Unpacking the Cloud of Unknowing

DP writes: “Recently on an episode of your show, I heard a priest speak negatively about a book titled, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” saying that it was New Age. . . 

 ” . . . Well, I wanted to inform you all that I was recently visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and was very disappointed to see that this book was on sale there. I highly suspect that this was not the only New Age book on sale at their store. Readers and viewers should be aware that, unless you are shopping at EWTN, research should often be done before purchasing books, CDs, mp3s, or DVDs, even through Catholic sources.”

DP gives good advice about using discernment before buying Catholic books, CD’s, etc. because there are many products out there that present a skewed view of Catholicism and/or the New Age version of our faith. And, as DP points out, these products can sometimes find their way into very Catholic establishments so don’t take anything for granted when you’re buying something. Don’t just go by the “sales pitch” on the back of the book. Are you familiar with the author and is their work known to be orthodox? Does the book have an imprimatur? Glance through the Table of Contents and check out any chapter that doesn’t sound right. Read a few pages in the store. Does everything sound okay?

But even the best discernment might not prepare you for books such as The Cloud of Unknowing that are surrounded by controversy and probably always will be. Being a Secular Carmelite who is naturally attracted to anything mystical, I have a copy of this book although I admit it was never one of my favorites. But then, it’s the sort of book that was meant for a very specific audience such as those who are called to apophatic mysticism through very discernible signs – something I do not believe the Lord intends for me.

For those who have never heard of apophatic mysticism, it’s a kind of mysticism that focuses on knowing God through negation, elimination, forgetting, unknowing, without images or symbols or signs. All such thoughts and symbols are to be eliminated. This is opposed to kataphatic mysticism which underscores finding God in all things and reaching God through creatures, images, symbols, etc.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing is anonymous, but he is considered by some to have been one of the greatest mystical geniuses of 14th century England. The Cloud was not his only work. He also wrote The Epistle of Prayer, Assessment of Inward Stirrings, and The Book of Privy Counseling. This same unknown author is also believed to have translated two of Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons, and adapted the Mystica Theologica of Pseudo-Dionysius into what was known at the time as Middle-English.

As Harvey D. Egan, S.J. writes in his book, An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, “The anonymous author teaches a highly introspective form of mysticism that turns a person’s inner eye not to finding God in all things but to finding God in the depths of the ‘mirror’ of darkness, that is, the soul emptied of everything except naked love. He is an outstanding example of the Christian apophatic mystical tradition which stresses that only love, not knowledge, can fully comprehend God. He therefore prefers to speak about what God is not.”

This could explain why The Cloud has been hijacked by proponents of the various Eastern-styled “mind emptying” prayer techniques of the modern New Age movement, such as Transcendental Meditation and Centering Prayer which advocate forcing all thoughts and impressions out of the mind with the attempt to reach a “mental void” being the object of the prayer (a process described as an “erroneous notion of prayer” in the Catechism No. 2726).

But this interpretation of The Cloud’s teaching is incorrect. Father Egan clearly states in his study of the work that The Cloud’s teaching “is neither a medieval form of Transcendental Meditation nor yogic nescience that does not require love as a driving force. To him, love is mysticism’s business.”

Instead, the author of the Cloud portrays the three stages of the spiritual life – the purgation, illumination and union – as being caused by a “tiny dart of love” in the depths of one’s spirit that is nourished by forgetting the self and all created things. During this process, “naked love,” that which is shorn of all concepts and images, causes all the sins of a person’s life to surface, making them fell like a “lump of sin.”

“As the tiny flame of love heals the scars of past sins and removes the ‘lump’, the contemplative suffers from not being able to forget his or her self,” Fr. Egan explains. “Thus, one experiences the self as a ‘cross’ between oneself and God. In time, one agonizes over not being able to love as much as one is loved. This entire process cleanses people of all sinfulness and increases their capacity to love.”

As you have probably already ascertained, the author of The Cloud obviously wrote this book for people who were well advanced in the experience of asceticism, self-knowledge, prayer and meditation, Scripture, and sacramental confession.

“In addition to the foundation of a full Christian life, he [the anonymous author] presupposes that one has been specifically called to the contemplative life by discernible signs . . .” such as if the “tiny dart of love” constantly intrudes into one’s life and becomes a “barrier” to ordinary prayer or if one is constantly aroused to contemplation whenever one hears or reads about it.

“The genuine contemplative heeds the advice of a cleansed conscience, common sense, a spiritual director, reason, and the Scriptures,” Fr. Egan writes.

As the old saying goes “the devil has his contemplatives”, which is why we see so many “pseudo contemplatives” these days who try to force this kind of mysticism upon themselves through “brute force, straining, morbid introspection, facile iconoclasm or degenerate passivity,” Fr. Egan writes.

“By forcing the forgetting of all created things, they end up with an unhealthy otherworldly fixation leading to physical, emotional and spiritual deterioration. Frenzy, eccentric mannerisms, pride, intellectual conceit and sensuality are their hallmarks.”

In other words, The Cloud was meant for only those people who are very advanced along the spiritual path, which explains why it has become so distorted by New Agers who are trying to use “brute force” to make themselves into their own version of a contemplative.

This propensity toward distortion is why the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation (No.12) contains a warning about the problems caused by efforts to diffuse eastern methods of meditation into the Christian world and into ecclesial communities.

These attempts are “not free from dangers and errors,” the Letter states.

“Proposals in this direction are numerous and radical to a greater or lesser extent. Some use eastern methods solely as a psycho-physical preparation for a truly Christian contemplation; others go further and, using different techniques, try to generate spiritual experiences similar to those described in the writings of certain Catholic mystics,” such as The Cloud of Unknowing.

The Catholic contemplative tradition is best understood through the writings of the two great mystical doctors of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. After studying the writings of these saints for the last two decades, I can honestly say that it will take a lifetime to fully penetrate the depths of the writings of either one of these saints, let alone both.

Stick to the writings of the Saints and you’ll never go wrong.

 

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