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Reading “The Cloud of Unknowing”


            “I charge you with love’s authority, if you give this book to someone else, warn them (as I warn you) to take the time to read it thoroughly. For it is very possible that certain chapters do not stand by themselves but require the explanation given in other chapters to complete their meaning. I fear lest a person read only some parts and quickly fall into error. To avoid a blunder like this, I beg you and anyone else reading this book, for love’s sake, to do as I ask.

            “As for worldly gossips, flatterers, the scrupulous, tale-bearers, busybodies, and the hypercritical, I would just as soon they never laid their eyes on this book. I had no intention of writing for them and prefer that they do not meddle with it. This applies, also, to the merely curious, educated or not. They may be good people by the standards of the active life, but this book is not suited to their needs.

            “However, there are some presently engaged in the active life who are being prepared by grace to grasp the message of this book. I am thinking of those who feel the mysterious action of the Spirit in their inmost being stirring them to love. I do not say that they continually feel this stirring, as experienced contemplatives do, but now and again they taste something of contemplative love in the very core of their being.  Should such folk read this book, I believe they will be greatly encouraged and reassured.”

             -the unknown author of The Cloud Of Unknowing”

This is the directive, written by an anonymous author and printed immediately inside the front cover of The Cloud of Unknowing. While we do not know his name, he is known to be a fourteenth century mystic, theologian and spiritual friend. Of his writings, The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling are the best known. The Cloud was written first and was well read in the fourteenth century, being honored since as a spiritual classic of the English language. The Book of Privy Counseling was probably written later in the author’s life and reflects a mature awareness of human need. The author truly believes that the contemplation he teaches is of the highest value. He presents a book of true counseling, more direct than is the accepted practice of today, but written with the conviction that comes from life-long practice. These two works are often printed in the same volume. They are a guide to contemplation solidly grounded in the Western Christian mystical tradition.

Historical Context

Some historians have referred to the fourteenth century as a distant mirror because so many modern issues had counterparts in that time. Today we ponder the possibility of chemical or thermonuclear warfare that could wipe out entire populations. During the fourteenth century, the onset of the Little Ice Age contributed to crop failure and famine, and the Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population. Today we have increasing concern over institutional failures. During that time there were social upheavals as well. Power feuds between the Church and the State led to crisis in both. Popes and kings were at odds over taxes and control, and everything in the Church—from pardon for sins to ecclesiastical offices—was for sale.


The Cloud of Unknowing meticulously describes the whole work of contemplation. That very word, at this time in Seventh-day Adventist history, would cause some among us to dismiss the value of any further reading. But the author of The Cloud anticipated many of our questions, and his answers are well worth listening to today. I will journey through this book looking at some of the questions its author asks and answers.

We begin by asking what contemplation is and why it is it is so important. According to The Cloud, contemplation basically means coming to know God through love– the only way it really is possible to know Him. “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him we can love him.” “It is laudable to reflect on God’s kindness and to love and praise him for it; yet it is far better to let your mind rest in the awareness of him in his naked existence and to love and praise him for what he is in himself.”[i] In pondering these words, I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Athenians: “that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us”[ii] The very groping becomes a real, physical experience.

It all begins with God’s “gentle stirring of love within us; love desiring God for God’s sake and not for his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God’s creatures or their affairs whether in general or in particular. Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them.”[iii] This is the invitation to contemplative work. To respond to this invitation is to turn toward God, to simply sit in his presence. It sounds so simple, yet it can only be done through the grace given by the One who knows us best and loves us most. We come with all the knowledge we have accumulated, with all the cares and concerns that have affected our lives and touched our human desires. The author tells us to: “diligently persevere until you feel joy in [contemplation]. For in the beginning it is usual to feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknowing. Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to him whom you love. For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself it must be within this darkness and cloud.”[iv]

If you wish to enter into this cloud of unknowing you must do something more: “Just as the cloud of unknowing lies above you, between you and your God, so you must fashion a cloud of forgetting beneath you, between you and every living thing. The cloud of unknowing, will perhaps leave you with the feeling that you are far from God. But no, if it is authentic, only the absence of a cloud of forgetting keeps you from him now…..You are to concern yourself with no creature whether material or spiritual nor with their situation and doings whether good or ill. To put it briefly, during this work you must abandon them all beneath the cloud of forgetting.[v]

Most that come to contemplation are plagued by what I refer to as popcorn mind. Every time I try to simply be quiet in God’s presence, all kinds of thoughts pop into my mind. Some of those thoughts are good thoughts about God, his love, his work, etc. With the author of The Cloud, we ask, “I don’t understand why you advise me to abandon them beneath a cloud of forgetting.”

