Phyllis Hodgson (essay date 1944)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10325

SOURCE: Hodgson, Phyllis. Introduction to “The Cloud of Unknowing” and the “Book of Privy Counselling,” edited by Phyllis Hodgson, pp. ix-lxxxvi, 1944. Reprint. London: The Early English Text Society, 1958.

[In the following excerpt, Hodgson discusses the themes of The Cloud of Unknowing and some of its sources, chiefly...

(The entire section contains 60637 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this The Cloud of Unknowing study guide. You'll get access to all of the The Cloud of Unknowing content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Critical Essays
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

SOURCE: Hodgson, Phyllis. Introduction to “The Cloud of Unknowing” and the “Book of Privy Counselling,” edited by Phyllis Hodgson, pp. ix-lxxxvi, 1944. Reprint. London: The Early English Text Society, 1958.

[In the following excerpt, Hodgson discusses the themes of The Cloud of Unknowing and some of its sources, chiefly the writings of Dionysus the Areopagite, Thomas Gallus, Saint Augustine, and Richard of St. Victor.]



The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling, treatises full of individual experience as well as of typical fourteenth-century speculative and affective mysticism, have an importance to-day for the man of prayer and the psychologist no less than for the student of medieval thought. The author, describing an exercise of contemplative prayer, was obviously drawing from his own mystical experience. Having a fine insight into the workings of the mind, and being highly conscious of his own different mental states, he was able to describe spiritual processes accurately and vividly. He was also a priest and a trained theologian, fully alive to the controversies of his time. The direction of his thought, so closely resembling that of other fourteenth-century mystics such as Eckhart, Tauler, or Ruysbroeck, shows that he was in the full stream of fourteenth-century mysticism. Emphasis in his works on certain disputed themes such as the need for grace, Immanence and Transcendence, the relationship of body and soul in the work of contemplation, the respective merits of the active and contemplative lives, suggests that he had some voice, at least, in contemporary controversy. Though his own mystical experiences are the unmistakable background of both these treatises yet, being schooled in the works of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, he naturally shaped his thought according to the teaching of those writers who had most influenced him, because their experience was most akin to his own. Many of his turns of thought and phrase are traceable to known sources, but in their context they are so vividly personal that one must assume that such borrowed expressions best described his own mental and emotional experiences.


Both treatises were written specifically for a young disciple, but in actual fact for all those on the threshold of the highest form of contemplative life, to give instruction how to be ‘knit to God in spirite, & in oneheed of loue & acordaunce of wile’.1 Perfect oneness with God, which is the aim of the contemplative, is to know God, not objectively as a being to be analysed and understood in all His parts, but subjectively, as a divine force working in and through the soul, the soul moving only in God. To others who do not understand the contemplative purpose the treatises may be harmful, because they may so easily be misconstrued.

Disciplining of the body, the cleansing of conscience, customary spiritual exercises of reading, meditation, and vocal prayer are necessary in preparation, but they lead only to the beginning of the act of contemplation and leave the soul still separate from God. The Cloud of Unknowing treats almost exclusively of an exercise of the will which will overcome the separation and lead to union. Privy Counselling supplements the teaching of The Cloud. The real character of this exercise is an uninterrupted focusing of all the attention solely upon the being of God. This work has a double aspect—the concentration of all the faculties of the soul upon one single point involves a strenuous effort of the will to clear away from the mind everything that is between God and the soul. Both treatises describe the psychological difficulties at different stages of the work and show how they may be overcome.

The directing of the attention is ‘hard & streyte in þe byginnyng’2 because there is no clearly defined goal. God is infinite and the finite mind can grasp only finite things; man's highest knowledge falls short of God, and what he affirms of God falls short of the truth. The author had discovered that his discursive mind could never comprehend God, and its activities were, after a certain stage, a hindrance in the work of contemplation. He needed then to silence its inquiries by concentrating all his intellectual powers in a straining towards one single point, God as he knew him through a blind intuition of faith. When the usual connexions are severed from the consciousness there is at first no compensatory illumination of the spirit. The mind is in a state of darkness,

‘as alle þat þing þat þou knowest not, or elles þat þou hast forzetyn, it is derk to þee; þe first tyme when þou dost it, þou fyndest bot a derknes, & as it were a cloude of vnknowyng—þis derknes & þis cloude is, howsoeuer þou dost, bitwix þee & þi God, & letteþ þee þat þou maist not see him cleerly by lizt of vnderstonding in þi reson, ne fele him in swetnes of loue in þin affeccion’.3

The hardest discipline of the contemplative is to persevere in this darkness with faith, keeping the reason and the senses from their usual activities by placing a ‘cloud of forgetting’ between himself and the thoughts and images of all creatures.

The exercise will be difficult and barren at first, but if the contemplative perseveres, God will ‘sumtyme—seend oute a beme of goostly lizt, peersyng þis cloude of vnknowing þat is bitwix þee & hym, & schewe þee sum of his priuete. … Þan schalt þou fele þine affeccion enflaumid wiþ þe fiire of his loue’.4 The exercise, at first deliberate and difficult, becomes easier and spontaneous; sudden impulses of the soul will be ‘as it were vnauisid, speedly springing unto God as sparcle fro þe cole’.5 The deliberate concentration and rigorous blind focusing of the attention gives place to a spontaneous reaching up of love, unimpeded and sure of its direction.

The author does not belittle the difficulty of simplifying the consciousness by excluding from it all creatures, but the three chief obstacles which he stresses and shows how to overcome arise from the contemplative's preoccupation with himself. The contemplative must refuse to allow his mind to dwell on the memory of particular sins which he has committed. If he does not overcome this natural tendency, his mind will be distracted and in conflict, and this brooding might sooner raise in himself ‘an abelnes to haue efte synnid, þen to haue purchasid by þat werke any pleyn forzeuenes’6 of all his sins. He must put aside the thought of individual sins committed by the positive means of shifting his attention and looking only towards God; ‘& þou haddest God, þen schuldest þou lacke synne’.7 Even then the feeling of collective sin will remain as a consciousness of limitation and unworthiness—‘synne, a lump, þou wost neuer what, none oþer þing bot þiself’8 … ‘onyd & congelid wiþ þe substaunce of þi beyng’.9 This feeling may with greater difficulty be surmounted by an absolute rejection and dissociation from sin. ‘Crye þan goostly euer upon one: “Synne, synne, synne; oute, oute, oute!”’ This is more than repentance for sinfulness, desire for amendment: it is another aspect of that burning desire to see and feel and have only God. As the contemplative advances in love, the barrier of sin will gradually disappear, but consciousness of separation from God will painfully persist:

‘þou schalt fynde, when þou hast forzeten alle oþer creatures & alle þeire werkes, ze, & þerto alle þin owne werkes, þat þer schal leue zit after, bitwix þee & þi God, a nakid weting & a felyng of þin owne beyng: þe whiche wetyng & felyng behouiþ alweis be distroied, er þe tyme be þat þou fele soþfastly þe perfeccyon of þis werk.’10

Chapter 44 of The Cloud teaches that this feeling may only be broken down by very special grace and by ‘a stronge and a deep goostly sorow’, again that burning desire for God alone. Privy Counselling describes in detail the further stage in the work of contemplation, the final stage before union. The contemplative must persevere in the feeling of his own being. Without trying to know what he is, he must realize to the full that he is, for only then can he offer himself wholly to God:

‘a nakid entent streching into God … freely fastenid & groundid in verrey beleue, schal be nouzt elles to þi þouzt & to þi felyng bot a nakid þouzt & a blynde feling of þin owne beyng: as zif þou seidist þus vnto God withinne in þi menyng, “Þat at I am, Lorde, I offre vnto þee, wiþoutyn any lokyng to eny qualite of þi beyng, bot only þat þou arte as þou arte, wiþouten any more.”’11

‘Þof al I bid þee in þe biginnyng, bicause of þi boistouste & þi goostly rudenes, lappe & cloþe þe felyng of þi God in þe felyng of þiself, zit schalt þou after whan þou arte maad by contynowaunce more sleiz in clennes of spirit, nakyn, spoyle & vtterly vncloþe þiself of al maner of felyng of þiself, þat þou be able to be cloþid wiþ þe gracyous felyng of God self.’12

It is tempting to regard The Book of Privy Counselling as a fulfilment of the promise in Chapter 74 of The Cloud to expound any difficult passages. Though this treatise continues the teaching of The Cloud, it also supports his doctrine by giving a background of metaphysical reasoning. The mysticism of The Cloud is more affective, of Privy Counselling more speculative. The Cloud is more concerned with the will and love, Privy Counselling with the intelligence. In the latter the author describes at length how God is immanent in all things, being the essence of all things and maintaining all things in being. To simplify the consciousness by a concentration of all the faculties on the feeling of one's being, to return to one's centre, is therefore to return to God.

In the first part of Privy Counselling the author also explains by metaphysical reasoning why the ‘nakid entent streching into God’ shall not be ‘cloþid in any specyal þouzt of God in hymself … but only þat he is as he is’. The nature of God may not be apprehended by a summation of all the attributes of goodness, beauty, power, or wisdom; ‘þat same is to him only to be, þat is alle þees for to be.’13

As Privy Counselling teaches a more advanced stage in the prayer of contemplation than The Cloud, the psychological experiences he describes belong to one who has progressed farther along the ‘mystic way’. In current terminology, the art of recollection taught in The Cloud results in the ‘dark night of the senses’, when the ‘cloud of forgetting’ hides all customary objects of consciousness and the ‘cloud of unknowing’ hides God. The spiritual processes described in The Cloud are those of the Purgative and Illuminative Ways. The state described at the end of Privy Counselling, however, when the soul alternates between sharp consciousness of grace and a feeling of emptiness and abandonment, is the condition of the contemplative on the very verge of the Unitive Life. The barrenness and confusion describe ‘the dark night of the soul’.

Though the author of these two treatises never digresses far from his main purpose of expounding one particular aspect of contemplative prayer, associated trains of thought show that he took an active interest in some of the leading controversies of his day.

On the question of the relative merits of the active and contemplative life, for instance, he takes up a position that is definitely one of defence, sometimes of counter-attack, suggesting that, like Richard Rolle at an earlier date, he himself had been subjected to opposition, perhaps from the supporters of the Wycliffite movement at the end of the fourteenth century. His defence of the contemplative life is most vehement in Privy Counselling, where he becomes almost abusive to its attackers;14 but there are lengthy and quite disproportionate digressions15 in The Cloud, in which he emphatically asserts the superiority of the contemplative life above the active and mixed lives.

He is much concerned with the burning question of grace. The whole progress of the soul towards God rests entirely upon grace. By grace man is called to the contemplative life (ch. i); the desire of perfection ‘behoueþ algates be wrouzt in þi wille, bi þe honde of Almizti God & þi consent’16; this grace is freely given, ‘specyaly wrouzt in what soule þat hym likiþ, wiþoutyn any deseert of þe same soule’17; all those truly stirred to the contemplative life should ‘worche in þis grace & in þis werk, whatsoeuer þat þei be, wheþer þei haue ben customable synners or none’18. ‘Somme, þat haue ben orrible & customable synners, comen sonner to þe perfeccion of þis werk þen þoo þat ben none. & þis is þe mercyful myracle of oure Lorde, þat so specyaly zeuiþ his grace’19; whereby it may be seen that ‘no man schuld be demyd of oþer here in þis liif’ (chs. 29, 30). The emphasis in The Cloud on the part played by grace in contemplation is reinforced in Privy Counselling by a long interpolation showing how nothing can be done without God in any state of life, active or contemplative.20

The author of The Cloud is careful to dissociate himself from the heresy of Pantheism, which was the charge made against much of the continental mysticism of the fourteenth century. The teaching of the sect of the Brethren of the Free Spirit which had spread over Germany, of the Beghards and Beguines, was manifestly heretical. Twenty-eight propositions drawn from the works of Eckhart had been condemned by Pope John XXII in 1329 for being impregnated with Pantheism; the works of Suso and Tauler did not escape suspicion. The English author, whose thought in many ways closely resembles that of the German mystics, reiterates the warning with great emphasis that God ‘is þi being and þou not his’. This is the substance of chapter 67 of The Cloud, and the theme is developed at length in the beginning of Privy Counselling: ‘For þof it be so þat alle þinges ben in hym bi cause & bi beyng & he be in alle þinges here cause & here being, zit in himself only he is his owne cause & his owne being.’21

The discussion at disproportionate length of the nature and powers of the soul in chapters 63-6 of The Cloud sounds also polemic. Unlike the German mystics, and unlike a great number of his predecessors and contemporaries, who claim a higher faculty through which union with God takes place in the essence of the soul,22 the author of The Cloud recognizes no higher faculty than the reason and the will, and through the right working of these he taught that mystical union can take place.


The style of The Cloud and Book of Privy Counselling makes it difficult to trace the immediate sources of the sequence of thought. The young disciple for whom these treatises were written was not a scholar.23 The author having perfectly assimilated the teaching he wanted to communicate, and writing from very immediate personal experience, used simple everyday terms, deliberately avoiding all learned terminology; he would not confirm his statements by quotations from recognized authorities because such a display of learning was not necessary for his purpose, and was a habit ‘now … turnid into corioustee & schewyng of kunnyng’.24 It is possible, however, to estimate in part this author's indebtedness, and to discriminate between his different kinds of sources. What influenced his main theme of contemplative prayer is first in importance; but this main theme is set in a framework of the traditional teaching of the Church on contemplation, and is elucidated occasionally by direct borrowings, which serve to illustrate or define.


The author of The Cloud openly acknowledged the chief influence upon his thought when he referred to the works of the pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite:25

‘And trewly, who-so wil loke Denis bookes, he schal fynde þat his wordes wilen cleerly aferme al þat I haue seyde or schal sey, fro þe biginnyng of þis tretis to þe ende.’26

There is another reference, equally definite, in Privy Counselling:

‘þis same werk … is Denis deuinite … his lizty derknes & his vnknowyn kunnynges’.27

The treatise in mind here was De Mystica Theologia, which it seems certain he translated into English.28 His only direct quotation29 from Dionysius, however, is taken from De Divinis Nominibus, the treatise in which Dionysius expounded at length the metaphysical basis of his mystical teaching. It is significant that Privy Counselling, obviously written to expound and develop some of the difficult ideas of The Cloud, should be to a certain extent a paraphrase of De Divinis Nominibus.

The spiritual exercise, which was inspired by Dionysius, rests upon the belief in the absolute incomprehensibility of God. The English treatises contain the same argument,30 clearly stated in De Divinis Nominibus, that the natural faculties of intelligence are impotent to comprehend the being of God because God's nature is essentially different from the nature of man:

‘Si enim cognitiones omnes exsistentium sunt, et si exsistentia finem habent; qui est super omnem substantiam, et ab omni cognitione est segregatus.’31

Since their highest achievement must still fall short, any activity of the normal faculties is a hindrance in the prayer of contemplation; any idea of God they give must necessarily be tainted with error:

‘Sed juxta proprietatem nostram ea quae sunt super nos accipientes, et rationi connutritae sensibus infixi, et nostris divina comparantes, decipimur, secundum apparens divinam et ineffabilem rationem exsequentes.’32

Although they lay repeated stress on the transcendency of God, both Dionysius and the English writer are careful to show why man's soul is not irreconcilably separated from the being of God. God is immanent in all things as well as transcendent above them. God is the Unity embracing all things and sustaining all things in being:

‘omnia est, ut omnium causa, et in ipso omnia principia, omnes terminationes, omnium causa totorum, comprehendens et praehabens. Et super omnia est, sicut ante omnia supersubstantialiter superexsistens.’33

This is implied in The Cloud and expounded in Privy Counselling by a simple paraphrase of the Dionysian teaching.34

Since God is in all things, but is more than the summation of all things, both Dionysius and the English writer would take the via negativa of contemplation. The normal faculties of intelligence attain to a more complete truth in the statement of what God is not than of what He is, by rejecting every mental conception of Him and denying Him any attribute. The ‘nakid entent streching into God’ advocated in the English treatises is a blind act of faith, ‘not cloþid in any specyal þouzt of God in hymself, how he is in himself or in any of his werkes, bot only þat he is as he is’.35 The whole of the teaching on prayer in The Cloud and Privy Counselling is an exposition of the Dionysian doctrine that:

‘þe moste goodly knowyng of God is þat, þe whiche is knowyn bi vnknowyng.’36

The imagery in The Cloud describing the soul's progress in the contemplative life and the effect upon the mind is parallel to the description of Moses' ascent of the mount of contemplation in De Mystica Theologia.37 The stage that most concerned the English author was that in which the soul, by its own efforts assisted by grace, had attained ‘ad summitatem divinarum ascensionum’, ‘the which is the terms and the bounds of man's understanding’38; he would still be conscious that he was separated from God: the clouds and darkness described by the Psalmist39 would still hide from him the being of God. No further progress in knowledge could be made by the human intelligence: the soul must now be prepared to plunge into that darkness by renouncing all the discursive workings of the mind. This darkness is the ‘caligo ignorantiae’ described by Dionysius, wherein the contemplative, putting aside all the conceptions of his normal understanding, is united to God:

‘zif euer schalt þou fele him or see him, as it may be here, it behoueþ alweis be in þis cloude & in þis derknes.’40

The soul's effort must be to persevere in this darkness, which is really a state of complete concentration upon the unconditioned and incomprehensible being of God. To attain to union he must by successive stages purify his mind from every image, must still the working of the discursive reason, and lastly lose even the consciousness of his own separate existence. These different stages are often described in The Cloud and Privy Counselling.41 The practice is the same as that taught in De Mystica Theologia:

‘et sensus derelinque et intellectuales operationes, et omnia sensibilia et intelligibilia, et omnia non exsistentia et exsistentia; et sicut est possibile, ignote consurge ad ejus unitionem qui est super omnem substantiam et cognitionem. Etenim excessu tui ipsius et omnium irretentibili et absoluto, munde ad supersubstantialem divinarum tenebrarum radium, cuncta auferens et a cunctis absolutus, sursumageris.’42

The state of ignorance to which both Dionysius and the author of The Cloud would lead the contemplative is thus paradoxically one of transcendent knowledge: as a reward for the renunciation of all knowledge of natural things, the mind will be illumined with a supernatural and inexpressible intuition of Divine mysteries:

‘Þan wil he sumtyme parauenture seend oute a beme of goostly lizt, peersyng þis cloude of vnknowing þat is bitwix þee & hym, & schewe þee sum of his priuete, þe whiche man may not, ne kan not, speke.’43

The English author acknowledged only Dionysius as his master in The Cloud, but many modifications in the Middle English treatise reveal that he was influenced quite as much by other writers in the Dionysian tradition as by the actual works of Dionysius himself. The title of the Middle English treatise, for example, illustrates this. The ‘cloud of unknowing’ is adapted from the Dionysian conception of the ‘darkness of unknowing’. The Latin translations of the works of Dionysius have always ‘caligo’, which is exactly translated by ‘darkness’ in Deonise Hid Diuinite. In a passage of Benjamin Major,44 obviously influenced by the description of the ascent of Moses in De Mystica Theologia, Richard of St. Victor used exactly the same image as the Middle English writer: he described the ‘nubes ignorantiae’. It will be shown later45 that the image of the cloud is common, particularly in the works of St. Gregory, and that it was probably taken originally from the Scriptures. The use of another cloud image in the English treatise, however, supports the idea that the expression ‘cloud of unknowing’ was drawn from Richard of St. Victor.46 From one aspect, the ‘cloud of unknowing’ is also a ‘cloud of forgetting’, beneath which the knowledge of all created things lies buried.47 Richard of St. Victor also described the ‘nebula oblivionis’ in a similar context.48

In his introduction to the modernized version of The Cloud (pp. xxvii-xxviii) Dom Justin McCann has drawn attention to one of the chief modifications of the thought—the English author's insistence that this mystical exercise is essentially an act of will and of love, and that the union it leads to is also a union of love. Dionysius also held that love was the energizing force which led to the union of God and the human soul,49 but he never gave a full explanation of this idea. Dom Justin McCann notes that this is the interpretation of Thomas Gallus. This emphasis upon the unifying power of love was common in the later Middle Ages, but since there is indisputable evidence50 that the author of The Cloud knew the works of Thomas Gallus, it is only reasonable to ascribe this modification of the Dionysian thought at least in part to his influence. In the commentary51 on De Mystica Theologia which was used by the Middle English translator the interpretation of unitive prayer as an act of love does occur. In the proem describing the nature of the Dionysian treatise Thomas Gallus maintains that the highest cognitive faculty is not the intellect but love:

‘Putauit summam vim cognitiuam esse intellectum, cum sit alia que non minus excedit intellectum quam intellectus racionem vel racio ymaginacionem, scilicet principalis affeccio. Et ipsa est scintilla sinderisis que sola unibilis est spiritui diuino.’52

The exercise of contemplative prayer taught by the English author involves more than the negative process of freeing oneself from all images and all discursive thought stressed by Dionysius. It is a positive reaching up of love towards God. The English writer lays alternate stress now on the one aspect, now on the other.

In his descriptions of the strange psychological experience of a highly conscious concentration on the substance of God apart from his qualities the English author was following in the tradition of Dionysius, who set before the contemplative an unconditioned Godhead as the object of his quest. Though this experience is the central point of The Cloud, the idea of the ‘naked entent’ is often affected in the author's mind by the doctrine of ‘chaste love’ enunciated by St. Augustine and epitomized by St. Thomas Aquinas. This close association of the two ideas is well illustrated in The Cloud, ch. 24. The passage defining the ‘nakid entente’ (58/17-18) is very reminiscent of St. Augustine's teaching on disinterested love,53 but the rest of the chapter, both before and after this passage, refers to the psychological experience of ‘blynde loue … betyng upon þis derke cloude of vnknowyng’.


A comparison of the Middle English treatises and De Adhaerendo Deo54 will reveal a marked similarity in thought and expression. The main theme of each treatise is fundamentally the same, and in the development of that theme many of the same ideas are introduced. Much of the teaching is certainly traditional, but it would perhaps not be too rash to assume that the frequent combination of the same ideas in the treatises is more than coincidence. It is reasonable to conjecture some connexion between the two treatises:55 perhaps they both derived from a common source, in the Dionysian tradition and devoted to the interpretation of the Dionysian conception of mystical prayer.

The contemplative prayer taught in the Middle English treatises and in De Adhaerendo Deo is essentially the same and is described in similar terms. The characteristic English epithet ‘naked’ corresponds to the repeatedly used ‘nudus’. in the Latin: e.g. ‘cum solo Domino Deo expedita, secura, et nuda firmaque adhaesione’ (cap. i), ‘nudo ac simplici ac puro intellectu et affectu’ (cap. iv), ‘in solo nudo intellectu et affectu ac voluntate tuum pendeat exercitium circa Deum’ (cap. iv), ‘nuda et expedita mente vacare et adhaerere Deo’ (cap. x).

Both treatises emphasize that this ‘naked intent’ must be directed towards the simple and unconditioned Godhead, ‘circa objectum simplicissimum Deum’.56 The Latin treatise urges the same total exclusion of all normal consciousness as The Cloud:57

‘Super omnia ergo valet, ut teneas mentem nudam sine phantasmatibus et imaginibus, et a quibuscumque implicationibus, ut nec de mundo, nec de amicis, nec de prosperis, nec de adversis, praesentibus, praeteritis, vel futuris, in te nec in aliis, nec etiam nimis de propriis peccatis solliciteris: sed cum quadam puritatis simplicitate te esse cum Deo extra mundum nude cogita, ac si anima tua jam esset in aeternitate extra corpus separata.’58

Oneness with God is ‘not elles bot a good & an acordyng wil vnto God, & a maner of weelpayednes & a gladnes þat þou felest in þi wille of alle þat he doþ. Soche a good wille is þe substaunce of alle perfeccion.’59 ‘Þou atteynest to come þedir by grace, wheþer þou mayst not come by kynde; þat is to sey, to be onyd to God in spirit & in loue & in acordaunce of wille.’60 The same idea is to be found in the Latin treatise:

‘Haec vero unitas spiritus et amoris est, quo homo omnibus votis supernae et aeternae voluntati conformis efficitur, ut sit per gratiam, quod Deus est per naturam.’61

If the will reach only towards God, that alone is sufficient; there is no need for meditation on past sin62 or for devotional exercises to acquire virtue:63

‘It distroieþ not only þe grounde & þe rote of sinne … bot þerto it geteþ vertewes. For & it be treuly conceyuid, alle vertewes scholen be sotely & parfitely conceyuid & felid comprehendid in it, wiþ-outen any medeling of þe entent.’64

The Latin treatise is equally emphatic:

‘Quippe bona voluntas in anima est origo omnium bonorum, et omnium mater virtutum: quam qui habere incipit, secure habet quidquid ei ad bene vivendum opus est.’65

‘Sufficit tibi hoc pro omni studio et lectione sacrae Scripturae, et ad dilectionem Dei et proximi.’66

Both the English and the Latin treatises teach that God will accept and recompense the will for the deed, though the soul fall short in its achievement:

‘Si ergo volueris bonum, et non potes, factum Deus compensat.’67

The exercise of the will directed solely towards God pleases God more than any other exercise:

‘Super omnia placet Deo mens nuda a phantasmatibus, id est, imaginibus, speciebus, et similitudinibus rerum creatarum.’68

Both writers promise ‘erles’ of the bliss of heaven to the contemplative,69 but they urge perseverance in the exercise of the ‘naked intent’ and a negligent attitude towards the sensible comforts and sweetness which will occasionally reward their efforts:

‘Praeterea, non multum cures actualem devotionem, aut sensibilem dulcedinem, vel lacrymas.’70

Mystical prayer in De Adhaerendo Deo as in The Cloud is characterized as an act of love.71 The same stress is laid upon the antithesis of the understanding and affection:

‘nullo umquam sensu est perceptibilis, sed pleno desiderio totus desiderabilis: non insuper est figurabilis, sed intimo affectu perfectissime appetibilis: non est aestimabilis, sed mundo corde totus affectibilis.’72

Belief in the unitive power of love is supported by the theory that ‘whersoeuer þat þat þing is, on þe whiche þou wilfuly worchest in þi mynde in substaunce, sekerly þer art þou in spirit, as verrely as þi body is in þat place þat þou arte bodely’.73 The same reasoning occurs in the Latin treatise:

‘Plus enim est anima ubi amat, quam ubi animat: quia sic est in amato secundum propriam naturam, rationem, et voluntatem: sed in eo quod animat, tantum est secundum quod est forma: quod etiam brutis convenit.’74

The English author's indebtedness to Thomas Gallus has already been discussed.75 In one important way, however, he does not explicitly reproduce the teaching of Gallus. Gallus teaches that the supreme mystical apprehension of God is achieved by a special faculty of the soul which he calls ‘principalis affectio’,76 and which he sets far above the normal cognitive faculties of imagination, reason and intellect. The author of The Cloud gives a quite conventional account of the faculties of the soul; like the author of De Adhaerendo Deo77 he insisted upon the traditional division of the soul into the three principal faculties, and recognized no higher faculty than the reason and the will.78

The gist of chapters 64-6 of The Cloud is that before man sinned all his faculties were in direct touch with God and worked according to His will. The purpose of the contemplative is to be raised again to this state of union. A similar description is given in the Latin treatise of the highest perfection possible in this life:

‘Ita Deo uniri ut tota anima cum omnibus potentiis suis et viribus in Dominum Deum suum sit collecta, ut unus fiat spiritus cum eo, et nihil meminerit nisi Deum, nihil sentiat vel intelligat nisi Deum, et omnes affectiones in amoris gaudio unitae, in sola Conditoris fruitione suaviter quiescant. … Et quamdiu illae ex toto, Deo impressae non sunt, non est anima deiformis juxta primariam animae creationem. …’79

The difficulty of contemplative prayer is acknowledged in both treatises, but the contemplative is urged to persevere and not to fall back for comfort on vocal prayer.80 After long practice this prayer will become easy and sometimes habitual.81

This spiritual exercise greatly angers the Devil, and he will try to prevent it in every possible way he can.82 In both treatises a similar device is taught for overcoming temptations:

‘Þink þat it is bot a foly to þee to stryue any lenger wiþ hem; & þerfore þou zeeldest þee to God in þe handes of þin enmyes.’

‘Þis meeknes deserueþ to haue God himself miztely descendyng to venge þee of þine enemyes. …’83


‘Et sic expedite secureque te totum, etiam plene omnia et singula committe infallibili et certissimae divinae providentiae cum silentio et quiete, et ipse pugnabit pro te: et melius, honestius ac dulcius liberabit te et consolabitur.’84

There is yet one other point of resemblance between The Cloud and De Adhaerendo Deo, in itself very inconclusive, yet combined with all the other similarities helping to corroborate the theory of some connexion between the two treatises. The same text is quoted to explain why contemplative prayer must be purified from every thought of bodily things.85


It is often impossible in The Cloud and Privy Counselling to determine whether the author was influenced in a particular theme by the tradition of Dionysius or by that of the Western Church, since many of the Dionysian conceptions were based ultimately upon the Scriptures, and many of the same ideas were developed independently by such Fathers as St. Augustine and St. Gregory. Moreover, in many passages the author of The Cloud blends the Dionysian conception of prayer with the traditional teaching of the Church on contemplation.

St. Augustine, for example, explains why the created universe must be transcended before the human soul may be perfectly united to the being of God.86 The via negativa of contemplation, taught by Dionysius in its extreme form, was taught first, according to Bossuet,87 by Clement of Alexandria, and later by St. Augustine88 and St. Gregory.89 The plunge into the ‘darkness of unknowing’ is only a vivid image of the decision of faith to love and to press towards a God whom the understanding cannot comprehend,90 and belief in the power of faith impelled such Doctors as St. Bernard, St. Bonaventura, Hugh and Richard of St. Victor to exalt affection above the reason in the act of contemplation.91

The careful avoidance of any suggestion of Pantheism in The Cloud,92 together with the insistence upon the need for grace in every stage of contemplative prayer, is wholly in accord with the orthodox teaching of the Church.

There is a striking similarity in the testimony of the mystics of all ages, and with the author of The Cloud, himself a contemplative, it is not often possible to decide whether he was describing his own experience, drawing upon the experience of his predecessors, or, still more likely, clothing his own experience in the descriptions of others. The immediate preparation for contemplation taught in The Cloud93 is essentially the same process of introversion formulated in the works of such Fathers of the Church as Cassian,94 St. Augustine,95 St. Gregory.96 Like others who describe mystical prayer, the author of The Cloud attests to the transient and momentary character of the feeling of union in contemplation.97 The same brevity is described by St. Bernard in De Diligendo Deo;98 graphic accounts of the same recoil of spirit are to be found in the works of St. Augustine and St. Gregory.99 Most writers100 on contemplation agree with the author of The Cloud that a clear vision of God is not possible to the mind in this life:

‘Whiles þat a soule is wonyng in þis deedly flesche, it schal euermore se & fele þis combros cloude of vnknowyng bitwix him & God.’101

This idea that contemplation in this life is as seeing the sun through a cloud is familiar in the literature of mysticism; Dom Cuthbert Butler is inclined to believe102 that the use of the image in this particular connexion originated with St. Gregory. This image is certainly often repeated in the Morals on Job; e.g.:

‘Super quo recte expandi nebula dicitur, quia sicut est illa coelestis regni gloria non videtur. … A videndo ergo eo nebula aspergimur, quia ipsa nostrae ignorantiae obscuritate caligamus. Unde recte per Psalmistam dicitur: Caligo sub pedibus ejus. …’103

In the Psalms God's greatness is unsearchable104; ‘clouds and darkness are round about him’105; ‘he made darkness his secret place; his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies’.106 The image in the fourteenth-century English treatise has a double aspect. As in the works of St. Gregory, the ‘cloud’ is partly caused by the frailty of the flesh which obscures the vision of God107; as in the Psalms it must ever hide the being of God from the knowledge of men.108

A supernatural illumination, at times, however, rewards the contemplative on earth, and the description of this in The Cloud109 is reminiscent of many passages in patristic writings, as is also the description of the sensible foretaste of heavenly joys frequently experienced during contemplative prayer.110 Like most writers on mysticism, the author of The Cloud teaches that such sweetness and comforts are not essential to contemplation, and must not be cherished for their own sake.111

The traditional distinction of the Church between the active and contemplative life underlies the whole of the teaching in The Cloud. Like Origen, St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. Thomas Aquinas, Hugh and Richard of St. Victor, and countless others, the English writer interprets the story of Martha and Mary in St. Luke x in terms of the active and contemplative life. The definition in the Prologue and in the eighth chapter of The Cloud and the allegory in chapters 17-21 can be paralleled with many passages from their writings. Contemplative life is higher than the active life because it will not come to an end with the body,112 a theme developed in The Cloud as in the writings of St. Augustine.113 The conduct of Martha and Mary typifies the restlessness of active life contrasted with the peaceful nature of the contemplative life.114 Active life in The Cloud is divided into two parts, in accordance with traditional teaching.115 Contemplative life in The Cloud is also divided into two parts, the higher part corresponding to the definition of contemplation found in patristic writings.116 Active life, however, must precede contemplative life in time, and dispose the soul for contemplation; the contemplative must first ‘able him to contemplatiue leuyng by þe vertuous menes of actiue leuyng’.117

Two118 details in his interpretation of the story of Martha and Mary will prove how closely the author of The Cloud was following the traditional sources of the allegory. Christ answered ‘sekirly not only as domesman, as he was of Martha apelyd: bot as an aduoket lawfuly defendid hir þat hym loued’.119 This resembles the account of St. Augustine:120

‘Dominus autem pro Maria respondit Marthae; et ipse ejus factus est advocatus, qui judex fuerat interpellatus.’121

St. Augustine also gives the same explanation as the author of The Cloud for the repetition of Martha's name:

‘Repetitio nominis indicium est dilectionis, aut forte movendae intentionis: ut audiret attentius, bis vocata est.’122


Long123 borrowed passages in The Cloud are immediately recognizable because they are different in style from the central teaching. Many of these are taken from the works of Richard of St. Victor.124

The three allegorical chapters of The Cloud (71-3), describing the different ways by which different people attain to contemplation, are little more than a close translation of passages from Benjamin Major. The English author adopts the same interpretation of the story of the building of the Ark of the Covenant, and, like the Victorine, holds that the ‘grace of contemplacion is figurid by the Arke of þe Testament in þe Olde Lawe’.125 The jewels and relics placed in the Ark are, to both writers, ‘treasures of wisdom and knowledge’.126 Three men were chiefly concerned with the building of this Ark, Moses, Beseleel, and Aaron, the first the example of those who attain to contemplation only in ecstasy, the last two typifying those who retain ‘fulle deliberacion of alle þeire wittis, bodely or goostly’.127

‘Modis autem tribus in gratiam contemplationis proficimus, aliquando ex sola gratia, aliquando ex adjuncta industria, aliquando ex aliena doctrina.’128

The exposition in The Cloud of how Moses climbed with great long travail to the top of the mountain, and abode there six days awaiting the revelation from God, and how this was granted to him on the seventh day, not through his own efforts but solely by the grace of God, is taken directly from the Latin treatise:

‘Quasi sex ergo dies transigimus in hoc monte, quando cum multo labore, magnaque animi industria in ejusmodi sublimitatis statu assuescimus diutius permanere. Tunc autem quasi ad septimum diem venitur, quando tanta mentis sublevatio, menti in oblectamentum vertitur, et sine ullo labore subitur.’129

‘Quod enim Moyses in monte per nubem arcam videre meruit, sola revelantis Domini gratia, fuit: nam ut eam pro arbitrio videret, in sua omnino potestate non habuit.’130

It sometimes happens that those who, like Moses, first attain to contemplation only after long travail, afterwards are able to contemplate whenever they will.131

In contrast to Moses, Aaron, signifying those who ‘by þeire goostly sleiztes, bi help of grace, mowen propre vnto hem þe perfeccion of þis werk as oft as hem likiþ’, had it in his power, as a priest, to see the Ark in the temple as often as he pleased.132 Aaron, however, was dependent133 upon Beseleel, who made the Ark according to the revelation granted to Moses in the mountain. The contemplative is like Beseleel when he advances by his own ‘goostly sleizt, holpyn wiþ grace’.134 The author of The Cloud even follows Richard of St. Victor in comparing his own office to that of Beseleel.135

Chapters 63-6 of The Cloud, classifying and describing the different faculties of the soul, are also clearly derived; much is taken from the early part of Richard of St. Victor's Benjamin Minor. Richard described the two chief powers of the soul, Reason and Affection, and the two secondary faculties, Imagination and Sensuality:

‘Una est ratio, altera est affectio: ratio, qua discernamus, affectio, qua diligamus. Ex ratione oriuntur consilia recta; ex affectione, desideria sancta. … Ex ista denique, omnis virtus; ex illa vero, veritas omnis.’136

‘Ad invisibilium cognitionem nunquam ratio assurgeret, nisi ei ancilla sua, imaginatio videlicet, rerum visibilium formam repraesentaret.’137

‘Sine sensualitate affectio nil saperet.’138

The English writer follows Richard of St. Victor in maintaining that Imagination and Sensuality are often now disobedient servants, ministering disordered and fantastic images and evil feelings, especially to those newly turned to a life of devotion:

‘Imaginatio autem cum tanta importunitate in auribus cordis perstrepit, quatenus ejus clamorem … ipsa Rachel vix vel omnino cohibere non possit. Hinc est quod saepe dum psallimus vel oramus, phantasias cogitationum vel quaslibet imagines rerum ab oculis cordis amovere volumus, nec valemus.’139

‘Sensualitas, quae animi affectionem carnalium voluptatum desiderio inflammat, et earum delectatione inebriat.’140

Shorter passages in The Cloud describing the different planes of the mind's activity are possibly also derived from the works of Richard of St. Victor. In three different chapters141 of The Cloud the author describes when a man is below and without himself, when he is even with and within himself, and when he is above himself, in passages which resemble similar classifications in Benjamin Minor142 and Benjamin Major.143

Ch. 35 in The Cloud also gives the impression of being borrowed, but it is very possibly a composite. The author himself acknowledges that ‘þou schalt fynde wretyn in anoþer book of anoþer mans werk moche betyr þen I can telle þee’144 of Lesson, Meditation, and Orison. Dom Justin McCann suggests145 that the book referred to is probably the Scala Claustralium146 of Guigo II.147 This treatise was translated into Middle English,148 and it is possible that the author of The Cloud knew both the Latin original and the translation. Although Lesson, Meditation, and Orison are commonly taught as the way to contemplation, several other resemblances in the same chapter of The Cloud support149 the theory that the Scala Claustralium is the source. After emphasizing the interdependence of the three exercises, both treatises continue to explain that ‘alle is one in maner, redyng & heryng’.150 In the course of the same argument both treatises relate these three exercises to the different states of ‘beginners’, ‘profiters’151 and of those ‘þat be parfite’.152

Ch. 53, describing at disproportionate length the curious gestures and antics of those deceived by a false spirituality, offers a different problem. The author himself was so conscious that he was setting down an undue number of examples that he explained why.153 The piquant descriptions in which this chapter abounds are quite characteristic of this author's style, and it is impossible to say whether he was writing from personal experience or quoting from the keen observations of others. Dom Justin McCann154 and Dom Noetinger155 have suggested that the Middle English author made use here of the twelfth chapter of Hugh of St. Victor's De Institutione Novitiorum;156 but a close comparison of the two treatises reveals that only a few157 ideas from the Latin treatise are repeated in The Cloud.


