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The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling

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Originally written in Middle English by an unknown mystic of the fourteenth century, The Cloud of Unknowing represents the first expression in our own tongue of the soul's quest for God. A literary work of great beauty in both style and message, it offers a practical guide to the path of contemplation. The author explains how all thoughts and concepts must be buried beneath a 'cloud of forgetting,' while our love must rise toward God hidden in the 'cloud of unknowing.' William Johnston — an authority on fourteenth-century spirituality and on the writings of this unknown author — provides a substantive and accessible introduction detailing what is known about the history of this text and its relevance throughout the ages. Also included here is the author's other principal work, The Book of Privy Counseling — a short and moving text on the way to enlightenment through a total loss of self and consciousness only of the divine.

In a new foreword, Huston Smith shows The Cloud of Unknowing as a highly relevant text for today's spirituality, containing essential elements from the varieties of religious experience.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1375

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About the author


791k books3,090 followers
Books can be attributed to "Anonymous" for several reasons:

* They are officially published under that name
* They are traditional stories not attributed to a specific author
* They are religious texts not generally attributed to a specific author

Books whose authorship is merely uncertain should be attributed to Unknown.

See also: Anonymous

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 105 reviews
Profile Image for Andrew Gillsmith.
Author 3 books222 followers
July 1, 2022
The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel are the greatest works on Christian mysticism and contemplative prayer ever written.

The most striking feature of the books, however, is not the ideas they contain (although they are powerful, profound, and life-changing) but the authorial voice. Intimate, playful, wise, and somehow completely modern. This is one of those rare books that can cut through the noise, the acedia, the cynicism of the modern age and still change lives.

It certainly changed mine.
Profile Image for booklady.
2,234 reviews65 followers
December 13, 2014
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/pray on for a day. It shouldn't be rushed.

I must admit that I did have some difficulty with the text on my first reading (many, many years ago) which I didn't notice on the subsequent go through; this is probably attributable to having completed the St. Ignatian The Spiritual Exercises.
Profile Image for Nemo.
73 reviews39 followers
July 23, 2016
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 way to live. "Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life".

One of the basic doctrines of the Cloud, which is reminiscent of Plotinus, is that thinking or knowing is not a necessary attribute of being, but something inferior and extraneous to being. God cannot be thought or known, but He can be loved, as He is in Himself.

In an apparent attempt to reconcile Christianity and Buddhism, William Johnston writes of the "Cosmic Christ" in the introduction to his translation of the book. He seems to downplay, if not deny, the Personhood of Christ, which does not reflect either the intent or the stated belief of the author, IMO. Evelyn Underhill shows more self-restraint in her introduction to an untranslated edition, and does not intrude her personal beliefs on the readers.

According to the author, the subject of mystical union can only be understood by those who have attained it. Needless to say, I have not, and therefore am not qualified to judge, but then again, few have. So in that regard, my point of view is as valid as any.

From a Christian perspective, it is possible for man to have true knowledge of God, for He reveals Himself to man, His divine attribute and wondrous works, but human knowledge is imperfect and transitory, whereas Love is perfect and eternal. For God is Love. As St. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 13, Love never fails, but knowledge will vanish away. "For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away."

To put it in a simple analogy, the Cloud of Unknowing is a love story between a soul and her God. When He seems to be away from the soul, she can do no better than to meditate on His attributes and works, and cherish the memories and knowledge of the Beloved. But, when He comes to dwell in her, the soul no longer turns to memories or images, but turns all her being to the Beloved in Person.
Profile Image for Scriptor Ignotus.
495 reviews174 followers
June 13, 2017
I feel as though this book has restored some part of my sanity; one which I hadn’t realized I’d lost. Though the fourteenth century author of The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling remains unknown, one can be certain of a few things about him based on his writings and translations. One can be sure, first of all, that he was a profound religious genius. Here in the twenty-first century West, among the cultural inheritors of Latin Christianity, we suffer from something of an inferiority complex when it comes to spirituality. We look out at the eastern spiritualities of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, and wonder with some trepidation whether western Europe ever produced such sages. The author of The Cloud (though not only him, by any means) provides us with an affirmative answer. Even England, it seems, can produce a genuine spiritual master.

But just because Cloudy (as I’ve so dubbed him, while imagining him as an anthropomorphic cloud wearing a monk’s habit) is brilliant, that doesn’t mean he’s going to lord it over you. He’s a superbly gifted writer, but his tone is modest and kind. His advice is practical and sublime in its simplicity. The central focus of his teachings is one shared by apophatic theologians through the ages: the unknowability of God. God is uncreated, non-contingent, anarchic being as such. God is not an exceptionally powerful being; it is not accurate even to describe Him as the Supreme Being. God is the unconditioned source of being itself, the unmoved mover; not a thing, but the source of thingness.

