All material in this document that is quoted and not cited are quotations from Carmen Acevedo Butcher's translation of The Cloud of Unknowing.
“The mind is always distorting, reframing, 'clouding' what we can see."
"In an attempt to achieve union, I must leave all the things I can think, to love the thing I cannot think."
The cloud was written by an anonymous author. While we do not know his name, he is known to be a fourteenth century English mystic, theologian and spiritual friend. It is considered a work of mystical genius. He took the framework of his philosophy from Dionysius the Areopagite, and his psychology from Richard of St. Victor. Yet it is not considered a copy of either but a new element in medieval literature.
He was most likely influenced by Gregory of Nyssa who insisted that God cannot be grasped by the mind and by the sixth century Syrian Monk, Pseudo-Dionysius who contends that the abandonment of the understanding is required to enter the final stage of mystical contemplation in favor of the will and affectivity. God is even beyond personhood, he uses the phrase “not sonship, or fatherhood”, labels, relations, even genders becomes irrelevant. In his system we see a three fold analogy “sensible, intelligible, and mystical”, the first two affirm God and are kataphatic, using “properties of creatures” to describe and understand Him. The third, mystical, is apophatic, denying that
The author offers a practical technique for moving beyond illumination to union. The chapters read like spiral teaching where topics are covered in different depth with the same point coming back around later with a different warning or a deeper meaning. The chapters alternate, irregularly, through instruction, warnings, encouragements, description of the benefits of the effort, and various insights.
When this was written, in the fourteenth century, there was crop failure and famine, and the Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population. During that time there were social upheavals. There were power struggles between and among various levels of church and state. In both church and state, it seemed everything was for sale.
I think that the time period that this was written, in the midst of misuse of power in religion, politics, separation and exclusion through use of literal interpretations of scripture, we have body of work that seeks to challenge us, in our time, to connect with a unifying, all encompassing, love that transcends human constructs.
Maio Tsan writes, in his book, Just Use This Mind , “I had the opportunity to see firsthand the differences between Eastern and Western Cultures, and I was able to perceive their respective shortcomings. In the process, I observed that many religious groups hold so tightly to their traditions that their attempts to spread a spiritual message end up creating more discrimination and biases than do the efforts of non-religious groups. This situation not only thwarts the original intent of their traditions, but it also contributed to the emergence of wars and conflicts that have burdened humanity. And, ultimately, it casts doubt on the very purpose of religion.”
“All our experiences are the reflection of our mind’s functioning.”
“Human beings hypnotize themselves unconsciously: Every habitually created thought deepens our own belief. It solidifies the same door, the same experiences, the same relationships and the same issues, so that we live in a state of amnesia, a dream-like illusion.”
Maio Tsan also states, “Life is the most profound learning experience, but we can only remove the obstructions and create a better, more fulfilling life when the right doors are open.”
“All human beings attempt to make the world conform to their ideas, but at the same time we depend on our faulty ideas and limited experience to handle the problems in our lives. Because our attachment to these ideas causes confusion in a dualistic existence, most of us lead lives that are busy, chaotic, and unsatisfying.”
“To move from this chaos toward freedom, the first thing we have to do is correct how we think and get rid of our attachment to our old, erroneous ideas.”
The author of cloud is telling us that it is time to wake up and that we do this by unknowing this consciousness. We let go of our story, our habits, our thoughts, our visions, we put it all under the cloud of unknowing. This is how we wake up.
Who is willing to attempt to love sacred mystery unconditionally, to attempt to be still in union? Only someone who is willing and able to let go of their humanness and its judging, comparing, knowing, analyzing, strategizing, feeling, wanting, belonging, believing, expecting, hoping, and even longing.
The message I deemed from the study of the cloud was that anyone that is ready and pulled into darkness and is capable of trying on a regular basis will begin to feel a shift, one that cannot be expressed in words or even art. It is a matter purely of the heart. It is a presence that floats formless above each moment and surrounds each interaction.
