Mystical Word  |  Weekly Reflection
Mystical Word is a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel reading by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation, Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

The Cloud of Unknowing 1

In this week’s Mystical Word, L.J. Milone starts a reflection on the medieval English gem of mystical literature, "The Cloud of Unknowing."

Deep below the surface of the ocean, so far down that the pressure alone would kill a human almost immediately, life flourishes. Sea creatures living at the bottom of the ocean or near the bottom are some of the most fascinating and odd marine life in the whole world. Light from the surface cannot reach beyond 1000 meters or a little over half a mile. The entire ocean below this point resides in perpetual darkness. Sea creatures at this depth and beyond adapt to living in the blackest night. Therefore, some develop bioluminescence, that is, their bodies can create light. They literally glow in the dark. Others have enormous eyes to capture even the dimmest flicker of light penetrating the depths.  Still other creatures cast off vision altogether and use other senses to make up for sight. 

Negotiating the Divine Darkness

These amazing ocean creatures adapt to the darkness, frigid cold, and intense pressure of the bottom of the ocean. They are apt images for the way the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing would have us negotiate the divine darkness or what he calls “the cloud of unknowing.” This author believed in divine mystery, which is darkness to our minds. He understood prayer, therefore, as an entrance into the dark mystery of God.  He called it contemplation. For the next few weeks, we will delve into the mysticism of this anonymous medieval English contemplative. He offers a fascinating and deeply practical approach to becoming a mystic.

We do not know who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing. We do know when, in England in the late fourteenth century, and we can surmise who. The author never gives his name, but most scholars believe it was a Carthusian monk, probably an older monk; The Cloud of Unknowing is addressed to a younger monk. The anonymous author also wrote other, minor, works such as The Book of Privy Counseling, A Letter on Prayer, a translation of a classic called Denis' Hid Divinity, and A Letter of Discernment. In The Cloud of Unknowing, the author speaks plainly. He doesn’t write as a theologian. With common sense and some humor, he uses earthy metaphors, such as clouds. He writes as a spiritual director introducing aspects of the mystical life to a spiritual directee. Like a good spiritual director, he advises readers to read the whole book through before making any judgments. If we don’t understand what he is saying, then he asks us to read it again.

Love: "the only way to reach God"

God, who is love, calls forth love from us through Jesus. For the author, this divine love is central. Intention is central. The Cloud author recognizes that our minds cannot grasp God, but we can still love God. In fact, he is quite absolute about this, for “love is the only way to reach God.” The author describes a method or way of being present to God intentionally, that is, with a simple desire for God. He instructs us on the priority of love: “gently lift up your heart to God with love . . . Direct a naked desire toward God.” Intentional presence to God, seeking only him, is an act of love.  Love is what carries us through the contemplative work he is going to teach us. It is, truly, the heart of contemplation. Hence, anyone can do the practice he teaches because it is not a practice based on skill as much as on love. “Everyone who has the desire should devote attention to this exercise.” All we need is a simple, naked, direct, desire for God.

Abiding in the Cloud

The contemplative practice of the treatise is to abide in the “cloud of unknowing,” and this practice is to remain in “the nowhere that is nothing.” The Cloud practice is to rest in the state of nothingness unto unity with God, “the nothing” who is “all.” The soul enters the cloud of unknowing as it releases its grip on everything created in the cloud of forgetting. The soul is nowhere as it abides in the clouds of unknowing and forgetting. But for the author, to be nowhere is to be everywhere spiritually. Mysticism scholar Bernard McGinn reflects, “In the ‘nowhere’ of spiritual freedom the soul finds ‘nothing’ to feed on, ‘nothing’ to support it—and that is precisely the point. Pressing onward into this nothing for God’s sake brings one ever closer to the God who cannot be known: ‘Leave this everywhere and this something in exchange for this nowhere and this nothing.’” For this anonymous author, the practice of loving God beyond the mind is a prayer practice resting on the soul’s encounter with the divine nothing in the nowhere of the cloud of unknowing.