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The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling

4.33  ·  Rating Details  ·  970 Ratings  ·  42 Reviews
The first work of its kind to be written in the English language, The Cloud of Unknowing is a spiritual guide to contemplation from an anonymous English monk of the 14th century. It has inspired spiritual teachers from St. John of the Cross in the 16th century to such contemporary teachers of prayer as Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating. The author explains that ordinary ...more
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Published June 12th 2008 by Franciscan Media (first published January 1st 1944)
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Dec 13, 2014 booklady rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone trying to meditate
An unusual book in the Christian heritage but one which should -- and can -- be experienced by all Christians of any denomination. It's as practical and relevant in its approach to contemplation as Richard Of St Victor is obscure. Cloud and its companion, The Book of Privy Counseling written by the same unknown English medieval monk, can be read as handbook to prayer, meditation and reflection. It's best read one short chapter at a time; each chapter contains enough material to read/meditate/pra ...more
February 5, 2014: Rereading this again! Prompted to return by a reference in another book, The Time Before You Die: A Novel of the Reformation, I'm currently reading. Although a work of fiction, Ms. Beckett's character's reaction to this classic text seemed to be at odds with my own memories of Cloud. And yet as God has used life to humble and teach me, perhaps that's also what Ms. Beckett meant to portray by her youthful monk's misapplication of the text's inherent wisdom.

It is written in the Talmud, "Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." Concerning the spirit, the only life that a person has the power to destroy or save is his own, then and only then is an entire world destroyed or saved in him and through him. IF, and it is a big IF, this is true, the contemplative life, as described by this anonymous author, would be the one simple and logical wa ...more
David Lentz
Jun 21, 2011 David Lentz rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This great book by a 14th century monk will lead you to higher spirituality. The book seeks to offer to novices advice about how to achieve a more focused relationship with God in prayer. The monk's first premise is that our active lives intrude upon our ability to focus when we pray: he prescribes that we enter a "cloud of forgetting" about our everyday, active lives when we enter prayer. His second piece of advice is that we do not know what the future will bring and should not become worried, ...more
Matthew Burden
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 q ...more
Jul 04, 2015 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My read of The Cloud of Unknowing moves from the unknowing (darkness) to recognizing who and what I am in experiencing God as it is. In The Book of Privy Council, I realize that it is recognizing who and that I am.
Greg Talbot
Sep 26, 2015 Greg Talbot rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Faith is hard to talk about in public, still I find it is the internal mechanism that gives deeper understanding and purpose. "The Cloud of Unknowing" is one of these little books that helps to make sense and demystify this whole faith thing.

Huston Smith's introduction reiterates that this is one of the great "Christian mystic" books. Written sometime in the 14th century by an unknown 24-year old clergyman, it's a profoundly insightful book. Considering how strong the Catholic Church's authority
Cheryl Gatling
Last year I read a book on meditation that said that meditation is a part of every religious tradition. There are some Christians today who think of meditation as a dangerous, Easter, New-Agey thing, but this book is an example of meditation as a Christian practice. This book, written in the fourteenth century, is a book of advice from an older to a younger student of meditation. He doesn't call it meditation, but contemplative prayer. The words are different, but the principles are the same.

Jonathan Widell
Apr 07, 2014 Jonathan Widell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book (or couple of books) has a lot of stuff that is applicable to all religious traditions. The author concedes that the teachings of Holy Church are good but implies that what he is talking about is a different ballgame. In fact, you must not dwell on Christ's Passion, for instance, but instead concentrate on one single word, such as God.

Since contemplative love does not come from us but from God, the author does not give advice on how to reach the state of contemplative love but reduces
Nov 27, 2012 Gene rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've read two or three of the other translations of the Cloud. This one is the best. Carmen Acevedo Butcher catches an informal tone appropriate to a mentor writing a student. It is clear and lacks "mystical" flourishes. It's one of the books I return to often, so perhaps I'll post more to this review. I will say the Cloud is part of the basis of Thomas Keating's centering prayer and useful for anyone interested in Fr. Keating's practice.
Max Bankole Jarrett
A deep and very useful work. The essence of this book by an anonymous 14th century Christian mystic is the same as the beating heart of all Zen practice. Yes, be still and know. Cut out the noise and focus on the signal. That is all.
Amos Smith
Sep 22, 2015 Amos Smith rated it it was amazing
This is one of the top ten Western Spiritual Classics. It forms the basis of the Centering Prayer Movement started by Basil Pennington, William Menninger, and Thomas Keating. This book gives precise instructions on silent prayer, which were translated into a cogent method by Menninger. What a blessing Centering Prayer has been for so many. As a result of this book and the Centering Prayer it inspired, numerous people have made the life-giving realization that mysticism is alive and well within C ...more
Anne Lee
Jun 23, 2012 Anne Lee rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
14th century zen manual. Anonymous was probably a female anchorite.
Nov 09, 2015 Lawrence rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A man from the fourteenth century speaks to the reader directly and as if they are contemporaries, as if the intervening centuries have no real importance or relevance to their interaction. This is the first miracle of these two short books or treatises. The author's voice - humble, encouraging, very poetic - is present in his desire to share his enthusiasm and to increase, maintain the reader's. All these qualities make the book a type of art and an endearing communication.

In addition to the pl
Glen Grunau
Feb 18, 2012 Glen Grunau rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For the past 5 years or so, I have sensed a strengthening attraction to the life of contemplative prayer. This has naturally drawn me to a new area of reading and study. In many of these books, I began to notice references to a book entitled "The Cloud of Unknowing", mysterious in its reputation for being written by an unknown, anonymous author. This book was written in 14th century England at the time of the bubonic plague, a pandemic that killed roughly half of England's population.