Group meditation on love –lead the group on the fullness and inexplicable nature of love.
Think of a time when you felt the most fullness of love. First seek to really experience the fullness of love and do not let my words interfere with your experience. Let your mind and body relax into the sensations that are brought up by recalling this fullness. Focus as little as you can on your thoughts about the experience and let your body recall the sensations. Write down a description of this group of sensations on your paper. Recall the sensation again and see if your description was adequate. There is a reason we describe divine love in metaphor, words are not enough. Our intellect and creativity are not enough to comprehend the source of this love either.
“Whenever we hear or read about something that our body’s superficial senses cannot describe to us in any way, we can be sure that this thing is spiritual and not physical.”
As we move into the work of the Cloud of Unknowing we begin to attempt to deepen into oneness with the sacred that none of these words will be able to describe. It is as if we can only build a relationship by removing all building blocks. We are not equipped to comprehend this. It is by doing, thinking, and feeling nothing that we are able to be with everything and everywhere.
“It sounds so simple but it can only be done through the grace given by the One who knows us best and loves us most.”
“To see God fully as himself cannot happen through knowing, only through loving.”
The author suggests that our human intellect, no matter how powerful and our creativity, no matter how extraordinary, are not capable of comprehending the nature of God.
The worst of our imaginings can portray a violent and punishing God.
Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Even our best of imagination, creativity, divinely inspired art cannot portray Sacred Mystery accurately. We are not capable of perceiving that measure of beauty, compassion, love,………… I can’t even begin to use words here to make my point.
Energy follows attention. The only true choice we have is what we pay attention to. Even when we manage to pull our attention into the present moment, we focus on information that is subject to our filters. In the practice the author suggests, we allow that energy to flow as much as possible back into the source.
“Time is made for man and not man for time. Moments are the most indivisible and most pure and at the same time infinite. Why waste a single one not attempting to achieve Union?”
This strikes me as a challenge not only to dedicate more time to centering, but also to become more mindful of the moments that make up everyday situations, in our ordinary lives. As simply as Jim Carrey described at the Maharishi University commencement speech, “all that will ever be is what’s happening here, in the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.”3 He urges the graduates to be present to this choice and choose love.
I think that he’s describing and suggesting living a contemplative life. When the author of the cloud talks about the importance of ceasing “doing” in favor of “being” he compares the work of Mary and the work of Martha as an illustration for how we may contribute to Sacred Mystery through love.
Luke 10:38-42The Message (MSG)
Mary and Martha
38-40 As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.”
41-42 The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”
The author writes, “Mary’s work was the “best part” because no matter how much Martha does, even though it is good and vital here, it will never reach God, because it serves nothing in the realm of heaven, there is no need for the works of mercy, no need to mourn our sinfulness or grieve the Passion of Christ. Unlike now, there will be no hungry, no thirsty, deathly cold, sick, homeless, imprisoned or needing burial. He didn’t want Mary to stop doing her work even to defend herself, because in the realm of God, there is no work to do in defending as there is nothing to defend. The only thing that is worth anything in heaven, that is useful, is love. That is the one thing that transcends. It is the only work that continues.”
When he gives instructions about how to sit with Sacred Mystery, he suggests,
“When letting go of your thoughts, sensations, desires, invite the union with a simple word. Choose a word that is quick and immediate to plea to God. Something with the intensity of the little word, “FIRE”
Centering Prayer is the practice that I am aware of that is closest to the suggestions proposed by the author of the Cloud.
When we practice centering prayer, we are attempting to practice letting go or not attaching ourselves to the thoughts and body sensations that pop up during our practice. We repeat a word that is an invitation to open ourselves to sacred mystery. When our mind races, when we are struggling with “monkey mind”, we are given so many opportunities to invite the sacred. We are not searching for aha moments, images, or divine experiences of any sort, it is the sensation of floating in emptiness that is the deepening relation we are seeking.
