The anonymous author of the fourteenth century spiritual handbook, The Cloud of Unknowing, writes from within the long tradition of Christian apophatic thought. Far from being a simple repetition of a trendy doctrine, however, The Cloud of Unknowing is a unique and inventive addition to the corpus. Though, as noted in the introduction to the text, the work of Pseudo-Dionysius had been hugely influential throughout Medieval Europe, there is no “direct influence of the authentic teaching” of Pseudo-Dionysius that can be identified in The Cloud of Unknowing (50-51). Rather, the author of The Cloud participates in the broader milieu of Western mysticism, and brings an especially practical and compassionate sensibility to bear on his subject matter. Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology is highly intellectual, steeped as it is in Neo-Platonic philosophy. The Cloud of Unknowing, on the other hand, sees the intellectual as but a means, and that, when we are brought to the divine darkness, to the cloud of unknowing, our only hope to remain in that place is love. The task of forgetting and unknowing cannot be a task of the mind, for it is precisely the mind that stands in the way. What The Cloud of Unknowing teaches is that it is love that must lead, and that it is love that will draw us through. And in love, the apophatic way is no longer simply a necessity for theologians encountering the infinity and eternity of the divine, but a radically practical form of communion and everyday relationship with the invisible God.
The practical bent of The Cloud of Unknowing can be seen from the very beginning of the text: it is addressed to “My spiritual friend in God” with the explicit objective of “pay[ing] very close attention to the progress of your vocation,” that the author’s “spiritual friend” might “stand steadfast in the state, degree and manner of life that [he] has undertaken,” and that, ultimately, the addressee might “win through to the crown of life” (115). For the author of The Cloud this is always the end to which the contemplative life should attain. Mystical unknowing is not chiefly for the purpose of education, nor for enlightenment in itself, and certainly not for personal pride, but for salvation, in perfect humility and submission to God. Indeed, the author of The Cloud recognizes that even his fourfold schematization of the Christian life is represented as such only because of his “crude reckoning” (115). The Cloud of Unknowing does not posture as a philosophical treatise or systematic theology but as a guide, something that can be understood by any man or women who sets him or herself to the pursuit of the “Christian life” (116).
Indicative of the humble aims of the text is the dependency on God that the author expresses. Unknowing is not something that can be accomplished by one possessed of sufficient reason. Only by God’s “great grace,” through which desire for him is “kindled,” can we hope to be “led” into that “more special state and degree of life” (117). In this endeavour God “asks no help, but only you yourself. His will is that you should simply gaze at him, and leave him to act alone” (119). Our will, our capacity, is insignificant: it is he who is “always most willing, and is only waiting for you” (119). The beginning of the Christian life, then, is that turn, the simple “gaze” which, in its openness, invites God to act, laying aside our own agency and purposing so that we might be drawn into the divine embrace. Only then can we act, when we have been “brought ... into this place of pasture, where [we] may be fed with the sweetness of his love” (118). That is to say, we can act in faith only when we are in him and him alone. God is “a jealous lover and allows no other partnership, and he has no wish to work in your will unless he is there alone with you, by himself” (118-19). Only if we throw ourselves completely upon God’s grace and mercy can we hope to see him more clearly, deeply, and truly. This is the practical import of The Cloud—the way of unknowing allows us to live the Christian life by emptying ourselves of those passions and desires that compete with the holiest of desires, the desire for God. Furthermore, to unknow in this way does not require any great philosophical ability, but simply that we depend, as “sheep” (118), on our shepherd. The remainder of The Cloud sets about clarifying this practice.
Just as we are drawn in love into “partnership” (118) with God, we must act in love, labouring in such a way that our deeds flow from that first love that “kindled” in us our desire for him (116). We must remain “fastened” to our desire as by a “leash of longing” (116) and so “[p]ress on with speed ... [looking] ahead now ... see[ing] what [we] still need and not what [we] have” (118). In this way we can “[l]ift up [our] heart[s] to God with a humble impulse of love; and have himself as [our] aim, not any of his goods” (119). This emphasis on love is, perhaps, the greatest distinction between The Cloud and the work of Pseudo-Dionysius. Wherein Pseudo-Dionysius such concepts as divine infinity, perfection, and power are productive insofar as they induce a sensation of the sublime, allowing us then to transcend those concepts in appreciation of the ineffable majesty of the divine, The Cloud does away with such lofty musings and concerns itself with the messy, affective, and personal experience of love. Before we can begin to unknow, God must “fit himself exactly to our souls by adapting his Godhead to them; and our souls are fitted exactly to him by the worthiness of our creation after his image and his likeness” (122). Love is induced by this worthy relation between creator and creation, by the entrance of the “incomprehensible” God (123) into the “comprehensible” realm of relation, which is governed by the “chief working power called a loving power” (123). In loving God is comprehensible; in loving the way of unknowing is given real, personal import, for “there in the love of Jesus is your help” (125). To love is not a matter of the intellect; to love is to encounter the human, and the God who became human so that we might know him. Our “proud and elaborate speculations must always be pushed down and heavily trodden under foot” (126-27) if we are to enter into unknowing.
The apophasis of The Cloud of Unknowing is, therefore, profoundly practical. If, truly, “no man can think of God himself” (130), how, then, are we to attain to relationship with him? If reason is our only instrument, we are certainly lost. But if God is love, and in his love God is relational, then, as we learn from The Cloud, relationship with the divine is possible. “So lift up your love to that cloud,” the author tells us, “or rather, if I am to speak more truthfully, let God draw your love up to that cloud; and try, through the help of his grace, to forget every other thing” (140). Indeed, relationship with God depends on his initiation. We know the unknowable because the unknowable made itself known, and it did so as, in, and through love. No matter how hard you work, “how rough your hairshirt” (146), and, we could add, how insightful your mind, God remains inaccessible apart from his grace.
Not only, then, is The Cloud of Unknowing profoundly practical, but it is profoundly radical. The unknowing The Cloud seeks to instruct us in is a total dispossession, a renunciation of self, that, in its setting aside of will, of desire, and of power, opens itself to the other that would otherwise remain forever separate from us. More so, the sort of love that The Cloud calls its readers to is not only applicable to relationships between God (the Wholly Other) and humans, but between humans, between friends and enemies, between neighbours and rivals. It is the love that refuses to make of the other an object of reason, to reduce the other to something containable, graspable, or controllable. It is the love that allows the presence of the other, in all of its ineffable excess, to flourish in the space of hospitality between selves that exists only when we resist the urge to colonize it with what we know. Only when we let ourselves not know can we truly meet each other. Only when we are led by our desire for the other, in all of its strangeness, incomprehensibility, and difference—a leading which we learn in submission to God—can we truly love at all.
The Cloud of Unknowing. Edited by James Walsh, Paulist Press, 1981.