The Cloud of Unknowing Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

The Cloud of Unknowing

Fourteenth-century English theological treatise.

The Cloud of Unknowing is an English book of Christian mysticism dating from the second half of the fourteenth century. In the course of seventy-five chapters, the book describes in a detailed and practical manner methods of achieving union with God. Its title refers figuratively to that which separates us from God. Scholars believe that Cloud was written in the north central region of the East Midlands, probably by a priest, possibly by a monk. The work is considered the most influential of the English Christian mystical writings. The Cloud-author, as he is commonly referred to, also wrote The Book of Privy Counseling, a sequel that develops and explains some of the ideas first advanced in The Cloud of Unknowing and may be the product of the author's later years; Denis Hid Divinity, which is based on Dionysius the Areopagite's Mystical Theology; The Epistle of Prayer; The Epistle of Discretion of Stirrings; Of Discerning of Spirits; and The Study of Wisdom, which is largely a translation of Benjamin Minor, written by Richard of St. Victor. All these works are similar thematically to The Cloud of Unknowing and scholars date them to approximately the late fourteenth century.

Plot and Major Characters

The Cloud of Unknowing is written in the form of a long letter addressed to a “ghostly friend” who is exploring the possibility of taking up a life devoted to religious contemplation. The Cloud-author cautions his friend that the answer he is about to receive is not meant for everyone, only for those genuinely dedicated to the kind of life the recipient is considering. He warns that it should not circulate freely, lest it be misinterpreted. In the course of the work, the author attempts to explain some difficult theological concepts, always stressing that the source of his teaching is God alone. In frank terms he describes the pitfalls, mostly psychological, one will face in the undertaking, but explains that perseverance will be rewarded by God Himself, who will eventually shine a light to pierce the cloud of unknowing, and thus invade one's soul.

Major Themes

The Cloud of Unknowing is primarily concerned with how best to conduct one's interior life so that one can ultimately become one with the Beloved, or God. Purgation of earthly desires and material preoccupations is an important theme in the work, since those elements stand in the way of illumination, or knowledge of God. However, The cloud of unknowing that the title refers to cannot be cleared away through knowledge alone, but only through love. By repeatedly and fervently invoking the simplest prayer, consisting wholly of a one-syllable word such as “love,” one can push aside the reasoning mind and other distractions that keep the believer from union with God. The Cloud of Unknowing emphasizes a personal approach to God which, at the time it was written, was not condoned by the Roman Catholic Church. The writer of the treatise also cautions the reader to avoid false piety and sanctimoniousness and to always remain humble in his or her spritiual journey.

Critical Reception

The Cloud of Unknowing has received great praise from critics. David Knowles calls it “the most excellent work on contemplative prayer ever written in the English language.” Phyllis Hodgson credits the Cloud-author with being “a pioneer in his use of words and an ‘inventor’ who enriched the language by his attempts to express philosophical and theological conceptions.” She further calls him “a craftsman as attentive to sound as to the shaping of thought.” Ira Progoff writes that the author “impresses the modern reader again and again with his sharp, profound, amazingly perceptive insights into psychological limitations.” The question of the author's identity is intriguing to scholars, but extensive research efforts have yielded nothing definitive. The fourteenth-century Augustinian mystic Walter Hilton was long considered a distinct possibility but evidence in support of the claim has met with serious challenges and most scholars now believe that the true identity of the author will remain unknown. In contrast, many of the Cloud-author's sources and influences are easily ascertained. Hodgson finds parallels in the work of St. Albert the Great; Justin McCann notes the author's familiarity with Johannes Sarracenus; and Denys Turner analyzes the ways in which the author diverges from his three main sources: St. Denys, Richard of St. Victor, and Thomas Gallus. Although The Cloud of Unknowing is praised for its direct and simple style, its message is not always easy to understand. Numerous scholars have made efforts to explicate the text, among them Hodgson, William Johnston, and Anne Bancroft; Bancroft finds abundant parallels between the teachings of the Cloud-author and the teachings of Zen and Eastern religions. E. Allison Peers contends that the concepts expressed are actually not difficult once one understands the book's digressive and repetitive structure, but Progoff considers its text “profound” and imbued with “many veiled meanings.” Progoff argues, too, that a reader cannot gain a true appreciation of the intent of the Cloud-author without a good understanding of the medieval context in which he wrote.