The Cloud of Unknowing

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First transcribed: Late fourteenth century

Attributed to the “Cloud-author”

Edition used:The Cloud of Unknowing, edited with a preface by Simon Tugwell and an introduction by James Walsh, S.J. New York: Paulist Press, 1981

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Didactic treatise; instructional manual; spiritual treatise

Core issue(s): Contemplation; faith; God; love; prayer


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...

(This entire section contains 2251 words.)

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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 of our spirit which, transformed by his redeeming grace, is enabled to embrace him by love.

The activities of the lower degree of the active life (the corporal works of mercy) in themselves leave much of our natural human potential untapped. At this stage one lives, as it were, outside oneself and beneath oneself. As one advances to the higher degree of the active life (which merges with the lower degree of the contemplative life) one becomes increasingly interior, living more from the depth of oneself and becoming, therefore, more fully human. For the fulfillment of the human spirit one must have a spiritual life; for fulfillment of the Christian spirit that has been given us at baptism, one must have a full Christian life, one of intimate communion with God.

One of the objections against this work of contemplation is its emptiness; it is an experience of nothingness, of being nowhere—it is idleness, a quietism. The first to raise this objection is the contemplator: “Who do you suppose derides it as an emptiness? Our superficial self, of course.” Those closest to us quickly join in: “. . . family and friends descend upon them in a storm of fury and criticism, severely reproving them for idleness.”

Right from the start the father assures his son of the preeminent fruitfulness of contemplation:

What I am describing here is the contemplative work of the spirit. It is this which gives God the greatest delight. for when you fix your love on him, forgetting all else, the saints and angels rejoice and hasten to assist you in every way—though the devils will rage and ceaselessly conspire to thwart you. Your fellow men are marvelously enriched by this work of yours, even if you may not fully understand how; the souls in purgatory are touched, for their suffering is eased by the effects of this work and, of course, your own spirit is purified and strengthened by this contemplative work more than by all others put together.

The father continues: “For I tell you this, one loving blind desire for God alone is more valuable in itself, more pleasing to God and to the Saints, more beneficial to your own growth, and more helpful to your friends, both living and dead, than anything else you could do.” But—“It cannot be explained, only experienced.” Our Master has said: “Judge a tree by its fruit.” There should be some fruits that the objective observer should be able to experience. The father speaks of these:

Moreover, in contemplation the second and subsidiary command of charity is also completely fulfilled. The fruits of contemplation bear witness to this even though during the actual time of prayer the skilled contemplative has no special regard for any person in particular, whether brother or stranger, friend or enemy . . . when he speaks or prays with his fellow Christian at other times, the warmth of his love reaches out to them all, friend or enemy, stranger and kin alike.

“Genuine goodness is a matter of habitually acting and responding appropriately in each situation as it arises, moved always by the desire to please God,” the father writes. Other norms he notes are the general good use of time and the regard for communal prayer: “The true contemplative has the highest esteem for the liturgy and is careful and exact in celebrating it, in continuity with the tradition of our Fathers.” These fruits of contemplation can be readily perceived and might therefore reassure some, looking in from the outside, as to the value of contemplative prayer—but probably not many. Moreover, they do not touch the more significant meaning and value of contemplative practice for the human community. There is a bonding, transcending time and place, with Jesus, “creator and dispenser of time,” which enables the contemplative to “share all Jesus has and enter the fellowship of those who love Him,” including “the communion of the blessed.” Each member “must do his share however slight to strengthen the fellowship as it strengthens him.”

The father is not, in this work, offering a full systematic treatment of the spiritual life. His concern here is about a way of prayer, but that is a part of a whole life and a whole attitude. This latter is important. Nonetheless, he does offer a very simple, traditional method of prayer that can be drawn out from his work.

Simply sit relaxed and quiet. Center all your attention and desire on God, and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one, but choose one that is meaningful to you (such as “God” or “love”). Fix the word in your mind so that it will remain there, come what may. The father’s advice involves words of encouragement and the reminder that the darkness of the cloud of unknowing comes between the contemplator and the God one desires to reach; despite the darkness, one wills to reach out to God.

The father admonishes us to be careful in this work: Never strain mind or imagination, for truly one will not succeed in this way; leave these faculties at peace. It is best when the word chosen for contemplation is wholly interior, without a definite thought or actual sound. Let this little word (the father enjoins) represent to you God in all his fullness; let nothing except God hold sway in your mind and heart. One may be distracted by remembering some task undone or one may find that some disrupting thought is clouding one’s attention, the father comments—but, he advises, if one answers with the word chosen, if one resists intellectualizing about its meaning and, instead, holds the word before oneself in all its simplicity, one may escape distractions. Put all thoughts of other creatures—past, present, and future—under a “cloud of forgetting.” If in this way one strives to fix one’s love on him, forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation, God in his goodness will provide a deep experience of himself.

Christian Themes

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing urges us to to fix our love on God while forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation. If we do so, God in his goodness will bring us a deep experience of God. Even Christians called primarily to a life of active service must at times lay aside their activity and give time to meditation and communion with God. One must be a person of faith, sufficient faith to believe in the Divine Presence hidden beyond the cloud of unknowing. One must also 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. It is not what we are or what we have been that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what we desire to be. It is God, and he alone, who can fully satisfy the hunger and longing of our spirit, which, transformed by his redeeming grace, is enabled to embrace him by love.

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.