Here are the instructions we use before our 20 minute group centering prayer here on Sunday mornings, from David Frenette’s book, The Path of Centering Prayer, Deepening your experience with God.
1. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of God’s presence and action within.
3. When engaged with your thoughts (which include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections), return ever so gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.”
We may also use welcoming prayer to help us remember the intent, to help us move into our practice of letting go.
Father Thomas Keating says
“Welcoming Prayer is the practice that actively
lets go of thoughts and feelings that support the
false-self system. It embraces painful emotions
experienced in the body rather than avoiding
them or trying to suppress them. It does not
embrace the suffering as such but the presence
of the Holy Spirit in the particular pain, whether
physical, emotional, or mental. Thus, it is the full
acceptance of the content of the present moment.
[In] giving the experience over to the Holy Spirit,
the false-self system is gradually undermined
and the true self liberated.”
Welcome, welcome, welcome
I welcome everything that comes to me in this moment because I know is it ifor my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, persons, situations and conditions.
I let go of my desire for security.
I let go of my desire for approval.
I let go of my desire for control.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person, or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God and the healing action of grace within.
If we try what the author of the cloud suggests, then we let go of everything we know and are capable of comprehending in order to seek union with Sacred Mystery. I think this is one of the most difficult things to accept in our culture. We are taught from very early on that the measure of our success, our value, is based in doing, not in being.
While active forms of prayer, justice and action are needed, it is when we give ourselves, our doing and our being to loving that we enter a different realm. What if we let our actions come from THAT place.
No matter how extravagant and grandiose our visions of God may be, they are human constructs that bind the limitless and formlessness of Sacred Mystery. We become attached to our constructs. Our constructs constrict the Holy. At worst, we begin to worship our constructs and they separate us from each other and from union with all that truly is but can’t be described, identified, or even named in any way.
Here are some statements made in the Cloud:
“Although it is good to think of God and all his goodness, it is better to think of the naked being of Him and love and praise Him for Himself.”
Have you ever thought of loving God unconditionally? We question his presence when we suffer, we praise him when we are fulfilled. How often do we sit with him and love without conditions?
“A mature contemplative has no special relationship with anyone whether stranger, family, enemy or friend.”
When we reach this state of continuation, unity, radical compassion and connection with others, there is no separation. If you are able to see everyone as a continued being one with each other, one with the Sacred, how would you possibly be able to intentionally harm any of it?
“The three steps to prepare for this are, read or listen to God’s word, reflect on it, then real prayer can start.”
“An ‘excess’ of contemplation teaches self-control in every other activity.”
“Many of us are prone to literal interpretations of spiritual realities. If I were to say show your heart’s desires to God, I’m afraid you would try articulating them to God like you would to a friend, in a human way with words and gestures. That would only make your contemplation worldly. When we show them to God we must take a different approach.”
“When you succeed in forgetting everything and everyone, even yourself and all you’ve done, you are left with God and the naked feeling of who you are. You must even let go of this to experience perfection in contemplation, or love.”
“If you want to find your soul, look at what you love, that’s where your soul lives, just as it lives in your body, giving it life. And that’s why when want to go to heaven spiritually, we don’t need to strain our spirits in any direction, up or down or from one side to another. Whenever we love, we’re already there.”
“If you do this right, you will end “nowhere” physically and “everywhere” spiritually. For I would rather be nowhere physically, wrestling with this obscure nothing, than be a powerful rich lord, able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, always amusing myself with every “something” that I own. So abandon this “everywhere” and “something” in exchange for this infinitely more valuable nowhere and nothing.”
“That’s where our five senses end, our spiritual experience begins, and where our spiritual understanding ends, we begin knowing God through grace, as best we can on earth.”
“Often it is the worst sinners, that have been horrible that come sooner to the perfection of this way. This is a merciful miracle of our Lord, to the wondering of all this world.”
“Do not judge others, judge their actions, but not the man.”
“Sometimes a ray of divine light will pierce through the cloud and you will feel intense love, and indescribable feeling.”
