In this post I will begin my reading of The Cloud of Unknowing. Taking a few chapters at a time (they are very short), I will first summarize each chapter and then comment on it. In my comments, I will try to relate this wisdom written for fourteenth century monastics to the kind of lives lived in the twenty-first century by ordinary, lay Christians.
Before I begin, a word about why I’m doing things this way. First, I am writing for my own benefit, to make sure I understand the work properly — and writing my own summaries is an excellent way to do that. Also, I’m publishing my summaries here on this blog for the benefit of others who may be interested, especially anyone who has tried reading The Cloud of Unknowing on their own and found it impenetrable. Many editions have preserved much of the fourteenth-century English, perhaps just modernizing the spelling and maybe updating a little of the terminology, in an effort not to deviate too much from the original. The result can still be daunting. On the other hand, some new editions (it seems to me) go too far in trying to make the text “reader-friendly” and thus run the risk of distorting what the author actually meant to say. So my summaries are meant to preserve the intention and to hit the highlights of what the author has to say.
But I assume that my readers will have their own copy of the book and will be reading it in detail. No one should consider my summaries to be an adequate substitute for actually reading the book — no more than any college student should assume that reading the Cliff’s Notes of The Iliad is an adequate substitute for reading Homer’s great epic poem.
My commentaries reflect my own experience and understanding. They are not to be taken as authoritative. Although I may occasionally sound like a scholar (I’ll try not to), I am not an expert on either the contemplative life or literature about the contemplative life. My comments are intended to help myself and my readers think through the implications of the text I have just summarized. We are not fourteenth-century monastics (well, I’m not, and I assume most readers will not be), so there may be times when it takes some reflection to see how the author’s advice pertains to us in our own circumstances.
Because my comments reflect on my own experience, I’ll undoubtedly refer at some point not only to things I’ve experienced, but also to other things I’ve read (I can’t help it — reading and writing, and writing about reading and writing are just what I do). I don’t expect you to have read the same books, but if I mention one that I would especially recommend, I’ll let you know. To repeat what I said earlier: I am not an expert in these matters, nor am I writing from some mountaintop where I reached the heights of contemplation. I am trying to learn, just like you. It helps me to read and to write about what I have read, and I hope it helps you, too. I hope you will chime in with your own experiences and reflections. Now — onward and upward!
The Cloud of Unknowing: Prologue
The book begins with the prayer known as the Collect for Purity, asking for the grace to do God’s will perfectly and worthily, and the following Prologue (which begins with an invocation of the Triune God) indicates the intended audience for the book: only those persons who have already demonstrated a wholehearted intention to devote themselves not only to a life of prayer but to the contemplative way, those who will read the book through to the end, rather than skipping around reading bits here and there. This commitment to read the whole thing will ensure that the reader understands the message in its entirety and without distortion. Those who lack this commitment could actually be led astray or harmed by a partial reading or a lack of spiritual grounding.
A prologue sets forth something that one needs to understand or be aware of before beginning the main matter of the book. It sets the stage for what will follow, but is not part of the main argument. One might say that it is the premise on which the book’s argument is founded. Only if one accepts this premise will what follows be coherent.
It is sadly ironic, then, that so many modern readers have ignored the basic premise of this book: that the reader be, at minimum, a committed Christian, one well-advanced in the practice of Christian prayer. If you look at the array of modern editions of The Cloud of Unknowing, you will see that many (indeed, most) of them have been prepared by and for readers of the “spiritual but not religious” variety (New Agers) or, in some cases, by those who call themselves Christian but who engage in forms of prayer that are proper to non-Christian (Buddhist) philosophy and who are thus conditioned think of contemplation in a very different way than the authentic Christian tradition does. At this moment, I don’t want to argue the differences between Buddhist and Christian contemplation (an opportunity for that will come with one of the later chapters), but I make the point only to emphasize that many recent editions of this book are aimed at precisely the wrong audience.
Unfortunately, this means that many Christians who wish to avoid the syncretistic errors of “New Age” Christians will be inclined to avoid The Cloud of Unknowing as well, because it has been tainted by association with those who don’t recognize the fundamental differences between a Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhist contemplative practice is intended to induce an altered state of consciousness through various techniques of breathing, chanting of mantras, etc., while Christian contemplation is not anything that one can achieve by one’s own efforts, but is a pure gift of God. What The Cloud of Unknowing seeks to do is instruct the sincere and devoted Christian who has already advanced in the way of prayer and who now stands on the threshold of contemplation to be ready to receive that gift and to encourage such a person to persevere through a prayer experience that may be much more difficult than anything they have experienced before.
If we understand this, we can see why the author warns against letting the book fall into the hands of “fleshly janglers” and “tellers of trifles.” For them, it has nothing to say.
Chapter 1 When Is a Reader Ready for this Book?
In this first section, the author indicates with greater precision the point to which the reader is assumed to have advanced before taking up the book. He will have passed through the first stage (“common”) of Christian life, at which many Christians live for much (if not all) their lives, acknowledging the Christian faith while living in an ordinary, worldly way. From this, he will have passed into the second stage (“special”), in which the Christian becomes aware of his calling to Christian service and the practice of prayer, and have arrived at the third (“singular”) stage, at which the Christian feels called into a deeper life of prayer that requires, in some way, to separate oneself from the mass of society in order to deepen one’s prayer life. This is the point at which the intended reader of this book will find himself, on the threshold of the fourth (“perfect”) stage of Christian life, ready to “lift up the foot of [his] prayer” and step forward into the final state, which most Christians will arrive at only after death and purgation, but which is possible in this earthly life for those who persevere, drawn by love of God.
