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 4

In this last reflection on The Cloud of Unknowing, we see how the anonymous author sees contemplation as an experience of the divine nothing.

HBO’s drama series Westworld tells the story of a fully immersive wild-west–themed park. All the characters in the park are robots, though they are so lifelike that the human guests often mistake them for real people. It is a show that plays with themes of consciousness, morality, and identity. Set in an unidentified future, the humans treat the hosts or robots as things to be used, discarded, and played with. The park’s staff creates elaborate plots and adventures for human guests to enjoy. The guests can murder the human-like robots, use them for sex, push them around, and abuse them.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing roundly dismisses such awful behavior, but not simply on moral grounds. He is a contemplative and, as such, savors the experience of the nothing that is nowhere. The experience of Westworld is the experience of doing whatever one pleases with the knowledge that there are no consequences to one’s actions. The Cloud author declares, “I prefer to be ‘nowhere’ physically like this, wrestling with that blind ‘nothingness,’ than to be rich enough to go anywhere I want on earth and play with any of its ‘somethings.’” No amount of playing with the world’s somethings or actual things, as in Westworld, compares with the nothing that is nowhere.

Also, the author wants to make sure people are not understanding this contemplative practice crudely or only in literal, physical terms. He wants us to understand how we talk about God and spirituality because it affects our practice. “For the love of God, be careful when you attempt contemplative prayer. Leave your senses and your imagination at rest, because there is no function for them here.” If we do think of God and prayer more physically and literally, we are going to have a hard time with the nothing that is nowhere of contemplation. The author does not mince words: “Contemplative prayer has no spatial orientation. We are not to contemplate in a physical manner.”

The Cloud author is a fantastic spiritual director. He is both thorough and flexible. He gives practical assistance for the contemplative journey. He teaches us not to judge anyone. He acknowledges that people are individually unique; we should not expect them to pray as we do or experience God as we do. He even says his method may not appeal to everyone. He does not impose his way upon all. “If, after reading this book, you think my approach to divine contemplation is not your style, then abandon it. Seek another way, more suited for your personal needs.” Having said this, he warns us not to abandon contemplation itself, for “if we neglect prayerful contemplation, we sink ever deeper into unawareness.” We may lose awareness of God, reality, and love if we fail to practice some method of contemplative prayer.

He teaches us to keep our prayer practice simple, which means it is easy to do and we can engage in it anywhere. The author focuses his advice on one’s chosen word. “If your mind begins to analyze the intellectual ramifications of your chosen word, remember that the value of this word is its simplicity. Do not allow the word to become fragmented. If you keep it intact, I can assure you distractions will soon diminish.” The challenge of simplicity in contemplative prayer also involves perseverance. The author encourages us to keep going in our contemplative practice, come what may.  “Do not quit your time of contemplation regardless of what may happen.” The author says, “In contemplation, there are no limits. Engage in it tirelessly for the rest of your life.”

Finally, he invites us to let go and let God. He says, “Let God draw your love up to that cloud. Let God’s grace help you to forget everything other than God. If all you are seeking is God, you will not be content with anything else.” The experience of contemplative prayer may be different for everyone, but every contemplative surrenders control to God. No one can do contemplation by himself. Everyone needs God. We can tell we are getting in our own way when we become compulsive about contemplative prayer. If we start taxing ourselves over trying to get somewhere or get frustrated that nothing is happening, we may be inserting the neurotic self into the work of contemplation. There is nowhere to go. There is nothing we must do beyond being with God in love. The author of The Cloud reminds us there is nothing compulsive about contemplation. “Instead of approaching contemplation compulsively, discover how to love God joyfully with a gentle and peaceful disposition.”