The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous (translated by Carmen Acevedo Butcher). Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2018.
Summary: A classic on contemplative prayer in a new modern translation.
The Cloud of Unknowing is perhaps one of the greatest works on contemplative prayer. We don’t know the author but it was written in the 14th century in Middle English. This edition is a re-publication of a 2009 translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher in an inexpensive paperback format.
It seems that many of the spiritual classics we read come to us in stuffy, Victorian English. Butcher’s translation strives for a simplicity and informality of conversation between a spiritual director and a directee, and this is one of the most winsome aspects of this work.
To give you both a sense of the work and the significance of the title, here is a brief passage in which the author describes the experience of beginning to contemplate:
“The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing. You won’t know what this is. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do. They will always keep you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your intellect and will block you from feeling him fully in the sweetness of love in your emotions. So be sure to make your home in the darkness.”
One of the critical themes running through the work, true to the apophatic tradition out of which it comes, is that God cannot be known with our minds but only in our love–“we can’t think our way to God.” Contemplation is best pursued according to this author by simple reflection on a single word–“sin” and “God” are the two commended to us. He discourages trying to attain an experience of God through the senses, and encourages dismissing both our thoughts and feelings into a “cloud of forgetting.”
What I found attractive in this work is its wisdom and sense. We are assured that longing for God is enough, as this will open us to a deeper understanding of God. He discourages strenuous physical exertions that enervate and weaken us. He stresses the value of pursuing our contemplation accompanied by a spiritual director. He identifies four stages of spiritual maturity, with no sense that one is “better” than another, but only reflect a progress in love for God:
- The ordinary which is our active life in the world
- The special, where one continues to live an active life but also longs for God and begins to contemplate.
- The singular is where contemplation becomes the focus of one’s life, praying without ceasing in love toward God.
- The perfect, where we are with God, as we pass from this life into God’s presence.
The work itself consists of 75 brief “chapters” often connected to one another, that seems especially fitted for devotional reading of one or a few chapters a day.
Butcher’s translation includes an introductory essay and recommendations for further reading, including renderings in the Middle English, works on English mysticism and Christian mysticism more broadly, as well as reference resources. Her notes also offer explanations for her translation and other helpful background.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.