  1. 32/15-16.

  2. 62/7.

  3. 23/20-2, 16/20-17/5.

  4. 62/14-18.

  5. 22/7-8.

  6. 46/12-13.

  7. 79/17-18.

  8. 73/15-16.

  9. 79/15.

  10. 82/23 ff.

  11. 135/20-136/6.

  12. 156/9-15.

  13. 143/27.

  14. 149/20 ff.

  15. Chs. 8, 19, 21, 23.

  16. 15/14-15.

  17. 69/3-4.

  18. 63/6-7.

  19. 64/17-20.

  20. 162/8-164/6.

  21. 136/16-18.

  22. e.g. Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck and others.

  23. See 71/12-14, 125/19-20, &c.

  24. 125/19.

  25. The pseudo-Dionysius was a Christian Neoplatonist, probably a Syrian ecclesiastic, who lived about the beginning of the sixth century. His only extant works are De Divinis Nominibus, De Mystica Theologia, De Cœlesti Hierarchia, De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, and some Epistolae. These treatises are printed in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, tt. iii, iv (Paris, 1857). No reliable trace of any other work is to be found, though Dionysius asserts in these extant works that he was the author of six other treatises.

    P. G. Théry (Études Dionysiennes, Paris, 1932) claims that these works were first known directly in the West in the middle of the eighth century. In the ninth century they were translated into Latin, first by Hilduin and later by Johannes Scotus Erigena, and subsequently had a great vogue in Europe. The most important of the later translators were Johannes Sarracenus, Thomas Gallus, Robert Grossetête. The chief commentators were Maximus (sixth century), whose commentaries were translated into Latin by Anastasius in the ninth century and by Robert Grossetête in the thirteenth century, Johannes Scotus Erigena, Johannes Sarracenus, Hugh of St. Victor, Thomas Gallus, Robert Grossetête, Albertus Magnus, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

    The works of the German mystics of the fourteenth century are deeply influenced by Dionysian thought.

  26. 125/13-15. It is very unlikely that the author of The Cloud knew the works of Dionysius in their original form. He was probably acquainted with some of the many translations and commentaries. The style of the English treatises makes it impossible to decide which particular source he used. For his translation of De Mystica Theologia, Dom Justin McCann states (Cloud of Unknowing, London, 1924, Introd., pp. xii-xiii) that he used three distinct sources: the twelfth-century Latin version of Johannes Sarracenus, the thirteenth-century Latin paraphrase (extractio) of Thomas Gallus, and the Latin commentary of Thomas Gallus.

  27. 154/13-18.

  28. See p. lxxviii.

  29. 125/11-12.

  30. 125/5-9, 25/18-26/2.

  31. Ch. i. Quoted from S. Dionysii Areopagitae De Divinis Nominibus. Translatio Joannis Sarraceni. D. Dionysii Cartusiani Opera Omnia, vol. xvi, Tournai, 1902, p. 353. Unless it is otherwise stated the Latin quotations from Dionysius are taken from Sarracenus's translation.

  32. Ibid. ch. vii, p. 380; cf. Cloud, 33/11-16, Privy Counselling, 146/1-5, 158/1-10.

  33. Ibid., ch. v, p. 377.

  34. 136/16-23. Cf. ibid. v, p. 376: ‘Et omnia ipso participant, et a nullo exsistentium recedit; et ipse est ante omnia, et omnia in ipso consistunt … (p. 378). In uno enim … exsistentia omnia et praehabet et subsistere facit: praesens omnibus et ubique et secundum unum et idem et secundum idem omne; et ad omnia procedens, et manens in se ipso.’

  35. 135/21-22.

  36. 125/11-12, quoted from De Divinis Nominibus, ch. vii.

  37. Ch. i.

  38. Denis Hid Divinity, ch. i, The Cloud of Unknowing (London, 1924), p. 260.

  39. Psalms (A.V.) xcvii. 2; xviii. 11.

  40. Cloud, 17/7-9. Cf. De Mystica Theologia, i. p. 472: ‘Tunc et ab ipsis absolvitur visis et videntibus, et ad caliginem ignorantiae intrat, quae caligo vere est mystica: in qua claudit omnes cognitivas susceptiones, et impalpabili omnino et invisibili fit omnis exsistens ejus qui est super omnia, et nullius, neque sui ipsius neque alterius; omnino autem ignoto vacatione omnis cognitionis secundum melius unitus, et eo quod nihil cognoscit, super mentem cognoscens.’

  41. e.g. 16/6-7, 23/10, 82/2-6, 83/3-5, & c.

  42. Ibid., p. 472. Cf. De Divinis Nominibus, vii, p. 380: ‘Secundum hanc igitur oportet divina intelligere, non secundum nos, sed nos ipsos totos extra nos ipsos statutos et totos deificatos.’

  43. 62/14-17.

  44. Lib. iv, cap. 22 (Migne, Patrologia Latina, t. cxcvi, col. 165).

  45. See p. lxx.

  46. Further support may be adduced from the fact that like the cloud in the Middle English treatise (122/11-13), Richard of St. Victor's cloud is also paradoxically luminous: ‘et juste mirari debeas quomodo concordet ibi … nubes ignorantiae, cum nube illuminatae intelligentiae.’

  47. Cloud, ch. 5.

  48. Benjamin Major, v. 2 (col. 171): ‘Quid enim est ad divinae vocationis accessum nebulam intrare nisi mente excedere, et per oblivionis nebulam quasi adjacentium memoria mente caligare?’

  49. De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, ch. i.

  50. Deonise Hid Diuinite (MS. Harl. 674, f. 121a): ‘in translacion of it [i.e. De Mystica Theologia] I haue not onlich folowed þe nakid line of þe text. Bot for to declare þe hardnes of it I haue moche folowed þe sentence of þe abbot of seinte victore, a noble and a worþi expositour of þis same book.’ According to Dom Justin McCann (Cloud, pp. 249, xiii), ‘þe abbot of seinte victore’ was Thomas Gallus, Abbot of St. Andrew's, Vercelli, from its foundation in 1219 until his death in 1246, a Canon Regular of the Congregation of St. Victor.

  51. Only three extant manuscripts of this commentary are known: Royal 8 G IV, Worcester Cathedral Library F 57, Merton College Library, Oxford, MS. 69.

  52. Merton College MS. 69, f. 131b.

  53. Also Cloud, ch. 50, 93/21-4. Cf. Enarratio in Psalmum lxxii. 32 (P.L. t. xxxvi, col. 928): ‘Qui aliud praemium petit a Deo, et propterea vult servire Deo, carius facit quod vult accipere, quam ipsum a quo vult accipere. Quid ergo? Nullum praemium Dei? Nullum, praeter ipsum. Praemium Dei, ipse Deus est. Hoc amat, hoc diligit; si aliud dilexerit, non erit castus amor.’ Also Enarr. in Psal. lv. 17 (col. 658), lii. 8 (col. 617), Sermo cxxxvii. 10 (P.L. t. xxxviii, col. 760); St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II, ii, q. xvii, a. 8.

  54. B. Alberti Magni Opera Omnia (Paris, 1898), vol. xxxvii, pp. 523-42.

  55. The authorship and date of De Adhaerendo Deo are still subjects of controversy, so that the tempting theory that the English author knew the Latin treatise must not be pressed too far. The standard text of this treatise embodies a number of passages which derive from 14th-century writers, so that its ascription to Albertus Magnus (d. 1284), at least in this form, is unacceptable. It is possible that Albertus was the author of the treatise in an original, shorter form, which was amplified in the 15th century by a Bavarian Benedictine, Johannes von Kastl. The question has been much discussed since Mgr. Grabmann first advocated the authorship of Johannes von Kastl in the Tübinger Theol. Quartalschrift, 1920, pp. 186-235. Some account of the discussion is given by Hieronymus Wilms, Albert the Great (London, 1933), pp. 104-5. Slight support of a close connexion may be adduced from the fact that De Adhaerendo Deo is to be found in MS. Bodleian 856 (Bo1), a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript. See pp. xvi-xvii.

  56. De Adhaerendo Deo, cap. iv, p. 526; cf. Cloud, ch. 7, ch. 8, 32/7-8.

  57. 82/2-6.

  58. Cap. viii, p. 531; cf. cap. vi, p. 529: ‘si vis Deum veraciter possidere, necesse est quod cor tuum denudes omni amore sensibili, non tantum cujuscumque personae, sed etiam cujuscumque creaturae.’

  59. Cloud, 92/18-21.

  60. Cloud, 120/6-8.

  61. Cap. v, p. 528.

  62. Cloud, ch. 16.

  63. Cloud, chs. 12, 24, 42.

  64. Cloud, 39/11-15.

  65. Cap. xi, p. 535.

  66. Cap. v, p. 527.

  67. Cap. xi; cf. Cloud, 132/18-20.

  68. Cap. x, p. 533; cf. Cloud, 16/10.

  69. Cloud, ch. 48, De Adhaerendo Deo, cap. vii.

  70. Cap. x, p. 533.

  71. Cap. xii, p. 535: ‘Quippe solus amor est, quo convertimur ad Deum, transformamur in Deum, adhaeremus Deo, unimur Deo, ut simus unus spiritus cum eo, et beatificemur hic in gratia, et ibi in gloria, ab eo, et per eum. Amor enim ipse non quiescit, nisi in amato, quod fit cum obtinet ipsum possessione plenaria atque pacifica.’ Cf. Privy Counselling, 156/16-20: ‘Þis is þe trewe condicion of a parfite louer, only & vtterly to spoyle hymself of himself for þat þing þat he louiþ, & not admit ne suffre to be cloþed bot only in þat þing þat he louiþ; & þat not only for a tyme, bot eendlesly to be vmbilappid þerin, in ful & fynal forzetyng of hymself.’

  72. Cap. vii, p. 530; cf. Cloud, 26/2-5.

  73. 121/16-19.

  74. Cap. xii, p. 536.

  75. See Introd., pp. lxii-lxiii.

  76. Merton Coll. MS. 69, f. 131b: ‘ipsa est scintilla sinderisis que sola unibilis est spiritui divino.’

  77. Cap. iii, p. 525: ‘Imago enim Dei in his tribus potentiis in anima expressa consistit, videlicet, ratione, memoria, et voluntate.’

  78. Cap. iv, p. 526: ‘Hujusmodi autem exercitium non fit in organis carneis et sensibus exterioribus, sed per quod quis homo est: homo vero quis est intellectu et affectu.’ Dom Justin McCann very kindly pointed out to the present writer that in substance, in his insistence on the exercise of the will, and on the power of love to attain to a surpassing, immediate knowledge of God, the author of The Cloud is in profound agreement with the teaching of Thomas Gallus. Though the latter speaks of his ‘principalis affectio’ as a cognitive faculty, since it yields the supreme apprehension of God, one must suppose him to mean that this faculty is none other than the will, and its knowledge the surpassing knowledge of love and union.

  79. Cap. iii, p. 525.

  80. Cf. Cloud, chs. 37, 39; De Adhaerendo Deo, cap. viii, p. 531: ‘Et cum adest turbatio, aut acedia, vel mentis confusio, non propterea insolescas, aut pusillanimis sis, nec propter hoc curras ad orationes vocales, aut alias consolationes.’

  81. De Adhaerendo Deo, cap. xiii, p. 537: ‘erit tibi in tua introversione et recollectione jam facile ac promptum contemplari ac frui, sicut vivere in natura’; cf. Cloud, 62/7-11, 126/10-13.

  82. Cf. Cloud, ch. 3; De Adhaerendo Deo, cap. iv.

  83. 67/2-4, 10-14.

  84. Cap. iv, p. 526; cf. Privy Counseling, 149/2-5.

  85. De Adhaerendo Deo, cap. i, p. 523: ‘Quoniam quidem Spiritus cum sit Dominus Deus et eos, qui adorant eum, in spiritu et veritate oportet adorare; id est, cognitione et amore, intellectu et affectu, ab omnibus phantasmatibus nudis.’ Cf. Cloud, 88/19-21.

  86. Enarr. in Psal. xli. 8 (P.L. t. xxxvi, col. 469); cf. Cloud, 32/12-13, 120/2-5.

  87. Instruction sur Les États d'Oraison, Second Traité (Paris, 1897), ch. xxi, p. 55.

  88. e.g. Enarr. in Psal. lxxxv. 12 (P.L. t. xxxvii, col. 1090): ‘Deus ineffabilis est; facilius dicimus quid non sit, quam quid sit;’ Sermo lii. 16; De Civ. Dei, ix, 16.

  89. e.g. Morals on Job, v, cap. xxxvi (P.L. t. lxxv, col. 716).

  90. Cloud, 21/14-15.

  91. Cf. Summa Theologica, 1. ii, q. xxviii, a. 1 ad. 3: ‘Amor est magis unitivus quam cognitio.’

  92. See p. lvi.

  93. 16/4-9, 25/4-8, 82/2-6, &c.

  94. Cf. Coll. x. 5 (P.L. t. xlix, col. 826), ibid. 11 (col. 836).

  95. The progressive silencing of the different faculties of the mind is described at length in Confessions, ix. 25 (P.L. t. xxxii, col. 774).

  96. Cf. Hom. in Ezech. ii, v. 9 (P.L. t. lxxvi. col. 989-90).

  97. e.g. 62/11-12.

  98. P.L. t. clxxxii, col. 990: ‘Beatum dixerim et sanctum, cui tale aliquid in hac mortali vita raro interdum, aut vel semel, et hoc ipsum raptim, atque unius vix momenti spatio experiri donatum est.’

  99. Cf. Cloud, 22/11-13; Confessions, x. 65 (P.L. t. xxxii, col. 807); Morals on Job, v, cap. xxxii (P.L. t. lxxv, col. 711).

  100. St. Augustine is the most noteworthy exception.

  101. 63/20-2.

  102. C. Butler, Western Mysticism, London, 1927, p. 127.

  103. xvii, cap. xxvii (P.L. t. lxxvi, col. 29); cf. also Morals, v, cap. xxx (P.L. t. lxxv, col. 708); iv, cap. xxiv (P.L. t. lxxv, col. 659).

  104. Ps. (A.V.) cxlv. 3 (Vulgate cxliv. 3).

  105. Ps. (A.V.) xcvii. 2 (Vulgate xcvi. 2).

  106. Ps. (A.V.) xviii. 11 (Vulgate xvii. 11).

  107. Cloud, ch. 28.

  108. Cloud, 19/3-5.

  109. 62/14-18, a passage reminiscent of St. Gregory's ‘chink of contemplation’ described in Morals on Job, v, cap. xxix, Hom. in Ezech. ii, Hom. v, 17. Cf. also St. Bernard, Sermo in Cantica, lvii (P.L. t. clxxxiii, col. 1053). There is an agreement in mystical writings that this illumination often affords ‘a most firm, clear assurance and experimental perception of those verities of Catholic religion which are the objects of our faith, which assurance the soul perceives to be divinely communicated to her.’ F. A. Baker, Holy Wisdom, London, 1876, p. 533.

  110. 90/20 ff.; cf. Cassian, Coll. x, cap. 7; St. Augustine, Confessions, x. 65; St. Bernard, De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio, cap. v, 15.

  111. Cloud, ch. 49; cf. St. Bernard, Sermo in Cant. xxxi.

  112. Cloud, 31/4-6, 15-17; cf. St. Augustine, Sermo ciii, cap. iv; Tract. in Ioan. cxxiv. 5.

  113. 54/12-16; cf. Sermo civ, cap. ii (P.L. t. xxxviii, col. 617), Sermo ciii, cap. v. St. Gregory repeats this theme in Hom. in Ezech. ii, Hom. ii.

  114. St. Augustine, De Consensu Evangelistarum, i. 8 (P.L. t. xxxiv, col. 1046): ‘illa [Martha] operatur, ista [Maria] requiescit’; Sermo ciii, cap. ii (P.L. t. xxxviii, col. 614): ‘illa multa disponebat, ista unum aspiciebat.’

  115. 31/21-3; cf. Summa Theologica, II. ii, q. clxxxii, a. 3: ‘Vita activa potest considerari quantum ad duo. Uno modo quantum ad ipsum studium et exercitium exteriorum actionum … alio modo potest considerari vita activa quantum ad hoc quod interiores animae passiones componit et ordinat.’

  116. 32/5-8; cf. St. Gregory, Hom. in Ezech. ii, Hom. ii. 8 (P.L. t. lxxvi, col. 953): ‘Contemplativa vero vita est … ab exteriore actione quiescere, soli desiderio conditoris inhaerere, ut nil jam agere libeat, sed, calcatis curis omnibus, ad videndam faciem sui Creatoris animus inardescat.’

  117. Cloud, 2/6-7; cf. Summa Theologica, II. ii, q. clxxxii, a. 4; Hom. in Ezech. i, Hom. iv (P.L. t. lxxvi, col. 809).

  118. Possibly a third example is the discussion of the superlative ‘best’ in The Cloud, ch. 21. St. Gregory, Hom. in Ezech. ii, Hom. ii (P.L. t. lxxvi, col. 953-4), also discusses the choice of the epithet, though he gives a slightly different explanation.

  119. 51/23 ff.

  120. The exegesis of St. Augustine became the tradition with Western mystical writers; see Western Mysticism, p. 232.

  121. Sermo civ, cap. i. (P.L. t. xxxviii, col. 616).

  122. Cloud, 52/2-3; Sermo ciii, cap. ii (P.L. t. xxxviii, col. 614).

  123. Shorter borrowings are given in the notes.

  124. P.L., t. cxcvi.

  125. 126/18-19; cf. Benj. Maj. i. 1 (col. 65): ‘Vides ergo quam recte gratia contemplationis in eo sacrario intelligitur … Si igitur per arcam sanctificationis recte intelligitur gratia contemplationis. …’

  126. Cloud, 126/21-4; Benj. Maj. i. 2 (col. 65): ‘Scimus autem quia pretiosa quaeque aurum, argentum et lapides pretiosi soleant in arca reponi. … Si igitur sapientiae et scientiae thesauros cogitemus.’

  127. Cf. Cloud, ch. 71, Benj. Maj. iv. 22 (col. 166). Aaron is the type in The Cloud, Beseleel in Benj. Maj.

  128. Benj. Maj. v. 1 (col. 167).

  129. Ibid. iv. 22 (col. 165).

  130. Ibid. iv. 23 (col. 166).

  131. Cloud, 128/3-5; Benj. Maj. v. 1 (col. 169): ‘Moysi quidem arca Domini ex Dominica revelatione est in monte ostensa, postmodum autem in valle familiariter nota et frequenter visa.’

  132. Cloud, 127/8-13; Benj. Maj. iv. 23 (col. 166-7): ‘Aaron autem jam ex magna parte in potestate habebat quoties idipsum ordo vel ratio poscebat in sancta sanctorum intrare, et intra ipsum velum arcam … videre’; ‘alii vero ut hoc possunt sibi comparant (cum gratiae tamen cooperatione) ex magna animi industria. … Iam velut ex virtute ejusmodi gratiae efficaciam habere dicendi sunt, qui ex magna jam parte id possunt cum volunt.’

  133. Cloud, 129/1-3; Benj. Maj. v. 1 (col. 167-8): ‘Aaron autem arcam aliena jam operatione formatam videre consuevit.’

  134. Cloud, 128/18; cf. Benj. Maj. v. 1 (col. 168): ‘Sed tunc quasi juxta Beseleel exemplum in idipsum ex proprio opere proficimus, cum in eamdem gratiam nostro studio et labore artem comparamus.’

  135. Cloud, 129/4-9; cf. Benj. Maj. v. 1 (col. 169): ‘Ecce nos in hoc opere quasi Beseleel officium suscepimus qui te ad contemplationis studium instructionem reddere et quasi in arcae operatione desudare curavimus. Longe tamen meipsum in hac gratia praecedis, si ex his quae audis adjutus intrare praevaleas usque ad interiora velaminis.’

  136. Cap. iii (col. 3); cf. Cloud, 115/19-20, 116/10 ff.

  137. Cap. v (col. 4); cf. Cloud, 117/6-7.

  138. Cap. v; cf. Cloud, 118/8-9.

  139. Cap. vi (col. 5); cf. Cloud, 117/12-17.

  140. Cap. v (col. 5); cf. Cloud, 119/8-10.

  141. Chs. 8, 62, 67.

  142. Cap. lv (col. 40).

  143. ii. 16 (col. 95); iv. 2 (col. 136).

  144. 71/14-16.

  145. Cloud of Unknowing (1924), p. 87 note.

  146. Migne, P.L., t. xl, col. 997 ff.; t. clxxxiv, col. 475 ff.

  147. Prior of the Grande Chartreuse towards the end of the twelfth century.

  148. ‘A Laddre of foure Rongys by the whiche ladder men mowe wele clymbe to heuen.’ This translation is to be found in MSS. Douce 322, f. 52b ff., Univ. Lib., Cambridge, Ff. vi. 33, Harleian 1706.

  149. Support is necessary, since Dom Noetinger, Le Nuage de l'Inconnaissance (Tours, 1925), pp. 159 ff., opposes the theory.

  150. 71/20-1; cap. xi (P.L. t. clxxxiv, col. 482): ‘Auditus enim quodam modo pertinet ad lectionem. Unde solemus dicere, non solum libros ipsos nos legisse, quos nobis ipsis vel aliis legimus, sed illos etiam quos a magistris audivimus.’

  151. i.e. proficients.

  152. Cloud, 71/17 ff.; cf. MS. Douce 322 (f. 53b): ‘The furst degre ys of begynners. The secund of profyters. The thryd of hem that been deuoute. The iiiith of theym that ben holy and blyssed wiþ God.’

  153. 100/2-4.

  154. Loc. cit., p. 128, note.

  155. Loc. cit., p. 205, note.

  156. Migne, P.L., t. clxxvi, col. 938 ff.

  157. The present writer has found only six, and some of these have not a close resemblance: Cloud, 99/2-6; cf. col. 941: ‘Alii quasi ambae aures ad audiendum factae non sint, alteram tantum collo detorto voci venienti opponunt.’ … ‘Sunt enim quidam qui nisi buccis patentibus auscultare nesciunt, et quasi per os sensus ad cor influere debeat, palatum ad verba loquentis aperiunt. … Alii loquentes digitum extendunt.’ Cloud, 99/9; cf. col. 942: ‘Alii navigant brachiis incedentes.’ Cloud, 98/1-2; cf. col. 942: ‘Alii majori ridiculo dimidiato ore loquuntur.’ Cloud, 99/13-14; cf. cap. xvii (col. 948): ‘Modestiam debet habere gestus loquentis, ut nec inordinate, nec impudice, nec turbulenter inter loquendum membra moveat, neque oculorum nutibus, aut indecenti conformatione sive transmutatione vultus, placorem sui sermonis imminuat.’

E. Allison Peers (essay date 1947)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2248

SOURCE: Peers, E. Allison. “The Cloud of Unknowing.” In Behind That Wall: An Introduction to Some Classics of the Interior Life, pp. 56-63. Toronto: SCM Press Ltd, 1947.

[In the following essay, Peers provides an overview of the major themes of The Cloud of Unknowing.]

This is a book written, late in the fourteenth century, by an Englishman, about whose identity no one knows anything whatsoever, or can even make much of a guess. He was undoubtedly a scholar, and almost certainly a priest; but, though he seems to have known a good deal about solitude and contemplation, he gives clear indications of having lived in the world. Whatever his state of life, he was a most remarkable writer; for, in days when the language of “religious” books was so apt to be conventional, he is vivid, surprising, picturesque, caustic and even humorous. His faculty of observation is rivalled by his gifts of expression. He must often have found himself, for example, watching people's curious attitudes and eccentric gestures:

Some men are so cumbered in nice curious customs in bodily hearing, that when they shall ought hear, they writhe their heads on one side quaintly, and up with the chin: they gape with their mouths as they should hear with their mouth and not with their ears. … Some can neither sit still, stand still, nor lie still, unless they be either wagging with their feet or else somewhat doing with their hands. Some row with their arms in time of their speaking, as them needed for to swim over a great water. Some be evermore smiling and laughing at every other word that they speak, as they were giggling girls and nice japing jugglers lacking behaviour.

And I wonder how long he spent listening to none too conscientious monks reciting their offices in choir before he thought of that expressive phrase of his, a “long psalter unmindfully mumbled in the teeth”.

Here is a man, then, who would undoubtedly have enjoyed the picturesque descriptions and the sparkling humour of his contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer. Yet, whenever he took up his pen, it was to tell us about his life behind the wall. He is writing, he says, not for anybody and everybody—not for “tellers of trifles” and “tattlers of tales”, but for those who try to live the interior life and want to know more about it. “I pray thee, for God's love,” he exclaims, “that thou let none see this book, unless it be such a one that thou thinkest is like to the book.” For, to those who have no experience of what it is about, it will seem mere foolishness.

And what is it about? Well, about the interior life in general, and, in particular, about one phase of it which is very familiar to those who have made some progress. The first step that we all take when we look for the door that leads us behind the wall is desire, yearning—which is prompted by love and produces a resolute determination: “thou mayest learn”, in the author's quaint phrase, “to lift up the foot of thy love; and step towards that state and degree of living that is perfect”. Dominated by this determination, we then set to work to discipline and purge ourselves of everything that comes between us and the Beloved. We spend time on prayer, on reading the Bible and on meditation. But there comes a point in our progress when these things seem to get us no farther. We have reached a full stop. And worse, there is something separating us from God—we can't imagine what.

We still have the desire—the “naked intent unto God”. But there is something between us and God: our author first calls it “darkness” and then a “cloud”, a “lacking of knowing”—hence a “cloud of unknowing”. How can we penetrate it and reach God? That is the question which this book attempts to answer.

To continue, for the time being, with reading and meditation is useless. “It profiteth little or naught to think on the kindness or the worthiness of God, nor on Our Lady, nor on the saints or angels in heaven, nor yet on the joys in heaven.” All these things must be put aside:

for God's love be wary in this work, and travail not in thy wits nor in thy imagination on nowise: for I tell thee truly, it may not be come to by travail in them, and therefore leave them and work not with them.

In other words, we must leave off thinking about God and concentrate upon Him—“upon the naked Being of Him”—all the fervour of our love, all the force of our will. “By love”, says our author, in one of those short, pregnant phrases which it is impossible to forget:

By love may He be gotten and holden, but by thought never.

We are to “smite”, then, “upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love; and go not thence for anything that befalleth”. May we pray? you ask. By all means. How, indeed, can we help ourselves? For what else is true prayer but a “devout intent direct unto God”? Pray, then: “meekly press upon Him with prayer, and soon He will help thee”. But let your prayer be as simple and earnest as your longing is. Make no attempt to find suitable words or well-rounded phrases. One single word “Fire!” is enough to bring us immediate help from men; one single word—“a little word of one syllable”, such as “God” or “love”—will pierce the cloud and reach God.

Therefore take thou none other words to pray in … but such as thou art stirred of God for to take.

Now, this, of course, is not easy. The night is dark and we are far from home: we may not be conscious of any Divine companionship. And there are things which get in the way. We are oppressed by the remembrance of our sins, or of sin in general: for the time being we must put it aside. It is good for us to be “meeked”—humbled—but rather “under the wonderful height and the worthiness of God, the which is perfect, than under thine own wretchedness, the which is imperfect”. Then, very naturally, those thoughts which we are trying to expel insist upon coming back again. We all know that experience—and no one knew it better than the author of The Cloud. He writes of it almost as though it were physical. The thoughts, he says, “rise” and “press continually above thee betwixt thee and that darkness”. That is, they prevent us from getting through to God. And, because they are very often good, holy thoughts, we find it very hard to resist them. None the less, we must disregard them, and “look over their shoulders” towards God; nay, we must send them right away; we must spurn them, trample on them, “tread them down”. When the thought says: “What seekest thou, and what wouldst thou have?”

say thou that it is God that thou wouldest have: “Him I covet, Him I seek, and naught but Him.” … And therefore say, “Go thou down again,” and tread him fast down with a stirring of love, although he seem to thee right holy, and seem to thee as if he would help thee to seek Him.

For this process of dispelling thought our nameless author also has an image. Beneath our feet—to adopt his vivid language—we must create a “cloud of forgetting”, and, while we forge “stalwartly” upwards through the darkness of the cloud above us, all hindrances to our progress must be engulfed and drowned in the cloud below. Indeed, during this time of crisis, everything must go there—“all the creatures that ever be made”—save God alone. So every “sharp subtle thought”, however good in itself, every attempt made by the intellect to invade the territory of the will, must be “put down” and covered “with a thick cloud of forgetting”.

Stalwartly step above them with a fervent stirring of love, and tread them down under thy feet. … And if they oft rise, oft put them down; and shortly to say, as oft as they rise, as oft put them down.

This is absolutely essential. The intellect must not be allowed to usurp the place of love: “unless thou bear him down, he will bear thee down”. The task is hard: it will cost great effort, great “travail”—“yea, surely! and that a full great travail”. But, while we are striving to keep the mind in its place, God, on His side, will be stirring up our love:

Wherein, then, is this travail, I pray thee? Surely, this travail is all in treading down of the remembrance of all the creatures that ever God made, and in holding of them under the cloud of forgetting named before. In this is all the travail; for this is man's travail, with help of grace. And the other above—that is to say, the stirring of love—that is the work of only God.

The knowledge that He is standing by us, watching us and helping us through the cloud will prove an inspiration:

Do on then fast; let see how thou bearest thee. Seest thou not how He standeth and abideth thee? For shame! Travail fast but awhile, and thou shalt soon be eased of the greatness and of the hardness of this travail. For although it be hard and straight in the beginning, when thou hast no devotion; nevertheless yet after, when thou hast devotion, it shall be made full restful and full light unto thee that before was full hard. And thou shalt have either little travail or none, for then will God work sometimes all by Himself.

And that brings us to the last stage which the Cloud describes to us: the stage of illumination. For in the spiritual life, as in the life of every day, when you have climbed upwards through the mist and rain, you come out, above the clouds, into a land of sunshine. “Do on thy work,” the author exhorts us, “and surely I promise thee He shall not fail in this.” Even while we are still in the cloud, He may sometimes “send out a beam of ghostly (i.e., spiritual) light, piercing this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt thee and Him; and shew thee some of His privity, the which man may not, nor cannot speak”. And with light comes also heat: “then shalt thou feel thine affection inflamed with the fire of His love, far more than I can tell thee”.

That is the main theme of this remarkable book; and I have picked it out with some care because, what with the quaintness of the archaic language, even when this has been slightly modernized, and the author's continual digressions and repetitions, some readers might find the thread that runs through his theme rather hard to unravel. But once you have the thread, you will wander about among the book's seventy-five short chapters most happily and with complete freedom.

And then you will discover a great deal more than has been written here. All kinds of striking phrases will catch hold of you and enrich your spiritual experience. I like the counsel, for example, to avoid “rude strainings” in my love of God, but to love “with a soft and demure behaviour”. “Abide courteously and meekly the will of Our Lord,” the author goes on, “and snatch not over-hastily, as it were a greedy greyhound, hunger thee never so sore.” Again, the warnings of Chapter 57 against undue literalness in devotion are appropriate still, as are the counsels of Chapter 59 that a man shall not “strain his imagination upwards bodily in the time of prayer; and that time, place and body, these three should be forgotten”. Read, too, Chapters 37 to 39, on ejaculatory prayer, where you will find one of the author's most famous phrases: “That short prayer pierceth heaven.

My only regret about The Cloud of Unknowing is that I know so little about its author. None of the writers mentioned in this book would I rather meet in the flesh, not even St. Augustine or St. John of the Cross. And yet I know his book so well that I almost feel I know him too. I can recognize him in a number of other little books written either by him or by his disciples—The Book of Privy Counselling, a kind of sequel to the Cloud, is the best known of them. I am glad he was an Englishman; and, though there is no room in this little book to write about his compatriots of the Middle Ages—such as Rolle, Hilton and Julian of Norwich—I think we may be very well content to have him as the representative of the Middle Ages in our country.



The Cloud of Unknowing:

(i) * Ed. Evelyn Underhill. London, 1912. (Modernized);

(ii) Ed. Dom Justin McCann. London, 1924. (Modernized. Includes also the Book of Privy Counselling and Denis hid divinity);

(iii) Ed. Phyllis Hodgson. London, 1944. (A scholarly edition published by the Early English Text Society. Includes also the Book of Privy Counselling.)


T. W. Coleman, in English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century. London, 1938.

Dom David Knowles, in The English Mystics, London, 1927, and in “The Excellence of the Cloud”, Downside Review, 1934, LII, 76-92.