Even those who are not “fleshly janglers” or spiritual dilettantes would do well to pause, here at the beginning of this book, to consider these four stages of Christian life and ask themselves whether they are ready for what this book has to offer. I think few who are still at the common stage will even have bothered to pick up such a book as this. “Common” Christians are those who have not yet taken a personal interest in the life of prayer, or anything else that sets the Christian apart from the world, but even those who have already begun to take prayer seriously may not yet be ready for this book. So let’s see: at what stage are you?
The first stage is called “common” because it refers to what all Christians have in common. A “common” Christian is one whose faith has not yet moved him or her to do anything that distinguishes him from other, ordinary Christians. This book was written in the fourteenth century, a time at which pretty much anyone and everyone in England was a Christian. Simply being Christian, therefore, did not set one apart from the crowd. Today, this is no longer really true or, at least, not in the same way or to the same degree. These days, simply being a regular churchgoer is enough to make one a bit of an oddball, even if the hour you spend in church on Sunday is the only thing that makes you different from your neighbors and co-workers. Even so, this “common” level of Christianity, in the sense that the author means it, indicates simply the low-bar of Christian life, the thing all Christians have in common: claiming the Christian faith without really doing anything in particular that sets you apart from other Christians.
In the second or “special” stage, the ordinary (“common”) Christian wakes up to the fact that Christians are called to live in a particular way, a special way that is different from the life of unbelievers. The Cloud author points out that, although we enter this stage of our own volition, it is the love of God which moves us: both God’s love for us, which draws us, and our awakening love for Him, which propels us.
There is usually some precipitating event that makes us, perhaps for the first time, especially aware of God’s love for us – it might be a retreat or some other event that we take part in, or it might be some private experience. Something strikes in us a responding spark of love and suddenly prayer becomes something more than an empty ritual that we go through on Sunday mornings. It becomes a way to put ourselves deliberately in the presence of God, so that we may know His will and do it.
Once many years ago, when I was an avid young Christian, not long after I made my Cursillo, I was talking to a fellow parishioner after Mass one Sunday. I don’t remember who the other person was, just that he (or she) was, like me, an active member of the parish and so a deliberate Christian. But when I expressed my dismay at the fact that so few people showed up for our parish’s wonderful Lenten program on Fridays, this other person simply rolled his eyes and said, “Well, yeah, you think that because you’re devout” – as if being “devout” were some kind of hobby that a Christian might take or leave, indifferently and without prejudice. In fact, though, I had already made the first step toward the special life to which we are all called, while my friend apparently had not.
In this second stage of Christian living, prayer is often where we gather fuel for a life of service – newly aware of our vital union with Christ, we want to put that vitality to use, so this may be when we become more involved in parish activities and special ministries, as well as Bible study groups, prayer groups, etc. If we persevere in the life of prayer, however, we reach a point where all that activity begins to exhaust us; we may even feel that it distracts us. At this point, we may realize that we have become like Martha, “anxious about many things,” and yearn to be more like her sister Mary, who chose “the better part.”
This leads us into the third stage of Christian living, the “singular” stage, where we devote more attention to prayer and, perhaps, less to constant activity. “Singular” here means, in a certain sense, solitary. At the “special” stage, we may have derived a great deal of satisfaction from group prayer and activities, but as we progress to this third stage, we turn more toward forms of prayer that are best accomplished on our own, such as reflective reading and meditation, quiet time alone with God and with our thoughts.
Those who reach the singular stage may feel the need to choose more carefully which activities are most needful or best suited to a life of deepening prayer. Perhaps we spend more time in spiritual reading and devote more time to personal prayer. This stage, too, is one where our awareness of God’s love for us and our answering desire for Him work together to draw us even farther along the path toward contemplation.
The fourth (“perfect”) stage is the point to which God has been striving to bring us all this time. “Perfect” here means complete. When we reach this completion, we will be praying in the sense that God intended all along. At the fourth stage we can, finally, get a taste of that union with God for which we have been longing all this time: contemplation.
Everything God has accomplished in us through prayer so far was intended to bring us to this point, to prepare us for what comes next. Those who now stand on the threshold that leads into this stage of perfection are the ones for whom the author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote. If we find ourselves at that point, we will be able to profit from what he has to say. However, if we are not yet there, we will either fail to understand what he is saying or, worse, will misunderstand it altogether and be led astray. This is why the author issued that warning in the prologue.
To be honest, I first read (or tried to read) this book many years ago, when I was young and full of enthusiasm, eager to become an adept and expert pray-er and confident that reading books would help me do that. However, I made one serious mistake: I ignored the warning in the prologue, which told me not to read the book unless I was really ready for it. Full of the self-confidence that only the young and ignorant feel, I ploughed ahead anyway. As a result of my willfulness and lack of preparation (not to mention overweening pride), I quickly became dismayed and discouraged. I put the book aside without finishing it and, for a long time, I believed that I must not be called to contemplative prayer after all.
I realize now that I was wrong, not only for trying to read the book when I wasn’t ready but also for allowing myself to be discouraged rather than acknowledging my unreadiness. I simply had tried to learn to fly before I would run or walk–in fact, I could barely crawl. Yet, I loved God and I wanted to love Him more; I believed that He had put in my heart this desire to pray deeply, so, although I quit reading works on contemplative prayer that were clearly beyond my abilities, I continued to learn to pray in other, more everyday ways, and (as I see now) thus advanced gradually through the first three stages of Christian life that the Cloud’s author points out. Now, finally, decades later, I find myself at (or at least near) the threshold that leads into the fourth stage, when all my years of praying are about to lead me deeper into the contemplative heart of prayer, which is to say, the heart of God.
I hope you are with me, ready to discover how best to complete our journey into the heart of prayer. Onward, into Chapter 2!