The author answers his own question: “First of all, you want to know what kind of thoughts they are, pretending to be so helpful. To this I say: these are the clear ideas of natural intelligence which reason conceives in your mind. As to whether they are good or evil, I must insist that they are always good in themselves, for your intelligence is a reflection of the divine intelligence. But what you do with them may be either good or evil. Certainly they are good when with God’s grace they help you understand your sinfulness, the Passion of Christ, the kindness of God, or the marvels that he works throughout creation. But they become evil when, inflated by pride, intellectual curiosity, and egoism, they corrupt your mind.[vi]

“Of course, it is impossible in this life to see and possess God fully but with his grace and in his own time, it is possible to taste something of him as he is in himself. And so, with great longing for him, enter into this cloud. Or rather, I should say, let God awaken your longing and draw you to himself in this cloud while you strive with the help of his grace to forget everything else.”[vii]

The author goes on speaking about sin, humility, and perfection— all issues that those devoted to God must face in their lives. He talks about Mary and Martha and how Mary chose the best life. This he likens to entering the dark cloud of unknowing. “And so I say again to anyone who wants to become a real contemplative like Mary, let the wonderful transcendence and goodness of God teach you humility rather than the thought of your own sinfulness, for then your humility will be perfect. Attend more to the wholly otherness of God rather than to your own misery. And remember that those who are perfectly humble will lack nothing they really need, either spiritually or materially. God is theirs and he is all. Whoever possesses God, as the book attests, needs nothing else in this life.[viii]

“So then, take up the toil of the contemplative work with wholehearted generosity. Beat upon this high cloud of unknowing and spurn the thought of resting. For I tell you frankly that anyone who really desires to be a contemplative will know the pain of arduous toil….why is this work so toilsome? The labor, of course, is in the unrelenting struggle to banish the countless distracting thoughts that plague our minds and to restrain them beneath that cloud of forgetting which I spoke of earlier. This is the suffering. All the struggle is on man’s side in the effort he must make to prepare himself for God’s action, which is the awakening of love and which he alone can do. But persevere in doing your part and I promise you that God will not fail to do his.”[ix]

Throughout the whole of his book the author of The Cloud of Unknowing demonstrates a keen awareness of the devil, the fiend that tries to disturb the work of God within us. He cautions us to be wary of consolations that could be the work of a good angel or the work of the devil, but he also reminds us to trust ultimately in God’s goodness and truth: “Why is your security so insured? Because the source of authentic consolation is the reverent, loving desire that abides in a pure heart. This is the work of Almighty God wrought without recourse to techniques and therefore it is free of the fantasy and error liable to befall a man in this life.”[x]

The author spends five short chapters explaining terms commonly used in reference to the contemplative work. Mind, Reason, and Will being primary spiritual faculties, and two secondary faculties being Imagination and Feelings. He sees the “Mind as the comprehensive faculty which receives, sorts, and retains the knowledge acquired through the other four faculties. Since the Mind’s task is so different from that of the other faculties, it is not properly said to work but to understand.[xi] “Reason is the faculty which enables us to distinguish the bad from the good, the good from the better, etc…..After Reason has determined what is good, the Will moves toward it with love and desire and finally rests in it with satisfaction, delight, and full consent. Before original sin, man was in no danger of choosing and loving a false good ….But in the present order of things, man cannot consistently choose the good without the assistance of grace.”[xii]

“Before original sin, Imagination co-operated completely with Reason….now, however, this integrity of our nature is lost, and Imagination never ceases day or night to distort the image of material creatures, to create counterfeits of their spiritual essences or to conjure up fantasies of spiritual things in our minds. Without the help of grace, it is liable to great error.”[xiii]

Our author goes on following the network that includes Feelings as well and arrives, declaring that “ignorance of the spirit’s working powers may easily lead to error in misunderstanding instruction about contemplation; how a person is made almost divine through grace.”[xiv] “I say you have transcended yourself, becoming almost divine, because you have gained by grace what is impossible to you by nature, for this union with God in spirit, in love and in oneness of desire is the gift of grace….Yet, of course, you are not divine in the same way as God himself is; he without origin or end is divine by nature.”[xv]

The author draws to a close with renewed concern and admonition, stating as in the forward that The Cloud of Unknowing will not be for everyone. He did not write for the curious or disinterested. He wrote, rather, for those who sense the grace-filled call to this intimate prayer and work. “One of the most obvious and certain signs by which a person may know if he has been called to this work is the attitude he detects in himself when he has found again the lost gift of grace. For if after long delay and inability to do this work he feels his desire for it renewed with greater passion and a deeper longing of love—so much so that (as I often think) the sorrow he felt at its loss seems like nothing at all beside his joy at finding it again—he need have no fear of error in believing that God is calling him to contemplation, regardless of what sort of person he is now or has been in the past. It is not what you are, nor what you have been, that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be….May God give you and all who love him true peace, wise counsel, and his own interior joy in the fullness of grace. Amen”[xvi]

Reflection and Analysis

As a Seventh-day Adventist born and raised in the twentieth century, I was never introduced to the concept of contemplation. Only as I approached the age of fifty did I begin to articulate the spiritual longings of my heart. Until then, Ellen White was my only non-biblical source for spiritual reading. I would read her words but my heart only perceived them through a mid-twentieth century Adventist paradigm. Then suddenly I was introduced to the spiritual classics, one of which was The Cloud of Unknowing. Opening the front cover I found the directive I quoted above. I have read this volume two or three times since and each time I realize the wisdom of the unknown author’s directive. I also hear his words a little more deeply.