So how are we, as created beings of flesh and blood, to be drawn into fuller participation in the life of God—as we are told is the purpose of Christian life—if this God is forever unknowable to us? How can material creatures commune with the immaterial? God is concealed in a cloud of unknowing; He’s a mystery who cannot be grasped in Himself; we can only wrestle intellectually with those revelations which He discloses in being. Since God cannot be understood through the intellect, we can only approach Him (or rather, He can only approach us) through the supreme faculty which He has imparted to us by His grace, and that is the gift of contemplation.

But for Cloudy, contemplation is not about thinking. Any thought which emerges during contemplation is a distraction, a veil thrown over the mind’s eye to obscure the clarity of one’s spiritual vision of God’s pure being. Even the most holy and beautiful thoughts—thoughts about the Ancient of Days seated on His throne, surrounded by angels and saints; thoughts about God’s limitless compassion and unceasing mercy—even these are merely thoughts, the rational mind’s own projection, a canopy which clouds the beatific vision. Contemplation begins when the chattering of the intellect is gently set aside, covered by the cloud of forgetting, and that part of consciousness which is not one’s own begins to pierce the cloud of unknowing and simply be, as God simply is. If we persist in this journey, we ascend even beyond the categories of good and evil, sin and holiness, because even these fundamental distinctions are not eternal; they will perish when God, man, and cosmos are finally reconciled, and all of creation is afire with the divine glory, like the burning bush.

The contemplative life, for Cloudy, is paradoxically a journey both inward and outward. He uses the story of Martha and Mary to address the perennial mistrust between followers of the active and contemplative ways. When Jesus arrived at their home, Martha busied herself preparing food for him, while Mary merely sat at his feet and listened to him, becoming totally absorbed by his words and his presence. Martha told Jesus to scold Mary for not helping her, but where Martha saw only inactivity, Jesus saw a pure and open heart. Cloudy says that one should begin with practical work of the kind that would satisfy Martha, but there also comes a point when meaningful action lends itself to contemplation. At this point, the seeker begins to travel inward, searching for God in the depths of himself. But the further inward he goes, the more he loses sight of himself, because he descends to the unconscious wellspring of divine love that precedes all thought and self-identity. So finally, in the profoundest depths of introspection, the contemplative experiences the all-embracing love of God.

And what could be better than that?
Profile Image for booklady.
2,234 reviews65 followers
February 6, 2014
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.

Can't remember how many times I have read this but I do recall being very confused by this book initially. Now I find it a simple explanation on how to live out the First Commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord Your God with all your whole heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with your mind.’

The question I've always had is, ‘how does one do this?’ Of course there are always some who do not want to do what they are supposed to do, but I believe the vast majority of folk want to do what is right and good. They truly want to love God. The trouble isn’t so much the much the “what” as the “how”. How does one love this strange, unseen, unknown and unknowable God? The anonymous author of our book, “The Cloud of Unknowing” recognizes the mystery facing all of us and addresses it. He encourages us to be open to the Spirit, to expect suffering and to recognize that God alone leads each soul to contemplative prayer when and how He sees fit. Beyond reading this book over and over and lots of prayer, I guess I can’t add much except that I’m glad it’s making more sense now.

Enjoyed The Book of Privy Counseling as well. Will return to them both often.
Profile Image for Matthew Burden.
Author 21 books9 followers
May 15, 2015
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 quite the appeal to intellectual pride, of being able to cross a big-name writer in the history of Christian theology off my list. But eventually I did pick it up, and I was won over within the first few pages. Like most classics, this book is probably more worth reading than 99% of the contemporary books available right now.

Background: The Cloud of Unknowing was written in the 1300s in England, part of a golden age of Christian mystical literature that coincided with the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War. The author is anonymous, but his work stands on the same level as the great works of his contemporaries: Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and (my personal favorite) Julian of Norwich. Though his instructions are written primarily for the monk or Christian cleric, their application is to all believers, and his method of prayer is the main inspiration for the contemporary Christian practice of "centering prayer."

Why You Should Read This Book: It's actually remarkably accessible, and often simply winsome. The author writes with a spirit of tremendous humility and gentleness, and with a deep understanding of the human condition. Though he's recommending a method of prayer that is probably foreign to most of us in the evangelical tradition, his explanations are patient and remarkably simple. Beyond any attractions of the writer's style, however, the main point to consider is that the practices he encourages could be a turning point in your spiritual life. It will dare you to enter into a lifestyle of contemplative prayer, which, if God is gracious, can bring you into deeper experiential communion with God.

