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 2

In this Mystical Word, we reflect on the two clouds: the cloud of forgetting and the cloud of unknowing. (Read the first reflection, The Cloud of Unknowing 1)

I went to a Franciscan school, Siena College, in upstate New York. I would regularly pray in the chapel of the friary (the friars’ residence). They had daily morning and evening prayer as well as Mass. I tended to get there early enough to do half an hour of meditation before a prayer service or Mass. Occasionally I would get there so early, the friars weren’t even up yet! One morning a heavy fog settled over the campus. Fr. Dan, the head or Guardian of the friary, let out a big belly laugh when he saw me emerge out of this thick cloud. He gave me a hard slap on my back and said all my prayer had created this “cloud of unknowing.” 

Two Clouds

The author uses the title image of the cloud to great effect. He is famous for it. The cloud conveys the darkness and obscurity of loving God beyond thinking. He describes two different clouds with respect to contemplative practice. One cloud is the cloud of forgetting, the other of unknowing. He tells us to let everything go by placing all things, including our thoughts, beneath a cloud of forgetting. He then advises that we attend God alone in the cloud of unknowing.


The cloud of forgetting is his image for letting go of all thinking. Forgetting means abandoning our desire for such thoughts, for thinking about what we want. Thinking, the author frequently repeats, cannot get God; whatever we think about stands between us and God. “To the extent that anything other than God is in your mind, you are that much farther from God.” As we give our attention to thinking and become preoccupied with it, we lose awareness of God. “Let us abandon everything within the scope of our thoughts and determine to love what is beyond comprehension.” He is talking about single-minded attention to God in interior silence. The image of a cloud suggests thinking becomes lost to us as we encounter the One beyond all thinking.


We meet this God of Mystery in a “cloud of unknowing.” He says, “When you begin, you will experience a darkness, a cloud of unknowing . . . None of your efforts will remove the cloud that obscures God from your understanding.” The darkness and unknowing is a kind of blankness in our minds because our thinking is not in use and we are simply being. He tells us we will not feel anything; it is best to accept the dark unknowing and learn to rest in it. The cloud of unknowing never lifts, for it is the cloud of encounter with the Unknowable God. Our minds will never grasp God by thinking.

Prayer beyond Thinking

The whole of The Cloud of Unknowing is about the “work” of contemplation. But the author does not mean willful effort. Rather, this word, work, in his vocabulary refers to practice or method. “Whoever reads or hears the directions given in this book may conclude that I am describing mental effort. But taxing your brain in an attempt to figure ways to achieve this produces nothing.” The practice of contemplation goes beyond the mind. It goes into unknowing. The author is insistent on this point. Our minds cannot grasp God. Therefore, we must pray beyond the thinking mind.

Choosing a Word

The Cloud author recommends forgetting created things and being present to God in the cloud of unknowing. To help be present in the cloud of unknowing, he advises us to choose a short monosyllabic word representing our love for God. “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 . . . permanently bind this word to your heart.” The word represents our intention, that is, our naked desire for God alone.

Returning to the Word

The representative word is how we steer ourselves back to God when we get caught up in the thinking mind. Part of the work of contemplative prayer is to return to the word as a gentle thought in one’s mind when thinking gets between the soul and God. The other part of the work of contemplation is to stay in the nothingness or unknowing silence of the prayer. He says, “You are doing nothing. Wonderful! 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.” Whenever the mind focuses on anything, it’s not engaged with the unknowable God. The word helps us to return to God and to plumb the depths of nothingness to discover the divine nothingness. According to the author, when our minds are not occupied with material or spiritual things, they are engaged with the very reality of God.