The Cloud of Unknowing

two historic jewels of christian mysticism

This translation by William Johnston contains not one, but two of the great books in the literature of contemplation, , the well-known classic The Cloud of Unknowing, and its lesser-known sequel, The Book of Privy Counsel(ing). These 14th century classics by an unknown English abbot have long been among the most respected and beloved texts on the subject, and had a profound influence upon St. John of the Cross’ writings on contemplative prayer. It has received renewed attention in the last few decades as interest in meditation and contemplation has skyrocketed.

Fr. Johnston’s superb translation makes these 700-year-old manuals feel almost contemporary. There are no anachronisms, no words that make you run to the dictionary, nothing that takes you from out of your living room to medieval England. You feel almost as if a living person is teaching you about this wonderful method of prayer. The Cloud is far more readable than other contemplative works I have read, such as Teresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle, and Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross.

the cloud: meditation as concentrated love

Yet it is every bit as passionate. The title comes from the author’s metaphor of contemplative prayer as struggling to get beyond a “cloud of unknowing” which separates us from experiencing God’s presence. He dismisses the idea of using understanding as a means of reaching God, since God is unfathomable; instead, he suggests, we embrace God with our love. Having established that love is the means of going through “the cloud,” the author urges the reader to “beat upon the cloud of unknowing with the hammer of your love,” and to “pierce the cloud of unknowing with the arrow of your love.” The author’s passion for God is contagious, and his prose is inspirational. The Frimster could easily find a year’s worth of profound and moving quotes for the home page here!

As for technique, the author urges the reader to dispense with meditations (visualizations), petitions, and so forth during the time of contemplation, in order to be present to God alone, not God and meditations, etc. He suggests the use of a short word like “God” or “love” to bring one back to being alone with God whenever distracting thoughts intrude, which is central to the Centering Prayer method.

There is a dull middle zone of around twenty short sections dealing with errors to avoid, which will not speak effectively to most modern readers. Nonetheless, upon reading The Cloud again, I’ve understood and appreciated it far more than I did upon my first reading. Its method really comes down to one word: Love. Over and over, the author describes the quiet prayer as love: “this contemplative work of love,” “lift up your heart with a blind stirring of love,” and “each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.”

There are few books which radiate such a powerful and infectious love of God. The author really is driving home one thing: Love is the beginning, end, and means of deep prayer. Nothing else is necessary, but a willingness to spend time alone with God in love.

Go to page 2: The Book of Privy Counseling.