Further, this book avoids some of the pitfalls of current practice. In attempts to be "relevant" to our culture of personal fulfillment, "centering prayer" is sometimes hyped as a practice whose main purpose is to help you find peace and inner harmony. As such, many in my evangelical tradition regard the practice somewhat askance, in the same way they might regard the pseudo-spiritual practices we've cherrypicked from eastern religions (like yoga, breathing exercises, etc.). But The Cloud of Unknowing doesn't care much for your internal harmony. It is wiser than our age in that it recognizes that "personal fulfillment" is not the point. No, the point is that God has showered his love on us, and it is our privilege to learn to love him in return. The method of prayer that the book advises is simply that: a way to love God, and to love him as unselfishly as the human person is capable of.

But to love God, we have to know him in some way. And we can know him in an intellectual sense--we can know what he has revealed of himself through Christ and the witness of Scripture. But to know him, to know him in his person, in his essence, is something beyond that. The journey is not entirely up to us to make, because God has deigned to make himself known to us, and to us who are Christians, he is mystically present with us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and our incorporation into the Body of Christ. Even so, if our goal is "a personal relationship with God," we need to remember that he is God, and we are mere creatures, and good theology has always taught us that he is "wholly other." He is so transcendent, so very different from any other thing that we've ever known, that our intellects are simply unable to know him in the deepest way possible. This separation, where the limits of our knowledge fail to actually reach the essence of God himself, is what the author means by "the cloud of unknowing." But, the author tells us, where knowledge fails, love can break through that dark cloud. Thus the point of this kind of prayer is simply to direct our loving attention toward God--not to think too much, not speak too much, but simply to rest in God, to be with him, and to love him. If this kind of wordless prayer sounds a bit strange to you, rest assured that it is well rooted in both Scripture and the earliest Christian tradition. This is the kind of prayer that David seems to be referring to when he says in Psalm 131: "I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child with its mother." It is this prayer of wordless contemplation that the early church fathers (particularly those champions of prayer, the desert fathers), regarded as the highest form of prayer there is.

There's another cloud, too--not just the cloud of unknowing above, showing the limitations of our intellectual capacities where God is concerned, but a "cloud of forgetting" beneath us. This method of prayer is built on a sound theology of the human person, a vital understanding the way our minds work. (The early church fathers were generally much more in tune with the composition of the human psyche, and what that meant for our prayer lives, than are most modern evangelicals.) Other kinds of prayer have their place, of course, but most of the spoken prayers we use are inextricably wrapped up in our own hangups, our desires, our passions, our wandering thoughts. So, this method of contemplative prayer encourages us not to speak, not really even to think--and thus not to let the jostling pieces of our own ego get in the way of our singular intent to simply direct our love toward God. As the author of Ecclesiastes advises us: "Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few" (5:2). So we hold on to one idea alone--loving God--and use this idea to banish all other thoughts and impulses into our cloud of forgetting. This way of prayer is not easy to learn. Once you try it, you'll be amazed at how undisciplined and forceful your wandering thoughts and desires are. But the promise of spiritual growth from the consistent practice of this kind of prayer is attested to over and over again throughout the Christian tradition. It is worth taking some time to learn this way of prayer, and you couldn't ask for a better teacher than The Cloud of Unknowing.
Profile Image for David Lentz.
Author 17 books311 followers
June 21, 2011
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, fearful or stress about the "cloud of unknowing." He urges us to focus only upon the present moment and to build a bridge through prayer worthy of oneself and one's deity. He recommends that with suitable mindfulness we can raise the depth of prayerful experience and advises that we are responsible for every minute of our life. I have practiced what the monk preaches and it works -- my time of prayer is more attuned and brings more energy to these spiritual moments. The net effect is that epiphanies or awakenings come more frequently now in which the essential meaning of life is revealed. I find that I am happier through the application of the monk's good advice as spiritual well-being leads to healthier relationships. The health of the interior impacts beneficially one's physical sense of well being. If you seek a higher level of spirituality, then this book can help take you there. "The Book Privy Counseling" in this edition builds upon his themes and advice aimed at more experienced practitioners seeking higher levels of spiritiuality. Why not take your spiritual awareness of life to the next level and enrich your faith journey through its many benefits?
Profile Image for David .
1,237 reviews153 followers
February 16, 2017
I read a translation of the Cloud of Unknowing a couple years ago and struggled through it. It was an old translation and I found it very difficult to grasp. So I decided to try it again in a more up to date translation and it was amazing. I read a couple chapters a day along with my devotions. The insights in this classic book are wonderful. I highly recommend them as a supplement to your daily scripture reading.

