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The Book of Privy Counseling

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)

book cover Although not even mentioned on the cover or spine, the greatest advantage of Johnston's edition over others is its inclusion of another work by this nameless abbot, The Book of Privy Counsel. (Strangely, its title is altered here to The Book of Privy Counseling.) To me, this lesser-known, later work is if anything, even more valuable. Johnston's decision to include it in with this translation of the Cloud was a stroke of genius and love. With only twenty-one micro-chapters versus the Cloud's seventy-five, Privy Counseling is shorter and pithier. Radiating an even more mature and transcendent faith, it dispenses with apologetics for contemplation and descriptions of errors, and simply presents sound advice on doing "the contemplative work." Also gone is the feeling of any halfway or introductory steps; for instance, the author here does not even mention the use of a prayer word as in The Cloud, nor does he forbid the use of words when praying. He simply cautions, "do not pray with words unless you are really moved to this," and gives the soul its freedom to respond to the Spirit as it will. And while not specifically recommending it as a prayer word, he extols the singularity of the word is:

There is no name, no experience, and no insight so akin to the everlastingness of God than what you can possess, perceive, and actually experience in the blind loving awareness of this word, is. Describe him as you will: good, fair Lord, sweet, merciful, righteous, wise, all-knowing, strong one, almighty; as knowledge, wisdom, might, strength, love, or charity, and you will find them all hidden and contained in this little word, is. (p. 158)

Contemplation as the awareness of Isness

Perhaps it was this passage which inspired Meister Eckhart, the mystic genius to use the word "Isness" for God. Privy Counseling's technique is quite different from the Cloud's. No doubt from both his own growing intimacy with God, and his studies of Pseudo-Dionysius (St. Denis) whom he quotes, the author relies simply on a calm certainty of God's panentheistic Presence as the "Ground of Being." The method can be summarized as follows:

  • Become aware of your own being, "do not think what you are, but that you are." (p.152) Do this not with thoughts, but just the "blind, general awareness of your being." (p. 156) (This point is striking in its similarity to the Buddhist technique of vipassana, non-judging awareness on one's being in the present moment.)
  • Knowing that God is "the ground of being," that "he exists in all things as their being," that "he is your being," (p.150) offer your being to him "in words or desire" thus:
That which I am, I offer to you,
O Lord, for you are it entirely. (p.151)

The pure offering of your being to God's being is considered the most effectual supplication, as it imitates Christ who gave "himself without reserve that all men might be united to his Father as effectively as he was himself." (p.157) "Conceived in an undivided heart, [it] will satisfy your present need, further your growth, and bring all mankind closer to perfection." (p. 157)

  • As your practice develops, let your will long "to experience only God.... as he is in himself." (p. 172)

The work of rest

 Is it difficult? It truly seems easier for me than the methods of Centering Prayer and the Cloud, but Centering Prayer is certainly easier for a newcomer to contemplation to understand. This is an advanced practice, intended for someone with at least a bit of meditative experience under his belt, who doesn't need an explanation to know the importance of embracing God within the self. It's contemplation, and contemplation is far from easy. In the final chapter, the abbot addresses the situation with an honesty that will surely make every contemplative and meditator smile:

You may say, "All I feel is toil and pain, not rest. . . . On the one hand, my faculties hound me to give up this work and I will not. On the other, I long to lose the experience of myself and I cannot. . . . If this is rest, I think it is a rather odd kind of rest!"

Yes, I know it is painful and toilsome. And yet I call it rest. . . . Persevere in it with humility and great desire, for it is a work which begins here on earth, but will go on without end into eternity. (p. 188)

Indeed it will. Although I have given a lengthy summary here, please don't depend on my sketch. Get all the insights of this wonderful teacher for yourself, and let it guide you into the wonder of touching God in this deepest of prayers. It will likely become one of your most valued books, one of the few which may truly change your life.

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)