Ira Progoff (essay date 1957)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10456

SOURCE: Progoff, Ira. “Introductory Commentary.” In The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Ira Progoff, pp. 1-38. New York: The Julian Press Inc., 1957.

[In the following essay, Progoff contends that although The Cloud of Unknowing is a medieval text, its profound psychological insights can also benefit its modern readers.]

More than any other, the present period of history should have a humble and open-minded attitude toward all possible sources of knowledge. Modern man has lived to see the most productive discoveries drawn from previously rejected materials. Under the hand of science, fungi and molds have been found to be sources of healing substances. Again and again in a variety of ways we are reminded of the saying of Jesus that the stone which has been cast aside will become the cornerstone. The experience of modern man has shown this to be the case on many different levels of existence, reinforcing an old rabbinic interpretation of the remark attributed to King David, “From all my teachers have I gotten understanding”; for wisdom may be drawn even—yes, especially—from the simplest events and from the least respected persons.

I begin with comments like these because I am about to ask the modern scientific individual to regard seriously, in order to learn from, a class of literature that has long been rejected. This type of literature, I must warn in advance, has even been labeled with that nasty epithet of the rationalist era, “mystic”—as though man's reason has any greater goal than to penetrate the clouded mysteries of human existence. That epithet, however, should not stop our turning to such a source for information and insights of an objective and productive kind; especially since this kind of material will eventually contribute significantly to the modern, rational attempt to build a science of man.

The particular text that is presented in this volume in a new translation—a translation, that is to say, from archaic English to modern English—is derived from a medieval manuscript written in fourteenth century England. It is generally classified within a special genre of medieval religious literature; and up until now, partly because of its archaic language and style, its readership has consisted mainly of individuals with highly specialized tastes and interests. Those who know of The Cloud of Unknowing and treasure it are to be found, however, within all shades of Christian opinion from the Quaker to the Catholic. On the one hand, we see its mark in the writings of Rufus Jones and Howard Brinton; and on the other hand, reaching into the literary realm, we see its significant influence upon T. S. Eliot in the “Four Quarters.”

At the present juncture of modern thought, however, for reasons which I shall soon explain, it seems highly desirable to make The Cloud of Unknowing available to a more general public than the small group of admirers who have valued it in the past. We now possess, thanks to the new insights emerging from the study of depth psychology, an approach to “outdated” manuscripts such as The Cloud of Unknowing that makes them alive again with meaning and usefulness for man not limited by the times and circumstances in which they were written. The Cloud of Unknowing, for example, proceeds in terms of symbols and concepts that are, at least on the surface, far removed from the ways of thinking of the modern mind. But, underneath the seemingly vast differences between the medieval and modern images of the universe, we find an underlying sameness of searching and experience that can significantly enlarge our areas of awareness. A first step is to make texts of this kind available in more easily readable form, rephrased in the language of modern speech. This is a necessary preliminary step. With such texts at hand, it should be possible to proceed in the further experiencing and evaluation of the doctrines contained in The Cloud of Unknowing and in comparable manuscripts of other cultures and traditions.


The past two generations have witnessed an ever-growing desire to develop a science of psychology. This desire has been symptomatic of many things, especially of the profound social and spiritual restlessness that has become one of the main characteristics of the present period in western civilization. What has been called the historical “crisis of our age” makes its presence felt in many ways, but its most immediate and most intensely felt effect is the oppressive sense of personal confusion that it visits upon individual human beings. Individuals in modern times are beset by a feeling that they do not know who they are or what they are. And they have in the background of their minds a vague feeling, which is also a true intuition, that their lives are deprived both of meaning and of pleasure because they are without this knowledge.

Seeking this understanding of themselves, many have turned with great hopefulness to the young science of psychology. There is indeed a strong possibility that eventually when it has attained its maturity as the science and art dealing with the full magnitude of human personality, psychology will truly fulfill the great expectations with which modern man has turned to it. But meanwhile we should not permit the flurries of enthusiasm engendered by its early achievements to lead us into thinking that psychology is yet in a position to carry out even the main part of what the human situation in our time requires of it. A very great deal of work that is fundamentally new both in content and point of view remains to be done. In fact, one of the main reasons for presenting and commenting upon The Cloud of Unknowing is to indicate an important and suggestive source of the materials that psychology should study in its search for more adequate insights into the nature of the human personality.

Modern man has turned to psychology out of the fullness of a serious personal need; and it is a need that is more than personal but historical and spiritual as well. In certain areas of its development, psychology has recognized the large dimensions of the spiritual need of modern man; but the overwhelming tendency has been for it to drift in another direction.

Freud set the predominant tone of psychological work with his neurological emphasis on pathology, and with his reductive, self-analytical procedure. In the course of the first half of the twentieth century, this attitude of analytical self-consciousness has seeped into the mentality of our time to a degree that has led more than one author to refer to the modern period as a predominantly “psychological era.” When we consider the situation in perspective, however, we realize that the absorption of the psychoanalytical point of view into the thought of our times represents only an early and transitory phase in the development of modern man's knowledge of himself.

Man's psychological awareness in modern times began with psychoanalysis; but it does not end with that. There are many indications that Freud, as an originator of a way of thinking, led the way into fields of study that will eventually yield fruits he did not know were planted there. This work of harvesting new understanding belongs to the second half of the twentieth century. It leads beyond the conceptions with which psychoanalysis began; and now that Freud's intimate life story has been disclosed,1 we have convincing evidence that, had Freud known the full richness of the field he had discovered, he would have been as interested in its spiritual exploration as the new generation of psychologists is bound to be.

The contemporary interest in psychoanalytical types of thinking is to be understood, in the first place, as a spontaneous effort to locate and understand the Self of the individual human being in the historical flux of modern times. It is an attempt at self-knowledge; but more than that, and very significantly, it is a seeking for knowledge that will be presented within the frame of reference of science. The modern individual is pressed by his inner need to venture toward an understanding of his psychological depths. But he wishes to achieve this self-understanding upon a basis that will be—or will at least seem to be—as solid and as secure as the knowledge of his body that the medical doctor brings him by the light of biochemistry. Modern man comes with deep human problems to be answered; and he wishes to have his uncertainties resolved by an understanding of himself that will have the authority of science behind it.

Psychologists as a whole have not only acknowledged the validity of this desire, but they have also felt it very strongly in themselves. As a result, psychological studies in the twentieth century have taken special pains in attempting to satisfy the requirements of scientific method as a standard for objective truth. In rather self-conscious ways, psychologists have often gone to great extremes in this regard. In their efforts to carry out laboratory procedures to the ultimate of correctness, they occasionally give the impression that they are performing scientific method in ritual detail and with religious overzealousness. Anxious to demonstrate that they are at least as “scientific” as anyone, they lean over backward in their terminology and in the way they structure their research. And leaning over backward sometimes makes intellectual somersaults unavoidable.

Any impartial observer must recognize the fact that there are major obstacles now preventing a scientific exploration of the full dimensions of human personality with the scope and flexibility necessary for such investigations. It is a problem that is inherent in the subject matter itself. The components of human psychology are exceedingly difficult to study in a dispassionate and verifiable way without missing subjective nuances that are of crucial importance. The great task—which stands as a major challenge before modern psychology—is to bring about a harmonious union of methodology and subject matter.

On the one hand, a full commitment to scientific method and objectivity is a prerequisite for an attempt to understand the nature of the human personality in modern times, and the spirit of science must be held to unswervingly. On the other hand, we are faced with the objective fact that man's mind and emotions, both conscious and unconscious, are such intangible, mercurial entities that they persistently elude intellectual grasp and scientific study. It is more than coincidence that, in certain psychological treatises of prescientific times, mercury was taken as a symbol of the depths of human personality.

Because of the difficulty in studying the unconscious processes of the mind objectively, some have claimed that the hope of developing a scientific psychology is ultimately an unfulfillable aspiration. Psychology can be scientific, it has been said, only at the cost of its subject matter. It can be scientific only if it eliminates from its sphere of study those subjects of investigation that elude laboratory experiments and statistical correlation. But if it does that, it will be omitting the very problems that psychology is called upon to solve. If it would become scientific at that cost, psychology would be reneging on its obligation to modern man. It would be giving up the goal just at the point where it was looked to most expectantly for significant help. It would fail to bring to modern man the insight into the intangible depths of personality that is essential for renewed human development in our time.

It would seem that psychology can fulfill its role in modern civilization only if it manages to meet both sides of this apparent dilemma in a constructive and integrative way. Psychology must retain its commitment to science, conceiving it as a dedication to objective study. At the same time it must address itself without hedging and without retreat to the full range of issues that arise in the study of the magnitude of the human personality, no matter how difficult and delicate those issues may prove to be.

There are a number of steps that can be taken in meeting this twofold requirement of psychological study. Here, however, I would like to make one main suggestion. It is that while psychology maintains its adherence to high standards of objective scientific study, it should at the same time significantly expand its range of subjects.

The spirit of science requires that every disciplined striving for knowledge must include all the data relevant to its field of investigation. It is therefore essential that psychologists study the nervous system, the patterns of habit formation, learning procedures, and all the other aspects of human behavior. But it is also essential to remember that psychology is the science devoted primarily to the study of the psyche, that is, to the processes that operate within the human personality.

These processes may be described in terms that fit the sciences that deal with more tangible factors and in which “cause” and “effect” are more readily observed; sciences such as biology, physics, and chemistry. A very large part of modern psychological theory represents an attempt to apply the explanatory principles of these sciences in the study of psychological phenomena. We see this, for example, in the conception of the “mechanisms” underlying conscious thought and unconscious emotionality. Such descriptions, however, apply only to a particular level of human functioning. They do not describe the more creative and also self-directive processes by which individuals, in nonmechanistic ways, seek to achieve a fuller development and realization of the capacities of the psyche.

The self-directed development of the faculties of the inner life has been almost entirely neglected in the modern study of psychology. The fundamental reason for this neglect, it would seem, is that the disciplines of personal psychological development have mainly been carried through within the frames of reference of various religious or philosophical ideologies. Those who seek to find the objective “mechanisms” of the psyche and who follow, consciously or not, a personal ideology of materialism in one variation or another, feel something alien in such procedures. They react against them emotionally, castigate them as “spiritual,” and dismiss them as nonscientific. The profound psychological significance of the many and varied disciplines of personality development is thus altogether missed. The evidence is dismissed peremptorily, simply by disdaining to discuss the subject. Thus, in the name of science, a most unscientific act is committed; and the science of psychology is deprived of a source of information and insight that can contribute greatly to the task of understanding the dynamic processes at work in the inner life of man.

We must consider this last point very seriously. Until now, the advance of psychology as a science has been seriously impeded by the fact that it has not been able to deal scientifically with the subtle, seemingly subjective experiences of the human person. The experiences of the spirit, the creative moments of religion and art, are intangible and difficult to analyze. They are strange and frightening to the temperament, the “psychological type,” and intellectual habit of mind of the dedicated laboratory experimenter and statistic-gatherer.

Nonetheless, temperamental aversions placed to one side, we should not overlook the striking fact that experimental work has been going on for many, many centuries in the understanding and channeling of the dynamic processes of man's inner life. These experiments have not been “controlled” in the modern sense; nor have they provided quantitative data. But, by a persistent, cumulative gathering and testing of personal experience, through individual trial and error over the years, by reflecting, reconsidering, and reattempting the work, a process of experimentation in the disciplined development of the personality has been carried on and a body of knowledge has been accumulated.

This knowledge is scattered in many traditions and is both concealed and conveyed in the symbolism of many religious and cultish doctrines. Because of the diversity of its symbolic forms, it is a knowledge that is not easily available to modern man; but it could be made available to him, intelligibly and usefully, if the science of psychology in whose province it belongs would take the trouble to study it, interpret it, and apply its findings scientifically.

If modern psychologists would turn their attention to studying some of the early records of disciplined psychological undertakings, they would soon realize that those prescientific men were working in a spirit of science not unlike their own, imbued with a high regard for the empirical testing of objective psychological truth. The modern psychologist would then see that those early experimenters in psychological development were engaged in the immediate and personal kind of experimentation that is a necessity peculiar to the subject matter of psychology, i.e., the psyche or inner life of man. We could then find that those men, often labeled “mystics,” were actually precursors and models for the development of a modern scientific psychology dedicated to the inner growth of personality. And when the modern work of interpretation would be far enough advanced, we would find that we had drawn from the hard-won “spiritual” knowledge of the centuries the basis for new psychological conceptions that would provide a more ample and more realistic awareness of the capacities of human personality.


It was with this purpose in mind that I undertook the study of The Cloud of Unknowing. It had been called to my attention as a particularly sensitive, realistic, and objective description of the experimental work of the inner life, as dealt with from a particular type of historical and religious point of view. The text at first reading impressed me as being most significant for modern psychological understanding. As I went more deeply into the work, I found that many words that I had thought I understood in the fourteenth-century text had acquired different meanings since the day when the book was written. Words that are still in existence and are even in common use today were used with radically different connotations in the original text. Since these meanings had long been obsolete I did not know of them; and I assume that the same is the case for most other modern readers. Because these words are in use today I attributed their modern meaning to them; and I was often in error where I least suspected it.

Considering these things, I came to the conclusion that if my study was to lead to an intelligible and valid interpretation of the text, a first and essential step would be to render it into modern language, if only for my own use. It appeared also that it would be quite desirable to work out a modern rendering of the text for the benefit of the general reader who might turn to The Cloud of Unknowing with something other than a psychological interest.

The original text of The Cloud of Unknowing was written in the language of daily life in fourteenth-century England. The purpose of the book was to provide practical advice for all individuals interested in achieving a direct knowledge of God that they might verify by their own experience. Accordingly, the author addressed himself neither to the academic men nor to the clergy, but he spoke rather to the generality of mankind, to all persons whatever their station or condition in life, whether male or female, learned or illiterate, whoever might read the book or have it read to them.

The author's one requirement of his readers was that they feel a strong and sincere desire for a direct meeting with God in the spirit. This contact with God was not understood as something transcendent or removed from daily life. It was sought, rather, as a content of immediate experience, and it was thus described and referred to in the language of everyday affairs with colloquial expressions and pungent phrases, indicating that though the author was a monk he was in close touch with the secular life of his times. He was interested in reaching people on all levels of society. He therefore used the terms of ordinary speech so that he might strike the largest common denominator by speaking of man's relation to God in words that everyone would be able to understand.

In order to be true to the original text, it has been essential that this modern version be rendered wherever possible into the colloquial language of everyday speech. Otherwise one could get an entirely erroneous impression of The Cloud of Unknowing. It was addressed to everyone, to everyone, that is, who felt a desire for personally proved religious conviction. Its language, therefore, was full of the tang and saltiness of everyday life.

It is certainly true that there are today a great number of persons who enjoy reading old texts in their original, archaic styles. Perhaps the outstanding example of this is the case of those who prefer to read the Bible in the original King James version rather than the various revised and modernized renderings. Such individuals are usually well aware that the early King James version contains many misleading and erroneous translations, but they are primarily interested in something else. They want to make an affirmative religious use of the fact that the outmoded language and style of that version of the Bible carries for them many rich associations with their childhood. They want to restore the memories attached to their early reading of the Bible and to experience again the beauty of its literary rhythms. And this certainly has great merit and validity in its own right. It is obviously not, however, an approach to the Bible in terms of the intrinsic content of the text.

The case of The Cloud of Unknowing is altogether different from this, for The Cloud of Unknowing is by no means a center of family worship as the Bible is for many persons. It is a profound text with many veiled meanings that have to be understood as deeply and as clearly as possible if the point of the book is to be grasped and if the personal experience it seeks is actually to be achieved.

In fact, the essential aim of the spiritual work that The Cloud of Unknowing describes requires that the individual be led beyond the associations and emotionality of childhood to the most mature religious experience possible. While it demands great fervor of spiritual feeling, The Cloud of Unknowing moves on a level that is beyond emotional dependence on childhood memories and family traditions. It appeals to our mature understanding—not merely to our intellectual, but to our spiritual understanding—and for this a keen discernment in language is necessary as a tool of knowledge.

In working out this modern rendition, I have made use of three main versions of the original text published in recent times. They are those of Evelyn Underhill, published by John M. Watkins in London; by Abbot Justin McCann, O.S.B., published by The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland; and by Phyllis Hodgson, the closest to the original manuscript, published under the auspices of The Early English Text Society of London. To each of these editors and to their publishers, I tender my great and sincere appreciation.2

These three versions provided me with a kind of consensus against which to check my modern rendition. In general I have held to the original text of The Cloud of Unknowing as closely as possible while replacing old words with new ones to convey the author's meaning. I have also restructured the sentences wherever necessary in order to make certain that the free flow of the thought would not be hindered by archaic syntax. At various points in the text, however, the reader will find that obsolete words have been deliberately retained. These are words that have gone out of currency but which have a special pungency and impact in the form in which the author employs them. Wherever possible, I have left the original phrases in such cases, and my criterion has been to see whether the meaning of the word becomes clear from the immediate context in which it appears. In such cases I have substituted another word only when the phrase was used in a different sense or in a different context. Throughout, the aim has been to capture and convey the spirit of the original document so that the modern reader can feel sympathetically, and perhaps experience for himself, what the author was trying to say and trying to do.

One innovation in this version that should be noted particularly is the numbering of the paragraphs. The text consists of seventy-five chapters, and I have numbered the paragraphs within each chapter, sometimes breaking the long paragraphs into two or three shorter ones. It has seemed to me that to number the paragraphs will provide a convenient and practical way to refer to particular sections of the text for study and comment. For example, without reference to page number, the fourth paragraph in the thirty-eighth chapter may simply be referred to for standard reference as XXXVIII:4.


The information available to us concerning the author and background of The Cloud of Unknowing is lacking in detail. The best scholarship on the subject indicates that it was the work of a monk who lived in England, probably in the east central part, during the middle of the fourteenth century. He wrote anonymously, and in all likelihood he did so not out of modesty but out of prudence.

In the fourteenth century, the ecclesiastical authorities were sedulously in search of heresy; for a number of small, unorthodox, highly individualized spiritual groups were active throughout western Europe during that period. Perhaps the most significant step was taken in the year 1329 when the conceptions set forth by Meister Eckhart were officially condemned by the Pope. Eckhart's writings and sermons represented the most advanced expression of the antiformalistic point of view in that time. His approach to religion emphasized the importance of independent inquiry and individual experience; and this was a point of view to which the author of The Cloud of Unknowing was also strongly committed.

The underlying attitudes of Meister Eckhart and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing have a great deal in common; and it is perhaps just because of this closeness—and the consequent nearness of the Inquisitor as well—that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing constantly avows his horror of all forms of heresy. We do not know whether he was ever formally charged with heresy himself; but, at the very best, he must have lived a precarious existence if his authorship was known during his lifetime. It was only in later generations that the Roman Catholic Church recognized the legitimacy of this direct, personal approach to religious experience and gave it official sanction and encouragement.

The thirteenth century with its encompassing synthesis of reason and faith as composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas had brought everything into order. Religious knowledge had reached its highest point according to the official pronouncement of the time; but the interesting fact is that the period directly after the generation of Saint Thomas, in direct contrast to the systematized, reasonable orderliness of Thomas's integration, was a time of spiritual turbulence in which the most varied mystical movements mushroomed all through Europe from England to Italy.

The system that the Scholastics had proclaimed does not seem to have sufficed for many of the Roman Catholic brethren of the time. They felt a pressing need to come close to God directly and spontaneously in terms of the intense immediacy of their individual religious promptings. This aspect of the fourteenth century has been referred to aptly by Rufus Jones as “the flowering of mysticism,” and while it was strongest in the German-speaking areas of Europe, it was actively developed in England as well. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing seems to have been one of the most energetic, and certainly one of the most competent figures in this period of spiritual ferment and controversy in medieval Christianity. He wrote several tracts, all of which are anonymous, but which we nevertheless are able to identify with confidence because of their distinctive style and point of view. The Cloud of Unknowing stands out, however, as his most important work. It is the one that expresses most articulately the principles of his teaching and in which the meaning of his personal “experiment with truth” is most impressively conveyed.

It seems certain that our unknown author was a monk of some denomination; but there is no agreement as to the specific order to which he belonged. The fact that he spent the last years of his life in monastic seclusion seems to be indicated by the tone of his writings; but it is considered probable that he was a secular priest, and that perhaps in his younger years he was not a priest at all.

One of the most intriguing aspects of The Cloud of Unknowing and the other writings of its author is their blunt and earthy tone. They were obviously not the work of a man who had confined himself to a monastic ivory tower. Quite the contrary, they seem to have been written by a person who was particularly familiar with the frailties of human nature, and who was capable of accepting people as they were.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing impresses the modern reader again and again with his sharp, profound, amazingly perceptive insights into man's psychological limitations. He was by no means a tender-minded individual, as the authors of mystical treatises frequently tend to be. Just the opposite, indeed. The Cloud of Unknowing was written by someone who was exceedingly tough-minded in the sense in which William James used the phrase. He was most unsentimental, matter of fact, and down to earth; and he regarded this habit of mind as a prerequisite for the work in which he was engaged. He proceeded upon the belief that when an individual undertakes to bring his life into relation to God, he is embarking upon a serious and demanding task, a task that leaves no leeway for self-deception or illusion. It requires the most rigorous dedication and self-knowledge. The Cloud of Unknowing is therefore a book of strong and earnest thinking. It makes a realistic appraisal of the problems and weaknesses of individual human beings, for it regards man's imperfections as the raw material to be worked with in carrying out the discipline of spiritual development.

The author states that the specific purpose for which he was writing The Cloud of Unknowing was to provide guidance for a young man twenty-four years of age who was seriously considering taking a step that would commit him to a life of religious dedication as a Contemplative. Ostensibly the book is written for this young man personally to help him reach a decision by indicating the kinds of persons who are capable of leading such a life, and what it involves for them in practice.

One feels, however, that this situation was used largely as a literary device to provide a frame of reference for the theme. The necessity of giving this piece of advice presented a convenient occasion for describing in detail a point of view with which its author was deeply involved. Also, in the course of rendering his “advice,” the author has described various experiences of his own, indicating that he was doing something more than set forth the psychological outlines of a religious discipline. He was satisfying a need of his own for a personal confession concerning the unconventional, highly individualized, and certainly lonely work in which he had been engaged. It is this personal confession, inadvertently revealed, that gives The Cloud of Unknowing its impressive tone of sincerity and spiritual intensity; and it also provides a main reason for our believing in the personal authenticity of the work.

As the life of contemplation is referred to in the text, it seems to imply complete withdrawal from the world. The author indicates, however, that there is no rigid requirement. A wide flexibility is possible in the work, for there are several levels at which the life of the contemplative can be experienced. He makes the more basic point as well that it is not the physical withdrawal from the secular world into the cloister that is the essential thing. What is more important is the withdrawal of psychological attachments from individual entities, objects, and relationships. The implication then is present in the text that the life of contemplation and union with God may involve the fully isolated monastic life, or it may not. Either path may lead to the ultimate goal, and in varying degrees. Grace and the spontaneous love of God are more important than any of the physical conditions of life. The author develops this point in the most subtle ways, and occasionally with remarkable brilliance, even at several points reminding us of the elastic strength and wisdom found in the Japanese masters of Zen and the Hasidic Zaddiks who appeared in European Judaism a few centuries after The Cloud of Unknowing was written.

The term contemplative carries overtones of passivity and of withdrawal from the vortex of life; but it has a much more active meaning in The Cloud of Unknowing. To speak of undertaking to live as a Contemplative—as was the young man to whom the author was addressing his instructions—referred, in the frame of reference of the fourteenth century, to a special way of life. The Contemplative was a person who undertook, either within a monastery or in secular living, to control his thoughts and feelings by means of special disciplines in order to become capable of a closer relationship with God. Far from being passive, then, the contemplative life is decidedly active, for it involves a most ambitious spiritual enterprise.

There are, however, several obstacles that hinder the modern reader who tries to conceive within the terms of his present situation what the contemplative life would mean in practice. For one thing, the descriptions of this way are presented in The Cloud of Unknowing within the frame of reference of the medieval view of the world; and many of the conceptions that it takes for granted are strange indeed to the modern mind. It was, after all, before the day of Copernicus and Gallileo, before the appearance of the modern forms of economy and political life, when western culture was still in a rudimentary stage. It was a time also when Europe was steeped in religiosity, when Satan, the Saints, and the Sacraments were ever-present realities of daily life for practically everyone.

In those days, whatever else one would do, the religious forms and observances had to be included, and a certain degree of deference had to be accorded them. The secularization of western society, which was to bring a radically different style of thinking to modern man, had not yet begun to show itself. It is necessary, therefore, if we wish to understand the creative activity expressed in the contemplative life as The Cloud of Unknowing describes it, to divest ourselves temporarily of our habitual mode of thinking and see the world from a premodern point of view.

This transformation of mentality from the modern to the medieval is not as difficult as might be expected, at least not where The Cloud of Unknowing is concerned. The reason is, I think, that it works toward its spiritual experience on psychologically neutral ground, where the modern and medieval individual can meet and understand each other not in terms of their historical differences, but in terms of the sameness of their essential quest. All that is necessary to keep this common ground in view is a recognition that the author's central aim was to achieve a unity with God that would transcend time, place, and social circumstances.

This meeting ground is established in a significant way. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes the discipline of the contemplative life within the framework of the Christian orthodoxy of the fourteenth century; but it soon becomes apparent that he does not consider the formal observance of ritual to be dominant. He cautions his young student not to relax his obedience to the teachings of the Church, but that seems to be mainly a precautionary measure. He does not want the neophyte to lose his connection with the traditional practices and institutions before he is ready to sustain himself by individual work.

In this we can see a clear indication of the role that the teachings of The Cloud of Unknowing are to play in the individual's development. The principles and practices described are to be followed in the advanced stages of religious study. They are not a substitute for regular religious observances, but they are the next step forward for those who seek a higher degree of development. Thus, with respect to the formal observance of prayer, he writes, “Those who truly practice this work do not worship by prayer very much. They pray according to the form and the law that has been ordained by the holy fathers before us; but their special prayers always rise spontaneously to God without having been planned in advance, and without any particular techniques either preceding them or accompanying them” (XXXVII:1).

The author, like most of his religious contemporaries, lived within the frame of reference provided by the Bible. The incidents of its stories were familiar facts to him, and the figures in its pages were persons with whom he had an everyday contact. As he develops the point of his argument, therefore, he refers to these persons and events as examples, and especially as prototypes, of the disciplines and experiences he is discussing. He elaborates often on the sayings of Jesus and on the life of the Virgin Mary; and he interprets the acts of Saint Stephen, Saint Martin, Martha and Mary, Moses, Bezaleel, and Aaron, and various doctrines of the church concerning the nature of God.

These are a necessary part of his work of instruction. But soon we realize that the references to the Bible, to Jesus, and to the nature of God have only a transitory significance. The aim of the work is to lead beyond all theological conceptions and doctrines, and beyond all attachments to religious objects and observances.

“Indeed,” the author writes, “if it will be considered courteous and proper to say so, it is of little value or of no value at all in this work to think about the kindness or the great worth of God, nor of our Lady, nor of the saints or angels in heaven, nor even of the joys in heaven. It is of no value, that is to say, to hold them intently before your mind as you would do in order to strengthen and increase your purpose. I believe that it would not be helpful at all in accomplishing this work. For, even though it is good to think about the kindness of God, and to love Him and to praise Him for it, nevertheless it is far better to think about His naked being and to praise Him and to love Him for Himself” (V:4).

The ultimate goal of the work of The Cloud of Unknowing is union with God, not as God is thought of or as God is imagined to be, but as God is in His nature. And though this statement may seem to suggest a dogmatic and absolutist attitude, it is actually reasonable and flexible in its meaning. It refers to an experience in which man seems to be transcending himself, but is in fact discovering himself as he is. He is coming into contact with his own “naked being,” and, by means of this, it becomes possible for him to come into contact with God as He is. This experience, which takes the form of various degrees and levels of “union” with God, is psychologically exceedingly difficult to achieve; but it is nonetheless held to be attainable by man in principle with practice as The Cloud of Unknowing describes.

The author begins with the observation that, before a person can reach the ground of “naked being” that is at the core of his own nature and of God's, there are many obstacles within his mind that he must overcome. Idle and misleading thoughts, chains of habit, and the stream of unconscious association must be systematically pressed down; the wanderings of the curiosity must be held in check; and the strong promptings of the imagination must be resisted. All these and more the author discusses in practical terms, suggesting a number of procedures that had been found effective in the past. He never recommends that a given technique be taken over as a whole and applied in a fixed form, but rather that it be tested by the individual and adapted to meet the needs of his special case.

The aim of these practices, which must be described as essentially psychological, is to break through the bonds that attach the individual to the world of his senses and separate him from his eternal nature. These bonds are of many kinds; but whatever their content, essentially they are thoughts, and their effect on the person is through the mind. Most especially, according to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is Memory that separates man from his true self; for Memory has in the text an encompassing meaning as the dynamic and all-inclusive force in man's mental life that binds the mind to objects of past experience. It is, therefore, the attachments of memory that must be overcome before the individual can reach his “naked being” (LXIII: 1,4; LXVII).

The attachments of memory may be of various kinds. They may be personal and principally derived from the individual's experience, both his pleasures and his pains. And they may be the products of a nonpersonal or group memory that fasten the individual's mind to symbols and doctrines preserved and extolled by religious tradition. Such images and beliefs, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing tells us, should not be rejected in themselves. They may be retained as the contents of conventional religion. But the individual who wishes to reach God as He is in Himself must overcome his attachment to all such beliefs, even the most hallowed. The author specifically extends this to the Sacraments and to meditations upon the life of Christ. Sacred objects are not to become stopping places, lest we remain with them and forget that our one goal is God as He is in Himself.

This teaching of The Cloud of Unknowing is reminiscent of one that is expressed in a rather strong form in Zen Buddhism. There, it is said, “When you have spoken the name Buddha, wash your mouth out!”

This was by no means intended as a sacrilegious statement, for the Buddha in Buddhism is as holy and revered a figure as Christ in Christianity and the Messiah in Judaism. Its significance is rather to emphasize that attachment to the symbolic forms and sacred figures of man's religions can easily become an impediment in the ultimate quest of the spirit. This quest involves each individual alone in the privacy and tension of his love and need of God. It reaches in each person from the deep core of his being to the “naked being only of God Himself”; and it does so in varying degrees, depending upon how fully one has persevered and how much one has achieved in the work.


One main characteristic of the goal of this work is that it cannot be attained in the ordinary condition of human consciousness. The spiritual disciplines of many religious traditions bear testimony to this fact, in Yoga, in Zen, Hasidism, Sufism, and especially in The Cloud of Unknowing. In fact, the special purpose of the author was to give his disciple an understanding of the particular quality of consciousness that is required, so that he might know how to adapt to his own use the various techniques of achieving it.

The normal tendency of consciousness is to move outward toward the environment in terms of sensory contacts, social feelings, ideological beliefs, emotional attachments, and so on. This outward movement necessarily involves a spreading of attention with a consequent dissipation of the energy available to the mind (psychic energy). The first requirement of the work described in The Cloud of Unknowing is then to call a halt to this squandering of energy by outward diffusion; and it undertakes to accomplish this by means of disciplined attention to the activities of the mind.

Its first step is to curtail, with the aim eventually of eliminating, all the various distractions that play upon the mind. This means the control of thoughts arising from contact with other persons and objects; and the control of thoughts arising from within, fantasies and imaginings, desires and beliefs. It calls for a drawing back of all attachments or, in psychological language, of all projections whether they are valid or false, so that they will no longer be able to serve as avenues for the expenditure of energy in the world. It involves in principle a recall of all energy that is invested by the individual in objects and in thoughts of every kind.

We are reminded in this connection of Sigmund Freud's observation regarding some equivalent psychological processes. “Certain practises of mystics,” he wrote, “may succeed in upsetting the normal relations between the different regions of the mind, so that, for example, the perceptual system becomes able to grasp relations in the deeper layers of the ego and the id which would otherwise be inaccessible to it.” And Freud added, “We must admit that the therapeutic efforts of psycho-analysis have chosen much the same method of approach.”3 The difference between Sigmund Freud and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is that, while Freud recognized intellectually the validity and importance of the mental processes involved, the author of The Cloud investigated them still further in a practical way, experimenting with them within his own personality to see empirically what would happen.

From a psychological point of view, the control of thoughts and other psychic contents together with the withdrawal of the mental energy invested in the world would inevitably result in an attrition of what Freud called the “perceptual system”; and this would mean an attrition of consciousness as a whole. This would then bring about—in the phrase of Pierre Janet, a great precursor of Freud and of modern depth psychology in general—an “abaissement du niveau mental,” a lowering of the mental level, with a corresponding intensification of psychic activity at the subliminal depths of the personality. C. G. Jung has referred to this in terms of his conception of the “Collective Unconscious,” indicating that the “lowering of the mental level” on one side of the personality results in a concentration of energy at the deep unconscious levels that lie beneath the threshold of consciousness. A temporary condition of mental unbalance is thus created in which the individual experiences a great intensity of psychic affect. He becomes subject, then, to a generalized mental instability that results from the disordering and disturbance of psychic factors at deep mental levels. Paradoxically, this troubled activity that is beyond conscious control leads to experiences of heightened intensity, enlarged areas of awareness, and a degree both of perceptivity and of feeling far greater than the ordinary condition of consciousness would make possible. Jung's descriptions of these processes in terms of the various “levels” of the “unconscious” provide very close approximations to what takes place psychologically in the spiritual discipline set forth in The Cloud of Unknowing.

In the processes that The Cloud of Unknowing describes, the first step is a deliberate attrition of consciousness; and this is balanced by greatly increased activity at the subliminal levels of the personality. This new psychic activity, however, is not related to the outer conditions of life, and the individual engaged in this work may, at this point, seem to be out of touch with the realities of society and of his fellow men. He then discovers that his attitude of introversion all too easily leads him into conflict with other individuals who are suspicious of what he may be doing when they see him sitting silent and withdrawn. Particularly if these people are of an “extraverted” type, and if they have not themselves felt a call to undertake some inner discipline, they will feel either that he is remiss in his obligations to others, perhaps just plain lazy; or worse, since he has an attitude of personal abstraction as though he has been distracted from life with his attention drawn far away from the objects immediately around him, they will feel that he is mentally pathologic. It would seem, to judge from the text, that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing had considerable unpleasant experience of this kind with his neighbors, for he discusses with great feeling the problems of individuals who undertake to carry out the contemplative discipline in the midst of people who are not sympathetic to, and do not understand the nature of, the contemplative life. The passages dealing with Mary and Martha are particularly instructive on this subject. They present a frank, unguarded expression of the author's feelings in a way that is personally touching, and psychologically revealing of the problems of his life (XVII-XXI).

The author warns his disciple that he may experience a temporary but highly inconvenient side-effect while carrying on his work. He will, almost inevitably, display a certain distractedness and lack of contact with his immediate environment. This will be a difficult and distressing moment for him; but it is essentially a transitory condition, if the disciple does not give up but perseveres in his work.

Eventually, contact with his surroundings will be restored; and the author even assures his disciple that if he carries the work far towards fulfillment, he will find “that it regulates his conduct so agreeably, both in body and in soul, that it will make him most attractive to every man or woman who sees him.” It will even make him “well able to render judgment, if the need should arise, for people of all natures and dispositions.” And, in contrast to his earlier distractedness, it will make him “well able to bring himself into harmony with all those who come into contact with him” (LIV:1,2). This promise of greater human capacities for persons who carry out the work to its goal is based upon the principle that whoever achieves union with God will thereby manifest this unity in his personal bearing among mankind.

The passing phase of the work, in which the disciple is distracted from life with his conscious orientation upset, is an understandable phenomenon when considered from a psychological point of view. It reflects the fact that, with the individual's psychic energy withdrawn into the subliminal depths of the personality, the attention to life in its outer, more conventional aspects is necessarily impaired.