Of course, putting these practices into practice with little kids in the house is quite difficult! Maybe someday when the kids are older, I will work on becoming contemplative. I am noticing most of these mystics did not have children. Perhaps there is a need for a book called "Contemplation for People with Families and Real Lives". Hmmm....
March 23, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Richard Wu.
176 reviews36 followers
June 29, 2018
If my words may steer but one prospective reader from this horrendously utilitarian translation (hence two stars not four), I shall rest this life in peace. Compare:
And therefore be wary, for surely what beastly heart that presumeth for to touch the high mount of this work, it shall be beaten away with stones. Stones be hard and dry in their kind, and they hurt full sore where they hit. And surely such rude strainings be full hard fastened in fleshliness of bodily feeling, and full dry from any witting of grace; and they hurt full sore the silly soul, and make it fester in fantasy feigned of fiends.

So be careful. Surely anyone who presumes to approach this lofty mountain of contemplative prayer through sheer brute force will be driven off with stones. Stones as you know are hard, dry things that hurt terribly when they strike. Certainly morbid constraint will also hurt your health, for it is lacking the dew of grace and therefore completely dry. Besides it will do great harm to your foolish mind, leading it to flounder in diabolical illusions.
In the fullness of nature’s ferny thickets lies in blood bedecked the devil’s due, the sanguine trident by whose three prongs are graceful forms corrupted. Witness, reader, transmutation—the passage, then, with beauty brimmed; the carcass, now, disfigured—sear the image of its ferrous rot into your memory’s deepest ravine so the coarse black mold of sin may escape it never. Begone, Satan, begone, Johnston, defile my text no longer.

As for its content, that is its meat, I have little to say. Can a synesthete induce his reality—or what we might call his hallucinations—in a neurotypical mind by supplying it with precise descriptions of mental mechanics, so as to produce a technical manual of sorts for the experience of given phenomena? Surely the steps would be generalizable only insofar as there is consistency in neural architecture; the base specification of one’s brain thus determines his possibility of accessing these states. In other words, “God, in his wisdom, determines the course and the character of each one’s contemplative journey according to the talents and gifts he has given him (chapter 71).”

Assuming we possess sufficient neurological analogy, the second challenge is for the guru to convey his teaching in such a way that we can follow through, and here the prospect of squaring our understandings depends on the thickness of the communication barrier. “Raise your knee” is obvious enough, but “Think like this,” well, how commensurable is that really? Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” and while another artist may verify that he is indeed now able to paint like a child, there are none who can confirm that we are now able to think—or will, or love—as we once did—or didn’t—in the womb, or before.

I mean not to deny the reality of the phenomena in question, only to highlight the difficulty of transmitting methods of possessing them. Given that there is, after all, no private language, exactly how might we decalcify our lifelong habits and from our Fall ascend to Second Eden? Perhaps the answer is to bump against as much media regarding the matter as possible and hope one day the gears click in place. That’s the best I’ve got; ’til then we’re at the mercy of raindrops:
Some of these people are unbelievably deceived by the devil, who will even send them a sort of dew which they suppose to be the heavenly food of angels. It seems to come softly and delicately out of the skies, marvelously finding its way into their mouths. [p.110]
Profile Image for Cheryl Gatling.
1,045 reviews14 followers
November 4, 2020
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, Eastern, 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.

He describes focusing one's mind using a small repeated word ("sin" or "God" are recommended), turning away from all daily concerns and thoughts (burying them beneath a cloud of forgetting), and longing only for God with a blind, naked desire. God is hidden within the cloud of unknowing, but sometimes one achieves union with God, which is such a wonderful experience as to make the long hours of loneliness worth it, and to make one desire this union forever after. Sometimes this "enlightenment" or "transcendence" comes, and sometimes it doesn't. It can't be achieved by striving or cleverness, but must be waited for with patience.