The recent
Darrell Grizzle
Mar 03, 2013 Darrell Grizzle rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
The Cloud of Unknowing is a 14th century Christian classic, the primary source-text for Centering Prayer and other forms of meditation and “prayer of the heart.” This beautiful translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher has a more devotional quality than most previous translations of The Cloud and its “sequel,” The Book of Privy Counsel. Butcher’s versions of these texts are easy to read, and she captures the passion, deep faith, and occasional humor of their anonymous author.

Butcher begins with an e
Mar 30, 2016 Leonardo marked it as to-keep-reference  ·  review of another edition
La Oración Contemplativa nos habla en un lenguaje muy semejante al de La Nube del Desconocido...

La Oración Contemplativa Pag.13 (prefacio)
Sep 11, 2014 Gretchen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: spirituality
I first read this in 1996, or perhaps a bit later. It is a classic and allegedly the basis for Fr. Thomas Keating & cie's development of the modern method of centering prayer. It's a tough read due to the canyon between now and the 14th century, but well worth the effort to work on absorbing the raw material for contemplative prayer and living.
I loved the content but didn't especially like this edition. When I compared it to other translations--the one by Evelyn Underhill, for instance--I felt that too much of the original author's style and personality were put aside for the sake of modern language. It wasn't until I read portions of other editions that I had any sense of the author's simplicity of language, his sense of humor, or his charm. This edition proved to be just a bit too wordy and pedantic for me. Of course, I'm not an exp ...more
Ben Fredrick
May 17, 2015 Ben Fredrick rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic!!! I'll be re-reading this one for sure
Dec 09, 2008 Frank rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The various translations of The Cloud of Unknowing still carry the "old English" of the original unknown 14th century author. For most of us it is hard to really understand what the author meant by some of the old style and words. William Johnston translated the original into modern English; I beleive the only such translation of this famous book. The author of the "Cloud" also wrote the Book of Privy Counsel and several other short pieces such as the Epistle of Prayer, etc. Johnston included Pr ...more
Sep 01, 2010 Ronny rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
I'm not sure if this is the edition I read... kind of a big point since the translation makes all the difference in the world (the one I read used contemporary language). In any case, this is a book about contemplative prayer. Written long enough ago that East/West syncreticism was unlikely, the parallels with meditative experience are profound. At times I had to pause and remember I was reading a Christian contemplative prayer text and not a Buddhist meditation manual.
Wonderful book about contemplative prayer in a very engaging and personable style. He begins stretching his symbolism toward the end, but the first 3/4 are top notch instruction and wisdom. The second book, The Book of Privy Counseling, is distinctly weaker as he tries to force pieces of scripture into his mold for contemplative prayer. It was much better when he let the practice speak for itself, as in the beginning of The Cloud of Unknowing.
Harry Allagree
Jul 01, 2015 Harry Allagree rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I never tire reading this spiritual classic periodically. This edition provides an extra treat by including The Book of Privy Counsel, which I'd not read before. Whoever the unknown author of both was, he was savvy in the ways of the spirit & has touched many lives through the centuries. I also discovered that he has further writings, two of which I plan to take up reading immediately: An Epistle on Prayer & An Epistle on Discretion.
Nov 29, 2015 Dayna rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I picked this up years ago (2007?) due to its connection with San Juan de la Cruz. Although it's taken me a crazy long time to read, it's actually pretty short and accessibly written, considering the subject matter. If you're also interested in an anonymous 14th century mystic's advice on enlightenment and losing yourself in God, then this is your book. If that's not appealing, you should probably pass.
May 22, 2013 Dave rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Helpful instruction in contemplative practice and life. The book provides a depiction of a relationship to God as grasped through love, rather than knowledge, and both general and practical direction on how to develop this simple practice of desire for God. Very gracious and rich. I have not yet read the book of privy counseling, but hope to spend time with that, as well.
Nov 14, 2014 Jocelyn rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
A nice personal guidebook for a young person called to the contemplative life. I especially like how the images of a "cloud of unknowing" and a "cloud of forgetting" evoke the essential otherness of God. As a spiritual classic, it rates five stars. As far as how it grabbed me personally, well, I liked it. Really, I did.
Ms. S........... simple, and yet so difficult! Familiar territory for anyone who practices meditation. It is always interesting to me to find examples of meditation in the western traditions, especially when it was written in the 14th Century... wev'e been at this stuff so long, you think we'd be better at it by now!
Mar 21, 2013 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Carmen does a fantastic job of translating this classic into modern, readable English. She brings a depth of understanding which goes beyond mere translation without undue bias. Highly recommended for those interested in the contemplative life.
Apr 23, 2013 Anne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was a challenge. The English that we speak today and the way we illustrate a point are very different from the time when this book was written. It takes some abstract thinking to understand what the author is trying to teach.
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

William Johnston, a Jesuit missionary living in Japan, has extensive knowledge both of Western spirituality and mysticism and also, through his experiences in Japan, of Eastern spirituality and mysticism, especially Zen Buddhism.

An authority on fourteenth century spirituali
More about William Johnston...

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“Even the most ignorant person on earth can experience union with God in perfect love by practicing contemplation in the beauty of humility.” 4 likes
“Every earthly revelation has a spiritual significance. I believe that if we humans were more spiritual, we wouldn’t need visions. These are given whenever someone hasn’t quite grasped an invisible spiritual lesson and needs a visual to go with it. We must learn to pull off this rough husk and feed on its sweet kernel.” 3 likes
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