From a psychological point of view, this pattern of experience is highly similar to that undergone by the disciple in Zen Buddhism who seeks to attain enlightenment (Satori) by means of the Koan method. The Koan is an imponderable conundrum, a mind-breaking problem given to the Zen disciple by his master with the purpose of shocking him into Satori through a realization of the illogic and paradox inherent in life, and the unity of Being underlying all things. An example of a Koan would be: “What are your original features which you have even prior to your birth?” or “Listen to the sound of one hand.”4

When he receives his Koan, the disciple directs himself toward finding a solution. He has been instructed to proceed by means of his “abdomen” rather than his “head.” That is to say, the master advises him to seek to solve his problem not by conscious or intellectual reasoning, but out of the subliminal levels of his mind without the use of consciousness. This advice, we notice, is the same as that given by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

The Zen disciple then concentrates ever more intently upon solving his Koan. He draws his energy down into his abdomen (his unconscious), and by so doing he steadily decreases the amount of energy available for his conscious activities. A psychological condition of abaissement then comes into effect; it is a lowering of the mental level, and this causes the disciple's behavior to become dangerously distracted and insecure. Viewed from the outside, he seems to be out of touch with his surroundings and lost in a schizophrenic state. Viewed from the inside, he is altogether encased in his task of finding a solution for an unanswerable problem. His entire being is concentrated upon this single point, and he drives forward upon it with such intensity that he is not aware of himself at all and does not know what he is doing. It is as though he is covered over in a mist. His eyes are closed and he goes forward blindly. Now he is walking across the proverbial razor's edge without being able to see, without even thinking to look where he is stepping. On either side lies psychosis; somewhere, wherever the interminable razor's edge ends; there lies Satori.

Then, suddenly, there comes a shell-breaking insight, a spontaneous outcry. Having been completely lost to himself and unaware of what he was doing, the Zen disciple has found the greater Self he originally came to seek. He can now return to his former station in life, the same person, but altogether different.

From this brief description, we can follow the psychological parallel between the Zen disciple and person who seeks enlightenment by means of The Cloud of Unknowing. Both begin their work by withdrawing their attention from their surroundings and by concentrating their energies within themselves. A psychological consequence of this is that the social contacts that ordinarily stimulate conscious development now dwindle.

The individual's conscious activities steadily diminish and grow weaker at this point. His awareness of himself grows dim. He continues in his work; that is, he continues in his effort to solve the problem he has set himself regarding the paradox of existence; to discover how man, separated by nature from God, can yet achieve unity with God. But he goes about this difficult work as though he were without any conscious guidance. He is, in fact, hardly conscious at all that he is doing anything. He goes on with his labors; indeed, he is altogether engaged in them and he works with great intensity, but he also is as though covered by a mist, a cloud, a darkness that hides everything he does and hides everything that takes place within him. And “when I speak of darkness,” the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, it is not “the kind of darkness that is in your house at night when the candle is out.” It is a darkness of a quite different kind. “I am referring,” he says, “to a lack of knowing. It is a lack of knowing that includes everything you do not know or else that you have forgotten, whatever is altogether dark for you because you do not see it with your spiritual eye. And for this reason it is not called a cloud of the air, but rather a cloud of unknowing that is between you and your God” (IV:18).

This last phrase, “a cloud of unknowing that is between you and your God,” is of particular interest. The word “between” has a twofold meaning here. On the one hand it signifies separation; on the other hand, connection. What is separating man from God is not any physical thing but the state of his consciousness. More specifically, it is man's consciousness of his separateness, of his existence as an individual apart from God that keeps him separated from God. To overcome this awareness of separateness, he must place himself in a psychological situation that weakens, and ultimately dispenses with, the conscious guidance of his personal being. He must permit himself to drop into a condition of unconsciousness, a condition of total unknowing. This encompassing state of unconsciousness is the cloud of unknowing that covers him in darkness, dulls his awareness of his separate existence, and provides the medium in which his union with God may take place.

Once one is altogether covered by the darkness of the cloud of unknowing, it may happen that a light unexpectedly appears. If it does come, the author tells us, it will come “merely as a sudden stirring with no forewarning, instantly springing toward God as a spark from a coal. And,” he adds, “it is wonderful to count the number of stirrings that may appear within one hour in a soul that is disposed to the work” (IV:14).

It will be “a blind stirring of love” (IV:16). “Blind,” because its origin will have been in darkness, its movement will have been unconscious, and no guidance will direct it toward its goal. Yet it goes toward God, and it does so because ultimately it “is the work only of God” (XXVI:3). Despite its “blindness,” it moves with love; and this is most essential, for “God may be reached and held close by means of love, but by means of thought never” (VI:3). Thus, this “blind stirring of love” that springs “toward God as a spark from a coal” marks the beginning of the experience of enlightenment that emerges from the cloud of unknowing.

Out of the intensity of the disciple's striving within the cloud of unknowing, a spontaneous prayer may be called forth. It will not be an eloquent prayer, but a prayer of one word, perhaps only of one syllable, such as, “God” or “Sin.” It is an involuntary outcry of a person in desperation. And since this one syllable “is prayed with a full spirit, in the height and in the depth, in the length and in the breadth of the spirit of him who prays it,” it reaches God and receives a reply. When it is born out of the sincere intensity of spiritual need, “short prayer pierces heaven” (XXXVII, XXXVIII).

The answer to the outcry of the disciple struggling in the darkness of the cloud of unknowing comes as an illumination. God sends him “a beam of spiritual light” which pierces the cloud of unknowing in order to reach him. And then God reveals “some of His secret ways of which man neither can nor may speak” (XXVI:5). After striving in blind unconsciousness, the disciple at last becomes able to see; and what he sees gives him knowledge, gained in his unknowing state, of a kind that no degree of ordinary consciousness could have brought him before. This is the culminating experience of his search. “The higher part of the contemplative life,” the author tells us, “takes place altogether in this darkness and in the cloud of unknowing with a loving striving blindly beholding the naked being only of God Himself” (VIII:9).

What transpires in this ultimate moment may not, however, be spoken of truly as a knowledge of God. Neither can it accurately be called a feeling of God, nor even an experience of God. It is rather a state of unity of being that is suddenly established by which God and the individual human person are together as one. And this transformation takes place in the briefest instant. “It is the shortest work that man can imagine. It is neither longer nor shorter than an atom” (IV:2).

In this instant, out of the cloud of unknowing, a new unity comes into being. And when it is truly established, it is not merely a composite of two separate entities such as God and the individual human being; but it is a unity in which the separateness of man is obliterated in God so that oneness is established as an actual fact of existence.

But this is most difficult, and it seldom is fully achieved. If, for example, the individual feels or experiences himself as being in unity with God, that very feeling and awareness of an experience indicates that real unity has not yet been achieved. At such times, the author of The Cloud tells us, “If you look truly you will find,” that something is still “between you and your God” (IX:1). There is still work remaining to be done.

The mere fact that the individual feels his presumed unity with God as a personal experience indicates that he is still separated from God. The individual who experiences God thereby emphasizes the duality of his own individual existence, his personal thatness, and the existence of God as separate from him. In that case it cannot be said that he knows God truly and intimately in oneness.

What the author of The Cloud of Unknowing seeks is thus not an experience or feeling of unity with God; but rather the establishment of a fact of existence, a condition of life, in which the individual is God—and vise versa—in actuality, even if only for the briefest atom of a moment.

At such a time, having overcome his attachments to the objects of life, the memory of past experiences and present desires, the memory and attachment to sacred figures and traditional observances, having overcome all these and whatever other thoughts of any kind may press upon the cloud of unknowing, a man comes very close to the naked being of human nature. And there, at that deepest ground of his being, he is no longer an individual as such, but he participates in the naked being that is God's ultimate nature. Then oneness becomes indeed a fact of his existence; and he can say with Meister Eckhart, “the eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me.”


  1. See Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, New York: Basic Books, 3 volumes.

  2. The Cloud of Unknowing, Edited and with an Introduction by Evelyn Underhill, London: John M. Watkins, 1912; The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Abbot Justin McCann, O.S.B., Westminster, Md.: The Newman Press, 1924; The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Phyllis Hodgson, published for The Early English Text Society by Oxford University Press, London, 1944.

  3. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1933, p. 111-112.

  4. See D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, New York: Anchor Books, 1956, Chap. VI; see also D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, New York: Philosophical Library, 1949, Chap. VIII.

William Johnston (essay date 1973)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9193

SOURCE: Johnston, William. Introduction to “The Cloud of Unknowing” and “The Book of Privy Counseling,” edited by William Johnston, pp. 7-32. Garden City: Image Books, 1973.

[In the following essay, Johnston explains why the author of The Cloud of Unknowing rejects conceptualization and thinking, particularly about one's self; describes the Dionysian aspects present in the work; and considers its historical background.]

Recent times have witnessed a revival of interest in Western mysticism. It is as though the West, long exposed to Zen and Yoga and the spiritual systems of the East, now searches for its own tradition and its own spiritual heritage. Strangely enough, the interest in mysticism is not just academic. It is also practical. Many people are anxious to read the mystics in order to practice the doctrine they teach and to experience the states of consciousness they depict. In short, interest in Christian mysticism is part of a widespread craving for meditation, for contemplation, for depth—a desire to get beyond the changing phenomena and the future shock and the global village into a deeper reality that lies at the center of things. Mysticism is no longer irrelevant; it is in the air we breathe.

In such a climate, those in search of a mystical guide could do no better than turn to the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Here is an Englishman, at once a mystic, a theologian, and a director of souls, who stands in the full stream of the Western spiritual tradition. A writer of great power and of considerable literary talent, he has composed four original treatises and three translations; and in this book his two principal works, The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, are rendered into modern English from the original texts. I believe that the reader who surrenders himself to the author's mystical charm will find in their very perusal a truly contemplative experience.

The two books complement each other. The Cloud is well known as a literary work of great beauty in its style as in its message. Widely read in the fourteenth century when it was written, it has never lost its honored place among the spiritual classics of the English language. The Book of Privy Counseling, on the other hand, is less famous. It is the work of the author's maturity; and, as so often happens, the older writer has lost some of the buoyant charm of youth. This makes his later work more difficult reading; but any loss of charm is more than compensated for by a theological precision, a spiritual depth, and a balanced authority that have come with years of profound experience. Now he is self-confident, convinced beyond all doubt that, whatever anyone may say to the contrary, the contemplation he teaches is of the highest value. This later book is in many ways a book of counseling as we understand this word today. It is the work of a man who is friendly, anxious to give help and counsel—a man endowed with keen psychological insight, who knows the human mind, who is aware of man's tragic capacity for self-deception and yet is endowed with a delicate compassion for those who suffer as they struggle to remain in silent love at the core of their being. But his counseling, it must be confessed, is not the non-directive type about which we today hear so much. Rather is it authoritative—the guidance of a man who has trodden the mystical path himself and offers a helping hand to those who will hearken to his words. If this edition now offered to the public has any unique value, it may be because of the inclusion of The Book of Privy Counseling.


The two treatises, then, are eminently practical. They guide the reader in the path of contemplation. While there is an abundance of books teaching meditation of the discursive kind, not so many teach the contemplative prayer that goes beyond thought and imagery into the supraconceptual cloud of unknowing. And it is precisely this that the English author is teaching. In his rejection of conceptualization he is as radical as any Zen Buddhist. All thoughts, all concepts, all images must be buried beneath a cloud of forgetting, while our naked love (naked because divested of thought) must rise upward toward God hidden in the cloud of unknowing. With the cloud of unknowing above, between me and my God, and the cloud of forgetting below, between me and all creatures, I find myself in the silentium mysticum about which the English author read in the work of Dionysius.

If The Cloud is radical in its rejection of conceptualization, even more so is Privy Counseling, the opening paragraph of which contains words that set the theme for the whole treatise: “Reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil.” This is pretty stark. God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts. So less thinking and more loving.

The meditation that goes beyond thought is popular in the modern world, and it is for this reason that I find these two books particularly relevant today. As for the way of getting beyond thought, the English author has a definite methodology. After speaking of good and pious meditations on the life and death of Christ, he introduces his disciple to a way that may well be attractive also to the modern reader, namely the mantra or sacred word:

If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as “God” or “love” is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defense in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and subdue all distractions consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you. Should some thought go on annoying you, demanding to know what you are doing, answer with this one word alone. If your mind begins to intellectualize over the meaning and connotations of this little word, remind yourself that its value lies in its simplicity. Do this and I assure you these thoughts will vanish. Why? Because you have refused to develop them with arguing.

(p. 56)

As can be seen, the little word is used in order to sweep all images and thoughts from the mind, leaving it free to love with the blind stirring that stretches out toward God.

In Privy Counseling the author speaks of two clear-cut steps on the way to enlightenment. The first is the rejection of all thoughts about what I am and what God is in order to be conscious only that I am and that God is. This is what I would like to call existential prayer because of its abandonment of all essences or modes of being. But it is only the first step. The second step is the rejection of all thought and feeling of my own being to be conscious only of the being of God. In this way the author leads to a total self-forgetfulness, a seemingly total loss of self for a consciousness only of the being of him whom we love. This is interesting doctrine. How can we twentieth-century men who talk so much about personality accept it?


Let me first say that this problem of the loss of self is extremely relevant in the religious climate of today, a climate that is largely dominated by the meeting of the great religions in a common forum and a fascinating dialogue that historian, Arnold Toynbee, has not hesitated to call the most significant event of the century. In this East-West religious encounter and exchange, the central problem on which all discussion finally focuses is that of the existence and nature of the self. Can a highly personalized religion like Christianity find common ground with an apparently self-annihilating system like Buddhism? This is a problem that has constantly come to the fore in ecumenical meetings I myself have attended. Anyone confronted with it would do well to listen to the wisdom of this English author. Steeped in the Christian tradition, he speaks a language that Buddhists understand. He is indeed a great spokesman for the West.

Let us consider some of the passages in which he justifies his advice to forget one's own being.

In The Cloud he claims that to feel one's own existence is the greatest suffering possible to man:

Every man has plenty of cause for sorrow but he alone understands the deep universal reason for sorrow who experiences that he is. Every other motive pales beside this one. He alone feels authentic sorrow who realizes not only what he is, but that he is. Anyone who has not felt this should really weep, for he has never experienced real sorrow.

(p. 103)

This is a remarkable passage. It might seem like a rejection of life and of existence, were it not for the author's explicit statement that this is not his meaning:

And yet in all this, never does he desire to not-be, for this is the devil's madness and blasphemy against God. In fact, he rejoices that he is and from the fullness of a grateful heart he gives thanks to God for the gift and the goodness of his existence. At the same time, he desires unceasingly to be freed from the knowing and feeling of his being.

(p. 104)

It is clear that the author is not advocating self-annihilation; nor is he denying the ontological existence of the self. Rather is he saying that there is an awareness of self that brings joy and gratitude; and there is awareness of self that brings agony. What awareness of self causes this great sorrow?

It seems to me that Christian mysticism can be understood only in the light of the resurrection, just as Buddhist mysticism can be understood only in the light of nirvana. Until the resurrection, man's personality, his true self, is incomplete. This holds even for Christ, of whom Paul says that “he was constituted Son of God by a glorious act in that he rose from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). In other words it was through the resurrection that Christ was perfected, finding his true self and ultimate identity. Until this final stage, man is inevitably separated from his end. And not only man but the whole universe, which is groaning in expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.

This imperfect state of incompleteness, isolation and separation from the goal is the basic source of man's existential anguish—anguish that arises not because of his existence but because of his separated existence. Sorrow for this separation, says the author, is much more fundamental and much more conducive to humility than sorrow for one's sins or anything else. Hence the anguish running through the writings of the mystics and reflected in the agonized cry of a St. John of the Cross: “Whither hast thou hidden thyself, O my beloved, and left me to my sighing?” Here the mystic is separated from the beloved whom he has inchoately experienced; and he longs for completion, for union, for the goal. If this means death, joyfully will he die—“Break the web of this sweet encounter.” As if he were to say, take away the veil that separates me from my beloved and my all. Clearly the anguish is that of separation and incompleteness at the level of existence. One can experience one's incompleteness emotionally or economically or culturally or sexually; and all this is painful. But how terrible to experience it at the deepest level of all, that of existence! For all these other sorrows are partial experiences of one root experience of existential contingency. And this, I believe, is the sorrow of the man who knows not only what he is but that he is.

All this is not far removed from the anguish of the existentialist philosophers about which we at one time heard so much. Their agony was not necessarily theistic. Rather did it come from a radical sense of man's insufficiency, contingency, incompleteness, mortality, summed up in Heidegger's terrible definition of man as “being-to-death.” Here again it is not precisely existence that causes the trouble, but limited existence. Man, faced with the prospect of extinction, is not in control of his own destiny.

So much for the existentialists. With the English author it is mainly in Privy Counseling that the notion of separation with all its suffering is stressed. But now his language is more precise. The suffering of man is not that he is but that he is as he is; and the author makes his existential prayer: “That which I am and the way that I am … I offer it all to you.” (p. 156) Now he has made it abundantly clear that the problem is not existence itself but limited existence, and so he has no need for further explanation.

At the beginning of his treatise he makes a statement that echoes through the whole work: “He is your being and in him you are what you are.” Lest this sound pantheistic, the author quickly adds, “He is your being, but you are not his,” as if to remind us that while God is our being we are not God. But having made this distinction he keeps stressing that the great suffering and illusion of man is his failure to experience that God is his being. Rather does he experience his being apart from God. The whole aim of his direction is to lead us to the experience that “he is your being and in him you are what you are.” It is not in isolation, not in separation from the totality that man finds his true self; but only in God. The knowledge and feeling of any self other than this must be destroyed.

This leads to the inexorable law that the incomplete self must die in order that the true self may rise. “Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground dies, itself alone remains; but if it dies it brings forth much fruit.”

In this context we can perhaps understand the author's relentless assertion that the thought and feeling of self must be annihilated. Yet this annihilation is less terrible because it is the work of love: “For this is the way of all real love. The lover will utterly and completely despoil himself of everything, even his very self, because of the one he loves. He cannot bear to be clothed in anything save the thought of his beloved. And this is not a passing fancy. No, he desires always and forever to remain unclothed in full and final self-forgetting.” (p. 172) If we love, death will inevitably follow and self will be forgotten with terrible finality. But it will be a joyous death. Let me say a word about the connection between love and death.

In the Thomistic philosophy to which the English author is so faithful, love is “ecstatic” in that it takes us out of ourselves to live in the thing we love. If we love money, we live in money; if we love our friends, we live in them; if we love them in God, we live in God. This means that in love there is a real death, as St. John of the Cross (again a thoroughgoing Thomist) expresses in his enigmatic words: “O life, how canst thou endure since thou livest not where thou livest?” Is this because his life, no longer in his body, is palpitating in the one he loves? And he wonders how this life can continue. For death is an inevitable consequence of ecstatic love.

The dilemma is terrible. If man refuses to love, his separated self remains in its agonized isolation without ultimate fulfillment, even though ontologically God is in his being. If he loves, he chooses death for the separated self and life for the resurrected self. And it is the resurrected self that is at work in contemplation, which will never cease. “For in eternity there will be no need for the works of mercy as there is now. People will not hunger or thirst or die of the cold or be sick, homeless and captive. No one will need Christian burial for no one will die. In heaven it will no longer be fitting to mourn for our sins or for Christ's Passion. So, then, if grace is calling you to choose the third part, choose it with Mary.” (p. 76)

This brings us to the question of the relationship of the true self to the all. The author writes that there is a total union (“He is your being”) and yet it is not total because I am not God's being (“You are not his”). A strict Thomist of the fourteenth century, he would probably have explained this according to the Platonic notion of ideas in the mind of God—that creation exists from eternity in his mind, so that there is a total unity side by side with variety. To experience this would be “chaste and perfect love” in which one is united with God “blindly”; that is to say, without thoughts or feelings or images of any kind, experiencing oneself in God and through God. St. John of the Cross seems to be getting at this when he says that at first we experience the Creator through his creatures, but at the summit we experience creatures through the Creator.

Yet I myself believe that this metaphysic is less meaningful to modern man than the dynamic approach of Teilhard de Chardin. This is more biblical, giving centrality to the risen Christ Omega as well as to the resurrection of all men. It sees the ultimate eschatological union as a total indwelling of God in man and man in God and all in Christ going to the Father in accordance with the words of Jesus in John 17. As for the paradox that all is one and not one, Teilhard answers with a principle that runs through all his work: in the realm of personality, union differentiates. When I am most united with God, I am most myself. Here union is clearly distinguished from annihilating absorption: it is in union with the other that I find my true self. Incredible paradox? Yet we explain the Trinity in some such way. And does not the principle that union differentiates apply also to human unions and interpersonal relationships? In the deepest and most loving union with another, far from losing ourselves we discover our deepest selves at the core of our being. If this is true of human relationships, it must also apply to the most intimate union of all: that of Yahweh with his people.

I have attempted to explain the author's position on the loss of self, which is an integral part of his direction and a relevant problem in the modern religious scene. But I must quickly confess that the author is reluctant to offer explanations and probably does so only as a concession to the learned divines who may read and criticize his book. How often he remarks that “only he who experiences it will really understand.” If there is a problem, it exists only at the verbal or metaphysical level, while at the level of experiential love it is simply a non-problem since then one knows existentially what it is to lose self and find self at the same time. The whole endeavor of the author is not to explain (for no explanation is possible) but to lead the disciple to a state of consciousness where he will see it for himself. “And so I urge you: go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.” (p. 188) This is like the Zen Buddhists, who without explanation, insist that you must simply sit in meditation.


Another point that is crucial in these two books as in the works of all the Christian mystics concerns the place of Christ. Briefly the problem is this: Christian theology, following the New Testament, situates Christ at the very heart of prayer—Christ the man, the Incarnate Word. But how does Christ the man fit into this imageless, supraconceptual void? Where is Christ when I am between the cloud of unknowing and the cloud of forgetting? This is quite a dilemma; yet I believe that the author of The Cloud can truly be called Christocentric.

Let me say first that we can consider Christ in his historical existence or in his risen existence. In either case it is, of course, the same Jesus; but the mode of existence is quite different. About the historical Christ we can have thoughts and ideas and images, just as we can picture the villages through which he walked; but of the risen Christ we can have no adequate picture. This is stated categorically by St. Paul who, when asked what the resurrected body looks like, retorts (if I may translate him into modern jargon), Don't ask stupid questions! “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish man! … For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.” (I Cor. 15:35-38) So there are many ways of existence and the resurrected way is different from that we now enjoy.

Now the Christian, following St. Paul, does not pray just to a historical figure but to the now existing risen Christ who contains in himself all the experience of his historical existence in a transformed way, as he indicated by showing his wounds to his disciples. As for the way of talking about the Christ who lives in our midst today, Teilhard de Chardin, influenced by the later Pauline epistles, speaks of “the cosmic Christ” who is co-extensive with the universe. By death the body is universalized, entering into a new dimension and into a new relationship with matter. It is in this dimension that the risen Christ is present to us. This is a dimension that we too enter by death; but in life also we can somehow touch it by love in the cloud of unknowing.

The English author is, I believe, speaking about the cosmic Christ, though he does not have this terminology. In fact he makes a brilliantly orthodox union of the historical and the risen Jesus in the Mary Magdalene motif, which obviously appeals greatly to him:

In the gospel of St. Luke we read that our Lord came to Martha's house and while she set about at once to prepare his meal, her sister Mary did nothing but sit at his feet. She was so intent upon listening to him that she paid no attention to what Martha was doing. Now certainly Martha's chores were holy and important … But Mary was unconcerned about them. Neither did she notice our Lord's human bearing; the beauty of his mortal body or the sweetness of his human voice and conversation, although this would have been a holier and better work … But she forgot all this and was totally absorbed in the highest wisdom of God concealed in the obscurity of his humanity.

Mary turned to Jesus with all the love of her heart, unmoved by what she saw or heard spoken and done about her. She sat there in perfect stillness with her heart's secret, joyous love intent upon that cloud of unknowing between her and her God. For as I have said before, there never has been and there never will be a creature so pure or so deeply immersed in the loving contemplation of God who does not approach him in this life through that lofty and marvelous cloud of unknowing. And it was to this very cloud that Mary directed the hidden yearning of her loving heart.

(p. 71)

From the above it is very clear that entering the cloud does not mean abandoning Christ. Jesus is present; he is the divine center to which Mary's love is directed. But she has no regard for clear-cut images of his beautiful mortal body, no ears for the sweetness of his human voice. She has gone beyond all this to a deeper knowledge, a deeper love and a deeper beauty. Here in practice is the paradox of a contemplation that is at once Christocentric and imageless.

Examples of this imageless approach to the man Christ abound in the English author; nor is it necessary here to quote his reference in Privy Counseling to Christ who is at once the porter and the door. Or his interesting interpretation of the ascension of Christ, who has to go (“It is expedient for you that I go”) lest the disciples become so attached to his historical body that they cannot love his glorified body. As I have said, our word “cosmic” is not there; but the idea is inescapably present.

With the realization that Christ is co-extensive with the universe, a whole cosmic and social dimension enters into contemplation. Christian mysticism can never be selfish preoccupation with one's little ego; it must be an opening to other people and to the universe. Once again, the English author explains this in the cosmology of his day.

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.

(pp. 89-90)

No corner of the universe is untouched by this exercise of love. Put in Teilhardian terms we might say that the noosphere is built up by this contemplative exercise; or that fresh impulse is given to the thrust of consciousness in its movement toward Omega. It is, of course, a great paradox that we should help people precisely by forgetting them: “Therefore, firmly reject all clear ideas however pious or delightful. For I tell you this, one loving blind desire for God alone is … more helpful to your friends, both living and dead, than anything else you could do.” (p. 60) This is something known only to experience through faith.

The increasingly cosmic and social dimension of contemplation is stressed in Privy Counseling where this work is described as a development from “bodiliness” to “ghostliness”; and I have translated these words as the Pauline “flesh” and “spirit.” For Paul, of course, flesh is not the sensual, Platonic flesh; it is not the instinctual part of man. Rather does it mean man rooted in this world; and when Paul uses it in a pejorative sense, it means man seeing only this world and blind to anything beyond it. On the other hand, the spiritual man is the man open to the universe and under the influence of the Spirit. Hence growth in contemplation, a growth toward spirit, is a development toward cosmic consciousness so that the contemplative puts on the mind of the cosmic Christ and offers himself to the Father for the salvation of the human race. Here, indeed, is the very climax of the author's thought, couched in the beautiful prayer of Privy Counseling:

That which I am and the way that I am,
with all my gifts of nature and grace,
you have given to me, O Lord, and you are
all this. I offer it all to you, principally
to praise you and to help my fellow Christians
and myself.

(p. 156)

This is truly the peak-point when the contemplative together with Christ offers himself to the Father for the human race. Now he has put on the mind of Christ so completely that, in a sense, only the Father remains. It is Christ within who prays and offers himself to the Father—“I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me.” And, of course, the whole prayer is eminently Trinitarian and bafflingly paradoxical. There is one God, who is my very existence. And yet my existence is somehow distinct and I can offer it to him.

In this Christology, however, some readers may be perturbed by the author's use of the Bible. Here, as in Privy Counseling and throughout his works, his apparent twisting of Scripture to illustrate and prove his point may bring a smile to the lips of the modern exegete. Yet this approach is typical of the mystics from Origen to John of the Cross. And it is, I believe, legitimate, and even helpful to the modern exegete.

That there is a distinctively contemplative approach to Scripture was indicated by Vatican II when it wrote: “For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers who treasure these things in their hearts through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience.” (Document on Divine Revelation, Chapter 2, 8) Growth in understanding comes from the mystics who, so to speak, live the Scriptures from within. If it is true, as Paul says, that no one can understand the spirit of a man except his own spirit, how true, too, that no one can really understand the Scriptures (however much his exegesis) except he who possesses the Spirit that composed them. The contemplative approach to Scripture complements the exegetical and is, I believe, coming more and more to the fore today.


From what has been said it will be clear that in the English author the central place in the contemplative exercise is allotted to love. That love is the essence of the whole thing is unequivocally stated again and again in words like the following:

For in real charity one loves God for himself alone above every created thing and he loves his fellow man because it is God's law. In the contemplative work God is loved above every creature purely and simply for his sake. Indeed, the very heart of this work is nothing else but a naked intent toward God for his own sake.

(p. 80)

So the very heart of this work is love, which the English author refers to as a “secret little love,” a “naked intent of the will,” a “blind outstretching,” a “gentle stirring of love,” “this work,” or simply as “it.” It should be noted, however, that he uses these expressions for an activity that includes knowledge or consciousness of some kind. For purposes of analysis it is possible to speak of knowledge and love in contemplation; but the activity the author speaks of is a blend of both, a completely simple experience arising in the depth of the contemplative's heart: in the last analysis it is indescribable, as the author declares when he says that “Whatever we may say of it is not it, but only about it.” (p. 169) He has no doubt, however, that its predominant element is love and it is upon this that he puts all the emphasis. The practice of unknowing with its treading down of all distinct knowledge beneath the cloud of forgetting is no more than preparation for the cultivation of this blind stirring that is the most important thing in life. This is reiterated many times, as, for example, in such words as the following:

And so to stand firmly and avoid pitfalls, keep to the path you are on. Let your longing relentlessly beat upon the cloud of unknowing that lies between you and your God. Pierce that cloud with the keen shaft of your love, spurn the thought of anything less than God, and do not give up this work for anything. For the contemplative work of love by itself will eventually heal you of all the roots of sin.

(p. 63)

This, a typical passage, shows how the business of forgetting is relegated to a secondary place, being no more than a means of making room for the “keen shaft of … love,” which, however, is accompanied by a deep consciousness of God. Instances could be multiplied where the author waxes enthusiastic about the little love that comes to dominate in the mystical life. “Your whole personality will be transformed, your countenance will radiate an inner beauty, and for as long as you feel it nothing will sadden you. A thousand miles would you run to speak with another whom you knew really felt it, and yet when you got there, find yourself speechless.” (pp. 182, 183) As the contemplative enters more deeply into the cloud, love comes to guide him, teaching him to choose God, who cannot be thought or understood or found by any rational activity. As it grows stronger, it comes to take possession of him in such a way that it dominates every action. It orders him to choose God, and if he does not follow its command it wounds him and gives him no peace until he does its bidding. This is beautifully illustrated in a passage from another work of the author which does not, unfortunately, appear in this book. Let me quote from An Epistle of Stirrings about the dynamic quality of the blind stirring of love:

Then that same that thou feelest shall well know how to tell thee when thou shalt speak and when thou shalt be still. And it shall govern thee discreetly in all thy living without any error, and teach thee mystically how thou shalt begin and cease in all such doings of nature with a great and sovereign discretion. For if thou mayest by grace keep it in custom and in continual working, then if it be needful to thee for to speak, for to eat in the common way, or for to bide in company, or for to do any such other thing that belongeth to the common true custom of Christian men and of nature, it shall first stir thee softly to speak or to do that other common thing of nature whatso it be; and then, if thou do it not, it shall smite as sore as a prick on thine heart and pain thee full sore, and let thee have no peace but if thou do it. And in the same manner, if thou be speaking or in any such other work that is common to the course of nature, if it be needful and speedful to thee to be still and to set thee to the contrary, as is fasting to eating, being alone to company, and all such other, the which be works of singular holiness, it will stir thee to them.

From the above it can be seen that the blind stirring of love eventually develops into a bright flame, guiding the contemplative's every choice. It stirs him softly and sweetly to act; but it also impels him to do God's will with a certain inevitability against which it is useless to struggle: he seems to be in the grip of something more powerful than himself that he must obey at the risk of losing interior peace when it smites upon his heart. That this is the guidance of God himself is indicated in The Cloud where the author speaks of the guiding action of God in the very depths of the soul to which no evil spirit can penetrate and on which no reasoning can make impact. And this, I maintain, is the very apex of Christian morality. No longer fidelity to law but submission to the guidance of love.

Moreover it is precisely this love that gives wisdom, the truest knowledge. Indeed the meditational process taught by the English author could be described in three stages. First there is the clear and distinct knowledge brought by discursive meditation. This is abandoned for the guidance of love. Then this love finds wisdom. In yet another work, A Treatise of the Study of Wisdom, the author describes this process with a traditional simile. As a burning candle enlightens both itself and the objects around, so the light of love enables us to see both our own wretchedness and the great goodness of God:

As when the candle burneth, thou mayest see the candle itself by the light thereof, and the other things also; right so when thy soul burneth in the love of God, that is when thou feelest continuously thine heart desire after the love of God, then by the light of his grace which he sendeth in thy reason, thou mayest see thine unworthiness, and his great goodness. And therefore … proffer thy candle to the fire.

(S.W. [A Treatise on the Study of Wisdom] 43:8)

A similar doctrine is taught by Aquinas, who holds that a great love of God calls down the Spirit, according to the promise of Christ at the Last Supper that if anyone loved him he would be loved by the Father, who would send another Paraclete: progress in charity, then, means progress in wisdom. This kind of wisdom is, I believe, apparent in human relations where love can discover beauty and potentiality that reason alone cannot find.

And so the author stands in the stream of tradition that regards mysticism as a love affair between the bridegroom and the bride, between Yahweh and his people. It is here that the deepest significance of Western mysticism is to be found.


This Englishman belongs to a tradition known as “apophatic” because of its tendency to emphasize that God is best known by negation: we can know more about what God is not than what he is. Influenced by Neoplatonism, it is a doctrine that owes much to Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite. To this latter the author of The Cloud acknowledges his debt at the end of his book: “Anyone who reads Denis' book will find confirmed there all that I have been trying to teach in this book from start to finish.” (p. 139) That these words are sincere is proved by the fact that the English author made a translation of Dionysius' Mystical Theology, which goes by the name of Hid Divinity. Yet recent scholars have pointed out that he was less Dionysian than he himself supposed. One reason for this is that no medieval could get an objective view of the writings of the Areopagite. Only comparatively recently was it established with certainty that Dionysius was a Syrian monk of the early sixth century; for the medievals he was St. Paul's convert writing to Timothy with an authority close to that of the Scriptures themselves. His writings had influenced not only the Greek mystics, notably Maximus the Confessor in the eighth century, but also after the translation of John Scotus Erigena in 877 they made an incalculable impact on the whole Latin Church. Commentaries were multiplied; Albert, Aquinas and Bonaventure received Dionysian influence; even Dante sang the praises of the Areopagite. Consequently, the Dionysius who came to the author of The Cloud, like the Aristotle who sometimes comes to modern Thomists, was overlaid with a tradition that no medieval would have recognized. And it was this embellished Dionysius that influenced the English author. Moreover, he makes no secret of the fact that he will not follow the “naked letter” of Dionysius' book; he intends to interpret it himself and to make use of other interpreters. He almost certainly did not read the original text of Dionysius but used the Latin translation of Joannes Sarracenus together with the commentary of Thomas Gallus, Abbot of Vercelli.

Yet, granted that Dionysius has been somewhat embellished in the years that elapsed between the sixth century and the fourteenth, it still remains true that his basic ideas are fundamental to the thought of the author of The Cloud. I shall, therefore, first briefly set forth his doctrine.

According to Dionysius, there are two ways in which man can know God: one is the way of reason (λόγος): the other is the way of mystical contemplation (μυsτικὸν θέαμα). Rational knowledge of God is obtained through speculative theology and philosophy; but mystical knowledge is greatly superior to this, giving a knowledge of God that is intuitive and ineffable. Hence, it is called “mystical” or “hidden.” Dionysius speaks much of the transcendence of God, stressing the fact that by reasoning we know little about him; but he never denies the power of discursive reason to give some knowledge of God, merely emphasizing the superiority of mystical knowledge.

In fact, he teaches two ways of knowing God by reason—one affirmative and the other negative. We can affirm of God all the good that can be affirmed of his creation, saying that he is holy, wise, benevolent, that he is light and life. All these things come from God, so we can affirm that the source possesses their perfections in a higher way. But (and this is the point stressed by Dionysius) there is also a negative way of knowing God, since he is above all his creatures. He is wise, but with a wisdom different from that of men; his beauty, goodness, and truth are different from those we know. So, in a sense, God is unlike anything we know: we must keep in mind that the ideas we have of him are totally inadequate to contain him.