I was impressed with how accessible this book was, although it was written centuries ago. The style is simple and straightforward. It really is like a mentor talking, sometimes with amusing asides. I enjoyed his saying that those who try too hard will become agitated or excited, but the person who truly succeeds at meditation will become calm and peaceful, and loving toward all. I was impressed with the teacher's saying that this way is not for everybody. Active people and contemplatives are called to different paths, but both are OK. Obviously he thinks that the contemplative way is better, but it takes all kinds to make a world, and God loves all of them, even those not called to this higher "work."
100 reviews
November 6, 2019
If God is to truly be God, God must be beyond thought or conception. That is not to say that God is unknowable, but that God is truly known, not by thought, but by love. In other words, God is incomprehensible, but not beyond the reach of loving devotion. With the "cloud of unknowing" above us (God's unfathomableness) and the "cloud of forgetting" beneath us (all our concepts which always fall short of God), the author of this anonymous work call us to "grasp God fully through love". Knowledge can deceive, but love always builds up. "Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest." Yes, Jesus reveals God to us, but the revelation remains a mystery - that is, it both reveals and conceals. There remains untapped depths to God that cannot be plundered with the mind alone. In a word, as Augustine said long ago, "si comprehendis non est Deus" (that is, "If you think you have grasped him, it is not God you have grasped."
Profile Image for Gene.
Author 8 books6 followers
November 27, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Ali.
222 reviews5 followers
July 30, 2017
This has been a very important book for me to read. It was given to me by a beloved and respected supervisor and recommended to me by a nun whose counsel I sought at the same time I had (I thought) randomly decided to read it. I must echo the words of the author: this book is not for everyone just as contemplative prayer is not for everyone. However I do think this insight is universally applicable: we cannot reach or comprehend God with our reason, we can only grasp God with love.
Profile Image for Dave.
579 reviews8 followers
August 2, 2019
This was very hard to read.
It was written by someone in the 14th Century. He is presumed by many to have been a monk. The language is flowery and esoteric. He speaks constantly of the importance of faith and belief as opposed to the "evil" rationalism. I also felt constantly reminded of what an awful, sinful person I am.
Just challenging for me.
36 reviews8 followers
June 23, 2012
14th century zen manual. Anonymous was probably a female anchorite.
Profile Image for Linda Martin.
Author 1 book70 followers
April 9, 2023
This book is a guide to the inner life of Christian meditation on love. It starts out pretty basic sounding a lot like the types of meditation that I've learned through other paths such as Buddhism or Hinduism. However by the end there are observations and explanations that transcend what I've learned elsewhere.

This is the kind of book that a person attracted to contemplative prayer would probably want to read more than once. It is easy to listen to or read the short chapters, but hard to understand all the meanings and nuances of what this monk was trying to impart to his readers.
Profile Image for julián m.h.
31 reviews2 followers
September 20, 2021
for some reason it amazed me that this book even exists. being able to read it on kindle felt like being in the future and reading ancient, hidden and long lost knowledge. as ram dass says over and over, the divine and the spiritual path, regardless of how you learn about it: the Buddha, Krishna, J.C, some monk in england in the 1300s... it's all the same trip.
Profile Image for Harry Allagree.
792 reviews10 followers
December 1, 2021
This is my 2nd time around on this classic, translated & commented on by a recently deceased close friend, Fr. John Julian, OJN. I don't recall reading The Letter of Privy Counsel before, but its Chapters 1-4 really grabbed me...very simply stated.
Profile Image for Grace Hall.
11 reviews
May 23, 2023
Very interesting read! Some parts I found super helpful, other parts I need to think more on. The introduction is a bit odd, but overall the book is very good! I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone though.
Profile Image for Ivan Biloh.
2 reviews
May 15, 2021
Great book. A real classic of christian literature. It has deepened my understanding of God and prayer. A must read book for every authentic catholic.
Profile Image for Jeff.
604 reviews10 followers
April 6, 2019
I read this book as part of the Renovare Book Club for 2018-2019.

This turned out to be one of those books that I finished only because I'm stubborn. I don't like to give up.

The Cloud of Unknowing is all about contemplating God. I'm certainly interested in contemplation, and have been for a while. I realize that there are some who are almost violently opposed to the concept, and I have never quite figured out why.

The basic premise of The Cloud of Unknowing is that we should bury all thoughts (about anything, even God) beneath what he called a "cloud of forgetting," and focus our "naked love" toward God, who is hidden in a "cloud of unknowing." The idea is that "God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts."

The fourteenth century anonymous author would have us forget about gaining knowledge and seek only experience. He would have us reject any thought about who or what God is and who are what we are, and to only be aware that God is and we are.

What I discovered during the reading of this book is that I am incapable of contemplating God without thinking about his character. Personally, I don't think it is possible to do so. Maybe I'm wrong . . . I have been before.

The opening prayer in the text is inspiring.

"O God unto whom all hearts lie open
unto whom desire is eloquent
and from whom no secret thing is hidden;
purify the thoughts of my heart
by the outpouring of your Spirit
that I may love you with a perfect love
and praise you as you deserve. Amen."

Of the concept of contemplation, he says, "How can your poor heart be so leaden and spiritless that it is not continually aroused by the attraction of the Lord's love and the sound of his voice?" Certainly nothing wrong with that.

Later, he says, "It is God, and he alone, who can fully satisfy the hunger and longing of our spirit which transformed by his redeeming grace is enabled to embrace him by love."