The Cloud of Unknowing is simply an invitation that comes with explicit direction to help me draw near to God, to open my heart to Him. I think of Jesus walking in the garden and calling, “Where are you?”[xvii] I hear the Psalmist voicing God’s words, “Be still and know that I am God.”[xviii]  Through John, I hear more words from Jesus, “I stand at the door and knock and if you open the door I will come in and sit down and eat with you.”[xix]  He simply asks for access to my busy life. And then in Hebrews, Paul declares our confidence to enter into the sanctuary, “draw near to the Great Priest,[xx] with full assurance of faith. Luke also sounds an assuring voice: “Times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”[xxi] Finally, I remember Jacques Doukhan telling us in Old Testament Theology class that the best Hebrew translation of “a still small voice”[xxii] is “the voice of a thick, dense, silence.”

In earlier life, I heard all these words as pieces of information I needed to know in order to “share the gospel.” In recent years I have learned to hear God’s invitation through the voices of these holy men of old. I’m still learning how to live my response to the invitation. It is so hard for me to nakedly enter the Presence of God, leaving behind all the needs/requests, the hurts/offenses, and even the flattering affirmations that my human heart clings to.[xxiii] I am just beginning to enter that Presence in humility, leaving behind the “wise” ideas I have for addressing the urgent issues of my day. It only happens when I allow the cloud of forgetting to be below me as I recognize the cloud of unknowing above me. It is in that space where my love relationship with God is nurtured. I begin to hear Him in the thick dense silence.

Why do I need the old mystics? How do they contribute to my life in the 21st century? Why is a thoughtful study of Scripture not enough to fill the longings of my soul?  I find the answers, well-articulated in words from the credo of Dag Hammarskjold:

“I found in the writings of those great Medieval mystics for whom “self-surrender” had been the way to self-realization, and who in “singleness of mind” and “inwardness” had found strength to say Yes to every demand which the needs of their neighbors made them face, and to say Yes also to every fate life had in store for them….Love. Love—that much misused and misinterpreted word—for them meant simply an overflowing of the strength with which they felt themselves filled when living in true self-oblivion. And this love found natural expression in an unhesitant fulfillment of duty and an unreserved acceptance of life, whatever it brought them personally of toil, suffering—or happiness.[xxiv]

Questions for Reflection

How much attention do I pay to the nagging longings in my heart?

Might those longings express God’s invitation for me to draw closer in intimacy with Him?


Delcy Kuhlman is founder and director of Still Waters Retreat Center in Buchanan, Michigan.

Art by Chris Fennell, 2011.

[i]    Chapter 5, Paragraph 3

[ii]   Acts 17:27 NASB

3 Chapter 3, first paragraph

[iv]  Chapter 3, last paragraph

[v]   Chapter 5, Paragraph 1

[vi]   Chapter 8, Paragraph 2

[vii]  Chapter 9, Paragraph 2

[viii] Chapter 23, Paragraph 3

[ix]  Chapter 26, Paragraphs 1 & 3

[x]   Chapter 48, Paragraph 2

[xi]   Chapter 63, Paragraph 1

[xii]  Chapter 64, Paragraphs 1 & 2

[xiii]  Chapter 65, Paragraph 1 In this reading, my Seventh-day Adventist mind catches on theological concepts held by the author that differ from my own understanding. i.e. original sin But in my imagination, I see Ellen White and this author nodding affirmatively as they talk together about these spiritual faculties.

[xiv]  Introduction to Chapter 67.  Here again I invite you to consider Jesus’ prayer (John 17:21 “even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in us”) before

[xv]  Chapter 67, Paragraph 3

[xvi]  Chapter 75, Paragraph 3 & 4

[xvii]   Genesis 3:9

[xviii]   Psalms 46:10

[xix]   Revelation 3:20

[xx]  Hebrews 10:19-22

[xxi]  Acts 3:19

[xxii]   1 Kings 19’12

[xxiii]   Some may recognize the similarity between The Cloud of Unknowing (and Forgetting) and Centering Prayer or Contemplative Prayer that one hears of today. In this time of great mis-understanding about prayer practices, I have been helped by reading, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault, Cowley Publications, Cambridge 2004.  I find implicit comparison to The Cloud of Forgetting in her chapter on Welcoming Prayer. I find that ‘welcoming prayer’ to be of utmost help in living a spiritually and emotionally balanced life. It truly helps me live God’s love for others.

[xxiv]  Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, Ballantine Books, 1983.

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