But there is yet a higher way of knowing God. “Besides the knowledge of God obtained by processes of philosophical and theological speculation, there is that most divine knowledge of God which takes place through ignorance”; in this knowledge the intellect is illuminated by “the insearchable depth of wisdom.” Such knowledge is not found in books nor can it be obtained by human effort, for it is a divine gift. Man, however, can prepare himself to receive it; and this he does by prayer and purification. Here is Dionysius' advice:

Do thou, then, in the intent practice of mystic contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things that the senses or the intellect can perceive, and all things which are not and things which are, and strain upwards in unknowing, as far as may be, towards the union with Him Who is above all things and knowledge. For by unceasing and absolute withdrawal from thyself and all things in purity, abandoning all and set free from all, thou shalt be borne up to the ray of divine darkness that surpasseth all being.

(De myst. theol., I, 1)

The point of Dionysius is that since the human senses and intellect are incapable of attaining to God, they must be “emptied” of creatures or purified in order that God may pour his light into them. In this sense they are in complete darkness in regard to created things but they are at the same time filled with light from God. Hence, we can say that “The Divine Darkness is the unapproachable light in which God is said to dwell.” When the faculties are emptied of all human knowledge there reigns in the soul a “mystic silence” leading it to the climax that is union with God and the vision of him as he is in himself.

Such is the doctrine that flows through the apophatic mystics to the time of St. John of the Cross. The fundamental point is that our ordinary faculties, sensible and intellectual, are incapable by themselves of representing God to us; that is why their ordinary use must be abandoned. God is above anything we can picture in our imagination or conceive in our mind. The fourth and fifth chapters of Dionysius' Mystical Theology give a formidable and detailed catalogue of the things God is not like. First of all, no sensible thing resembles God, so that “we remove from him all bodily things, and all these things that pertain to body, or to bodily things—as is shape, form, quality, quantity, weight, position, visibility, sensibility … For he is neither any of these things nor hath any of these, or any or all these sensible things.” Again, he is like nothing we can conceive in our mind—and once again there follows the remarkable catalogue of the spiritual things that God is not like. Such is the negative theology that underlies apophatic mystics.

In his translation of the Mystica Theologia the English author makes some additions to the original text. Chief among these is his insertion of love as the most important element in contemplative prayer. In this he advances on Dionysius and probably follows an earlier writer, Thomas Gallus, whose commentary he must have used. I have already spoken at length about the English author's emphasis on love but let me quote one more passage in The Cloud where we find a Dionysian stress on the inadequacy of knowledge joined to a new and powerful stress on the centrality of love:

Try to understand this point. Rational creatures such as men and angels possess two principal faculties, a knowing power and a loving power. No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge; but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love. Truly this is the unending miracle of love: that one loving person, through his love, can embrace God, whose being fills and transcends the entire creation. And this marvelous work of love goes on forever, for he whom we love is eternal.

(p. 50)

In this way the English author, starting from a Neoplatonic framework, has entered more and more deeply into a contemplation that is filled with Christian love. In some ways, indeed, his whole work can be considered as a hymn to love like that of the great Spaniard who sang, “O living flame of love, that tenderly wounds my soul in its deepest center!”

Throughout this introductory essay I have stressed the author's doctrine of love not only because it is the key to all his thinking but also because it is particularly relevant for our day, when science is exploring “altered states of consciousness” that are not unlike the states toward which the mystic points. No need to speak here of biofeedback, mind control, drugs, and other techniques for leading people beyond thought to the silent, intuitive consciousness. What distinguishes the contemplation taught by the English author and the other Christian mystics is the centrality of love. Motivated by love, it is a response to a call which issues in mutual agape—and any change of consciousness is no more than a consequence of this naked intent of love.


By now my reader is surely anxious to learn more about this author. But unfortunately external evidence is minimal and little can be said. No doubt the best way to know him is by reading his works, where, if anywhere, the style is the man. No one has succeeded in putting a name on him, though many attempts have been made; nor do we know to what religious order he belonged, if indeed he was a religious. So successful was his humble desire to remain anonymous. Manuscripts of his works, however, are rather numerous, the oldest dating back to the beginning of the fifteenth century. Since the author seems to have known the work of Richard Rolle and since Walter Hilton seems to have known him, historians conclude that he wrote in the late fourteenth century. This is corroborated by his style, which, moreover, indicates that the treatises were written in the northeast Midlands.

He belongs to a century made famous in the annals of spirituality by the names of Richard Rolle, Juliana of Norwich, and Walter Hilton in England; by Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, and Henry Suso in Germany; by Jan van Ruysbroeck in Flanders; by Jacopone da Todi and Catherine of Siena in Italy. This is an age associated with the names of Angela de Foligno and Thomas à Kempis. It is an age when, in spite of troubles and rumbling presages of a coming storm, Europe was deeply religious: faith penetrated to the very hearts of the people and influenced not only their art, music, and literature, but every aspect of their lives. Merry England was saturated with a religious faith that breaks forth in Piers Plowman and the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer may laugh good-humoredly at the foibles of nuns and friars, but he accepted the established religion with an unquestioning mind. Such was the society in which the author of The Cloud lived and wrote: both he and his public took for granted a Church, a faith, and a sacramental life that are no longer accepted without question by many of his readers today.

He was, then, a thoroughgoing medieval, steeped in the spirit of his time and imbued with its tradition. So many of his words, phrases, and ideas are also found in The Imitation of Christ, in the De Adhaerendo Deo, in the writings of the Rhineland mystics, and in the other devotional treatises of the time that one immediately sees him as part of a great current of medieval spirituality. He was aware, too, of what was being said and thought throughout Christendom, for there was no splendid isolation at that time; English monks and scholars were frequenting the great centers of learning throughout Europe.

If proof were needed of his traditionalist character, one has but to mention his constant reference not only to the Scriptures but also to Augustine, Dionysius, Gregory, Bernard, Aquinas, Richard of St. Victor, and the rest. Modesty and fear of vanity forbid him from quoting these authors at length, but he cannot escape referring to their works and reflecting their thought. And again, the wealth of tradition underlying his writings breaks through in the figures and illustrations that fill his pages. The “cloud of unknowing” itself, the Martha-Mary motif, the picture of Moses ascending the mountain, the notion of the soul as a mirror in which one can see God, the comparison of mystical prayer to sleep, the “naked intent of the will,” the “chaste and perfect love of God,” “the sovereign point of the spirit”—all these are pregnant with tradition, used by so many Christian authors that it is well-nigh impossible to state categorically from whom the English author is borrowing or from whom he chiefly draws his inspiration.

But when one comes to study this author in his historical setting, there arises another point that here deserves mention; namely, his striking similarity to St. John of the Cross. Quite a few commentators have adverted to this, the English author being spoken of as a St. John of the Cross two centuries before his time. For it is true that almost every detail of his doctrine is paralleled in the later Spanish mystic—and not only the doctrine but even the words and phrases are in many cases identical. How account for this remarkable affinity?

It is not impossible that the Spanish mystic read the Latin translation of The Cloud which may have been circulating on the European continent of his day. However this may be, it seems clear that both writers belong to the same spiritual tradition. Through their pages speak Augustine, Dionysius, the Victorines, Tauler, Ruysbroeck, and the rest; and we know, moreover, that both were unrelenting Thomists. So it is the great stream of a common tradition that has formed the minds of these two men, both being part of a mystical current that has flowed through Christian culture, breaking down the barriers of space and time separating fourteenth-century England and sixteenth-century Spain; nor have its surging waves lost their power in the twentieth century.

In the notes I have given a list of cross references to the works of St. John of the Cross. These are not meant to be exhaustive but I think they are sufficient to show that both writers belong to the same tradition and perhaps they will help refute the theory, sometimes advanced, that the English author was a rebel, an outsider to tradition, a suspect and heterodox innovator. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is a most representative Western mystic, a reliable guide in the twentieth as in the fourteenth century; and his counsel will be of great value both to those who follow traditional prayer and to those who practice transcendental meditation or the other contemplative forms recently introduced from the East.


Finally let me say a word about this edition, which is an effort to make the author's thought available and intelligible to the modern reader, particularly to the modern reader who would like to practice the kind of prayer that is here described. I have used as a basis the very excellent critical text of Professor Phyllis Hodgson: “The Cloud of UnknowingandThe Book of Privy Counseling,” edited from the manuscripts with introduction, notes and glossary, Oxford University Press, 1944 (reprinted 1958). Only once have I departed from this text. This is at the end of The Book of Privy Counseling. My last paragraph is not found in Professor Hodgson's edition. It is found, however, in some late manuscripts and I have included it in my edition simply because I feel that without it the book ends rather abruptly.

For Scripture quotations I have used the Douay version where the author's exegesis seemed to demand it. Otherwise I have used more up-to-date translations.

The title The Book of Privy Counseling I have retained as it is, partly because I feel that it is better not to tamper with the title of a classic and partly because it is more or less untranslatable. Besides, the word “counseling,” as I have already pointed out, is meaningful for the people of our day. As for the word “privy,” it implies both that the letter is not for everyone but only for those who will understand, and also that the contents are intimate and confidential. I think that both of these meanings are best retained by preserving the original word.

The chapter divisions in The Book of Privy Counseling are my own. The original text is all of a piece and has no chapters. I thought, however, that this edition would be more readable if the text were divided more or less in the same way as The Cloud.

Let me then conclude my part by making my own the words of the author: “My dear friend, I bid you farewell now with God's blessing and mine. May God give you and all who love him true peace, wise counsel, and his own interior joy in the fullness of grace. Amen.”

William Johnston (essay date 1975)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18050

SOURCE: Johnston, William. “The Problem of Unknowing,” “The Cloud of Forgetting,” and “The Cloud of Unknowing.” In The Mysticism of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” St. Meinrad, Ind.: Abbey Press, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson explores the intellectual and philosophical climate that must have influenced the education and thinking of the Cloud-author.]


In East and West the language of the mystics is full of paradox. Concepts of “light” and “darkness,” “vision” and “blindness,” “all” and “nothing,” “knowledge” and “ignorance” keep recurring with a frequency that is sometimes bewildering. The author of The Cloud, then, is true to type in constantly playing on the paradoxical theme of “knowing” and “unknowing.” Toward the end of The Cloud he strikes the keynote of his message with an appeal to Dionysius:

And therefore St. Denis said, “The most godly knowing of God is that which is known by unknowing.”

(C. [The Cloud] 125:11)

We know God, yet we do not know Him; we know Him by unknowing; we know Him in darkness; we know Him by love. The idea that runs like a refrain through the work of the English author is expressed in the terse words: “… for why he may well be loved, but not thought.” (C. 26:3) And at the beginning of The Cloud he writes:

For of all other creatures and their works—yea, and of the works of God himself—may a man through grace have fulness of knowing, and well can he think of them; but of God himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think.

(C. 25:18)

Since God cannot be known by any activity of the reasoning power, the English author tells his disciple to bury all conceptual thinking and rational discourse beneath a cloud of forgetting; he keeps emphasizing that no amount of syllogistic thinking will bring a man to God as He is in Himself. Therefore, forgetting everything, he should think of nothing. Forget, forget, forget, is the advice of the author. Empty your mind of all images, and thus you will allow to rise in your heart “the blind stirring of love” that will pierce the cloud of unknowing bringing to you a knowledge, supraconceptual and dark, that is the supreme wisdom. Normally, in the abandonment of conceptual knowledge, the mind will be dark though filled with love; sometimes, however, God may pierce the cloud with a “beam of ghostly light” filling the contemplative with an intense and inexpressible joy, knowledge, and love.

Such, in brief, is the doctrine of the English author. Read against a background of twentieth-century thought, his words are open to a variety of interpretations. It is well known that in Zen Buddhism there are many parallels to the above in thought and expression1; and, moreover, since the fourteenth century, Western idealism has had much to say about knowing and unknowing. First of all, then, I would like to set forth some of the interpretations that have been made, or might be made, in our time; then I shall try to outline the traditional doctrine in which the English author must have been educated, for it filled the air of the fourteenth century in which he lived.



It has already been said that there is a strong parallel between the unknowing of The Cloud and the unknowing of Zen.

Japanese writers generally distinguish between Zen and Zen Buddhism. The latter is a religion containing doctrine, a philosophy of life, and axioms for its practice; Zen, on the other hand, “is.” Its whole center is the enlightenment, or satori, about which no one can speak unless he himself has had the experience—and even he can say very little. It crashes upon the mind like a peal of thunder or a flash of lightning; it is “a turning point in one's life,” “a mental revolution,” “a fiery baptism of spirit,” but its content is inexpressible in human language.2 The descriptions given by Zen masters are not unlike that of the beam of ghostly light piercing the cloud of unknowing. Zen, however, is divorced from all schemes of thought, all philosophies of life, all religious dogma—according to Dr. Suzuki, it should not even be called mysticism. And since it is so divorced from all religion, it can be practiced (and is practiced) by people who hold no allegiance to Zen Buddhism: it is practiced by a variety of people from atheists to Catholic priests.3

Since, then, Zen claims to be above all dogma and creed (Suzuki describes it as a wafting cloud4), some people may be tempted to conclude that Christian mysticism also is above all creeds, dogma, and ritual. Indeed, this transference from Zen to Christian mysticism is made by Suzuki himself. Speaking of the vocabulary of Christian mysticism, “flame of love, a wonderful love shed in the heart, embrace, the beloved, bride, bridegroom, spiritual matrimony, Father, God, the Son of God, God's child etc.,” he continues:

We may say that all these terms are interpretations based on a definite system of thought and really have nothing to do with the experience itself.5

The conclusion reached is that the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other dogmas are interpretations built on the personal philosophy of the mystic; but his experience might well be expressed in Buddhist philosophical terms or in any other—for “enlightenment” is above and superior to all dogmatic formulations.

Applying this way of thinking to The Cloud, some recent writers have made its author a rebel against dogma and (a fortiori) against the Church. After all, does he not clearly tell his disciple to “forget” the Church's dogmas? Does he not even instruct him to abandon meditation on the Passion of Christ? What can the cloud of forgetting be except a ruthless cutting away of those religious dogmas that ordinary Christians esteem so much?

Mr. Aldous Huxley, who shows considerable insight into the kind of prayer taught in The Cloud, seems to subscribe to this way of thinking. He contrasts those mystics who were truly Catholic with those “of the Dionysian tradition” (in which he includes the English author of The Cloud) who abandoned their mystical vocation:

The contemplatives of the Dionysian tradition … had adapted dogma to their own experience, with the result that, in so far as they were advanced mystics, they had ceased to be specifically Catholic. To a non-Christian, this seems the supremely important, the eminently encouraging fact about mysticism—that it provides the basis for a religion free from inacceptable dogmas, which themselves are contingent upon ill established and arbitrarily interpreted facts.6

Here the author of The Cloud (being in “the Dionysian tradition”) insofar as he is an advanced mystic ceases to be specifically Catholic, adapting dogma to his own experience.

In this interpretation, Aldous Huxley is not, of course, alone. Another commentator, who makes interesting comparisons between the prayer of The Cloud and Zen, seems to hold the opinion that the English author uses Christian dogma as a point of departure (just as a believer of another religion might use the teachings of his faith) but that the enlightenment itself has nothing to do with the preparatory doctrine. The Bible and the teaching of the Church are (in his opinion) accessories, not intrinsically connected with the mystical experience to which the author is leading; they have only a transitory significance and the aim of his work is “to lead beyond all theological conceptions and doctrines, and beyond all attachment to religious objects and observances.”7

It is true, of course, that the author is leading to a type of knowledge that is without images and is above concepts; but do his references to Jesus and to the nature of God have only transitory significance?

In short, the problem is: Is the mystical prayer taught by the author of The Cloud something divorced from the dogmas of the Church? Or is it, perhaps, a deeper penetration into those very mysteries expressed in human language by the Church's dogmatic formulation?


Another point in the English author's works that may give rise to a variety of interpretations is his tendency to attack the discursive intellect and the use of the natural faculties. Reasoning and thinking and the use of one's “wits” are of no use in bringing one to the knowledge and love he is teaching. Not only are they of no use; they are a positive hindrance, and the would-be contemplative must give them up; for (as Richard of St. Victor has said) when contemplation is born, reason dies.8 Mystical prayer is above any natural activity of man's human faculties.

Once again, statements very similar to the above are made in Zen. Suzuki seems to mean something rather similar when he says that “satori is not a conclusion to be reached by reasoning and defies all intellectual determination. Those who have experienced it are always at a loss to explain it coherently or logically”;9 and he says of Zen: “There is nothing here suggestive of cool reasoning and quiet metaphysical or epistemological analysis. … Therefore, the outcome also defies intellection or conceptualization.”10 The problem arises when he goes further, making statements that (taken, at any rate, at their face value) deny the very validity of human reasoning. Take, for instance, the following:

According to the philosophy of Zen, we are too much of a slave to the conventional way of thinking, which is dualistic through and through. No interpenetration is allowed, there takes place no fusing of opposites in our everyday logic. What belongs to God is not of this world, and what is of this world is incompatible with the divine. Black is not white, and white is not black. Tiger is tiger; and cat is cat; and they will never be one. Water flows, a mountain towers. This is the way things or ideas go in this universe of the senses and syllogisms. Zen, however, upsets this scheme of thought, and substitutes a new one in which there exists no logic, no dualistic arrangement of ideas.11

Some phrases used by the author of The Cloud, if read side by side with Suzuki, might lead to the conclusion that he too rejects “the conventional way of thinking,” that he does not trust “this universe of senses and syllogisms,” that he leads to a state “in which there exists no logic, no dualistic arrangement of ideas.” It might be thought, then, that he teaches that there are two truths: a relative and inferior truth found in the knowledge of everyday life, and an absolute, real truth found at the summit of the mystical life shattering the conceptions we have received from the ordinary use of senses and intellect.

This interpretation is all the more inviting if one reflects (as a commentator on The Cloud has pointed out12) that just as the author's mysticism is preceded by “pious meditation” on the Passion of Christ, so the Zen enlightenment is preceded by the kōan.

Now the kōan is, in the words of Professor Dumoulin, “one great mockery of the rules of logic.”13 An example of one of these paradoxical questions to which there is no logical answer is: “A monk asked T'ung-shan, ‘Who is the Buddha?’ ‘Three chin of flax.’” And the explanation of this is given in a noted Zen textbook, Hekiganshu:

There are some people these days who do not truly understand this kōan; this is because there is no crack in it to insert their intellectual teeth. By this I mean that it is altogether too plain and tasteless. Various answers have been given by different masters to the question, “What is the Buddha?” One said, “He sits in the Buddha Hall.” Another said, “The one endowed with the thirty-two marks of excellence.” Still another, “A bamboo-root whip.” None, however, can excel T'ung-shan's “three chin of flax,” as regards its irrationality which cuts off all passage of speculation.14

Much has been written about the psychology of the kōan; in the interpretation of C. G. Jung, for example, the keynote in the above would be that the irrationality of the answer “cuts off all passage of speculation” and prepares the mind for a deeper intuition. It is not my intention to enter into that here, but merely to ask if in the advice given by the author of The Cloud and in his constant disparagement of logical thinking there is anything akin to this apparent denial or destruction of logical thinking. Moreover, the comparison of the kōan with the “pious meditations” of The Cloud has repercussions on the question of dogma and mysticism already treated; for the Zen masters claim that there is no connection between the content of the kōan and the enlightenment to which it leads. If, stretching the comparison, it is stated that there is no connection between discursive meditation on the Passion and the enlightenment of Christian mysticism, we are back again to the rejection of dogma.


A final problem arises from the similarity in technique in the works of the English author and in Zen. Ejo, the greatest disciple of the Zen master Dogen, gives practical advice that reminds one of the cloud of forgetting:

Abandon your body and soul into the abundance of light sent from above and give no thought to them. Do not seek for enlightenment nor reject illusion; do not try to avoid distractions nor attach yourself to them nor dwell on them. Just sit with perfect composure. If you do not prolong distractions voluntarily, how should they occur by themselves? Only sit like the great void or fire, breathing naturally; do not concern yourself with anything whatever; just keep sitting. Even though there may arise eighty-four thousand distractions, if you take no heed of them and leave them alone, every distraction will be turned into the divine light of Prajña. This principle applies not only to the state of sitting but also to that of walking. You would be led by light at every step. I do not mean that you would use discretion at every step but that you would be like a completely dead man twenty-four hours a day, entirely devoid of selfish will and discretion.15

The technique here advocated is not unlike that of the English author; and that this technique has been more highly developed in the Orient than in the West can be seen from the following words of Dogen:

Put your right hand on your left thigh, palm up, and let it hold the four fingers of your left hand so that the left thumb may press down the right thumb. Hold your body straight. Lean not to the left nor the right. Do not tip forward nor bend to the back. Your ears should be at right angles to your shoulders, and your nose must be on a straight line with the navel. Keep your tongue at the roof of your mouth and close your lips and teeth firmly. Keep your eyes slightly open, and breathe through your nostrils.

Before you begin meditation, move your body from right to left a few times, then take several slow, deep breaths. Hold your body erect, allowing your breathing to become normal again. Many thoughts will crowd into your mind … just ignore them and they will soon vanish. Do not allow the mind to become negative, or you will fall asleep. Think that which you cannot think. In other words, think nothing. This is the proper way to meditate according to Zen teaching.16

The above with its command to “think nothing” is a highly developed form of the cloud of forgetting; the psychological similarity is inescapable. The problem is that our modern age, preoccupied as it is with psychology, inclines to see only technique, overlooking other aspects of mystical prayer. Is the prayer of the author of The Cloud only a technique? Or is there something more important in it?


I have tried to emphasize that in order to understand the author of The Cloud it is necessary to keep in mind that he did not belong to the twentieth century but to fourteenth-century England. While Japanese thought has always shown a tendency to disparage discursive reasoning (and especially metaphysical thinking) of which Zen is one expression17 the thought-stream in which the English author is situated contains a glorification of dialectical thinking going back to Aristotle and the Greeks; and in this stream, authors like the Victorines and A Kempis who inveigh against the vanity of natural learning (the validity of which they never question) are often reacting against certain currents in the thought of their time.

As for “contemplation” and “contemplative life,” when the English author uses these words he is employing a vocabulary that has a long and complicated history in European thought: it is no small task to distangle the various meanings of “contemplation.”


Plato and Aristotle had spoken of contemplation (θεωρία) and the contemplative life (βίος θεωρητιaός) as the acme of human endeavor. In the Symposium Plato speaks of the ascent of the mind to the source of all goodness and beauty; and Aristotle, following his master's teaching, treats of contemplation as the highest activity of man in the Nicomachean Ethics. In his description of the joys of the contemplative life the Stagirite, usually so dry and scientific, verges on poetry—in the highest moment of contemplation man is like God: it is sad that he must return to the humdrum life of mortal men, for in this moment man is akin to Mind (υοῦς) itself; namely, God. Obviously, Aristotle was no mystic in the Christian sense of the word, nor is his contemplation religious; but his way of thinking, as well as the way of thinking of his master, Plato, was to exercise great influence on subsequent Christian thought. This influence comes in great part through neoplatonism: for Plotinus, contemplation is a return to the One from which man emanated and, though it seems to involve not only intellection but also love, it is philosophical rather than religious in nature.

Influenced by this way of thinking, the Fathers of the Church (notably Origen and Clement of Alexandria) use the word contemplation (θεωρία) for the consideration of Christian truths. Their contemplation demands faith, for it is a penetration of the mysteries of the life of Christ; it has two divisions only later clearly distinguished—a contemplation accessible to anyone with faith and another special form of prayer subsequently called infused contemplation.

This latter has always been regarded as a special gift of God, being a high form of union with Him. Theologically, this kind of prayer was regarded as the climax in the soul's ascent to God and was treated as such by the great theologians from Augustine and Bernard to Bonaventure and Aquinas. With the German mystics of the Rhineland, however, this mystical theology was separated from the ordinary theology, being treated as a special science or branch of sacred learning.

Broadly speaking, then, we can say that there are three kinds of contemplation: one is philosophical and its peakpoint is a metaphysical experience of being; the second has for its object Christian dogmas the inner meaning of which it savors with the light of faith; the third is a high form of union with God, conferred gratuitously upon His intimate friends. A consideration of these three kinds of contemplation helps us to understand the traditional relationship between reason, dogma, and mysticism.


Corresponding to these three grades of contemplation were three kinds of wisdom: metaphysical, dogmatic, and mystical.

The first kind of wisdom is the science by which, with Aristotle, one can rise from the knowledge of creatures by causality to the Supreme Being who is the source of existence; this is “natural theology,” found also in St. Paul.18 While it gives true analogical knowledge of God, it does not bring us to God as He is in Himself; that is to say, the mind does not here attain directly to God but only through creatures, His effects, so that we can say that God is “unknown”—He is unknown as He is in Himself.

The second kind of wisdom, being built on Divine revelation, rises above natural knowledge. This is the wisdom of faith that comes from hearing (ex auditu) and is grasped by the human faculties that (aided by the infused light which is called lumen fidei) penetrate deeply into the mysteries of revelation: the believer has a deeper knowledge than the catechumen who knows everything but does not yet believe.

The third kind of wisdom is mystical: this is experimental knowledge of God as He is in Himself, the apophatic mystics speak of it as silent, supraconceptual, dark, infused by God Himself. This is the highest wisdom man can attain to in this life; in comparison with it (in the words of the author of The Cloud) natural knowledge is “but feigned folly formed in fantasy, as far from the very certainty when the ghostly sun shineth, as the darkness of the moonshine in a mist at midwinter's night from the brightness of the sunbeam in the clearest time of midsummer day.” (P.C. [Privy Counseling] 146:2) Mystics will often say that by comparison with what they have seen in prayer, scientific knowledge and theology are like “ignorance” or (as St. Thomas himself said) like “straw.”

The point to be stressed here, however, is that in the Catholic tradition all three kinds of knowledge or wisdom are valid and their object is precisely the same; so far from contradicting, they complement one another. If some of the interpretations of The Cloud quoted above were true, then the author would reject the first two wisdoms in favor of the third; or he might hold for an illusory world and a real world found through enlightenment. But this is far from the medieval way of thinking. The traditional position was that there is only one truth, known imperfectly by reason, more clearly by faith, more clearly still by mystical experience, and perfectly in the beatific vision. Faith does not contradict reason but builds on it; mystical knowledge does not contradict reason or revelation but builds on them. Far from being a rejection of dogma, it is a supraconceptual penetration of those mysteries that are formulated conceptually (and, for that reason, imperfectly) in dogma.

A figure of the mystic is Moses who, ascending into the darkness, draws nearer to God but never rejects the knowledge he had while below with his people. It is simply that he comes closer to that same God whom he previously knew from afar by reason and revelation; and in the same way the mystic denies nothing of reason or of faith but approaches in love the same God the truths about whom these dogmas express. The mystical life, in short, is no more than a development of the ordinary Christian life: it is its highest point.

Almost all the greatest mystics describe the peak-point of their experience as some kind of fruition of that mystery expressed in the central Christian dogma: the Blessed Trinity. This is true not only of Augustine, Bernard, Bonaventure, and so on, but also of the mystics of “the Dionysian tradition”: Dionysius himself begins his Mystica theologia with a Trinitarian invocation, and this Trinitarian line is followed by Eckhart, Ruysbroeck, and the other apophatic mystics. It is against this background of the unity of truth that we must read the author of The Cloud.


Technique in mysticism was not unknown to medieval Christianity, though it was less highly developed than in the Orient. The technique of emptying the mind of all images was always considered a necessary condition for the development of mystical prayer; but the medievals were aware that mystical prayer was not only a question of technique which was its less important aspect. Emptying the mind of ideas was only a preparation for the reception of infused knowledge and love from God; and anyone who was not receiving this infused gift should not presume to remain in silent emptiness. This point was made especially by Ruysbroeck with whose thought the author of The Cloud may well have been familiar. The Flemish mystic speaks of a form of rest that may be purely natural, not induced by the action of God on the soul. “When a man is bare and imageless in his senses, and empty and idle in his higher powers, he enters into rest through mere nature; and this rest may be found and possessed within themselves in mere nature by all creatures, without the grace of God, whenever they can strip themselves of images and activity.”19 Ruysbroeck does not consider this rest wrong in itself, but it has its dangers. “This rest is in itself no sin; for it exists in all men by nature, whenever they make themselves empty. But when a man wishes to practise and possess it without acts of virtue, he falls into spiritual pride and a self-complacency, from which he seldom recovers.”20 His contrast between this vacancy and mystical prayer is worth quoting at length:

Such a rest is nought else than an idleness, into which the man has fallen, and in which he forgets himself and God and all things in all that has to do with activity. This rest is wholly contrary to the supernatural rest, which one possesses in God … And in this natural rest one cannot find God, but it certainly leads a man into a bare vacancy, which may be found by … all men, how wicked soever they may be, if they can live in their sins without the reproach of their conscience, and can empty themselves of every image and of all activity. In this bare vacancy the rest is pleasant and great.21

From this it can be seen that the technique of emptying the mind of thoughts and images is of no use, is even dangerous, unless that same mind is filled with a very special love of God. The tradition that underlies The Cloud and to which the author frequently refers is that no one can come to this mystical rest who has not spent a long time in ordinary meditation on the mysteries of Christ, devoting himself to penance and works of virtue. As to the moment when one could be permitted to abandon discursive meditation and allow one's mind and heart to be filled with the dark prayer of silence, there were many tests to discern this vocation. One finds oneself unable to meditate, the faculties being somehow hindered and filled with a silent longing for God; dissatisfied with the pleasure afforded by created things, one longs for solitude that alone provides peace and rest.

By signs such as these, the soul and its director may know that God is leading it to the life of contemplation and that it is licit to remain silent, all images buried beneath a cloud of forgetting. But, as can be seen, the loving action of God is the all-important thing; the emptying of the mind is no more than the small co-operation of the creature with his Creator.

Such is the background to the mystical life of fourteenth-century Europe. We must now consider how the English author fits into this framework. We shall first consider his paradoxical statement that, on the one hand, God cannot be known and, on the other hand, He can be known by unknowing. Then we shall examine the meaning of the cloud and the dark knowledge that it symbolizes. Finally, we shall consider the relationship of this dark knowledge to two fundamental dogmas: the Incarnation and the Church.




It has already been said that the English author belongs to the apophatic school of mysticism, greatly influenced by Dionysius the Areopagite. Toward the end of The Cloud he pays his debt to Dionysius in the following words:

And truly, whoso will look in Denis' book, he will find that his words clearly confirm all that I have said or shall say, from the beginning of this treatise to the end.

(C. 125:13)

Recent scholars have pointed out, however, that he was less Dionysian than he himself supposed. One reason for this is that no medieval could get an objective view of the writings of the Areopagite. Only comparatively recently was it established with certainty that Dionysius was a Syrian monk of the early sixth century; for the medievals he was St. Paul's convert writing to Timothy with an authority close to that of the Scriptures themselves.22 His writings had influenced not only the Greek mystics, notably Maximus the Confessor in the eighth century, but also after the translation of John Scotus Erigena in 877 they made an incalculable impact on the whole Latin Church. Commentaries were multiplied; Sts. Albert, Thomas, and Bonaventure received Dionysian influence; even Dante sang the praises of the Areopagite. Consequently, the Dionysius who came to the author of The Cloud, like the Aristotle who sometimes comes to modern scholastics, was overlaid with a tradition some of which he himself might not have recognized. Moreover, the English author makes no secret of the fact that he will not follow the “naked letter” of Dionysius' book; he intends to interpret it himself and to make use of other interpreters. He almost certainly did not read the original text of Dionysius but used the Latin translation of Joannes Sarracenus together with the commentary of Thomas Gallus, Abbot of Vercelli.

Yet, granted that Dionysius has been somewhat embellished in the years that elapse between the sixth century and the fourteenth, it still remains true that his basic ideas are fundamental to the thought of the author of The Cloud. We shall, therefore, first briefly set forth his doctrine.


According to Dionysius, there are two ways in which man can know God: one is the way of reason (λόγος); the other is the way of mystical contemplation (μυsτιaὸν θέαμα). Rational knowledge of God is obtained through speculative theology and philosophy; but mystical knowledge is greatly superior to this, giving a knowledge of God that is intuitive and ineffable. Hence, it is called “mystical” or “hidden.” Dionysius speaks much of the transcendence of God, stressing the fact that by reasoning we know little about Him; but he never denies the power of discursive reason to come to the knowledge of God, merely emphasizing the superiority of mystical knowledge.

In fact, he teaches two ways of knowing God by reason—one affirmative and the other negative. We can affirm of God all the good that can be affirmed of His creation, saying that He is holy, wise, benevolent, that He is light and life. All these things come from God, so we can affirm that the source possesses their perfections in a higher way. But (and this is the point stressed by Dionysius) there is also a negative way of knowing God; since he is above all His creatures. He is wise, but with a wisdom different from that of men; His beauty, goodness, and truth are different from those we know. So, in a sense, God is unlike anything we know: we must keep in mind that the ideas we have of Him are totally inadequate to contain Him.

But there is yet a higher way of knowing God. “Besides the knowledge of God obtained by processes of philosophical and theological speculation, there is that most divine knowledge of God which takes place through ignorance”; in this knowledge the intellect is illuminated by “the insearchable depth of wisdom.” Such knowledge is not found in books nor can it be obtained by human effort, for it is a divine gift. Man, however, can prepare himself to receive it; and this he does by prayer and purification. Here is his advice:

Do thou, then, in the intent practice of mystic contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things that the senses or the intellect can perceive, and all things which are not and things which are, and strain upwards in unknowing, as far as may be, towards the union with Him Who is above all things and knowledge. For by unceasing and absolute withdrawal from thyself and all things in purity, abandoning all and set free from all, thou shalt be borne up to the ray of divine Darkness that surpasseth all being.23

The point of Dionysius is that since the human senses and intellect are incapable of attaining to God, they must be “emptied” of creatures or purified in order that God may pour His light into them. In this sense they are in complete darkness in regard to created things but they are at the same time filled with light from God. Hence, we can say that “The Divine Darkness is the unapproachable light in which God is said to dwell.” When the faculties are emptied of all human knowledge there reigns in the soul a “mystic silence” leading it to the climax that is union with God and the vision of Him as He is in Himself.

Such is the doctrine that flows through the apophatic mystics to the time of St. John of the Cross. It is important to note three things: first, that Dionysius recognizes the validity of reason and theology; second, he asserts that reason and philosophy give very inadequate knowledge of God; third, his “unknowing” or ignorance means that one must (in time of prayer) abandon human, conceptual knowledge for the reception of divine, infused knowledge.


Hid Divinity, the middle English translation of Mystica theologia, follows Dionysius in teaching how God may be known in the highest possible way. Affirming Divinity (the English translation of Theologia affirmativa) has been treated of elsewhere, so the present work, the author tells us, will deal with Denying Divinity (Theologia negativa) and Hid Divinity.

Advancing on Dionysius, the English author asserts that in addition to affirming and denying there is another extremely important element in “hid divinity,” namely, love. This is the most important factor in all contemplative prayer—it has been clearly put into Dionysian thought by Thomas Gallus and others. Indeed, following the commentary of Thomas Gallus, the English author makes some additions to the text to remind his reader that love, or “affection” as he calls it, rises up to God when intellect stays behind:

Thou shalt be drawn up above mind in affection to the sovereign-substantial beam of the godly darkness, all things thus done away.