He also encourages us to be attentive to the way we spend our time, which lines up with one of my favorite Dallas Willard quotes, to "ruthlessly eliminate hurry" from our lives.

At one point, regarding the contemplative's relationships, he says, "Even those who hurt or offend him in everyday life are as dear to him as his best friends and all the good he desires for his best friends he desires for them." This certainly lines up with Jesus's admonitions for us to love our enemies and do good for those who persecute us.

Another nugget of good advice: "And so I warn you, think twice about passing judgment on the lives of other men. In the privacy of your own conscience judge yourself as you see fit before God or before your spiritual father, but do not meddle in the lives of others."

An issue that I found, though, at least for me, is that the writer is of a Catholic persuasion, so he keeps mentioning purgatory, of which I find no Biblical evidence and, therefore do not believe in.
He even goes so far as to opine that our contemplation can be beneficial to the souls in purgatory.

He seems to get a lot of his material (indeed, very little comes from biblical sources) from the one story of Mary and Martha in the New Testament. He is also of the opinion that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, is also one and the same as Mary Magdalene. I have considered this before, but Scripture is unclear on it, so I don't dwell on it.

Anyway, the author seems to believe that Mary, while sitting at the feet of Jesus, was doing nothing but contemplating him. She wasn't listening to anything he was saying or thinking about him and his character. I find this to be silly and unlikely.

In a brief passage where he refers to Paul's prayer in Ephesians 3, he speaks of understanding "with all the saints the length and breadth and height and depth of the eternal, gracious, almighty, and omniscient God." Here is where, in my opinion, the author is making stuff up. "Length speaks of God's eternity, breadth of his love, height of his power, depth of his wisdom." I have a big question mark in the margin next to that statement. Where on earth did he get that??

Shortly after that, I stopped underlining and taking notes. This was in chapter 38 of 75.

This author believes that there are people who should do absolutely nothing in their lives but contemplate God. He believes that, if one is called to do so, others will provide their basic needs to them.

As I stated previously, I finished the book (as well as The Book of Privy Counseling) mostly because I'm stubborn that way. At one point, I had almost decided that the author was a madman. Perhaps not, but I do not agree with much of his position.

I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone. I was terribly disappointed. I'm still interested in contemplation, but I find that there is negligible difference between contemplation and meditation. I will continue to seek out more on the subject, though, as sources become available to me.
Profile Image for Glen Grunau.
248 reviews14 followers
February 18, 2012
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 purchase of a Kindle gave me ready access to this book, which was one of the first that I purchased. I started with the edition introduced by Evelyn Underhill in what appeared to be the original old English. But this English was REALLY OLD and made the King James Bible seem in comparison like a primary school reader. So I quickly purchased this modern translation, which made the book immediately accessible to me.

I was compelled by the invitation to penetrate the mystery and love of God as through darkness and mystery - in contrast to the theological certainty we are so often urged by the modern church to pursue. Yet the author makes the point during the book, especially in the final chapter, that not all are called by God to do contemplative work. In fact, "anonymous" asserts that "the pleasant emotion some feel when reading it (this book) may come more from natural intellectual curiosity than from any calling of grace" (could this be my primary motive for reading this book?). The author goes on to suggest that if a person seeks to make sure their calling to the contemplative life they should "see if the desire for contemplation presses on their minds at all times, attracting their attention more than any other spiritual discipline". I cannot say that this is the case for me. In reading this, I felt a sinking feeling that perhaps I am among those not called to this life which I have developed such a fondness for and attraction to.

Anonymous goes on to say that the most compelling evidence of such a calling occurs following the inevitable withdrawal of this "stirring of love" - which occurs by holy design to insure that "they won’t take it for granted, assuming they control it and can have it whenever and however they like. Such a presumption would be pride . . . sometimes our Lord will delay it on purpose because he wants their waiting to make them appreciate this gift more. When that happens, it is one of the clearest, best signs that a soul has been called to do this spiritual work . . . If the gift comes back suddenly (as it does), independent of anything you’ve done, along with a larger desire and a stronger love-longing to do this work, so much so that your joy in finding it again is greater than the sorrow you had in losing it, then you know without a doubt God is calling you to do this work, no matter who you are or what you’ve done".

