we must forget everything else: “Let modest love prompt you to lift up your heart to God. Seek only God. Think of nothing else other than God. Keep your mind free of other thoughts. Give no attention to the things of this world” (3).
This instruction to turn our thoughts away from worldly things is central to contemplative prayer, because “whatever you think about looms above you while you are thinking about it, and it stands between you and God” (5). “Whatever you think about”—we are to forget about everything, even things we might not consider worldly, things we would consider sacred—everything but God.
- “Even holy work interferes with meditation. Similarly, you will find it inappropriate and cumbersome to think profound holy thoughts while working in this darkness of the cloud of unknowing” (8).
- “Thinking about humility, charity, patience, abstinence, hope, faith, temperance, chastity, or voluntary poverty is counterproductive” (40).
- “Forget about time, place, and body when you engage in spiritual effort” (59).
- “Put distracting ideas under a cloud of forgetting. In contemplation, forget everything, including yourself and your accomplishments” (43).
Our author recognizes the difficulty of this, especially in letting go of the self. He offers a few pieces of advice that we’ll recognize as encouraging mindfulness, such as “Pay attention, then, to how you spend your time” (4), and “I want you to evaluate carefully each thought that stirs in your mind when you contemplate God” (11). At one point he entreats his reader to relax completely, realizing the impossibility of our effort, and to accept ourselves as we truly are (32). “Nothing humbles us,” he says, “more than seeing ourselves clearly” (13).
Clearing the mind of thoughts about oneself is key to clearing the mind of everything: “You can see that if you are able to destroy an awareness of your own being, all other hindrances to divine contemplation will also vanish” (44).
There is one tool that our author offers to help us control the wandering mind, and that is to choose a word and hold fast to it.
“You may wish to reach out to God with one simple word that expresses your desire. A single syllable is better than a word with two or more. ‘God’ and ‘love’ provide excellent examples of such words. Once you have selected the word you prefer, permanently bind this word to your heart. This word becomes your shield and spear in combat and in peace. Use this word to beat upon the cloudy darkness above you and to force every stray thought down under a cloud of forgetting. . . . Do not allow the word to become fragmented. If you keep it intact, I can assure you distractions will soon diminish”(7).
But earlier, you may be saying, didn't he say this type of prayer was different, wordless? The difference is in the way we use the word: “Let the word remain in a single lump, a part of yourself” (36). He is not advocating using words to ask for anything, nor is he advocating the intellectual investigation of the concept the word represents. That would be futile. Really, he’s quite persistent in reminding us that our thinking minds are unable to comprehend God:
“[W]e are incapable of thinking of God himself with our inadequate minds. Let us abandon everything within the scope of our thoughts and determine to love what is beyond comprehension. We touch and hold God by love alone” (6).
The purpose of the focal word is to turn off the thinking mind, not encourage it.
“God remains far beyond even our most profound spiritual understanding. We will know God when spiritual understanding fails, because God is where it breaks down. St. Denis wrote, ‘The only divine knowledge of God is that which is known by unknowing’” (70).
The experience of the cloud of unknowing, he says, consists of “a dark gazing into the pure being of God” (8).
While he tells his reader that the process is lifelong, the actual experience of union can happen in a flash.
“Genuine contemplation comes as a spontaneous, unexpected moment, a sudden springing toward God that shoots like a spark swirling up from a burning coal. . . . Any one of these sparkling moments may take on a unique quality resulting in a total detachment from the things of this world.”(4)
“Many think contemplative prayer takes a long time to achieve. On the contrary, results may be instantaneous. Only an atom of time, as we perceive it, may pass. In this fraction of a second, something profoundly significant happens. You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God. This brief moment produces the stirring that embodies the greatest work of your soul.” (4)
And that is the end to which he would have us strive: “the greatest work of your soul.” Later he amends himself, saying “Perhaps it would be better to speak of it as a sudden ‘changing’ rather than a stirring” (59).
What exactly is this “greatest work?” What is it that changes? “After God graciously transforms our soul, we begin perceiving what is ordinarily beyond our comprehension” (4). The cloud of unknowing “teaches the essence of all things, both physical and spiritual” (68). We begin to gain control of our will and may come to experience heavenly bliss (4). We find rest for our soul (26). And “Once this moment passes,” he says “prayer for others will be inclusive, caring equally for everyone.” After which he immediately assures us that,
“When I speak of the passing of the moment, I do not imply that we come down completely, but rather that we descend from the height of contemplation in order to perform activity required by love” (25).
Perception, presence, bliss, rest, seeing into the essence of things, and recognizing the equal worth of all people—those are the results of union with God.
The Cloud and Yoga
In Yoga, some of the tools we use to overcome the self are
- bhakti: devotion
- tapas: discipline
- svadhyaya: study of scriptures and self
- pratyahara: withdrawing attention from the senses
- vairagya: detachment from the world outside and from the ego
- dhyana: meditation
These tools help induce samadhi (union), which results in ananda (bliss).
That is what I saw in The Cloud of Unknowing, a stunning description of the timeless human experience of touching the Sacred.