(H.D. [Hid Divinity] 3:16)

In his opening, too, he has spoken of “affection above mind,” as if to tell us that love soars up to God beyond the powers of the mind, attaining to a higher knowledge. This point is of great importance: “denying divinity” in the mystics can only be understood in the light of a higher knowledge that comes from love. It is precisely because of his love, his “singularity of affection,” that Moses can climb the mountain in the darkness of unknowing; and it is because of his love that he is able to “feel in experience the presence of him that is above all things”; it is only because of love that he is allowed to abandon all natural knowledge, to deny it, to shut it out. The passage in which the author states this is worth quoting, for it shows how all natural knowledge is abandoned by Moses only because he experiences God in love:

In this time it was that Moses in singularity of affection was separated from these before said chosen priests, and entered by himself the darkness of unknowing, the which darkness is verily hid; in the which he shuts out all knowable knowing. And surely he is made (in a manner that is invisible and ungropable) for to feel in experience the presence of him that is above all things, not having feeling nor thinking of no being nor yet of himself. But, in avoiding of all knowing that is still unknowing, he is knitted unto him in the best manner; and in that that he knoweth nothing, he is made to be knowing above mind.

(H.D. 5:15)

Here is an example of knowledge acquired by negation. In love, or “affection,” Moses abandons all knowledge, even knowledge of himself, and in this way he is “knitted” unto God. But just as Moses shuts out knowable knowledge for a higher wisdom obtained by love, so the contemplative is justified in forgetting only in order to obtain a higher knowledge and love:

And yet, nevertheless, not covered; but verily and clearly he appeareth open, not to all, but to them only the which pass above both all unclean and clean things, and the which come above all ascensions of all holy ends or terms set unto man or to angel, and the which forsake all divine lights and all heavenly sounds and words and enter with affection into darkness, where verily he is, as the Scripture showeth, the which is above all.

(H.D. 4:19)

From this it is clear that the contemplative must abandon all knowledge, however holy, in order to enter with love into the darkness where God is.

Hid Divinity describes the way to God by negation in various metaphors. One is that of the man trying to make an image out of a piece of wood that is at the exact center of a huge block. Such a man must keep cutting away until he reaches the center; and in the same way we must keep denying our concepts of God if we are to come to the true supraconceptual knowledge of Him found in darkness.

The fundamental point is that our ordinary faculties, or “wits,” sensible and intellectual, are incapable by themselves of representing God to us; that is why their ordinary use must be abandoned. God is above anything we can picture in our imagination or conceive in our mind. The fourth and fifth chapter of Hid Divinity give a formidable and detailed catalog of the things God is not like. First of all, no sensible thing resembles God, so that “we remove from him all bodily things, and all these things that pertain to body, or to bodily things—as is shape, form, quality, quantity, weight, position, visibility, sensibility … For he is neither any of these things nor hath any of these, or any or all these sensible things.” Again, He is like nothing we can conceive in our mind—and once again there follows the remarkable catalog of the spiritual things that God is not like. Such is the negative theology that underlies apophatic mysticism.


Hid Divinity gives the theory; The Cloud puts more emphasis on the practice.24 The cloud of forgetting is nothing else but the abandonment of all images and concepts to allow the soul to love mystically. The blind stirring of love has begun to burn in the breast of the contemplative; it is leading to a higher knowledge (for God can be known by love) and therefore the soul must be careful not to smother this little love with meditations and conceptual thinking. Images are now a barrier between the soul and God; that is why they must be forgotten:

And if ever thou shalt come to this cloud and dwell and work therein as I bid thee, thou must, as this cloud of unknowing is above thee, betwixt thee and thy God, right so put a cloud of forgetting beneath thee, betwixt thee and all the creatures that ever he made. Thou thinkest, peradventure, that thou art full far from God, because this cloud of unknowing is betwixt thee and thy God; but surely, if it be well conceived, thou art full further from him when thou hast no cloud of forgetting betwixt thee and all the creatures that ever be made.

(C. 24:1)25

His statement here that one is far from God unless surrounded by the cloud of forgetting is re-echoed by St. John of the Cross who, declaring that the worst deceptions enter the soul by way of knowledge and memory, goes on: “Thus if the memory enter into darkness with respect to them all, and be annihilated in its oblivion to them, it shuts the door altogether upon this evil which proceeds from the devil, and frees itself from all these things, which is a great blessing.”26 And just as St. John of the Cross is completely radical in his demand that everything must be forgotten (or that “nothing” must remain), so the English author admits of no exceptions:

As often as I say “all the creatures that ever be made,” so oft do I mean, not only the creatures themselves, but also all the works and the conditions of the same creatures. I except not one creature, whether bodily creatures or ghostly; nor yet any condition or work of any creature, whether they be good or evil. But, to speak shortly, all should be hid under the cloud of forgetting in this case.

(C. 24:9)27

It can easily be seen how the above is a practical application of the theory of Hid Divinity; one is reminded of the catalog of things that are not like God. Furthermore, the author, like St. John of the Cross, is not satisfied if the contemplative forget temporal things; he must also abandon knowledge of things holy and spiritual; for good and pious thoughts about the Passion of Christ, about Our Lady and the saints, about one's wretchedness and so on may not always help toward union.28 Such reflections are good in themselves; they are excellent in beginners—in fact, no one can come to contemplation without long practice in such pious meditations and reflections. But once the contemplative life has begun, once the blind stirring of love has risen in the heart, then these reflections are only an obstacle that can all too easily extinguish the tiny flame or draw the contemplative away from the work of supraconceptual love, the one thing necessary, the contemplation of Mary Magdalen. In a passage of great psychological interest, the author describes how the contemplative, quietly immersed in the prayer of silent love, may be torn away by some thought attracting him under the appearance of good. This pious and holy thought may take him away from a more important work of union, “scattering” him disastrously:

For peradventure he will bring to thy mind divers full fair and wonderful points of his kindness, and say that he is full sweet and full loving, full gracious and full merciful. And if thou wilt hear him, he coveteth no better; for at the last he will thus chatter ever more and more till he bring thee lower, to the thought of his passion.

And there will he let thee see the wonderful kindness of God; and if thou listen to him, he desireth nought other. For soon after he will let thee see thine old wretched living; and peradventure, in seeing and thinking thereof, he will bring to thy mind some place that thou hast dwelt in before this time. So that at the last, ere ever thou knowest, thou shalt be scattered thou knowest not where. The cause of this scattering is: that first thou didst wilfully listen to that thought, and then thou didst answer him, receive him, and let him have his way.

(C. 27:3)29

The contemplative should not listen to a thought, nor should he argue with it. “Tread him fast down with a stirring of love” is the advice of the author.


At the beginning of Privy Counsel the English author, in clearcut terms, tells his disciple to empty his mind of all concepts, to forsake good and evil thoughts alike in order that his act of love may go naked to God:

When thou comest by thyself think not before what thou shalt do after, but forsake as well good thoughts as evil thoughts. And pray not with thy mouth, unless thou likest right well … And look that nothing remain in thy working mind but a naked intent stretching unto God, not clothed in any special thought of God, in himself, how he is in himself, or in any of his works, but only that he is as he is.

(P.C. 135:13)

The metaphor of the “naked” will or intent occurs often in Privy Counsel—the contemplative is to be naked nor should his love be “clothed” in any thought or image. This strikes a sterner note than the cloud of forgetting which is, after all, a rather pleasant image; the notion of nakedness, on the other hand, gives some indication of the terrible renunciation demanded by the abandonment of conceptual knowledge. This violent element of naked knowledge and love will be treated of later; suffice it here to give one example of the suffering of the cloud of forgetting:

But look, as I oft said, that it be naked, for fear of deceit. If it be naked, then will it be full painful to thee in the beginning to abide therein any while. And that is, as I before said, because thy wits find no meat therein unto them. But no matter thereof, for I would love it the better. Let them fast awhile, I pray thee, from their natural delight in their knowledge.

(P.C. 171:18)

Deprived of their “meat,” the natural faculties suffer in this process of forgetting, for the memory is purified, emptied, voided of all forms.



It will be clear from what has been said that the main element in the negative approach to God in the mystical life is love: discursive meditation is abandoned that love may develop. Yet this love is not something any man can stir up in his heart at will; it is a gift of God; it is the work of grace. This is made clear by such words as the following:

And therefore lift up thy love to the cloud. Or rather (if I shall say thee sooth) let God draw thy love up to that cloud; and strive thou through the help of his grace to forget all other things.

(C. 34:19)

In other words, God does the main work; the work of man is only to forget—and even this cannot be done without the help of grace. So far is contemplation from mere technique. “Almighty God with his grace must always be the chief stirrer and worker, either with means or without, and thou, or any other like unto thee, but the consenter and the sufferer.” (P.C. 155:8) The work of the contemplative is simply to dispose himself, to be increasingly passive, and to allow God to work within his very will for “this devout stirring of love … is wrought in his will not by himself but by the hand of Almighty God.” (C. 61:17) The author emphasizes this in opposition to those who “in confusion of their erring presumption, that in the curiosity of their learning or their natural wit will always be principal workers themselves, God suffering or only consenting; when verily the contrary is true in things contemplative.” (P.C. 162:14) In the active life, it is true, man has much to do with his natural faculties, but in this work everything is done by God:

So that, in things active, man's learning and his natural knowledge shall principally abound in working—God graciously consenting … But in things contemplative, the highest wisdom that may be in man, as man, is far put under, so that God be the principal in working, and man but only consenter and sufferer.

(P.C. 163:5)

So it is that as the soul approaches nearer and nearer to God, “Jesu” becomes the “chief worker” while human activity changes into a silent passivity or expectancy. But only, it is to be noted, when “Jesu” is positively working in the soul may the negative technique of forgetting be practiced.


The author is well aware of the dangers of entering the cloud of forgetting before one's time. One of his reasons for insisting that his book may not be given to everyone is his fear that some naive young person, filled with good will, on hearing of mystical things may imagine that he is called to the contemplative life and end up in a condition that is “madness and no wisdom.”

Even good people must be careful not to enter this path prematurely; they must wait for the call of God. The Good Shepherd calls into the sheepfold those whom He will and He does so quite gratuitously; for “there is no soul without this grace which is able to have this grace: none, whether it be sinner soul or innocent soul. For it is neither given for innocence, nor withholden for sin.” (C. 69:13) Those not called must patiently and humbly wait outside. Indeed, the author protests that he himself cannot teach contemplation, nor can any man:

And if thou ask me by what means thou shalt come to this work, I beseech Almighty God of his great grace and his great courtesy to teach thee himself. For truly I do well to let thee know that I cannot tell thee. And this is no wonder. Because it is the work of only God, specially wrought in whatever soul he liketh, without any merit of the same soul. For without it no saint nor angel can think to desire it.

(C. 68:20)

Thus the grace is given by God alone “as he liketh, where he liketh, and when he liketh.” (C. 69:10)

But how is one to discern this vocation? How is one to distinguish this call from God from such psychological stirrings as may rise in the heart of any man? In both The Cloud and Privy Counsel the English author devotes considerable attention to this point.30 He stresses the necessity of “counsel,” or spiritual direction, obedience to the Church, fidelity to Holy Scripture, and he insists that the would-be contemplative “should be such a one as doth all that in him is, and … hath done long time before, for to able him to contemplative living, by the virtuous means of active living. For else it accordeth nothing to him.” (C. 2:5) When he has meditated long on the Passion, Our Lord calls him to a higher degree of union with Him31, to a union beyond imagery, typified by a constant longing for God and dissatisfaction with creatures. “All thy life now must always stand in desire, if thou shalt advance in degree of perfection. This desire must always be wrought in thy will, by the hand of Almighty God and thy consent.” (C. 15:14) Any stirring might rise in the heart of man from ordinary grace, and to distinguish the contemplative stirring, the author makes a point to which he continually returns: the difference between stirrings that come from within and those that come from without. If the stirring arises only when one reads books about or hears talks about the mystical life, it is only an ordinary grace: one must then wait for the true calling.

The true contemplative call comes from within; it impedes the ordinary use of the faculties; it is even a hindrance in one's daily life, somehow interfering with one's work—“it reaveth thee from thy quotidian exercise and goeth between thee and it” (P.C. 166:17)—which the contemplative performs (and here the author uses an interesting phrase) “not without difficulty but without great difficulty.” (C. 126:15) As St. John of the Cross speaks of “an inclination and desire to be alone” with “the memory centered upon God,” so the English author in a few terse phrases points to the same longing for God, the same passion for silence that characterizes contemplation:

Thou lovest to be alone and sit by thyself; men would hinder thee, thou thinkest, unless they wrought with thee; thou wouldst not read books nor hear books but only of it.

(P.C. 167:3)

As for the cloud of unknowing itself, sometimes it is like a cloud above one's head, separating oneself from God; but at other times the contemplative seems to be somehow immersed in the cloud, and then it becomes a symbol for an inability to meditate or make discursive prayer: the contemplative, surrounded by the mist, is able to cry out to God only in silent love.

Such are the tests by which the contemplative may know if he is permitted to enter the way of negation, surrounding himself with the cloud of forgetting. The signs of God are clear enough; so clear indeed that the contemplative may appear absent-minded and may be ridiculed by “actives.” But the author of The Cloud, following the “Martha, Martha!” of Our Lord, addresses these “actives”:

Actives, actives! make you as busy as ye can … And meddle you not with contemplatives. Ye know not what aileth them. Let them sit in their rest and in their play, with … the best part of Mary.

(C. 55:1)

From all this it can be seen that contemplation, far from being a mere technique, is a call from God.


Granted that he has the vocation, the contemplative enters the cloud of unknowing and puts between self and all creatures a cloud of forgetting. But this immediately poses another problem: If ordinary conceptual knowledge of God and creatures is true and valid, why should it be abandoned? It could be argued that the person who rejects conceptual knowledge and reasoning because it is illusory is, paradoxically, logical; but the person who esteems it and accepts its validity should not throw it away.

And the answer to this is that the author instructs his disciple to empty his mind of conceptual knowledge in time of prayer in order to make him capable of receiving a higher knowledge infused by God in love. Because (and this is the pivotal point) conceptual knowledge of God is totally inadequate and imperfect. We shall now consider this imperfection of conceptual knowledge of God.


In an assertion that has a somewhat Aristotelian or Thomistic flavor, the author declares that conceptual knowledge is, in this life, accompanied by a phantasm or mental image, and if we apply this image to spiritual things (and especially to God), then we fall into error. He has been saying that “love may reach to God in this life, but not knowing,” and then he goes to explain why it is that in this life we cannot know God:

And all the while that the soul dwelleth in this deadly body, evermore is the sharpness of our understanding in beholding of ghostly things, but most especially of God, mingled with some manner of fantasy; for which reason our work should be unclean, and unless much wonder were, it should lead us into much error.

(C. 33:11)

It will be noted here that the danger of error comes from “the deadly body” and, in particular, from the “fantasy”; just as St. John of the Cross says that the memory should be voided of forms and figures because “the more it leans upon the imagination the farther it is going from God, and the greater is the peril wherein it walks, since God is incomprehensible and therefore cannot be apprehended by the imagination.”32

Our conceptual knowledge is taken from the world around us; it comes through the senses and is accompanied by an imaginative picture; it is, moreover, quidditive or essential, which means that when I use the concepts “good” or “merciful,” I limit existence to that particular mode that is goodness or mercy. If, therefore, we apply it to God univocally, it will contain some falsehood; for as Hid Divinity has repeatedly asserted, God is above everything we can imagine. Not only is He above any picture we can have of Him in our phantasm, He is above any thought we can entertain in our mind. Thus, if we say that God is “good” or “merciful,” this is true, as the “affirming divinity” has taught us; but if we have in our imagination the phantasy of goodness and mercy as found in creatures, and if we apply this also to God, then we fall into anthropomorphism and what we say is false. If, on the other hand, we have the mental restriction that “God is good and merciful, but not in the sense of goodness and mercy in any creature whatever,’ then our statement is correct: the negative knowledge has supplemented the positive. This is simply what St. Thomas means when, following Augustine and Boethius, he says that God, by reason of His eminence, escapes any form that can be held in the human mind—“Quamcumque formam intellectus concipiat, Deus subterfugit illam per suam eminentiam.”33

Hence the author (whose avowed intention is to lead his disciple to a perfect knowledge of God as He is in Himself) opposes quidditive knowledge in favor of existential knowledge. At the beginning of Privy Counsel he orders the disciple to put away all essential or quidditive knowledge, telling him to think not of what God is but that God is. And this is a theme running through the whole book: Leave all essences; do not think of what you are; do not think of what God is; it is enough to think that you are and that God is. Here are his words at the beginning of Privy Counsel:

And look that nothing remain in thy working mind but a naked intent stretching unto God, not clothed in any special thought of God, in himself, how he is in himself, or in any of his works, but only that he is as he is. Let him be so, I pray thee, and make him on no otherwise.

(P.C. 135:19)

The author continues to stress that mystical knowledge is not essential but existential. It is the meeting of two existences, the existence of God and the existence of man. There must be no quidditive discourse about the nature or essence either of God or self:

That that I am, Lord, I offer unto thee, without any looking to any quality of thy being, but only that thou art as thou art, without anymore.

(P.C. 136:4)

Thus prayer is reduced to a wonderful simplicity without words, without images. “And therefore think of God in this work as thou dost on thyself, and on thyself as thou dost on God: that he is as he is and thou art as thou art, so that thy thought be not scattered nor separated, but oned in him that is all.” (P.C. 136:11) This is the void, the nothingness of the mystics.


The author, then, is leading his disciple to existential knowledge of God. It might be argued, however, that one does not really know a being until one knows its quiddity, or essence: it is not much to know that a being is unless we also know what it is. And is it not so with God? Of little value to know that He exists if we cannot know His essence. And to this valid objection the author answers scholastically that in God essence and existence are identical, so that to know His existence is to know His essence. To follow his reasoning here one must recall then that essence, being a way of existence, limits the existence of the creature; it is a potency to which existence is the act. If, for instance, I exist as a man, my existence is limited to that form of existence we call humanity; and so it is restricted.

Now in God there can be no limit, no restriction, no potency, no mode or way of existence. God is the source; He contains every perfection; He is existence itself. Consequently, His existence and His essence are identical: that He is and what He is are the same:

For there is no name, nor feeling, nor beholding more, nor so much, according unto everlastingness (the which is God), as is that the which may be had, seen, and felt in the blind and the lovely beholding of this word is. For if thou say: “Good” or “Fair Lord” or “Sweet,” “Merciful” or “Righteous,” “Wise” or “All-witting,” “Mighty” or “Almighty,” “Wit” or “Wisdom,” “Might” or “Strength,” “Love” or “Charity,” or what other such thing that thou say of God: all it is hid and enstored in this little word is. For that same is to him only to be, that is all these for to be. And if thou add a hundred thousand such sweet words as these: good, fair, and all these other, yet went thou not from this little word is. And if thou say them all, thou addest not to it. And if thou say right none, thou takest not from it.

(P.C. 143:19)

From this the author deduces his central idea that it is quite unnecessary to make discursive reflections about what God is; the contemplative should not think about His goodness and mercy and so on, for he, by vocation, is called to touch in love that very existence which is the essence of God. The logical conclusion, therefore, is drawn:

And therefore be as blind in the lovely beholding of the being of God as in the naked beholding of the being of thyself, without any curious seeking in thy wits to look after any quality that belongeth to his being or to thine. But, all curiosity left and far put back, do worship to thy God with thy substance, all that thou art as thou art, unto all him that is as he is, the which only of himself without more is the blissful being both of himself and of thee.

(P.C. 144:1)

And in making this existential prayer in love, the contemplative necessarily puts all creatures beneath the cloud of forgetting; because now quiddities or essences are gone and the soul is “empty,” “void,” “silent,” “in darkness,” “thinking of nothing”—all these words of the mystics come down to the same thing, expressed by the author of The Cloud in the words: “all that thou art as thou art, unto all him that is as he is.”

The above doctrine, widespread in the fourteenth century, is found in St. Thomas.

The Angelic Doctor could hardly be called apophatic; yet he has his share of Dionysian influence. He, too, asserts repeatedly that we do not know what God is (“nos non scimus de Deo quid est”); St. Thomas says that although we cannot know what God is, we can know that He is (“quamvis maneat ignotum quid est, scitur quia est”). And in another striking phrase he follows Dionysius saying that at the term of our knowledge we know God as unknown (“in finem nostrae cognitionis Deum tamquam ignotum cognoscimus.”34 What does St. Thomas mean by all this?

Obviously he does not mean that we cannot at all know the essence of God; for about this essence he has written in detail. When he says that “we do not know what God is” he means that our concepts do not attain to God univocally or (in other words) that through conceptual knowledge we do not know God as He is in Himself. But St. Thomas does hold that “we can know God by ignorance, by a certain union with the divine which is above the nature of the mind,” and he writes:

For it is then above all that the mind dwells more perfectly in the knowledge of God, when it is known that His essence is above everything that can be apprehended in the present state of this life. And so, though the deity remains unknown according as it is in itself, there is (to a higher degree than ever) knowledge of God according as He is.35

Negative knowledge, then, leads to a superior knowledge. But what is the nature of this superior knowledge of God? Jacques Maritain, stating that this negative knowledge can be viewed either metaphysically or mystically, writes as follows:

Insofar as the “via negationis” announces that God is like nothing created, it is one of the ways of metaphysical knowledge or ordinary theology, and indeed its most exalted moment. But insofar astheologia negativaconstitutes a species of knowledge, a wisdom of a higher order (and that is what is meant once it is distinguished from ordinary theology) it is nothing if not mystical experience.36

In short, the negative theology of St. Thomas opens the door to a wisdom of a higher order that is mysticism.


Now we are in a position to understand more clearly the author's attacks on ratiocination that make him resemble so closely Dr. Suzuki. To understand his way of thinking, three points need to be kept in mind.

First, his sporadic attacks on philosophers and theologians are more often aimed at their vanity than at their doctrine; this was not an uncommon theme of spiritual writers of the day.

Second, he never utters one word which might indicate that he doubts the validity of ordinary knowledge derived from sense and intellect. In fact, he says quite clearly that one can have knowledge of all creatures; but “of God can no man think.” Therefore it is only a question of our knowledge of God.

Third, in his attacks on reasoning and logical thinking he is no more than pounding home with emphasis the Thomistic doctrine of analogy which says that by reason we can know God only indirectly through creatures. By reason, our knowledge of God is illative, going from effect to cause; this is what he means when he says:

By reason we may trace how mighty, how wise and how good he is in his creatures, but not in himself.

(St. 72:19)

That God can be known through reason he here clearly states; and, of course, he speaks of causality and admits the value of “affirming divinity.” But, speaking to contemplatives, he feels the need of emphasizing that human reasoning cannot know God intuitively, univocally, as He is in Himself; “for one is he in himself, and another be his works.” To know Him as He is in Himself is the real knowledge; this is the true knowledge, and it can be gotten only by the grace of God that comes from love. All the logical thinking and ratiocination in the world will not bring the mind to an intuitive grasp of God—hence his attacks on those who think that the “natural wits” will give a kind of knowledge that, in fact, can be given only by God.


To sum up: The English author is in the Dionysian tradition, an apophatic mystic who emphasizes the knowledge of God by negation. In order to understand his negative theology, one must keep in mind the great stress he puts upon love and his constant assertion that love can know God. The via negativa is, in his thought, no more than a preparation for a via amoris; the cloud of forgetting is no more than a means to the cultivation of “the blind stirring of love”; the rejection of concepts is to allow the flame of love to burn brightly in the heart of the contemplative. Thus conceptual knowledge may be abandoned only when it is determined by clear-cut signs that the Good Shepherd is issuing an invitation to a higher loving knowledge.

Consequently, there is no question of conceptual knowledge and reasoning being false or illusory; in fact, there is an “affirming divinity” by which the mind can truly know God. But the knowledge of God obtained in this way is very imperfect. Nor does it attain to God as He is in Himself but only as He is in creatures. It is imperfect because, drawn from creatures, it is accompanied by a phantasy, is circumscribed and quidditive—such knowledge cannot be applied to God univocally but only analogously. The knowledge in favor of which it is abandoned is supraconceptual, existential, mystical; it is given by God Himself.

In short, when the English author says that we cannot know God, he means that our ordinary conceptual knowledge of God is analogous and does not attain to God as He is in Himself; when he says that we know God by unknowing, he means that in order to know God mystically by love one must abandon (that is, not know) imaginative and conceptual knowledge.





Mystical knowledge is dark; it is obscure; it is knowledge found in a cloud. At the beginning of The Cloud, the author, in a few succinct words, sketches a picture of the contemplative at the outset of the mystical life finding himself in a cloud, unable to think discursively, stretching out in love toward something or Someone whom he scarcely knows—or, rather, he knows that He is without being clear about what He is. The words of the English author run as follows:

For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud, however thou dost, is betwixt thee and thy God, and hindereth thee, so that thou mayest neither see him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after him whom thou lovest. For if ever thou shalt see him or feel him, as it may be here it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.

(C. 16:19)

Here the soul, filled with love, is plunged deep in the darkness of the cloud; its faculties are “hindered” so that it cannot see clearly nor feel sweetly; but from the mist of the cloud it cries out after Him whom it loves like the spouse in the Canticle: “Whither hast thou hidden thyself, And hast left me, O Beloved, to my sighing?” For this cloud is like that of which St. John of the Cross writes saying that “as this dark night has hindered its [i.e., the soul's] faculties and affections in this way, it is unable to raise its affection or its mind to God, neither can it pray to Him thinking, as Jeremias thought concerning himself, that God has set a cloud before it through which its prayer cannot pass.37

The English author goes to some trouble to explain that the cloud he speaks of is a mystical grace in which the faculties are impeded and the soul rests silently in God. Always afraid of being misinterpreted, he seems to fear lest some of his readers, amateurs in the spiritual life, may simply close their eyes, visualize a cloud in the sky, and then imagine that they are in “the cloud of unknowing.” Things are not so simple as that; and so he writes:

And ween not, because I call it a darkness or a cloud, that it is any cloud congealed of the vapours that fly in the air, or any darkness such as is in thine house on nights, when thy candle is out. For such a darkness and such a cloud mayest thou imagine with curiosity of wit, for to bear before thine eyes in the lightest day of summer; and also contrariwise in the darkest night of winter thou mayest imagine a clear shining light. Let be such falsehoods; I mean not thus. For when I say darkness, I mean a lack of knowing; as all thing that thou knowest not, or hast forgotten, is dark to thee; for thou seest it not with thy ghostly eye. And for this reason it is called, not a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing; which is betwixt thee and thy God.

(C. 23:13)

Here the author is clear. He means a psychological condition in which the mind is dark from a “lack of knowing”: on the one hand it has abandoned all knowledge of creatures, burying them beneath the cloud of forgetting, and on the other it cannot know God with clear and distinct knowledge.

To be in this cloud is a wonderful grace of God; yet here one sometimes suffers greatly. One suffers because this cloud is an impediment, an obstruction, as something blotting out the light of the sun, as something keeping the contemplative away from God whom he loves and wants to see. It is suffering, too, because the natural faculties want to be active; they crave knowledge and, deprived of their object, left without clear knowledge of God or creature, they suffer.38 It is then like that cloud of St. John of the Cross who, speaking of the distress of the impeded faculties, says that “a thick and heavy cloud is upon the soul, keeping it in affliction, and, as it were, far away from God.”39

Yet even when it makes one suffer, this is a “high and wonderful cloud.” The person in the cloud is nearer to God than anyone else alive; all the saints in heaven rejoice at what he is doing; the souls in purgatory are benefited; all men are wonderfully helped.40 For, though sometimes bitter to the natural man, this darkness leads one to God like that of which St. John of the Cross will later sing: “O Night that guided me! O Night more lovely than the dawn!” Moreover the darkness is not always bitter; it was not so for Mary when she sat at the feet of Christ in the cloud of unknowing:

Thither regarded she with all the love of her heart. For from thence she would not remove for nothing that she saw or heard spoken or done about her; but sat full still in body, with many a sweet, secret, and a listy love set upon that high cloud of unknowing betwixt her and her God … In this cloud it was that Mary was occupied with many secret settings of love. And why? Because it was the best and the holiest part of contemplation that may be in this life. And from this part she would not remove for nothing.

(C. 47:12)

Such is the beautiful (if sometimes bitter) cloud of contemplative prayer.


From this it can be seen that the cloud is an image to express that prayer of silent repose in unknowing later called by St. Teresa the prayer of quiet, or (when the faculties are more deeply united with God) the prayer of union. It can be expressed in many figures; one more which the author uses (and which is deeply traditional) is that of sleep:

And well is this work likened to sleep. For as in a sleep the use of the bodily wits is ceased, that the body may take his full rest in feeding and strengthening of the bodily nature: right so in this ghostly sleep the wanton questions of the wild ghostly wits, imaginative reasons, be fast bound and utterly voided, so that the silly soul may softly sleep and rest in the lovely beholding of God as he is, in full feeding and strengthening of the ghostly nature.

(P.C. 152:3)

Here the soul is silently attentive to God at the deepest part of its being while “the wild ghostly wits” are ignored or, rather, “fast bound and utterly voided,” that is, deprived of images by the cloud of forgetting and filled with God in love. This, too, will be echoed by a future mystic: “In this spiritual sleep which the soul has in the bosom of its Beloved, it possesses and enjoys all the calm and rest quiet of the peaceful night, and it receives in God, together with this, a profound and dark Divine intelligence.”41 In short, this mystical sleep is yet another description of the cloud of unknowing.


Normally, this prayer of the cloud and of spiritual sleep is made in deep silence without words. Sometimes, however, words may be used; but not often, for this prayer “is best when it is in pure spirit, without special thought or any pronouncing of word; unless it be seldom, when for abundance of spirit it bursteth up into word.” (C. 78:20) That is to say, from the midst of this silent prayer, words may well up in the heart; and then they should be used; but these are not words thought out by men but words given by God. “And therefore take thou none other words to pray in … but such as thou art stirred by God to take.” (77:21) Such words will be very short (and the shorter the better) like “love,” “God,” and so on. They will fly straight to God like the stirrings he has compared to sparks flying up from burning coal. The soul using such tiny words is like the man who calls out “Fire!”:

And rightly as this little word Fire stirreth rather and pierceth more hastily the ears of his hearers, so doth a little word of one syllable, when it is not only spoken or thought, but secretly meant in the depth of the spirit … And rather it pierceth the ears of Almighty God than doth any long psalter unmindfully mumbled in the teeth. And therefore it is written, that “short prayer pierceth heaven.”

(C. 74:23)

Such is the prayer of the cloud. It is a prayer of silent union with God during which there may rise up in the heart momentary words; it is a prayer of darkness and unknowing.


It has already been indicated that the dark knowledge of the cloud has sometimes been interpreted as a rejection of dogma, the cloud of forgetting being a means of voiding the mind of clear-cut propositions and concepts. In this way the English author has been taken as a rebel against dogma.

In answer to this it could be argued that the truth of Christian dogma underlies almost every statement the author makes. His exhortation to enter the cloud is no more than an urging to the perfect following of Christ;42 he constantly expresses dislike of heresy; he often refers to the Mystical Body;43 his whole doctrine on the purification of the soul is built on an extremely accurate and orthodox teaching on original sin;44 he keeps referring to redemption through the blood of Christ;45 he has a clear statement about the Last Judgment.46 He follows Dionysius in Hid Divinity by invoking the Blessed Trinity and, outlining the main tenets of the faith, he tells us that God is One, that the “sovereign-substantial Jesu” has become man, and he holds firmly “all other things that be expressed in the Scripture.” (H.D. 7:22) These are not the words of a man who thinks that all these doctrines have no more than relative value, that they are a sort of jumping-off place for a knowledge in which they will all be jettisoned. If anything is to be said for his sincerity (which few will doubt), he has an unshakable fidelity to the teaching of the Church.

Furthermore, he has an interesting aside in which he asserts clearly his belief that the unknown God encountered in the cloud is the God of Christian revelation. He is speaking of how distracting thoughts may rise in the mind asking the contemplative what he is looking for; then he writes:

And if he [i.e., the distracting thought] ask thee, “What is that God?” say thou, that it is God that made thee and bought thee, and that graciously called thee to his love.

(C. 26:16)

This is to say that the God whom the contemplative seeks in the cloud is the God of Scripture and dogma, the God who is Creator and Redeemer and Sanctifier. The text is all the more interesting as being unmistakably Trinitarian. “God that made thee” is the Father; that “bought thee” is the Son; “that graciously called thee to his love” is the Holy Spirit. This means that the contemplation of the author is directed to the triune God of revelation; it is centered on the principal Christian dogma: the Blessed Trinity. Moreover, the author has an interesting habit of using triple words that recall the Trinity, as when, for example, he speaks of God “mightily, wisely and goodly succouring” the soul. (P.C. 149:16) Here again, traditionally the Father is mighty; the Son (the Word) is wise; and the Holy Spirit is good. Or again, he speaks of God's “almighty-hood, his unknown wisdom, and his glorious goodness” (P.C. 149:9)—with the same Trinitarian ring.47

All this indicates that in the darkness of the cloud the soul encounters the Blessed Trinity. It is true that if asked, “What is that God?” the contemplative might say first that he scarcely knows, or that what he feels is inexpressible in human language; but, if pressed, he answers in the words of Christian dogma: the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier. One recalls here the words of Maritain who, asserting that true mysticism culminates in a Trinitarian experience, continues: “The reason is that from the very outset, its [i.e., the soul's] contemplation—if it is authentically mystical—has proceeded from a living faith and from supernatural gifts and has led the soul, not to the One of the philosophers, not to God unknown as if from without and by his effects, but to God attained in his own divine essence, to the Deity Itself and as such, who in his absolutely proper and intimate life, is a Trinity of Persons, a resplendent and tranquil society of Three in the same indivisible essence of light of love.”48

Dark contemplation, then, is communion with the Blessed Trinity. But to explain more fully how this can be so, it is necessary to enter into the relationship between this dark knowledge and faith.



When the mind is barren of images and clear, distinct concepts have been abandoned, the soul will be in some kind of darkness. There is, however, a philosophical cloud of unknowing entailing a supraconceptual grasp of, or rest in, being: the problem that now confronts us, therefore, is to analyze the darkness and the cloud of which the English author speaks, asking what are its special characteristics, what differentiates it from other kinds of mental darkness.49

In his commentary on The Cloud, Augustine Baker asserts that the darkness and the cloud of the English author symbolize faith; but he probably came to this conclusion less from a study of the text itself than from his general study of apophatic mysticism (for Baker was widely read in the mystics) which taught him that all these mystics from Gregory of Nyssa to St. John of the Cross, when they speak of the cloud and darkness, mean the obscurity of faith: traditionally the cloud is a symbol of faith. Gregory of Nyssa had spoken of how the mind leaves conceptual knowledge to enter the darkness of faith just as Abraham “after he had purified his mind of all such concepts … took hold of a faith that was unmixed and pure of any concept.”50

This teaching is summed up by Jean Daniélou in words that recall strikingly the doctrine of the English author of The Cloud. “For God,” writes Daniélou interpreting Gregory, “is beyond every representation. This does not, however, mean that there is no contact with God, but merely that this contact is not by way of the understanding but by faith. It is only in the obscurity of faith that the soul can grasp the transcendent Godhead. And thus we are directly on the way that leads to St. John of the Cross. God, as He is in Himself, is Darkness for the intellect, but can be grasped by faith. In this way it is clear that the knowledge of God in the darkness is not merely negative. It is truly an experience of the presence of God as He is in Himself, in such wise that this awareness is completely blinding to the mind, and all the more so, the closer it is to Him. In fact one might almost say that the darkness expresses the divine presence, and that the closer He comes to the soul, the more intense is the darkness. The image of darkness is merely a way of expressing the fact that the awesomeness of the divine essence is more than human nature can endure.”51

Daniélou has said that with the doctrine of Gregory the way leading to St. John of the Cross is opened; but this is a way that passes through the Rhineland and Ruysbroeck; it is in this path that the author of The Cloud stands. After him St. John of the Cross, voicing a long tradition, will say in unmistakable terms that the cloud of unknowing is the darkness of faith; for faith is “a black and dark cloud to the soul” paradoxically giving light in the night.

And, from his study of apophatic mysticism, Augustine Baker concludes, not unreasonably, that the cloud of the English author is the darkness of faith.


Turning now to the English author, an analysis of his dark knowledge shows that it contains three elements: faith, love, and wisdom. Faith, or “belief” (as it is usually called), is the ground; love, “the naked intent of the will,” rises from this faith and goes directly to God; “ghostly wisdom” is the “fruit of this working.”