This method for discerning one's call to the contemplative life is only one example of the mysterious paradox of discovering the intimate presence of God in "darkness" and "unknowing". How difficult this way can be for someone like myself, who has found so much security and confidence in knowing God in the familiarity of intellectual and theological certainty. This is not to belittle the importance of "being transformed by the renewal of our minds" as Paul so aptly reminds us in Romans 12:1-2, but a reminder that if we only know God with our intellect, we are shrinking the vast wonder of an eternal God into the smallness of our limited human brains. Frankly, this no longer holds the appeal to me that it once did. This book was a compelling treatise to remind me of where I have been and where I long to go. Anonymous concludes his book by stating that "It is not who you are or what you’ve been that God sees with his merciful eyes, but what you want to be . . . . St. Augustine teaches that 'the whole life of a good Christian is nothing but holy desire'."

Although this book was sobering in its reminder of how far short I fall of the "mature contemplative", and revealed to me the extent to which my busy and distracted mind so often serves as a barrier that separates me from the intimate presence of God, this book nevertheless strengthened my longing, my "holy desire", to experience anew the love and presence of God.
Profile Image for Joseph.
677 reviews
May 24, 2020
An interesting translation that at times overly-modernizes the language and imagery that it is trying to convey. This makes is problematic to use the content for more solemn reflections and meditations. It is nonetheless full of intuitive aphorisms that one will find useful and enlightening.
579 reviews24 followers
November 9, 2015
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 pleasure that the author gives by his presence, he gives us insights into the medieval mind. For example, his partition of the mind into mind, reason, imagination and feeling - and their fluid interactions - are intellectual, true, but also workable. For me, he provides insight into the amazing intelligence and intellectual excitement of the medieval world. He lets us realize that his world was as fascinated by its existence and man's position in it as we are in the 21st century.

Another important aspect of this work - or, rather, the reading of it - is its presentation of a subtle and joyful and demanding form of meditation or, better, contemplation. In this era, when westerners have found the attractions of Zen, of the Tibetan and Theravada traditions, of the mystical practices of India, our author makes us realize that the West also has an immensely powerful mystical tradition. In an age when westerners seem to flee their traditions, the existence of the western tradition is important to know not only for the material the author lays out, but also for the the appreciation of our own tradition and therefore our own identity. The West seems to assume that it must be the moderator of "diversity". Books like these make me realize that western traditions are coequal parts of the "diversity".

Last, I think that a Buddhist, for example, would deeply appreciate the form of meditation and its substance (insofar as it can be described in any system). For example, the stripping away of all that one thinks one is in favor of the simple "that one is"; or the dropping of the thoughts and images of our cinematic minds into the Cloud of Forgetting. But also the books emphasize the Christian experience: Contemplation is never done alone. That is, God coaxes the contemplator into the life of contemplation and somehow God meets him/her in the Cloud of Unknowing. No matter that God is completely other and indescribable, the practice is relational, even perhaps companionable. The bedrock of it all is Love which is inherently relational and totally not intelligible.

Hey! Another nice surprise is the Cloud book starts with that beautiful prayer that appears in the Book of Common Prayer as the first thing for the Communion Service - the Collect for Purity. I always assumed that Thomas Cranmer wrote it as he had a way with words and put together the first Common Prayer. But it seems he was also a connoisseur of other people's prayer writing. Another example of our medieval author's contact with us (including Archbishop Cranmer) across time.

The edition I read is excellent in my view. I think it is trustworthy and skillful. I have not attempted the Middle English edition.

Profile Image for Michael McGrath.
127 reviews3 followers
February 25, 2018
This is the second time I've completed this book and I suspect there will be a third. This is not a book to rush through and given the shorter attention spans of our generations, I think the short but dense chapters are best read one at a time. I've carried the softcover Image paperback edition containing the William Johnston translation and now have the Kindle edition with an introduction by Huston Smith (who singlehandedly changed my former fundamentalist ways).

Johnston is an Irish Jesuit priest whose vocation has done much to bridge the wisdom traditions of East and West. If you are not of a sound ecumenical mind, you may want to skip his introduction which shows the parallels of this text with the rejection of concepts that can be found in certain Buddhist schools. Perhaps the first time, I read this book I found this aspect to be of the utmost interest along with the focused counsels of not overthinking or the casting of reason to enter naked contemplation, without focusing on any aspect of one's own being. Or as the anonymous author of the text states, "do not think what you are but that you are."

Now that I am older and somewhat fatigued by the onslaught of evangelical trumpeters that surround me and crowd my everyday existence, I found myself returning to those things that inspired me when I was younger and the world seemed to be full of promise. My renewed interest in all things Arthurian led me to pick up this 14th century text written by an Englishman, who does not want us reading his book out of mere curiosity or for the sake of knowledge. And yet, even as I may have fallen somewhat in these categories, I found renewed refreshment in this book just when I thought Christianity to have lost its relevance in this topsy-turvy world.

