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The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling

4.33  ·  Rating details ·  1,612 ratings  ·  83 reviews
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 beneat ...more
Paperback, 224 pages
Published July 1st 1996 by Image (first published 1375)
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May 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 05, 2015 added it
Shelves: christianity
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
Scriptor Ignotus
Jun 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: christianity
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 infer ...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.

Matthew Burden
Jan 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
David Lentz
Jun 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
J. Maximilian Jarrett II
May 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.
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
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, 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.

Nov 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: theology
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 c ...more
Nov 27, 2012 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. ...more
Jul 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.
Aug 02, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, religion
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.
Anne Lee
Jun 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
14th century zen manual. Anonymous was probably a female anchorite.
Ivan Biloh
May 15, 2021 rated it it was amazing
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.
Kendall Davis
Oct 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
Good historical introduction to Christian apophatic contemplation.
Apr 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
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 (ab
Glen Grunau
Jan 14, 2012 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
Richard Wu
Jun 28, 2018 rated it it was ok
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 fr
May 24, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jul 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Arthurian Tapestry
Apr 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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 prie
Greg Talbot
Sep 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Darrell Grizzle
Mar 03, 2013 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
Oct 18, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Marianne Mersereau
May 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In terms of spiritual significance, this book is second only to the Holy Bible for me. I read it first in 2006 and just finished re-reading it during Lent 2020. It's a magical book in which the author's voice truly comes alive from centuries ago and speaks directly to the modern day mystic's heart. ...more
Gary Hassig
Dec 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A life-changing book, one of the great hidden treasures of world literature. For those who want to go deeper in God than regular prayer and Bible reading can take you, there's no better book than this one. The anonymous 14th century English author taps into the essence of contemplative prayer and presents it as he saw it in his time, but with such lucid and wise writing that it stands as strong today as in his day. I've read it several times, and some parts I've read numerous times; my well-worn ...more
Jonathan Widell
Apr 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Brett Folkman
May 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I took my time reading this work, contemplating what the anonymous fourteen century mystic meant by his words. I found many of his teachings resonated deep within me and many parallels to my own life experience. It's full of powerful teachings that the Holy Ghost can use to enlighten each person for what it means for them individually.

As he states: "no amount of natural or acquired knowledge will bring him to taste the spiritual experience of God, for this is a pure gift of grace. And so I urge
Nov 06, 2012 rated it liked it
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
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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.

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