At the beginning of Privy Counsel the author, having told his disciple to empty his mind of all concepts, to banish good thoughts as well as evil thoughts, makes a significant statement: “Let that belief be thy ground.” (P.C. 135:24)52 That is to say, faith is the foundation of the whole thing. There is to be no “subtlety of wit,” no natural learning, but only a naked love that springs from faith—“this naked intent, freely fastened and grounded in very belief.” And later, when he is looking for a really contemplative soul, he exclaims:

But where shall such a soul be found, so freely fastened and founded in the faith … and so lovely led and fed in the love of our Lord.

(P.C. 149:6)

Here again, faith is the ground and out of faith there springs love.

But what is this faith that fills a mind void of concepts and natural learning? The English author does not say too much by way of explanation, for he is writing no thesis on theology; but some light may be thrown on the matter by a glance at the doctrine of St. Thomas whose teaching on faith dominated the century and which was subsequently, at Trent, accepted as the official teaching of the Church.


In the doctrine of St. Thomas, faith is not a reasoning process whereby one, having heard a preacher or read the Gospel, assents to its content; faith is an infused gift of God, enabling one to see His eternal truth in the Scriptures or in the dogmatic formulations that come to us through men (ex auditu). “Fides est principaliter ex infusione … sed quantum ad determinationem est ex auditu.”53 I give my assent to certain propositions conveyed to me by the Church not because of their intrinsic probability but because of the authority of God Himself who enlightens my mind to see His word in these formulas; just as, for example, I believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist not because of anything I see with my eyes or reason with my intellect but because of the enlightenment of God enabling me to grasp beneath appearances the reality that is Christ. Now the light that God pours into my mind at the moment of belief is not anything conceptual (faith gives no more conceptual knowledge than study) but is a supraconceptual enlightenment. And being supraconceptual it is “obscure” or “dark”; not in the sense that it is uncertain but because it is not clear and distinct.

The “darkness” of this “light” of faith fills the pages of the mystics. The light of faith, they say, is so bright that it blinds and darkens the intellect, just as the sun blinds the person who looks at its dazzling beauty—“even as the philosopher teaches, saying that even as the ray of the sun is dark and black to the eye of the bat, even so the lofty and bright things of God are dark to our understanding.”54 This way of speaking, found throughout Gregory, Ruysbroeck, and St. John of the Cross,55 appears also in the author of The Cloud. He is speaking of how the mind is dark and empty, seemingly filled with “nothing”; and then he goes on to say that, in fact, this nothing is a wonderful enlightenment:

This nought may better be felt than seen; for it is full blind and full dark to them that have but a little while looked thereupon. Nevertheless (if I shall trulier say) a soul is more blinded in feeling of it for abundance of ghostly light.

(C. 122:9)

In other words, this cloud of darkness is an intensely bright light, blinding the mind of the contemplative.

But this blinding light enables one to see God's truth hidden in the propositions of Scripture and dogma; that is why the author seems to regard faith as a kind of vision, for in Hid Divinity he declares that we hold “in sight of belief” that God is above all things. (H.D. 4:9)56 And in another passage he writes:

For if ever thou shalt see him [i.e., by faith] or feel him [i.e., by love] it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.

(C. 17:7)

Here he says that by faith we see the truth of God in an obscure way; and when we have seen it, love brings us to God Himself.

All this is in conformity with the doctrine of St. Thomas who says that the act of faith does not terminate at any proposition but at the reality that it contains (“actus autem credentis non terminatur ad enuntiabile sed ad rem”)57; beneath the human words in which dogma is expressed there lies hidden a great reality, and it is to this that the mind assents. And St. John of the Cross, faithful disciple of St. Thomas, declares of faith that “such is the likeness between itself and God that there is no other difference, save that which exists between seeing God and believing in Him.”58

Now faith is purest when it is naked; that is, when we assent to the truth of revelation not because of its intrinsic probability, not because of any human authority, not because of any reasoning process, not because of miracles; but because of the authority of God (“propter auctoritatem ipsius Dei revelantis.”)59 It is in this time that the mind has no other prop or support except God. Consequently, it is in darkness; but the darkness is a blinding light, for it is the infused gift of faith.60


It remains to say something about the faith that comes from hearing (ex auditu) and its relationship to this dark supraconceptual knowledge.

The great truths about the life of God (about the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, and so on) were taught by Christ and His Apostles and are expressed in the Bible and the teaching of the Church in certain conceptual definitions and dogmas which, it has been pointed out, the author of The Cloud accepts unconditionally, making them the warp and woof of his doctrine. However, he realizes that these definitions, being expressed in human language, are imperfect; they are inadequate to contain perfectly the great truths that they express—the dogmatic expression of the Trinity, for example, is a weak and stammering, yet true, expression of the great reality that is the life of God. It is precisely the light of faith that enables the believer to see in these human formulations the tremendous truth of the triune God. Therefore these conceptual formulations are little, insofar as they cannot exhaust the reality they express; they are great, as truly pointing to something that is infinite. This can be said of the Scriptures and of the whole revelation of Christ; and this is what the author says in Hid Divinity:

For this reason it is that the godly Bartholomew, the Apostle of Christ, saith in his writing that Christ's divinity [i.e., revelation] is both much and it is least; and that the gospel is broad and much, and eftsoon he saith, it is strait and little.

(H.D. 4:12)61

In short, the words and sentences used about God in theology and Scripture are great because they are true, but they are little because so imperfect. St. John of the Cross says something similar in emphasizing that the things of God are totally removed from any concepts or images we may have of them:

Wherefore, if one should speak to a man of things which he has never been able to understand, and whose likeness he has never seen, he would have no more illumination from them whatever than if naught had been said of them to him. I take an example: If one should say to a man that on a certain island there is an animal which he has never seen, and give him no idea of the likeness of that animal, that he may compare it with others that he has seen, he will have no more knowledge of it, or idea of its form, than he had before, however much is being said to him about it.62

From what he hears the man knows that the animal is, but he does not know what it is because the concepts he has received through the senses until now do not fit this object. In the same way, essential or quidditive knowledge alone does not attain to God as He is; to attain to Him as He is we need the infused light of faith—which does not come through the senses and is supraconceptual. And the dark knowledge of the cloud of unknowing is grounded on this.


It should be noted, however, that faith is only one element in this dark knowledge of God: it is the ground. The principal element is love that rises in the darkness; but since love is always based on knowledge (“ignoti nulla cupido” was a scholastic dictum) and since it cannot be based on natural reasoning and conceptual knowledge, which is useless for attaining to God as He is in Himself, it must, for every Christian, be based on faith—and, for the contemplative, on naked faith. Having seen the truth in faith, the soul comes to love God—and in love it “touches” the essence of Him the truth about whom it has seen in the Scriptures and teaching of the Church. Touching Him it finds a new wisdom that is also dark and about which more will be said later.


Keeping all this in mind we can return to a problem posed earlier when it was said that Zen is an experience cut off from all dogma and all philosophy, and that certain commentators felt that the author of The Cloud also teaches a rejection of the dogmas of the Church.

In evidence of this theory, Aldous Huxley quotes the following passage:

Yea, and what more? Weep thou never so much for sorrow of thy sins, or of the passion of Christ, or have thou never so much thought of the joys of heaven, what may it do thee? Surely, much good, much help, much profit, and much grace will it get thee. But in comparison of this blind stirring of love, it is but little that it doth, or may do, without this. This by itself is the best part of Mary.

(C. 39:4)

In considering this passage, three things should be noted. First, the author praises meditation wholeheartedly as something that brings much good, much help, and much profit.63 Second, he says that by comparison with the prayer of contemplative love it is little. Third, meditation on the words of Scripture and the dogmas of the Church is a means to help us, enlightened by the grace of God, to see in the revelation of Christ the great truths hidden therein: principally the truths of the Blessed Trinity and the work of Redemption. When these truths are grasped meditation is finished, for the words and the actions and the miracles of Christ were ordained to revealing these truths. And when these truths are seen by the mind, the will goes out in love to that which they express—and this is the blind stirring of love. Far from being an escape from faith, this faith is its very ground.

In the darkness of a mind enlightened by naked faith (that is, without support of any human reasoning or of any imaginative forms in the memory), the will adheres in love to God who has revealed Himself in Christ and in His Church. The cloud of forgetting ensures that no other consideration, however holy, will influence the contemplative; no new revelation or message from God will be accepted; no vision will be trusted; no supernatural communication will be received—for all creatures have been forgotten and the author has said, “I except not one creature, whether bodily creatures or ghostly,” thus emphasizing that nothing under God will hamper the naked faith of contemplation. It is this faith that must be the ground of contemplation according to the English author.

We may conclude, then, that the cloud of unknowing is that dark and obscure knowledge and love that fills the mind of the contemplative when, void of images and discursive reasoning, it rests silently in God in mystical sleep. The knowledge now suffusing the mind is only that of a faith which, nakedly divorced from any human consideration whatsoever, finds God's truth in His revelation in Christ; and from this knowledge springs a love that touches the very essence of God, bringing yet a higher wisdom. This darkness of faith and love and wisdom is in reality a dazzling light that blinds the mind of the contemplative, thus leaving him in the mists of the cloud.


  1. See, for example, Seng-chao, in the treatise On Prajña Not Being Knowledge. Prajña, he says, is “the illuminating power of not-knowledge” that reveals true reality. See Dumoulin [1], p. 59.

  2. “As satori strikes at the primary fact of existence, its attainment marks a turning point in one's life. The attainment, however, must be thorough-going and clear-cut in order to produce a satisfactory result. To deserve the name ‘satori’ the mental revolution must be so complete as to make one really and sincerely feel that there took place a fiery baptism of the spirit.” (Suzuki [1], Essay V, Satori, v, p. 231).

  3. Suzuki insists that Zen is divorced from history and from metaphysics. Dumoulin, however, denies this, saying that Suzuki's own works contain much material which refutes his thesis that Zen is without metaphysics … (Dumoulin [1], p. 271). Indeed, it seems impossible to cut off an experience from the philosophy and tradition that gave it birth. This is true also of Christian mysticism.

  4. “We may say that Christianity is monotheistic, and the Vedanta pantheistic; but we cannot make a similar assertion about Zen. Zen is neither monotheistic nor pantheistic; Zen defies all such designations. Hence there is no object in Zen upon which to fix the thought. Zen is a wafting cloud in the sky.” (Suzuki [4], p. 41).

  5. Suzuki [2], p. 19.

  6. Huxley [1], p. 97.

  7. Progoff, p. 26.

  8. “And as soon as a soul is touched with very contemplation … surely and verily right then dieth all man's reason.” (P.C. 150:13)

  9. Suzuki [2], p. 16.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Suzuki [1], p. 255.

  12. Progoff, p. 33.

  13. Dumoulin [1], p. 129.

  14. Suzuki [1], p. 71, 72. Also: “The worst enemy of Zen experience, at least in the beginning, is the intellect which consists in discriminating subject from object. The discriminating intellect, therefore, must be cut short if Zen consciousness is to unfold itself, and the kōan is constructed eminently to serve this end” (Ibid., p. 71).

  15. Quoted in Akiyama, pp. 167-168.

  16. Senzaki, p. 22.

  17. Speaking of the way of thinking of the Japanese, Nakamura devotes one chapter to Irrationalistic Tendencies that he lists in the following way: “(1) The tendency to be illogical (to neglect logical rules). (2) Lack of the ability to think with logical coherence. (3) Immaturity of logic in Japan. (4) Some hopes for development of logical thinking in Japan. (5) Intuitive and emotional tendencies. (6) Lack of ability of forming complicated ideas. (7) Fondness for simple symbolic expressions. (8) The lack of knowledge concerning the objective order.” (Nakamura, p. 5 [Contents])

  18. Rom 1:20.

  19. Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, c. LXVI.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Recent study shows that pseudo-Dionysius took part of his doctrine from Gregory of Nyssa—and this doctrine goes back to Origen and Clement of Alexandria. As for the Indian influence on neoplatonism, this is a question that has not yet been decided. In general, history of the relationship between India and the Mediterranean indicates mutual influence; but it is not easy to say which way this influence worked. Modern scholars point to Gnostic and Hellenistic influences on the development of Buddhism.

  23. De myst. theol., I, 1.

  24. But see C. 124:4ff.

  25. For an understanding of this doctrine, it is important to note that the mind is emptied of creatures only to be filled with God. On this point the doctrine of Eckhart is similar but more neoplatonic: “Where the creature ends, there God begins to be. God asks only that you get out of his way, insofar as you are creature, and let him be God in you. The least creaturely idea that ever entered your mind is as big as God. Why? Because it will keep God out of you entirely. The moment you get (one of your own) ideas, God fades out and the Godhead too. It is when the idea is gone that God gets in.” (Eckhart, p. 127) Unlike the author of The Cloud, Eckhart here seems to suggest that if creatures are abandoned, God will necessarily flow into the soul.

  26. Ascent, III, IV, 1.

  27. See also C. 34:23.

  28. “Wherefore, the soul that is pure, cautious, simple, and humble must resist revelations and other visions with as much effort and care as though they were very perilous temptations. For there is no need to desire them; on the contrary, there is need not to desire them, if we are to reach the union of love.” (Ascent, II, XXVII, 6)

  29. For a somewhat similar psychological description, see St. John of the Cross, Living Flame, Stanza III, 63.

  30. See The Cloud, pp. 130 ff., and Privy Counsel, pp. 164 ff.

  31. Meditation is necessary, but it must be abandoned when the call comes to something higher. See C. 27:16.

  32. Living Flame, Stanza III, 44.

  33. In I Sent., dist. 22, q. 1.

  34. St. Thomas is here quoting Dionysius: Myst. theol., c. 1.

  35. Quoted by Maritain, p. 237.

  36. Maritain, p. 237.

  37. Dark Night, II, VIII, 1.

  38. “Let them fast awhile, I pray thee, from their natural delight in their knowledge.” (P.C. 171:22)

  39. Dark Night, II, XVI, 1.

  40. See C. 16:10.

  41. Canticle, Stanzas XIII and XIV, 22. See also St. Francis de Sales: “Now this repose sometimes goes so deep in its tranquillity, that the whole soul and all its powers fall as it were asleep, and make no movement nor action whatever, except the will alone, and even this does no more than receive the delight and satisfaction which the presence of the well-beloved affords.” (Quoted by Poulain, Chapt. IX, Extracts, 37)

  42. See the opening pages of The Cloud. This subject is treated at length in the next chapter.

  43. See “The Cloud and the Church,” pp. 80 ff.

  44. See Part III.

  45. Ibid.

  46. C. 104:17.

  47. See also C. 28:3.

  48. Maritain, p. 378. The Trinitarian aspect of the English author's doctrine is developed in the last section of this work.

  49. There are various kinds of supraconceptual states. Suzuki speaks of dhyana in which the mind is emptied of all concepts, and “when all forms of mental activity are swept clean from the field of consciousness that is now like a sky devoid of every speck of cloud, a mere broad expanse of blue, dhyana is said to have reached its perfection.” (Suzuki [1], p. 246)

  50. Gregory of Nyssa, p. 35.

  51. Introd., ibid., p. 32.

  52. Hodgson points to textual difficulties here, but the substantial meaning is clear enough.

  53. IV Sent., D. 4, Q. 2, a. 2.

  54. Canticle, Stanza XXXVIII, 10.

  55. Ruysbroeck: “The divine light … dazzles her [the soul's] eyes, even as the bat is blinded by the sun's rays.” (Quoted by Poulain, Ch. VI, Extracts, 31) Also St. John of the Cross: “Hence it follows that for the soul this excessive light of faith which is given to it is thick darkness; for it overwhelms that which is great and does away with that which is little, even as the light of the sun overwhelms all other lights whatsoever, so that when it shines and disables our power of vision, they appear not to be lights at all.” (Ascent, II, III, 1)

  56. The words “in sight of belief,” not in the Latin, are added by the English author himself.

  57. Summa, IIa-IIæ, q. 1, a. 2, ad 2. It is for this reason that St. Thomas speaks of faith as “inchoatio quaedam vitae aeternae.” (De Ver., q. 14, a. 2, c.)

  58. Ascent, II, IX, 1.

  59. See Denzinger, 1789.

  60. By faith here I mean the living faith that also includes love.

  61. “This reference has not yet been traced. Nothing is known of any genuine writings of St. Bartholomew the Apostle.” (Hodgson, Notes to H.D., p. 124)

  62. Ascent, II, III, 2.

  63. The author reiterates that meditation is necessary for beginners. It is just that he is not writing for beginners, and so he says: “Of these three [i.e., Reading, Thinking, and Praying] thou shalt find written in another book by another man much better than I can tell thee; and therefore it needeth not here to tell thee the qualities of them … And prayer may not well be gotten in beginners and profiters without thinking coming before.” (C. 71: 14)

Works Cited


Hodgson, P.: [1] The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling, Edited from the Manuscripts with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary. Early English Text Society, Oxford, 1944 (reprinted 1958).

——— [2] Deonise Hid Divinite and Other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer Related to The Cloud of Unknowing, A Tretyse of the Stodye of Wysdome that Men Clepen Beniamyn, A Pistle of Preier, A Pistle of Discrecioun of Stirrings, A Tretis of Discrescyon of Spirites, Early English Text Society, Oxford, 1955 (reprinted 1958).

Colledge, E.: “The Book of Privy Counsel,” The Medieval Mystics of England, London, 1962.

McCann, Justin, O.S.B.: The Cloud of Unknowing, With a Commentary on The Cloud by Father Augustine Baker, O.S.B., London, 1952 (Westminster, Maryland, 1952).

Progoff, I.: The Cloud of Unknowing, Introductory Commentary and Translation by Ira Progoff, London, 1959 (New York, 1961).

Walsh, J., S. J.: [1] A Letter of Private Direction, London, 1963.

——— [2] Denis's Hidden Theology (Unpublished work).

Wolters, C.: The Cloud of Unknowing, Translated into Modern English with an Introduction, London, 1961.

General Bibliography

Akiyama, Noriji: “Ningensei,” Dogen Zen (4 vols), Vol. III, Tokyo, 1961.

Dumoulin, Heinrich: [1] A History of Zen Buddhism, Trans. Paul Peachey, New York, 1963.

Huxley, Aldous: [1] Grey Eminence, New York, 1941.

Maritain, Jacques: The Degrees of Knowledge, Newly translated from the fourth French edition under the supervision of Gerald B. Phelan, London, 1959 (New York, 1959).

Nakamura, H.: The Ways of Thinking of Eastern People, Tokyo, 1960.

Poulain, A., S. J.: The Graces of Interior Prayer, A Treatise on Mystical Theology, Trans. Leonard L. Yorke-Smith, London, 1912.

Ruysbroeck, John of: The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, The Sparkling Stone, The Book of Supreme Truth, Trans. C. A. Wynschenk. Ed. with an Introduction and notes by Evelyn Underhill, London, 1916.

Senzaki, Nyogen, and Ruth S. McCandless: Buddhism and Zen, New York, 1953.

Suzuki, D. T.: [1] Essays in Zen Buddhism (I), London, 1927.

——— [2] Essays in Zen Buddhism (II), London, 1933.

——— [3] Essays in Zen Buddhism (III), London, 1934.

——— [4] An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Kyoto, 1934. New edition with a foreword by C. G. Jung, London, 1949, 1960.

Denys Turner (essay date 1995)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10365

SOURCE: Turner, Denys. “The Cloud of Unknowing and the Critique of Interiority.” In The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, pp. 186-210.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Turner analyzes some differences between The Cloud of Unknowing and the works that influenced it.]


This writyng that next foloweth is the Inglische of a book that Seynte Denys wrote unto Thimothe, the whiche is clepid [called] in Latyn tonge Mistica Theologia. Of the whiche book, forthi that it is mad minde [referred to] in the 70 chapter of a book wretin before (the whiche is clepid the Cloude of Vnknowing) how that Denis sentence [opinion] wol cleerli afferme al that is wretyn in that same book; therefore, in translacioun of it, I have not onliche folowed the nakyd lettre of the text, bot for to declare the hardnes of it [clarify its difficulties], I have moche folowed the sentence [interpretation] of the Abbot of Seint Victore, a noble & worthi expositour of this same book.1

In this, his prologue to a translation of Denys' Mystical Theology, the Cloud Author rather puzzlingly claims both to have made a close rendering, following ‘the nakyd lettre of the text’ (which is far from true) and to have done so in accordance with the ‘sentence’ of Thomas Gallus, the thirteenth-century Abbot of St Andrew at Vercelli (which, for sure, he has). The Cloud Author thus at once makes clear that his indebtedness to Denys has been acquired through personal acquaintance with his writings and concedes that his reading of them is filtered through at least the century of Victorine interpretation which fed into Gallus, if not through the influence of others since that time.2 As Minnis has pointed out, the contrast between ‘nakyd lettre’ and ‘sentence’ is an English rendering of the technical Latin terms littera and sententia which, in mediaeval biblical exegesis, referred to the domain of the grammar and the obvious surface meaning of a text on the one hand, and to the deeper meaning of the text on the other.3 This may be so. But in any case it will have to be said that the Cloud Author's rendering of the Mystical Theology owes much to Gallus that is not found in Denys, both as to littera and sententia. For the Cloud Author has made significant, if small, alterations to the littera of Mystical Theology.4 And it cannot escape our notice that all those minor alterations serve only one purpose: to further the interests of Gallus' version of the sententia of Denys' mysticism. Specifically, the variants of Dionise Hid Divinite reinforce Gallus' shift of emphasis from the intellectualism of Denys' ‘mysticism of vision’ towards the voluntarism of his own ‘mysticism of affectivity’.

It is worth noting this transformation of Denys' apophaticism at the outset—and equally worthwhile spelling out some of the textual detail, as we will do shortly—because together with what amounts to a sustained critique of the role of imagination in the spiritual life, this transformation contributes much to the distinctiveness of the Cloud Author's spirituality. We will now consider these two elements of that distinctiveness in turn.


Minnis has established authoritatively both the fact of the Cloud Author's dependence on Gallus' reading of Denys and that the main respect in which he so depends is in this shift of emphasis, from the supremacy of intellectus to that of affectus.5 In summary, the argument is this: the Cloud Author acknowledges few sources explicitly. Among those he does acknowledge are Denys, Richard of St Victor and Gallus. The emphasis on the priority of affectus could not have been derived from Richard of St Victor, for it has no parallel in him. Other possible sources, such as Hugh of Balma, contain little that is not either a commonplace of the literature or else is found more explicitly in Gallus. When the Cloud Author acknowledges his indebtedness to Gallus it is in the translation of a text of Denys which he has modified according to the sententia of Gallus. Hence it is in Gallus principally that the Cloud Author finds support for that switch in priority to affectus. The case is convincing.

But there is more going on in both Gallus' and the Cloud Author's transformation of Denys than consists in this shift towards affectivity—and this is because the effect of that shift is to transform the structure and balance of the apophaticism itself. Both Gallus and the Cloud make their own additions as to littera. Minor as these are, they disguise a truly radical departure from the dialectical negativity of the intellectualist apophatic tradition.

Gallus' apophaticism is already quite significantly different from Denys'. In the preface to his second Commentary on the Song of Songs, Gallus distinguishes the knowledge of God into two kinds:

the first is intellectual, this being acquired by the contemplation of the created order … This kind of knowledge of God is a kind of abstract reflection [speculativa] and is dark and obscure, is spoken of and taught to all and sundry, through meditation, hearing and reading. The pagan philosophers are able to achieve only (knowledge) of this kind. That is why the Apostle says in Romans 1, 19, what is known of God is plain to them. That is known which may be gleaned from prior knowledge of the things of the sensible world.6

But the second kind of knowledge of God

exceeds the first beyond all possibility of comparison and the great Denys describes it in Divine Names 7 as the most divine knowledge of God … which comes through unknowing. … This is the wisdom of Christians which is from above (James, 3, 17) and it descends from the Father of Lights (James, 1, 17), for this wisdom exceeds what is in the heart of humans … The intellectual wisdom first referred to does reach up from the level of sense to the intellect. But this higher than intellectual (wisdom) is a maidservant of the thrones of God (Wisd. 9, 4) … And drawing on the teaching of the Apostle, the great Denys the Areopagite has written his account of this more than intellectual wisdom, in so far as it is possible to write one down, in his book on Mystical Theology.7

There are a number of assumptions behind this distinction, and some implications of it, not all of which it is possible to recognize in Denys. The texts from Denys which Gallus cites in amplification of these two kinds of knowledge, serve in Denys to distinguish between his ‘symbolic’ and ‘mystical’ theologies, and so between a cataphatic and an apophatic theology. Gallus uses them to support these distinctions of course, but he combines them with a distinction of his own, with little enough foundation in Denys: that between the knowledge of natural reason such as the pagan philosophers are capable of, and the supra-intellectual wisdom of Christians.8 The result of this overlaying of Denys' distinctions with his own is to identify, first, the knowledge of natural reason with intellectual knowledge as cataphatic; and, second, the supra-rational knowledge of Christians with the non-intellectual and apophatic. And there are two things to note about these identifications.

The first is that in maintaining that intellectual knowledge of God is inherently cataphatic, Gallus appears to be supposing that there can be no apophaticism native to intellect itself, that intellect only affirms—in which view, of course, he differs from Denys. And from this will follow the second point of note: for if it is not within the power of intellect to construct its own self-negations, then the apophasis of intellect's affirmations will have to be the act of another power which negates intellect as such. And both points seem to be borne out by the subsequent discussion in the Commentary on the Song of Songs.

Gallus notes that where the Mystical Theology gives the theory of mysticism, in the Song of Songs ‘Solomon gives the practice of this same mystical theology’;9 and he adds that to understand how he proposes to explain the practice of mysticism it is necessary to take on board the ninefold structure of the angelic orders which Denys explains in the Celestial Hierarchy. For, he says, the ranks of the celestial hierarchy ‘are duplicated in the hierarchies of each individual mind’.10 This is the ‘internalised hierarchy’ of spiritual ascent which later, as we have seen, Bonaventure was to borrow for his Itinerarium.

The details of what turns out to be a somewhat pedantic and uninspired explication of the Song of Songs in terms of angelic hierarchy need not concern us. What is of interest is that at every stage up to and including the penultimate eighth, the cognitive and the affective powers of the soul proceed, as he puts it ‘hand in hand’, but that at the eighth, the rank of the Cherubim, the soul has reached the limits of intellectus, beyond which affectus cannot yet step:

The eighth rank contains every kind of knowledge of the intellect drawn towards the divine heights, although it is not able to reach them, and of desire similarly drawn, though it may not transcend the height to which intellect is gathered. For they are drawn together, and desire and intellect as it were walk hand in hand up to the point at which intellect finally fails—this, at the supreme apex of this rank, is the Cherub; and intellect, though drawn up to it, can go no further but there achieves the fulfilment of its knowledge and light; hence this rank is called the ‘Cherubim’.11

But beyond the eighth is the rank of the Seraphim, where affectus is at last able to break its partnership with intellectus and step out on its own. This rank

contains the highest aspirations for God, the excesses and inflowings which go beyond understanding, burning brilliance and brilliant burnings; understanding cannot be drawn into the sublime ecstasies and excesses of these lights, but only the supreme love which can unite [sola principalis affectio unibilis] … This rank embraces God and is wrapped in the embraces of the bridegroom, this is no knowledge in a mirror, it takes Mary's part, which will not be taken away (Lk., 10, 42). In this order the bed is laid for the bridegroom and bride. It is from this order that the torrent of divine light pours down in stages to the lower orders.12

This ‘practical’ mystical interpretation of the internalised hierarchy reinforces the formal statements of the opening paragraphs of the preface. Apophasis begins where intellectus ends. Not before that point, for at none of the eight steps leading to the last is there any moment of negation. But only at the last is the breakthrough to the ‘burning brilliance and brilliant burnings’ of apophasis made and that is by means of affectus on its own.

This picture is not in all respects consistent with that of Gallus' Glossa on the Mystical Theology.13 Perhaps because in the Glossa his responsibilities to the ipsissima verba of the text were less easily shrugged off, the constraints of a close gloss tie him to more of the detail of Denys' apophaticism. Hence, short of an outright rejection of the argument of chapters 4 and 5 of the Mystical Theology, Gallus could hardly have avoided conceding some kind of immanent ‘dialectics of denial’ to intellect, and so he does: Gallus follows Denys up the ladder of negations one by one from the lowest perceptual attributes to the highest conceptual. But, as in his Commentary on the Song, the break-off point which leads to the darkness of the mystical occurs where intellectus drops out and affectus takes over and we gain the impression that intellect's own denials are, strictly, not essential to the process: for ‘Why’, he asks,

is this summit of the divine secrets said to be ‘unknown above all unknowns’, ‘brilliant beyond all brilliance’, and ‘the highest’?

It is said to be ‘unknown beyond all unknowns’, because rational enquiry falls short of it; it is said to be ‘brilliant beyond all brilliance’ because understanding fails of it, being overwhelmed by the overflowing outpourings of light; it is said to be ‘the highest’ because intelligence cannot reach up to it because of its transcending union of love14

Rise up to union with God by means of the highest love.15

Thus does love firmly shut the door on understanding before it proceeds on to the mystic darkness.

Crucial both to Gallus, and, as we will see, to the Cloud Author, is the interpretation of Denys' allegorical retelling of Moses' ascent of Mount Sinai at the end of chapter 1 of Mystical Theology. Denys had marked out a clear set of steps and transitions in this ascent which may be summarized as follows:

  1. Moses submits to purification and then departs from those who have not been purified and he hears ‘the many voiced trumpets. He sees the many lights, pure and with rays streaming abundantly’.16
  2. Moses pushes on together with the priests towards the summit and next encounters not God himself but ‘the place where he dwells’.17 This Denys interprets as referring to the illuminations, taken collectively, of the cataphatic theologies, which are able to show his ‘unimaginable presence, walking the heights of those holy places to which the mind at least can rise’.18
  3. Moses breaks free both of the priests who had accompanied him this far and of the illuminations of the cataphatic and ‘plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing. Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here … one is supremely united by a completely unknowing inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.’19

Here in Denys' transition from stage 2 to 3, it is intellect which, while ‘renouncing all it knows’, plunges on into its own dialectic of a ‘knowing inactivity of all knowledge’. Not so in Gallus. Both in the Glossa and in the Extractio Gallus gives the same account. The ‘place of God’ he explains is to be understood as

the conceptions of all that is below God who surpasses all things and through them God is made present to us cognitively; he pours down upon us from above the most fundamental and highest of those conceptions [rationes] which … are capable of being understood by the contemplative mind [speculative].20

But when Moses leaves the ‘place of God’ behind he

enters into the cloud of unknowing [ad caliginem ignorantiae], that is, he is made one with the incomprehensibility of the Godhead, which intelligence cannot reach into: [and] this [cloud] shuts out all else and encloses within it and hides in the deepest secrecy all those knowings and understandings as in the first cause of all. And by means of this [cloud] all who are united with God, who is above all things, are confirmed in an eminence which no reason is able to explore nor intellect contemplate; and being set apart from all things and in a manner of speaking from itself, it is united with God, who is unknown to intellect, through a union of love [per unitionem dilectionis] which is effective of true knowing, far superior to the knowing of intellect; and in so far as it leaves the knowing of intellect behind, it knows God beyond all knowing and mind.21

What Gallus has added to Denys' account is a conception of the apophatic ‘knowing unknowing’ in terms not of intellect's own self-transcendence, but in terms of a higher kind of knowing than that of intellect, the ‘knowing of love’. Thus, whereas for Denys both the ‘knowing’ and the ‘unknowing’ are contained dialectically within the immanent dynamic of intellect, for Gallus, the ‘knowing’ of the ‘knowing unknowing’ is the ‘knowing of love’ and the ‘unknowing’ of the ‘knowing unknowing’ is the simple rejection of intellect. Gallus is, of course, picking up on a very ancient theme in the Latin tradition, stretching back at least to Gregory the Great, according to which love is itself a kind of knowing: amor ipse notitia est.22 This is a theme which we will pick up again in the Cloud, but for a moment let us pause to register the effect of this reinterpretation of Denys on the dialectics of the apophaticism itself.

We can say, in fact, that those dialectics have disappeared in Gallus, at any rate in any recognizable Dionysian form. Gone is any sense of the importance of the multi-stage hierarchical ascent of Mystical Theology 4 and 5, with its complex ascending scale of negativities; what replaces it is a simple two-stage process of intellectual affirmation followed by a transcending stage of the knowing of love. Gone, moreover, is every sense that intellect, upon entry to the cloud, negates itself, and so self-surpasses into the darkness of unknowing, for intellect is negated by love, not by itself and is simply bundled away at the point at which its affirmations fail. In short, the hierarchical dialectic of negativity found in Denys is replaced by a simple bi-polarity of knowing and love, which is ultimately transcended in the knowing of love. This is an apophaticism in which the cloud of unknowing is a metaphor not of self-transcendent intellect but of its simple abandonment. It is therefore an apophaticism which, unlike Denys', is pregnant with the possibilities of an anti-intellectualism.


The Cloud Author's relation with the Dionysian dialectics of intellect is more complex than Gallus'. That the Cloud Author owes much to Gallus' reinterpretation is not difficult to establish both in his own Middle English version of Mystical Theology and in The Cloud of Unknowing itself. As far as concerns Dionise Hid Divinite, it would be going too far to say that it is as to littera a version of Gallus' Extractio rather than the ‘translacioun’ of Mystical Theology. But it would be no exaggeration to say that as to sententia it is certainly closer to the Extractio than to the Mystical Theology. Indeed, in so far as Dionise Hid Divinite differs from Gallus' Extractio this would be not because the former is nearer to Mystical Theology than the Extractio but because it interpolates the littera of Mystical Theology the more heavily of the two. Moreover, all the Cloud Author's interpolations are to the same effect as are Gallus', namely to emphasize the ultimate priority of love over intellect as the power which leads into the cloud of unknowing.

When we turn to The Cloud of Unknowing itself, what matters is the total shift of emphasis rather than the details of textual dependence. Unlike Dionise Hid Divinite, The Cloud of Unknowing is not written with any declared intention of fidelity to the texts of Denys, but only in a more general way as being supported, ‘fro the beginnyng of this tretis to the ende’23 by what Denys says. What is obvious, however, is that even this is far from the truth and misleading. It is far from the truth, as we will see, for as in Gallus, the balance of the dialectics of unknowing is struck quite differently from that of Denys. And it is misleading because in so far as the Cloud Author invites us to test his claim of loyalty to a Dionysian theology we are led to read him largely through the consequences of the fact that he fails that test in so many ways. It becomes all too easy, in consequence, to read The Cloud of Unknowing principally through the points of divergence between his voluntarism and the intellectualism of Denys. Such a reading would be regrettable—though it is a temptation hard to resist, if only because the Cloud Author asks for it. But it would be a pity, since it would do less than justice to the integrity of the Cloud Author's own spirituality and to its intrinsic coherence, which can and should be allowed to survive the source-criticism of the scholars. In any case, whether for better or worse, The Cloud of Unknowing must be tested on its own merits and in the last resort not in its relations even with those sources its author claims for himself.

