Friday, May 15, 2015

Old Books Are the Best Books: The Cloud of Unknowing

I had this book on my shelf for a long time before picking it up. Even though I knew that it was regarded as one of the classics of Christian mysticism, particularly in the English-speaking tradition, it still took me awhile to muster up the courage to dive in. Part of it was that the title sounded foreboding: The Cloud of Unknowing--I was expecting a fair deal of dense, impenetrable reflections on mysticism and metaphysics. The other part was that this was an anonymous work, so it didn't have quite the appeal to intellectual pride, of being able to cross a big-name writer in the history of Christian theology off my list. But eventually I did pick it up, and I was won over within the first few pages. Like most classics, this book is probably more worth reading than 99% of the contemporary books available right now. Old books take a little more work to read, but the reward is usually tremendous. Not only are they classics for good reason--they have survived the centuries because their content and message is exemplary--but they also speak to us from another age, a culture that is not beset with the same pitfalls and blindspots that our own culture has, and thus they can be uniquely insightful, and sometimes transformative, in a way that contemporary works cannot. So my task today is to encourage you to read the Christian classics, and a good one to start with is this one.  

Background: The Cloud of Unknowing was written in the 1300s in England, part of a golden age of Christian mystical literature that coincided with the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War. The author is anonymous, but his work stands on the same level as the great works of his contemporaries: Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and (my personal favorite) Julian of Norwich. Though his instructions are written primarily for the monk or Christian cleric, their application is to all believers, and his method of prayer is the main inspiration for the contemporary Christian practice of "centering prayer."

Why You Should Read This Book: It's actually remarkably accessible, and often simply winsome. The author writes with a spirit of tremendous humility and gentleness, and with a deep understanding of the human condition. Though he's recommending a method of prayer that is probably foreign to most of us in the evangelical tradition, his explanations are patient and remarkably simple. Beyond any attractions of the writer's style, however, the main point to consider is that the practices he encourages could be a turning point in your spiritual life. It will dare you to enter into a lifestyle of contemplative prayer, which, if God is gracious, can bring you into deeper experiential communion with God. 

Further, this book avoids some of the pitfalls of current practice. In attempts to be "relevant" to our culture of personal fulfillment, "centering prayer" is sometimes hyped as a practice whose main purpose is to help you find peace and inner harmony. As such, many in my evangelical tradition regard the practice somewhat askance, in the same way they might regard the pseudo-spiritual practices we've cherrypicked from eastern religions (like yoga, breathing exercises, etc.). But The Cloud of Unknowing doesn't care much for your internal harmony. It is wiser than our age in that it recognizes that "personal fulfillment" is not the point. No, the point is that God has showered his love on us, and it is our privilege to learn to love him in return. The method of prayer that the book advises is simply that: a way to love God, and to love him as unselfishly as the human person is capable of. 

But to love God, we have to know him in some way. And we can know him in an intellectual sense--we can know what he has revealed of himself through Christ and the witness of Scripture. But to know him, to know him in his person, in his essence, is something beyond that. The journey is not entirely up to us to make, because God has deigned to make himself known to us, and to us who are Christians, he is mystically present with us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and our incorporation into the Body of Christ. Even so, if our goal is "a personal relationship with God," we need to remember that he is God, and we are mere creatures, and good theology has always taught us that he is "wholly other." He is so transcendent, so very different from any other thing that we've ever known, that our intellects are simply unable to know him in the deepest way possible. This separation, where the limits of our knowledge fail to actually reach the essence of God himself, is what the author means by "the cloud of unknowing." But, the author tells us, where knowledge fails, love can break through that dark cloud. Thus the point of this kind of prayer is simply to direct our loving attention toward God--not to think too much, not speak too much, but simply to rest in God, to be with him, and to love him. If this kind of wordless prayer sounds a bit strange to you, rest assured that it is well rooted in both Scripture and the earliest Christian tradition. This is the kind of prayer that David seems to be referring to when he says in Psalm 131: "I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child with its mother." It is this prayer of wordless contemplation that the early church fathers (particularly those champions of prayer, the desert fathers), regarded as the highest form of prayer there is.

There's another cloud, too--not just the cloud of unknowing above, showing the limitations of our intellectual capacities where God is concerned, but a "cloud of forgetting" beneath us. This method of prayer is built on a sound theology of the human person, a vital understanding the way our minds work. (The early church fathers were generally much more in tune with the composition of the human psyche, and what that meant for our prayer lives, than are most modern evangelicals.) Other kinds of prayer have their place, of course, but most of the spoken prayers we use are inextricably wrapped up in our own hangups, our desires, our passions, our wandering thoughts. So, this method of contemplative prayer encourages us not to speak, not really even to think--and thus not to let the jostling pieces of our own ego get in the way of our singular intent to simply direct our love toward God. As the author of Ecclesiastes advises us: "Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few" (5:2). So we hold on to one idea alone--loving God--and use this idea to banish all other thoughts and impulses into our cloud of forgetting. This way of prayer is not easy to learn. Once you try it, you'll be amazed at how undisciplined and forceful your wandering thoughts and desires are. But the promise of spiritual growth from the consistent practice of this kind of prayer is attested to over and over again throughout the Christian tradition. It is worth taking some time to learn this way of prayer, and you couldn't ask for a better teacher than The Cloud of Unknowing.

(Painting, inset: "St Francis of Assisi at Prayer," by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, c.1645, oil on canvas; image is in the public domain)