When I was younger, i read to put myself somewhere. With university behind me and quiet evenings of reflection and study at my small desk, I have found the acceptance of the turmoils that surround me to look beyond. Now, I strive to be nowhere because "nowhere, physically, is everywhere spiritually."

Like a Grail-seeking Galahad, I draw from this book as from a refreshing and nourishing chalice "with a gentle stirring of love" without expectations, realizing my limitations without having to endlessly define them and pressing forward into that supra-conceptual and "dark cloud of unknowing."

Note: there are other editions of this medieval classic, but the Johnston translation includes "The Book of Privy Counsel" which may be read across a lifetime.
Profile Image for Greg Talbot.
535 reviews16 followers
September 26, 2015
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 would be to the Holy See during this time, it's apparent how much the instruction omits Church doctrine. There's nothing here about formal confession, indulgences, religious order. It's focus is simply on contemplation toward God.

"The Cloud of Unknowing" is that space between us and God. And our guide suggests we step into that cloud, into that mystery. I marvel at how the author is very comfortable with metaphor, and even reminds us readers that
much of the Christian stories we read are...well parables.

The book is unquestionably Christian, but it's ideas are in line with many modern readers: meditating on Jesus's life to understand God's grace, eliminating language to get to a "no-thought" openness toward God, and making the process of contemplation a centerpiece of our interior life. There are levels to the contemplation, such as leading a good life, disavowing ourselves of evil intent, and most importantly contemplating God's love.

Whereas "Cloud" goes instructing the reader into how to contemplate, how to deal with community how to deal with the body, "Book of Privy Counseling" has the brushes of an experienced author. Instead of enthusiasm, the pages read with bold dedication. It's no less beautiful, but is decidedly more direct and confident. Words are sparse, thought is not required, awareness to God gives us all the instruction we need. Buddhists call it emptiness, Chrisitans call it God...it can't be described or named, only experienced.

Faith is a personal and there are many paths people can take to self betterment. Having Christian roots and wanting to make peace between my worldy mind, I found these books really struck a chord with me. Contemplation, mindful living has always been a rout to sanity and better living. Hopefully others find this books stirs our spirits and helps us live a richer life.
Profile Image for Darrell Grizzle.
Author 10 books58 followers
March 3, 2013
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 extended introduction to The Cloud, giving us the history of the book as well as what we do and do not know about its author. This introduction also gives us a summary of the theology and spirituality of the text, which, while solidly rooted in 14th century Christian faith, has been a deep inspiration to contemplatives of many other faith traditions throughout the last five centuries. The fact that this new translation is published by a Buddhist press shows that The Cloud transcends barriers of tradition and is a truly timeless classic.

One of the “hidden treasures” of Butcher’s translation is the Notes section at the end of the book, which give us a wealth of insight into the text. She occasionally quotes the Middle English to show us the wordplays and other aspects of the original text, and she also includes references to Scripture and other writings to illuminate various passages of The Cloud. It’s definitely worth the trouble to flip to the back of the book to read the endnotes.

I fell in love with The Cloud of Unknowing about 15 years ago through William Johnston’s classic translation, and now I’ve fallen in love with it again. I feel like I’ve been re-introduced to an old friend. Even if you’ve read The Cloud in other translations, I highly recommend reading it again in Butcher’s vibrant translation.
Profile Image for Ruth.
200 reviews
December 3, 2018
After second try, still stick to my initial very low rating... just added one extra star because I do think the translator did a really good job, and the footnotes were most helpful.

I am abandoning this book. I gave it a very serious try, first listening to the audiobook, then attentively reading it, including all the (very helpful) footnotes. It gave me much food for thought, but I found it too disturbing. I very much wanted to appreciate this book, as it was recommended to me by someone who is a bit of a spiritual mentor to me. But I still see a lot of problems with this book. Perhaps this is just me, maybe my mind works differently so that these advices do me more harm than good, even though they would be beneficial to others.

See also my blog post (http://www.consideringlilies.nl/conte...) about contemplation which ends with a cartoon that I drew for myself to clarify my problems with this book.

So, all in all, I feel much more confortable with Augustine who says that we cannot love what we don't know.

Also, about the interior workings of our mind, I find much more comfort and recognition in the writings of St Teresa of Avila, I'd like to end with a quote from her that seems very applicable to this book.

"If His Majesty has not begun to absorb us, I cannot understand how the mind can be stopped. There's no way of doing so without bringing about more harm than good, although there has been a lengthy controversy on this matter among some spiritual persons. For my part I must confess my lack of humility, but those in favor of stopping the mind have never given me a reason for submitting to what they say" (Interior Castle, fourth dwelling place, chapter 3)
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