Once again, what does need to be said about the voluntaristic shift of the Cloud away from the intellectualism of Denys can be said relatively quickly. The Cloud Author's is a spirituality in which desire figures not merely as an important emphasis but pretty much as the whole thing—at least as the unum necessarium. In a phrase which echoes Bonaventure's vir desideriorum,24 the Cloud Author tells his disciple: ‘Alle thi liif now behoueth algates to stonde in desire, if thou schalt profite in degre of perfeccioun’.25 Therefore, he goes on, ‘Lift up thin herte unto God with a meek sterying of love’, though not until you are ready for what is involved, for the work is hard:

Lette not therfore, bot trauayle therin tyl thou fele lyst. For at the first tyme when thou dost it, thou fyndest bot a derknes, & as it were a cloude of vnknowyng, thou wost neuer what, sauying that thou felist in thi wille a nakid entent vnto God. This derknes & this cloude is, howsoeuer thou dost, bitwix thee & thi God, & letteth the that thou maist not see him cleerly by light of vnderstonding in thi reson, ne fele him in swetnes of loue in thin affeccioun. And therfore schap thee to bide in this derknes as long as thou maist, euermore criing after him that thou louest; for if euer schalt thou fele him or see him, as it may be here, it behoueth alweis be in this cloude & in this derknes.26

And if between the disciple's desire and the God desired there stands a cloud of unknowing, between his desire and all the work of mind and imagination there must be placed a ‘cloud of forgetting’,27 a forgetting which will place in oblivion not only all thoughts of creatures, nor only all thoughts of God aroused by creatures, but also all spiritual activity which is the work of sense, imagination or reason. In respect of all these ways in which God might be made ‘present’ to the disciple, God must be made disconcertingly ‘absent’ from him. The Cloud Author makes it abundantly clear that it is not merely ‘worldly’ thoughts which must thus be forgotten, but also and perhaps most particularly it is ‘spiritual’ thoughts which present a potential obstacle to the disciple's entry into the cloud of unknowing.

As ofte as I sey ‘alle the creatures that euer ben maad’, as ofte I mene, not only the self creatures, but also alle werkes & the condicions of the same creatures. I outetake [make exception of] not o creature, whether thei ben bodily creatures or goostly, ne yit any condicion or werk of any creature, whether thei be good or iuel; bot schortly to sey, alle schuld be hid vnder the cloude of forgetyng in this caas.28

In respect, therefore, of all cognitive activity God must be made ‘absent’ so that ‘the thinketh … that thou arte ful fer fro God’,29 but in fact he is further from God who has not placed this cloud of forgetting between himself and his cognitions, however much the disciple may think that these cognitions place him in God's presence. But all this unknowing and forgetting of the familiar ‘menes’ to God—so pure and radical a sense of the absence of God—can cause panic and disorientation and the disciple will ask the Cloud Author:

‘How schal I think on himself, & what is hee?’ & to this I cannot answere thee bot thus: ‘I wote neuer’.

For thou hast brought me with thi question into that same derknes, & into that same cloude of vnknowyng that I wolde thou were in thiself. For of alle other creatures & theire werkes—ye, & of the werkes of God self—may a man thorou grace haue fulheed of knowing, & wel to kon thinke on hem; bot of God himself can no man thinke. & therfore I wole leue al that thing I can think, and chese to my loue that thing that I cannot think. For whi he may wel be loued, bot not thought. By loue he may be getyn & holden; bot bi thought neither.30

So the Cloud Author asks the disciple to be resolute in this negation of all cognitivity; nor is this resolution to be a merely passive determination to stay fast in it, for it must be an active work of denial and unknowing. For the Cloud Author, ‘vnknowing’ is an apophatic strategy, not a mere ignorance; it is an achievement of the work of ‘forgetyng’, a work which, as we will see, is the normal routine of the spiritual life, a routine of progressive simplification and attenuation of the imagination and reason. To ‘unknow’ is, for the Cloud Author, an active verb-form.

It is not of course that he denies any role at any stage to the work of imagination and thinking on the path to unknowing. An excessive emphasis on the Cloud Author's apophaticism could lead to an excessive devaluation of his cataphaticism, both theological and practical. And for sure, the case for saying that, in the end, the Cloud's dialectics have been reduced to a bipolar opposition between the cognitive and the affective could be taken to reinforce a reading of The Cloud of Unknowing according to which reason and imagination have no significant role to play. But it should not be so taken. For the Cloud Author's dialectics of negation retain some important elements of the hierarchical ascent of affirmations towards God which are undoubtedly Dionysian in language and thought.

There is, he writes, a ladder of ‘menes … in the whiche a contemplatiif prentys schuld be ocupyed, the whiche ben theese: Lesson, Meditacion, & Orison’31 and, perhaps with the Carthusian Guigo's Scala Claustralium in mind,32 he takes the description of the progress of the soul up the ladder of meditative practice to have been adequately given in the traditional literature, so he needs not dwell on it. Nonetheless, the fact that he feels he has little to add to this traditional account of the practices of reading, meditation and prayer can be taken to imply a depreciation of them only if one neglects his stated position on the subject. The aspirant to the highest spiritual achievement of contemplation who believes that he or she can ignore the ordinary means presupposed to that achievement—who precipitately throws away the ladder before climbing it—will end up with a distorted caricature of contemplation, as we will see.

Moreover, the Cloud Author does offer his own account of the scale of meditative progress towards contemplation. Meditation will proceed, he says, from many words and many thoughts to few and ultimately to just one; from many requests addressed to God, to just one cry of help, an expressive and compact form of prayer, he says, like that of the person in a situation of extreme danger who cries ‘Help!’ or ‘Get out!’33 In particular, that devotional practice to which he attaches most importance, the practice of reflecting on one's own sinfulness, will proceed from a maudlin, guilt-ridden picking over of one's many faults one by one34 to the unified understanding of ‘synne conielyd in a lumpe’ which is, he says, our sense of ‘self’.35 Progress in the meditative practices, whether of imagination or of discursive reason, therefore leads to simplification and reduction and ultimately to the simplest of prayers, expressive of the disciple's total and immediate dependence upon God; and this work of progressively more ‘forgetful’ devotion is a permanent task, the normal occupation of the contemplative, ‘the whiles thou leuyst in this wrechid liif’.36

The continual practice of this simplified meditation and prayer will lead, then, to a stark awareness of an almost ‘existential’ gulf which stands between the disciple and God, there being nothing else to hold them apart but this stark sense of the self as sinful. The final act of the mind, the act which thrusts the soul into the dizzying, disconcerting, truly contemplative darkness of unknowing, is that by which this ‘self-as-sinful’ is also placed under the cloud of forgetting and is destroyed.37 This ‘break’ by which the practices of prayer and meditation self-destruct is the beginning of a contemplation in which the role of ‘menes’ finally ceases; but it is not something which we can bring about by ourselves, for it is not the natural outcome of the means we have taken to get to the point where it is possible. It is achieved only by the development in the soul of a ‘stronge & a deep goostly sorow’38 which, for the disciple's part, consists in a kind of patient desire that God should offer him ‘a ful specyal grace, ful frely goven of God’,39 for nothing he can do can bring it about.

Contemplation, therefore, is a pure grace, a flash of brilliant darkness which intrudes upon the normal, everyday practice of the ordinary, everyday means of reading, meditation and prayer. Contemplation is not, therefore, a ‘practice’ at all, for it is a grace; nor is it a grace the disciple can count upon as any kind of permanent condition. Moreover it is, in the normal case, a condition which he cannot count on at all except on the strength of many years of effort in meditative practice. Those ‘ordinary’ means are therefore in no way secondary and dispensable, for they are the whole of what the disciple can do and that whole which he can do consists in nothing but the patient desire that God will do the rest. It is only the young, inexperienced and impatient beginner who will try to force the pace and attempt to ‘practise’ contemplation for himself, with the inevitable result of a weird and stupid caricature.

Hence, at the concrete level of ascetical practice, reading, meditation and prayer form a ‘scale’ of progressive simplification corresponding with the scale of cataphatic contemplations in Denys. For both, the ascent of this scale is the precondition which leads to true, apophatic, contemplation but for neither is that precondition a mere temporarily prior stage which yields to the apophatic as a second phase leaving the first behind it; for in both the cataphatic is the continuing, permanent condition of the apophatic.

And yet there remains the radical difference. If, for the Cloud Author, the apophatic is a moment of ‘breakthrough’ into the darkness of unknowing, an intervention of grace which irrupts upon the routine devotional practices, that breakthrough is the irruption of love into an ascetical work in which the cognitive powers have been progressively attenuated and reduced to a minimum of activity. Hence, at the point of breakthrough love requires the total abandonment of all cognitivity, a cutting of all ties with the safe anchorage of the mind in its familiar images, meditations and narratives of God, leaving all intellectual activity behind, so that the disciple can launch out on to the intellectually uncharted and unchartable seas of the knowing of love. As we have seen, this is not so in Denys.

Consequently, there is not to be found anywhere in the Cloud that sophisticated, nuanced, dialectical hierarchy of self-negating dissimilar and similar similarities—that ‘negation of the negation’—which is what is definitive of Denys' cataphatic ascent. If, on the way to contemplation, the Cloud Author admits that there is a hierarchy or scale of ascending affirmations, in the end the logic of the negations is not hierarchical, but consists in a simple, uniform, non-dialectical progression towards simplification which is broken off by love's denial of all knowledge tout court, to be replaced by the alternative and rival knowing of love. The Cloud Author's cataphatic hierarchy is therefore non-dialectical and linear and his apophasis is not immanent within the Dionysian multi-stage hierarchy of denials, but is that, as I have put it, of a two-term polarity of intellectus and affectus.


It is important to be precise about the nature of the Cloud Author's ‘voluntarism’ and there are two significant comments to be made which will help gain some of the necessary precision for our account of it. The first concerns the imagery of The Cloud of Unknowing, the second concerns its dialectics.

If without question the Cloud Author inherits and then reinvests the voluntarism of Gallus and thereby transforms into a voluntarism the intellectualist dialectics of Denys, nonetheless both he and Gallus retain Denys' predominantly intellectualist imagery. Manifestly the Cloud Author's image of the ‘cloud of unknowing’ and Gallus' image of the caligo ignorantiae have their origin in that convergence of Hebraic and Platonic sources which flow into Denys. From those sources too derive the complex of images associated with the senses of sight and hearing which so characterize Denys' intellectualist apophaticism, images of ‘light’ and ‘darkness’, ‘word’ and ‘silence’. It is surprising to find the Cloud Author so loyal to this Dionysian imagery, for it is a distinct feature of the voluntarist traditions of Christian spirituality in the Middle Ages that their imagery is derived not by analogy from the senses of sight and hearing but from those of touch, taste and smell. And there is little trace of such imagery in The Cloud of Unknowing.

The habit of deriving imagery for the description of the soul, and of spiritual realities generally, by analogy from the bodily senses is, of course, common to all the patristic and mediaeval traditions.40 And Augustine, who was unwilling to force issues which seemed so important to later mediaeval theologians about the priorities of intellect and will, was correspondingly free to maximize the diversity of this imagery, employing the language of all five senses in a famous and influential passage:

You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with the love of your peace.41

But in the later mediaeval period the polarisation of voluntarist and intellectualist theologies is most commonly found in conjunction with a corresponding polarisation between imagery of the three lower senses of touch, smell and taste and visual and auditory imagery. The more typical imagery of voluntarism is therefore non-visual, such as is found in the thirteenth-century Augustinian Giles of Rome, whose views on ‘contemplation’ provide a close parallel with those of Gallus. Like Gallus, Giles divides contemplation into two kinds, that of the philosophers and that of the saints.42 Like Gallus too, Giles considers the contemplation of the philosophers to be essentially an intellectual activity, expressed in affirmative language, and is a kind of ‘seeing’—though unlike Gallus, whose models are always Platonic, Giles' model of the pagan contemplative life is that described by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, 10. But the contemplation of the theologian, Giles says, is less a kind of seeing than a kind of tasting—magis consistit in sapore quam sapere—and is more a matter of ‘loving and sweetness’ than of speculation:

Therefore the person who studies in order to know, not to build up and make progress in the love of God, should recognise that he leads the contemplative life as the philosophers describe it, not as theologians do. Hence, if we wish to speak of the contemplative life in terms drawn from the senses we could, in a manner of speaking, adapt the metaphor and say that the contemplation of the philosophers gives delight to hearing and sight; whereas the spiritual contemplation of the theologians gives delight to taste, smell and touch.43

Interestingly, Giles bases this allocation of sensory images between intellectual and affective styles of contemplation on a combination of Aristotelian and Dionysian principles. Aristotle had rated sight and hearing as the two highest of the five senses, both absolutely and in respect of their roles in the service of knowledge. Whereas touch, taste and smell are, he thought, more basic, because more ‘vital’, senses, since they are more closely associated with the body's vital needs.44 This, taken together with the Dionysian principle that the higher a reality is on the scale of excellence the more appropriate it is to use images of lower things to describe it, gives the result that the higher forms of theological contemplation are best imaged by the three lower senses of touch, taste and smell and the lower, philosophical, contemplation by the higher senses of sight and hearing. Hence,

spiritual contemplation, which consists in tasting—and as such is a more vital activity—has the character rather of pleasing taste, smell and touch, which do more to provide for the means of life. And so, while the happiness of the philosophers is a matter of the intellect, spiritual happiness resides in its fullness and in its highest form in the will …45

In this partiality for an imagery of touch, taste and smell by contrast with visual and auditory imagery, Giles is following a long tradition of affectivist piety, in this respect too following Gallus.46 It is therefore of some significance that not only does the Cloud Author uncharacteristically combine a non-Dionysian voluntarism with distinctly Dionysian visual imagery, but that he also positively resists at least some of the manifestations of the affectivist imagery of touch, taste and smell. In a chapter which may with reasonable safety be read as a disparagement of the language of his near contemporary Richard Rolle, the Cloud Author warns that the inexperienced person may very well misunderstand what he himself has said about ‘depe sorow and desire’: he notes that the neophyte may well hear

‘how that a man schal lift up his herte vnto God, & vnseesingly desire for to fele the loue of here God. & as fast in a curiosite of witte thei conceyue thees wordes not goostly, as thei ben ment, bot fleschly & bodily, & trauaylen theire fleschly hertes outrageously in theire brestes’.47

In this straining of spirit they are liable to fall into ‘moche ypocrisie, moche heresye, & moche errour’.48 There is little doubt that the Cloud Author believed the neophyte's error of reading that imagery in too ‘fleschly and bodily’ a fashion was an unsurprising outcome of the too fleshly nature of the language itself, and not merely to be the result of the neophyte's inexperience. He finds too much danger in the imagery to favour it for himself.

The combination, therefore, of the more astringently negative visual imagery of the Dionysian tradition with its own voluntaristic priorities gives a quite distinctive feel to the Cloud's spirituality, though the Dionysian imagery does, initially, play some part in disguising the degree of the Cloud's departure from Denys' intellectualism, perhaps even to the extent of disguising the differences from the Cloud Author himself. Of greater consequence, however, is the result—perhaps, even, it is his intention—that the intellectualist imagery highlights the differences between the Cloud's position and that of the more common stream of voluntaristic spiritualities, which its author treats with reserve, and sometimes with outright hostility. Where the Cloud's ‘entente’ is ‘nakyd’—we may say, his account of ‘love’ is markedly apophatic—he has little sympathy for the emotionalistic varieties of a florid ‘affectivist’ piety, which, he thought, too much understood the priority of love in terms of actual feelings of desire for God and seemed designed, in the spiritual practices in which it was manifest, for the cultivation of experienced phenomena of affectivity. At their worst, he thought, such forms of piety and devotion could lead to a kind of strenuousness of spirit which was as psychologically as it was spiritually damaging.

Consequently, the Cloud Author has particular reason to fear that his own stressing of love will be susceptible to misinterpretation in these terms. For him intellect must indeed be denied in order to leave room for love. But his is no spirituality in which, intellect being negated, undisciplined desire is given free rein. Nor is the discipline of desire a matter simply of loving God instead of creatures: we cannot love God as we would love anything else, as if the object of that love could be simply switched from creatures to God. For that would be simply to love God as if she were another creature, as just another object. Therefore,

lift up thin herte vnto God with a meek steryng of love; & mene himself & none of his goodes; and therto loke to thenk on ought bot on hymself, so that nought worche in thi witte ne in thi wille bot only himself. & do that in thee is to forgete all the creatures that euer God maad & the werkes of hem, so that thi thought ne thi desire be not directe ne streche to any of hem, neither in general ne in special. Bot lat hem be, & take no kepe to hem.49

We can say, in fact, that for the Cloud Author, desire is in itself no more to be trusted than is intellect. If the negative dialectics of intellect no longer have the determining role in the ascent to God, the discipline and the dialectics of desire take their place. And as in Denys there is an immanent dialectics of intellect which leads to its own self-transcendence, so in the Cloud there is an immanent dialectics of desire which leads to its own excessus; if intellect is to be denied in the cloud of unknowing, desire is to be disciplined by means of the dialectic of imagination, for imagination is what lies at the root of false desire for God. It is imagination which, damaged by sin, is the source of fantastical and deluded desire and of the fantastical and deluded spiritualities which issue from it. And in a comment ostensibly upon the dangers of an undisciplined imagination in the devotional practices of the immature—though perhaps again an implied criticism of Rolle is intended—the Cloud Author says:

before the tyme be that the ymaginacion be in grete partye refreynid by the light of grace in the reson—as it is in contynowel meditacion of goostly thinges, as ben theire wrechidnes, the Passion & the kyndenes of oure Lorde God, with many soche other—thei mowe in no wise put awey the wonderful & the diuerse thoughtes, fantasies & ymages, the whiche ben mynystered & preentid in theire mynde by the lighte & the corioustee of ymaginacyon. & alle this inobedyence is the thyne of the original synne.50


We are brought by these considerations to the core of the Cloud Author's own distinctive version of the apophatic dialectics. These dialectics generate the Cloud Author's own version of that ‘self-subverting’ imagination which we saw at work in Denys. For perhaps no instruction to his disciple is more important to the Cloud Author than that he should understand the role of imagination and learn the practice of it in the interior life. If he feared too excessively a materialistic and psychologistic understanding of the love of God—one which simply displaced creatures as its object with a God who is nothing more than a creature of imagination—so, at the secondorder level he feared an equivalent ‘psychologistic’ reduction of the terms descriptive of the spiritual life as such—in particular of the spatial metaphors embedded in those descriptions, of ‘above’ and ‘below’, ‘within’ and ‘without’. Chapters 62-69 of the Cloud constitute a sustained critique of that traditional language of Christian spirituality, the language of interiority and of ascent.

On the one hand, the Cloud Author recognizes the necessity of a ‘language of imagination’. And the terms in which he outlines this metaphorical apparatus of spiritual description, as also of the psychological anthropology which underlies it, are broadly in the Augustinian—Bonaventuran tradition. ‘Mind’, he says, is the name of the collectivity of the human powers including three ‘principal’ powers, memory, reason and will and two ‘secondary’ powers, imagination and sensuality. In natural capacity he follows Bonaventure and Aquinas in holding that there are no beings other than God who are superior to human beings, for in the natural order even angels ‘ben bot euen with thee’.51 The higher powers work in spiritual matters independently of the lower and without their help and though the lower powers have some capacity to relate with the physical world in their own right, they do not possess on their own the capacity to know the moral and other conditions of physical creation, ‘ne the cause of theire beyngs & theire makyng’.52

Following Augustine, the Cloud Author takes all physical creation to be ‘outside’ us and, in consequence, imagination, which is the power of inner reconstruction of ‘outer’ things, engages us ‘outwardly’ and ‘beneath’ us: ‘for euer whan the mynde is ocupied with any bodely thing, be it taken to neuer so goode an eende, yit thou arte binethe thiself in this worching, & withouten thi soule’.53 Self-knowledge and spiritual activities generally, which engage our two main ‘worching mightes’—reason and will—upon their own activities draw us ‘within’ ourselves and upon our own level. But the aspiration of the mind directly to God so that it is ‘ocupyed with no maner of thyng that is bodely or goostly, bot only with the self substaunce of God’, draws the mind ‘above’ itself and below only to God.

This familiar three-stage Augustinian pattern of ‘without’, ‘within’ and ‘above’, based in the equally familiar Augustinian threefold division of powers of sensuality, imagination and reason-will, forms the common repertoire of metaphor for the description of spiritual progress. Manifestly the purpose of the Cloud Author's rehearsing of this repertoire is so as to prevent what he most fears for his disciple: that he will ‘conseyve bodily that that is mente goostly’.54 For ‘abouen thiself thou arte: for whi thou atteynest to come thedir by grace, wether thou mayest not come by kinde’.55 For such purposes this language is necessary and desirable. And yet immediately the Cloud Author notes a further, subtler temptation to which the disciple may yield: that though the language of ‘without’, ‘within’ and ‘above’ is the necessary instrument whereby he may instruct the disciple to avoid the seductions of imagination and learn to conceive spiritual things spiritually, so powerful is the grip of imagination that it will readily have us conceive that language itself in a ‘bodily’ fashion. For, of course, that language is itself the work of imagination, which can only think in a bodily way of that which is spiritual; hence, the imagination on which we depend for the description of the ‘inner’ as distinct from the ‘outer’ has constructed that imagery from the ‘outer’ world of spatial relations. Therefore, almost in the very act of distinguishing so carefully between the ‘without’, the ‘within’ and the ‘above’, the Cloud Author warns of the dangers of using that language at all:

wher another man wolde bid thee gader thi mightes & thi wittes holiche withinne thiself, & worschip God there—thof al he sey ful wel and ful trewly, ye! & no man trewlier & he be wel conseiuid—yit for feerde of disseite & bodely conceyuyng of his wordes, me list not byd thee do so.56

This thought brings the Cloud Author back to his earlier invective against the immature disciples who fall into the trap of imagination. Those who seek ‘interiority’ only to translate it into mental acts of experienced inwardness become entrapped in a vicious circle, for they can only think in an ‘outward’ way of the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ and so can only conceive of the ‘inner’ life materialistically: the consequences for their devotional and ascetical practice are therefore deformative of that true interiority which transcends imagination:

A yonge disciple in Goddes scole, newe turnid from the woreld … whan he redith or hereth spoken of goostly worching, & namely of this worde, how a man schal drawe alle his witte withinne hymself, or how he schal clymbe abouen himself … thei misvnderstonde thees wordes, & wenen, for thei fynden in hem a kyndly couetyse to hid thinges, that thei ben therfore clepid to that werke by grace … & therfore as fast for boldnes & presumpcion of theire corious witte, thei leue meek preier & penaunce ouersone, & sette hem (thei wene) to a ful goostly werke withinne in here soule …57

Such people, he comments, are likely to drive themselves mad by spiritual means, and

on this maner is this woodnes [madness] wrought that I speke of. Thei reden & heren wel sey that thei schuld leue vtward worching with theire wittes, & worche inwardes; & forthi that thei knowe not whiche is inward worchyng, therfore thei worche wronge. For thei turne theire bodily wittes inwardes to theire body agens the cours of kynde; & streyyn hem, as thei wolde see inwardes with theire bodily iyen, & heren inwardes with theire eren, & so forthe of alle theire wittes, smellen, taasten, & felyn inwardes. & thus thei reuerse hem agens the cours of kynde, & with this coriouste thei trauayle theire ymaginacioun so vndiscreetly, that at the laste thei turne here brayne in here hedes.58

Moreover, the physical symptoms of this perversity are tragi-comic:

Many wonderful countenances folowen hem that ben disseyuid in this fals werke … For whoso wolde or might behold vnto hem ther thei sitte in this tyme, & it so were that theire iyeliddes were open, he schulde see hem stare as thei were wode, & leiyingly loke as thei sawe the deuil. Sekirly it is good thei be ware; for trewly the feende is not fer. Som sette theire iyen in theire hedes as thei were sturdy scheep betyn in the heed, & as thei schulde diye anone. Some hangen here hedes on syde, as a worme were in theire eres. Some pipyn when thei schuld speke, as ther were no spirit in theire bodies … Some crien & whinen in theire throte …59

And so it is, the Cloud Author concludes, ‘[that I] wil … bid thee. Loke on no wyse that thou be withinne thiself. & schortly withoutyn thiself wil I not that thou be, ne yit abouen, ne behynde, ne on o side, ne on other.’60

‘“Wher than”, seist thou, schal I be?’, the Cloud Author asks rhetorically: “‘No where, by thi tale!’” And his answer shows just how sure is his command over the dialectics of interiority: ‘Now trewly thou seist wel; for there wolde I haue thee. For whi no where bodely is euerywhere goostly.’61 It is, he goes on to say, only the ‘vtter man’, the self who lives by imagination, for whom the life of the spirit is a ‘nowhere’ and a ‘nothing’. This is because the unspiritual person interprets the ‘inner life’ as a quasi-physical, quasi-psychological place ‘inside’ consciousness. Consequently, the person who, hearing the Cloud Author's rejection of this inwardness, supposes that there is no place at all for the spiritual, supposes this only because he cannot think otherwise of the ‘interior’ than in terms which, quasi-physically, oppose it to the exterior. And the person who does that is a person who is still living in ‘exteriority’: ‘What is he pat clepith [calls] it nought? Sekirly it is oure vtter man, & not oure inner.’62 On the other hand, for the ‘inner’ man this ‘nowhere’ is an ‘everywhere’, ‘all’; ‘for of it he is wel lernid to kon skyle of alle thinges, bodely or goostly’.63 That is to say, in the perspective of the ‘inner’ person there is no distinction at all between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. The inner self is free, free from the dualism between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ itself. We may say, in short, that to be ‘within’ psychologically, is to be ‘without’ spiritually. To be ‘within’ spiritually is to be at once ‘nowhere’ and ‘everywhere’ psychologically.

This, then, is the Cloud Author's paradox, which is none other than Eckhart's paradox of detachment: that the language of interiority is, as it were, self-subverting, or dialectical. For: (1) that language is needed to state the distinction between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ self; but (2) only so as then to undermine the very distinction which it marks. For that inner ‘space’ cannot be approached by means of any experiential device or technique which would itself be but a phenomenon of our exteriority. It is therefore only for the ‘outer’ self that the dualism between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ persists so as to structure its spiritual experience. But the ‘inner’ self knows that there is no ‘inner’ as against ‘outer’. For the ‘inner’ self possesses an interiority which knows no restrictions of space or place, no confinement to the ‘inner’; for the ‘inner’ self the interior is a freedom, a ‘nowhere’ which is an ‘everywhere’.

And we are back again with that string of Eckhartian paradoxes, identified in the last chapter, which share, within their common Neoplatonic inheritance of dialectics, the same logic as that of the Cloud Author's interiority. In Eckhart, we saw, it is the paradox that a dualism between the divine, uncreated ground of the soul and the created empirical soul, exists only as a result of the fracturing of the human psyche by sin. Detachment, far from reinforcing that dualism of the divine and the human, is the force which heals that fracturing; it subverts and transcends the dualism. In the Cloud, the same dialectics are the practical machinery of a critique of ‘interiority’ whereby the distinction of ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ is at once presupposed and then transcended. The more ‘inner’ we are the less hold on us has the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’; the more the desire for God is wrapped in a cloud of unknowing, the less able are we to see that desire as just another, created desire, which, being just another desire, could be opposed to our own empirical, historical immanence, to our secular, contingent self. The more we seek our own ground in the ground of God the greater is the power of psychic integration in all the capacities of our persons.

This, then, is the dialectical logic equally of Eckhart's detachment and of the Cloud Author's ‘interiority’. It is, as I have said, not just a logic, but a practice, a practical critique of desire. As such we can say that it is the strategy of opposing oppositions, and with them, of subverting all those pressures, whether secular or spiritual, whether psychological or social, which depend upon these oppositions.


Eckhart's ‘detachment’, we saw, is the emancipation of all the possibilities of experience; but it is achievable on condition that we do not translate detachment itself into just another experience. The Cloud Author's ‘interiority’, likewise, is the achievement whereby we become detached from, that is liberated from, the very dualism itself between interiority and exteriority in theory and in practice, so that we do not any longer have to see ourselves as caught between their opposed polarities. To see them as opposed, to experience one's experience in terms of their opposition; and worse, to actively seek interiority as opposed to exteriority, is to lack interiority. It is, as Eckhart put it, to be attached to a ‘way’—perhaps, in one of its forms, it is to be attached to what the Cloud Author sees as a ‘spirituality’.

For the revenge of the possessive self, the self of ‘imagination’, threatened by the vacuum of detachment, is to rush to fill the vacuum in by means of a perverted ‘spirituality’, designed to reproduce the vacuum in a specialized set of ‘spiritual’ experiences of it: as if the vacuum itself could be made an object of experience. But the cultivation of such pseudo-experiences, of inwardness and detachment, can serve only to displace the vacuum by this attempt to reproduce it experientially. This is as self-defeating a procedure as that of trying to reproduce a vacuum in a photograph, for a photograph of a vacuum is itself a plenum, filling the space it is intended to represent. So too with what the Cloud Author calls ‘imagination’ and all its spiritual strategies of prayer, self-denial, repentance and the like; and all its spiritual by-products of a self-absorbed, interiorist piety. And so finally it is for Eckhart—for whom the worst enemy of detachment is its reduction to a psychological act which merely sucks the ego back into the abyss of the self, infilling it with a reassuring possessiveness of the experience of dispossession.

It does not follow from any of this that either Eckhart or the Cloud Author deny the importance, indeed the absolute necessity, of the ordinary means of Christian asceticism and prayer. In fact, what their somewhat dauntingly ‘pure’ negativity seems to demand is precisely the opposite: that the Christian eschew all alternative, extraordinary—should we say ‘mystical’—routes to God, such as specialized ‘spiritualities’ might appear, spuriously, to offer. There is, in fact, a powerful vein of anti-mysticism in the astringent negativity of these two fourteenth-century writers, an urge to ‘deconstruct’ what they think of as a baroque, over-florid, technology of spiritual experientialism. Ordinary means plus detachment are enough for them: all other ‘ways’ are but diversions.


  1. Dionise Hid Divinite, prologue, in Phyllis Hodgson, The Cloud of Unknowing and Related Treatises (Cloud), Salzburg: Institute für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1982. p. 119. The passage referred to in the Cloud reads: ‘& trewly, whoso wil loke Denis bookes, he schal fynde that his wordes wilen cleerly aferme al that I haue seyde or schal sey, fro the beginnyng of this tretis to the ende’. Cloud, 70, p. 70, 7-9. For the Cloud I have used Hodgson's edition in the same volume. References give the chapter, page and line numbers of her edition. I have slightly modernised Hodgson's orthography.

  2. Claims have been made, by Hodgson and others, for Carthusian influence on the Cloud, in particular of Hugh of Balma and Guigo da Ponte. These claims are discussed by Alastair Minnis in his article ‘Affection and Imagination in The Cloud of Unknowing and Hilton's Scale of Perfection’, Traditio, XXXIX (1983) 323-66.

  3. Ibid., p. 326.

  4. And has added one major interpolation, owing nothing to Gallus and incidental to our concerns: most of the paragraph on p. 124, lines 10-22 and all of that of p. 124 lines 23-38 and p. 125 lines 1-5 of Hodgson are an explanatory gloss of Mystical Theology chapter 2, 1025 B lines 1-3 in Luibheid, Pseudo-Dionysius.

  5. There is no good English translation of the Latin word affectus. ‘Want’ is a word of parallel generality, except that ancient connections of that word with ‘lack’ skew the meaning in favour of those forms of wanting which arise from need, which will not do for either the Latin caritas or dilectio, neither of which are ‘need’ forms of wanting, though both would be included within the mediaeval idea of affectus. So in the end, perhaps we will have to make do with ‘love’ as the best translation.

  6. Super Cantica Canticorum Hierarchice Exposita Secundum Dominum T. Abbatem Vercellensem, Prohemium (Second Commentary), in Thomas Gualterius, Abbas Vercellensis, Commentaires du Cantique des Cantiques, Textes Philosophiques du Moyen Age, n. 14, ed. Jeanne Barbet, Paris, 1967, p. 65. For a partial translation of this text, see my Eros and Allegory, p. 319, no. 1.

  7. Barbet, p. 65 (Eros and Allegory, p. 320, no. 2).

  8. Gallus' distinction appears to have any such foundation as it has in Denys in a passage in Letter 9, where Denys distinguishes between the ‘ineffable and mysterious’ aspect of theology and its ‘more open and evident’ on the other, the latter resorting to symbolism, the other to ‘demonstration’ (1105D, Luibheid, Pseudo-Dionysius p. 283). But Denys' distinction is made within revealed theology, as between names in Scripture, not as in Gallus, between the natural knowledge of philosophers and the knowledge of the theologians.

  9. Barbet, Thomas Gualterius, p. 66 (Eros and Allegory, p. 320, no. 3).

  10. Ibid., p. 66 (Eros and Allegory, p. 320, no. 3).

  11. Ibid., p. 67 (Eros and Allegory, p. 322, no. 9).

  12. Ibid., p. 67 (Eros and Allegory, p. 323, n. 10).

  13. There are three works of Gallus relating to Denys' Mystical Theology: the Glossa, a brief commentary, found in PL 122, cols 267-84, where it is attributed to John Scottus; the Extractio or paraphrase of Mystical Theology, which probably served as the model for the Cloud Author's Dionise Hid Divinite and is found in the Opera of Denys the Carthusian, 16, pp. 444-54 (together with the Carthusian's own Commentary on the Mystical Theology and the Latin versions of that work by John Scottus and Marsiglio Ficino); and finally, Gallus' full commentary on the Mystical Theology, which as yet has not been published.

  14. Glossa on The Mystical Theology, PL 122, 271A.

  15. Ibid., 272A.

  16. MT, 1000D.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid., 1001A.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Extractio, in Opera Divi Dionysii Cartusiensis, 16, p. 455, col 2C.

  21. Ibid., p. 455, col 2C-D.

  22. Homelia in Evangelia 27.4, PL 76, 1207. For a full discussion of this tradition, but especially in William of St Thierry, see David N. Bell, The Image and Likeness, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1984, chapter 6.

  23. Cloud, 70, 8-9, p. 70.

  24. Itin., Prologue, 3.

  25. Cloud, 2, pp. 8, 38-39, 1.

  26. Ibid., 3, p. 9, 28-37.

  27. Ibid., 5, p. 13, 26-27.

  28. Ibid., 5, p. 13, 31-37.

  29. Ibid., 5, p. 13, 27-28.

  30. Ibid., 6, p. 14, 14-23.

  31. Ibid., 35, p. 39, 23-25.

  32. The Ladder of Monks, II, in Guigo II, The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations, trans. and ed. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, London and Oxford: Mowbray, 1978, p. 81.

  33. Cloud, 37, p. 41, 20-21.

  34. Ibid., 16, p. 25, 27-35.

  35. Ibid., 36, p. 40, 32.

  36. Ibid., 40, p. 44, 9.

  37. Ibid., 40, p. 46, 10.

  38. Ibid., 40, p. 46, 17.

  39. Ibid., 44, p. 46, 14.

  40. See, for example Origen, prologue to Commentary on the Song of Songs, in Origen (Greer), p. 221; Gregory the Great, Exposition on the Songs of Songs in Eros and Allegory, p. 217, no. 3, to mention just two early authorities.

  41. Confessions, 10. 27. 38.

  42. References to Giles are to his Commentary on the Song of Songs, extracts from which are translated in my Eros and Allegory, pp. 359-380.

  43. Eros and Allegory, p. 363, 14.

  44. Metaphysics A I, 980a-981b.

  45. Eros and Allegory, p. 364, 16.

  46. ‘… the external senses are models of the inner and mental powers; they are in this way models of love because love meets its objects by touching, smelling and tasting’, See Eros and Allegory, p. 363, n. 14.

  47. Cloud, 45, p. 47, 22-26.

  48. Ibid., 45, p. 47, 42-43.

  49. Ibid., 3, p. 9, 12-18.

  50. Ibid., 65, p. 65, 34-66, 2.

  51. Ibid., 62, p. 64, 5.

  52. Ibid., 63, p. 64, 32-33.

  53. Ibid., 67, p. 66, 35-37.

  54. Ibid., 67, p. 67, 28.

  55. Ibid., 67, p. 67, 8-9.

  56. Ibid., 68, p. 67, 30-34.

  57. Ibid., 51, p. 53, 5-22.

  58. Ibid., 52, p. 53, 29-38.

  59. Ibid., 53, p. 54, 9-21.

  60. Ibid., 68, p. 67, 34-36.

  61. Ibid., 68, p. 67, 37-39.

  62. Ibid., 68, p. 68, 18-19.

  63. Ibid., 68, p. 68, 20-21.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Cloud of Unknowing Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Principal Works


Further Reading