December 2, 1999
Book Review by Jan (Ord) Harris
 

 

The Cloud of Unknowing
Author Unknown
"The eternal love of God could not bear to let you go on living so far from Him. So, with exquisite kindness, He awakened desire within you and, binding it fast with the leash of love's longing, drew you closer to Himself."
The more I read and meditate on The Cloud of Unknowing, the more convinced I am of its value for God-seekers. Yet it is with some reservation that I am even writing this Book Review.

The reason for my reservation is the solemn warning by the unknown author at the beginning, which I pass on to you: "You are not to read it, write or speak of it, nor allow another to do so, unless you really believe that he is a person deeply committed to follow Christ perfectly." Unless a person "has first been faithful to the demands of the active [Christian] life, he will not be prepared to fathom the contents of this book." The author continues: "As for worldly gossips, flatterers, the scrupulous, talebearers, busybodies, and the hypercritical, I would just as soon they never laid eyes on this book. This applies also to the merely curious, educated or not. They may be good people, but this book is not suited to their needs."

He has one more admonition: "If you do give this book to someone else, warn them to take time to read it thoroughly. For it is very possible that certain chapters do not stand by themselves. I fear lest a person read only parts and quickly fall into error. I beg you, for love’s sake, to do as I ask."

If you truly are deeply committed to follow Christ "perfectly," then I urge you to get your own copy and read it thoroughly. This short book is written in beautifully-poetic language. Perhaps you will find in it, as I have, much that resonates in your heart as the truth about God which you have "always known."

For me, the gist of this author's work is expressed in just a few words in the first chapter: "The eternal love of God, which had once created you out of nothing and then redeemed you from Adam's curse through the sacrifice of His blood, could not bear to let you go on living so common a life far from Him. And so, with exquisite kindness, He awakened desire within you, and binding it fast with the leash of love's longing, drew you closer to Himself into what I have called the more special manner of living."

It seems, no matter how long we have been
followers of Christ, most of us have more than a little
trouble totally trusting ourselves to Him.
Did you get that? We are told that "the eternal love of God could not bear to let you go on living so far from Him," so "with exquisite kindness, He awakened desire within you." He draws us "with the leash of love's longing." What a beautiful picture this paints of a caring, gentle suitor wooing a lover who is shy, skittish, and hesitant. And we are. It seems, no matter how long we have been followers of Christ, most of us have more than a little trouble totally trusting ourselves to Him.

If your heart longs for and desires intimacy with God, then you will recognize familiar echoes in this ancient writer's work, expressing what are almost-unspeakable truths. I am particularly referring to the The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, edited by William Johnston. Another edition -- which is also excellent -- was translated by Clifton Wolters. It contains The Cloud of Unknowing, The Epistle of Privy Counsel, Dionysius' Mystical Teaching and The Epistle of Prayer.

For those of us encouraged to pursue knowledge, to study and memorize the Scriptures, and to listen to sermons or read about and discuss God, the phrase "the cloud of unknowing" sounds odd. Why "cloud"? And "unknowing"? What does that mean?

Our author explains: "Do not suppose that [when I speak] of darkness or of a cloud I have in mind the clouds you see in an overcast sky or the darkness of your house when your candle fails. When I speak of darkness, I mean the absence of knowledge. If you are unable to understand something, are you not in the dark as regards this thing? It is a darkness of unknowing that lies between you and your God."

In other words, what really lies between us and God is a lack of understanding of His mystery -- we are in the dark about Him. We truly don't know God, no matter how much we know about Him.

The book continues: "No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with knowledge; but each one can grasp Him fully through love." This concept is a challenge for us, isn’t it? We, who so often use our superior knowledge of Scripture as a yardstick for measuring our righteousness, are being told that "God can be grasped fully" -- not through our cleverness, but through love!
So, does this mean that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is saying that knowledge is bad -- that we shouldn't read about God and study the Scriptures?

"No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God
with knowledge; but each one can grasp Him
fully through love."
Not at all. In fact he says just the opposite. He very clearly tells us that until we have thoroughly studied the Scriptures, and been faithful to live the Christian life, we are not ready to seek intimacy with God. "Anyone who aspires to contemplation ought to cultivate Study, Reflection and Prayer, or to put it differently, reading, thinking and praying."

He continues: "Anyone who expects to advance [into the contemplative life] without having meditated often on his own sinfulness, the Passion of Christ, and the kindness, goodness, and dignity of God will most certainly go astray and fail in his purpose. But a person who has long pondered these things must eventually leave them behind beneath a cloud of forgetting, if he hopes to pierce the cloud of unknowing that lies between him and his God."

One aspect of contemplation that is hard for our literal-minded generation to grasp is the author's admonition: "Be careful to empty your mind and heart of everything except God during the time of this work." The fact is that it is impossible for us to empty our minds. To find how true that is, all we have to do is try. We are so accustomed to allowing our intellect complete control of us that, when we begin this practice, we are very surprised to find how busy and unruly our thoughts are.

"Go beyond your intellect's endless and involved
investigations, and worship the Lord your God
with your whole being. Offer Him your very self
in simple wholeness."
Our wise guide, aware of this, tells us what the normal intellect, influenced by the superficial self, will do: "Your undisciplined faculties, finding no meat to feed upon, will angrily taunt you to abandon it. They will demand that you take up something more worthwhile, which means, of course, something more suited to them. Do not be troubled if your faculties rebel and plague you to give it up. You must not yield. Keep yourself recollected and poised in the deep center of your spirit and do not wander back to working with your faculties. Go beyond your intellect's endless and involved investigations, and worship the Lord your God with your whole being. Offer Him your very self in simple wholeness."

