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Unknowing and forgetting


The anonymous classic "The Cloud of Unknowing" is one of the most ancient texts in the English language but has a lot to help modern seekers after spiritual peace and contemplation.

 

Anonymity can be motivated by false modesty, when the author secretly hopes to be discovered. The unknown fourteenth century writer of 'The Cloud of Unknowing' was not of this type. True to his teaching about burying earthly concerns beneath a 'cloud of forgetting', he simply did not think of appending his name. He wrote, it would appear, for known friends and associates who themselves gave no thought to the curiosity of future readers. Why should it matter? The work is timeless, and knowing the author's name could not possibly enhance the authority of this work which has already been appreciated through almost seven centuries.

Meditation is a subject with a lot of modern interest, though few moderns know the subject as well as did the author of 'The Cloud'. He writes as one who lived what he wrote; one who had honed his methods through years of experience. But 'methods' is a misleading word, because this is not the kind of 'How To Do It' book that would satisfy anyone looking for a quick fix for their spiritual problems. Just how little the author values method can be judged by his comments - "If you ask me just precisely how one is to go about doing the contemplative work .... I am at a complete loss."! "Techniques and methods are ... useless" - contemplation is a product of grace. The 'Cloud of Unknowing' offers few tips that could be merely copied as method. Its aim is to create a desire in the readers - if they are qualified to undertake the contemplative life.

The idea that we should qualify for contemplation does not imply the passing of any test or examination. This is not an exercise of the intellect, but of the will and the heart. We are led on a path of closer love-bonding with God. This is not meditation for concentration, but contemplation for love.

Intellectually this book would be quite challenging, were you to read it in the original language. It was penned around the same period as the 'Canterbury Tales' and, as anyone knows who studied Chaucer at school, Middle English looks vaguely familiar, but is foreign enough to require translation before it can be properly understood. 'A translator is a traitor' says an Italian proverb, but William Johnston has produced a remarkably accessible version of 'The Cloud' without imposing any obvious bias of his own. It is highly readable, and my only problem lay in its occasional references to certain Roman Catholic teachings which I personally find unpalatable (due to my non-conformist prejudices!).

The contemplation spoken of in 'The Cloud' is not like the prayer methods I was taught by my evangelical teachers. There is no talk of a prayer-list and no practical format like the popular 'ACTS' acronym (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). This is prayer without a programme. 'The Cloud' encourages us to forget the ordinary concerns of life and even any specific concepts or 'facts' about God or Christ. God can be loved, but he cannot be known, so an attempt to conceptualise him can only be a misleading, intellectual exercise. We are urged to put concepts out of our thoughts, beneath the 'cloud of forgetting'.

But, despite the timelessness of such contemplation, the writer assures us that "this work is not time consuming". His concern is for quality rather than quantity. He disparages the spiritually intense He discourages fanaticism, urges moderation, and holds us back from rushing into his kind of prayer. This book contains wise counsel, but it is not for everyone, as the author himself says - "I would like to make it clear that not everyone who reads this book (or hears it read) and finds it pleasantly interesting is therefore called to contemplation. The inner excitement he feels may not be so much the attraction of grace as the arousal of natural curiosity."

If you are curious, you will find this book readable and provoking. But don't rush it.

Derrick Phillips 1997

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