The Cloud of Unknowing Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Cloud of Unknowing is not an orderly treatise. It is repetitious. It has its share of digressions. It is primarily addressed to an enthusiastic young disciple, age twenty-four, who is prone to overdo things even while he struggles with some natural fickleness and laziness. It inserts basic human and Christian teaching at random points. The treatise leaves us with a sense of helplessness in the face of our divine aspirations, but it also leaves us with a certain comfortableness with that sense of helplessness, for here the author—a wise spiritual father who clearly seems to have found his way—keeps reassuring us that this confusion is all right, quite to be expected. We really have to do only one thing, and that is to leave things in the hands of God, to turn ourselves over to him, to accept his gift of himself which is the union of contemplation:But if you strive to fix your love on him, forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation I have urged you to begin. . . . I am confident that God in his goodness will bring you to a deep experience of himself.

The father tells us for whom he has written The Cloud of Unknowing:I have in mind a person who, over and above the good works of the active life, has resolved to follow Christ (as far as humanly possible with God’s grace) unto the inmost depths of contemplation . . . who has first been faithful for some time to the demands of the active life.

The father sees some Christians called primarily to a life of active service, but these must at times lay aside their activity and give time to meditation and communion with God. Others are called primarily to a Christian life centered on prayer and contemplation, but these too must lay aside their primary concern at times to attend to human and social affairs. Thus he speaks of two degrees in each life, a higher and a lower, and he sees the higher degree of the active life coalescing with the lower degree of the contemplative. It is here where most good Christians are situated but each with his or her proper call with its particular emphases.

One must be a person of faith, sufficient faith to believe in the Divine Presence hidden beyond in the cloud of unknowing. One must have turned from sin toward God in love, a love strong enough to make one seek God in the darkness of his incomprehensibility, leaving behind other attractions and desires. When the father comes to express concretely what this means, he is not as demanding as we might have expected:If you ask me when a person should begin his contemplative work I would answer not until he has first purified his conscience of all particular sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation as the Church prescribes. . . . Once having done what the Church requires, he should fearlessly begin the contemplative work.

The past does not matter, the author insists (“Some who have been hardened habitual sinners arrive at the perfection of this work sooner than those who have never sinned grievously”), nor even present weakness (“In choosing your present way of life you made a radical commitment to God and this remains despite temporary lapse”—the father seems decidedly up to date in speaking here about a fundamental option), but only one’s true desire: “It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.”

Going on to close the treatise with a passage from Saint Augustine that reads, “The entire life of a good Christian is nothing less than holy desire,” the father seems clearly to indicate that this way of contemplative prayer is for all Christians. However, in prescribing the contemplative way, he respects the diversity of ways within it, a position well developed with biblical imagery in the previous chapter, where he says: “It is important to realize that in the interior life we must never take our own experiences (or lack of them) as the norm for everyone else.” Earlier he has affirmed: “How often it happens that the grace of contemplation will awaken in people of every walk and station of life, both religious and lay alike.”

Far from excluding anyone from seeking to develop the contemplative dimensions of life, the father seems to imply that its development is essential for the fulfillment of human life:It is God, and he alone, who can fully satisfy the hunger and longing...

(The entire section is 1794 words.)

The Cloud of Unknowing Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Hodgson, Phyllis, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing and Related Treatises. Analecta Cartusiana 3. Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1982. This volume includes Hodgson’s edition of The Cloud of Unknowing and the related texts on contemplative prayer that are argued to come from the same author: The Book of Privy Counselling, The Epistle of Prayer, The Epistle of Discretion, Hid Divinity, Benjamin Minor, The Study of Wisdom, and Of Discerning of Spirits. It also contains six pages of bibliography.

Johnston, William. The Mysticism of “The Cloud of Unknowing.” 1967. 4th ed. Foreword by Thomas Merton. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000. The author gives an extensive study of the mysticism of the period and also compares the teaching of The Cloud of Unknowing with that of Saint John of the Cross and other apophatic mystics. There is a good introduction by Thomas Merton.

Pennington, M. Basil. Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form. 1980. New York: Doubleday, 2001. This study places The Cloud of Unknowing in its full historical context within the ever-renewing Christian tradition and gives a very practical, modern presentation of its basic teaching.

Szarmach, Paul E., ed. An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe: Fourteen Original Essays. Albany: State of University of New York Press, 1984. This collection of essays contains a good study of The Cloud of Unknowing by John P. H. Clark.