Do not be troubled! You must not yield! Go beyond and worship the Lord with your whole being!

Wise counsel this. Without it, we will despair, and quickly give up, exclaiming: "I can't do this!" "It doesn't work for me!"

Of course not. It's not meant to work. We work, so that we can rest! We work so that we can rest in God, surrendering ourselves to His loving embrace.

Here is how Clifton Wolters translates our anonymous author of The Cloud: "It is hard work and no mistake. But in what sense is it hard work? It is in the stamping out all remembrance of God’s creation, and in keeping them covered by that cloud of forgetting."

Why are we urged to "stamp out all remembrance" of God's creation? Isn't it good to think about and meditate on God's handiwork? Of course it is good. But for just a short time every day -- during this brief period of centering prayer -- our focus is to be on God only. Let's let the Johnston edition give us the answer: "If you are occupied with something less than God, you place it above you and create a barrier between yourself and God." That's why the author urges us "to tread all beneath the cloud of forgetting as we stretch toward the cloud of unknowing."

Our anonymous guide reminds us of something that we already know, if we are honest—that every thought that we entertain draws us away so that we are "no longer totally present to ourselves or to God."

Then the author asks us a wonderful question: "Can you not see Him waiting for you?"

In fact, we are told that God is so eager to encourage us to persevere that He occasionally "may send out a shaft of spiritual light, which pierces this cloud of unknowing; then will you feel your affection flame with the fire of His love."

Here is an amusing little ploy that the author uses to deal with what he calls "vagrant" thoughts: "When distracting thoughts annoy you, look beyond them -- over their shoulder, as it were -- as if you were looking for something else, which of course you are. For beyond them, God is hidden in the dark cloud of unknowing."

In the The Epistle of Privy Counsel, written after The Cloud, we read: "It is good in due time to give up your intellectual exercises, and to learn to taste something of the love of God in your own spiritual experience: in knowledge is trouble, in experience rest" (Wolters).

Further on, in the Johnston edition of Privy Counsel, we are told, "You must not be afraid to commit yourself in radical dependence upon God or to abandon yourself to sleep in the blind contemplation of God as He is." He goes on to explain: "It is not without reason that I liken this work to sleep. For in sleep the natural faculties cease from their work and the whole body takes its full rest, nourishing and renewing itself. Similarly, in this spiritual sleep, those restless spiritual faculties, Imagination and Reason, are securely bound and utterly emptied. Happy the spirit, then, for it is freed to sleep soundly and rest quietly in loving contemplation of God simply as He is, while the whole inner [person] is wonderfully nourished and renewed."

"It's not just friendship with God that we are being
called to. We are being wooed by the great Lover
of the universe into the divine embrace.
We are being called to union with God.
Finally, toward the end of the second book, our spiritual guide tells us what has been on his heart all along. God is calling His bride to Himself. It's not just friendship we are being called to, as we are urged to abandon ourselves to Him. We are being wooed by the great Lover of the universe into the divine embrace. We are being called to union with God.

"[Your] highest perfection is union with God in consummate love, a destiny so high, so pure in itself, and so far beyond human thought that it cannot be known or imagined as it really is.

"[This] must be your single abiding desire: the longing to experience only God. Grow increasingly refined in singleness of heart until you [are] ready to strip, spoil and utterly unclothe your self-awareness of everything, so that you might be newly clothed in the gracious stark experience of God as He is in Himself.

"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."

Can this be? Is this really what God calls us to? Does Scripture ever speak this way? Perhaps, if we would read the Song of Solomon and see God as the Bridegroom speaking to us (the bride) we would understand.

Yet, one must keep in mind that no one comes to this work without being called of God to it. "Almighty God Himself must always be the chief worker in contemplation. It is He who must always awaken this gift in you by His grace."

And lest you assume that either I or the author are experts, I'll let him speak for both of us: "For though I am teaching you, in all truth I know that I still have a very long way to go myself" (Wolters).

In conclusion, a quote that contains the essential good news from God that we all strain to hear (once again, from Wolters): "Pause for a moment and take stock of yourself. Who are you, and what have you deserved, to be called like this by our Lord? Your spiritual husband, who is Almighty God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, has so humbly come down to your level, and so graciously chosen you out of His flock to be one of His 'specials.' [He] has set you in rich pasture to be fed with the sweet food of His love.

"...but a word of warning: He is a jealous lover, and will brook no rival; He will not work in your will if He has not sole charge; He does not ask for help, He asks for you.

"Your spiritual husband, who is Almighty God,
has so humbly come down to your level, and so
graciously chosen you out of His flock ."
"His will is that you should look at Him, and let Him have His way. If you are willing to do this, you need only to lay hold upon God humbly in prayer, and He will soon help you. Lay hold of Him then -- God is waiting for you.

"'But what am I to do,' you say, 'and how am I to lay hold?'" The answer comes back:

"Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God Himself, and not what you get out of Him."

Thus, our anonymous guide, this unknown author from 14th century England, tells us how to return to our Beloved Spouse.

So, I ask you:

"Can you not see Him waiting for you?"


This review first appeared in the July, August, 1996, issue of Union Life magazine.

Excerpts for this review taken from The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by William Johnston, © Copyright 1973 by William Johnston, published as an Image Book by Bantam Doubleday Dell, New York, New York; and from The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, translated by Clifton Wolters, © Copyright 1961, 1978, Clifton Wolters, published by Penguin, New York, New York.

(Both of these titles are available from
Union Life: see Booklist.)