(in practice) “When your thoughts overcome you and you are exhausted from fighting them, let them win, fall at their feet, it may surprise you that you become supple. You are simply seeing yourself for who you are, worse than nothing. This is humility. This is the place God meets you and saves you like a father saves his small child.” 15
“Move past remorse before starting this work. Cleanse your conscience first. Confess and make amends, as the Church teaches, then you can humbly commit yourself boldly to the work you have been preparing for a long time.”
“The burden of the self can lead to not caring what happens to it. But nowhere in this sorrow should you ever wish to not be. We are meant to be grateful for the gift of life. But it is also OK to wish with every moment that you could lose your awareness and feeling of your own being.”
“The contemplative beginner must engage in certain exercises; the lesson, the meditation and the orison, in other words, the reading, reflecting, and praying.”
I found these statements to help me frame my conversion experience. I’d like to share it with you.
In 2007, I found myself in a familiar place, in complete darkness,
I was more afraid to live than afraid to die.
In a dramatic, I like to think, early, mid-life crisis, I fell apart one night after a rapid descent which left a list of sins laid strung out behind me. Sins you may relate to a mid-life crisis and a litany of others. I’ve come to understand sin as anything and everything that separates us from divine love within ourselves, within others, and with the source. Luckily for me, literally at a crossroads in downtown Houston, I was overwhelmed with a presence that only appeared when I had more completely given up on my being than I can describe. While I consider this darkness, a preparation for ending my life, a place I’ve been a few times in my life, this was where my journey took a turn towards a more contemplative life. As the Cloud author describes, I was “struck by a divine light.” I had completely lost my sense of self, and was in the middle of an ego reboot. I suddenly had more will to live, I suddenly felt fearless in the face of life rather than fearless in the face of death. In reading the Cloud of Unknowing, I see that I wasn’t lead directly into contemplative practice, but through the process of radical compassion, forgiveness, and grace that would be needed before I would be able to safely enter this nothingness with eyes, heart, and mind prepped to receive and give love. What I mean is that soon after this experience, I read the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler
6 times. We started attending Ordinary Life, Barbara Burr recited part of the Desiderata
, telling me that everything was unfolding as it should. That struck me like a divine light. I met with a Jungian analyst regularly and I met Rev. Holly Ebel here in Ordinary Life. They both became spiritual directors to me. They listened me into wholeness and acceptance. I had been too attached to my pain and suffering in my perceptions of myself, my family, the church, especially attached to the use of shame, guilt, and fear as my main motivators. They listened and loved me onto my path. With their influence, I was able to hear Dr. Kerley
, to read Richard Rohr’s daily meditations
, read The Daily Reader
with Thomas Keating, and to learn centering prayer with Rev. Gail Williford, Judy Leatherwood Smith, and our centering prayer community. My husband miraculously showed me radical forgiveness, compassion, and love. We worked together reconstructing our egos, as both were almost too broken to function, redefining our marriage, recommitting to our family. We attended all the workshops we could take in, Enneagram
, Nonviolent Communication
, and Bill and Sherry’s Being One
marriage workshop. In each of these and in between, I grew into an awareness of my purpose. Deepening into meaning, I hope to share all of these resources and listen deeply to the soul of others, the sacred we are all part of. In studying to become a spiritual director, I found myself studying the Cloud of Unknowing. Sharing this seems to be one of the full circles I’ve been fortunate enough to dance through.
From this darkness, came a kind of love and acceptance I can only hope to contribute back to sacred mystery. The only way I know how to do that is in contemplation, getting as close to losing myself and my humanity as much as humanly possible in lightness as I did in darkness.
This is why I study the Enneagram
, Emotional Intelligence
, and practice NVC
and Centering Prayer
because these tools help me grow in awareness of the thought patterns that can automatically make choices for me. Practice not only enhances our relationship with Sacred Mystery, but it is a practice of helping us become aware of our true nature when we are living our ordinary lives. They help me recognize and differentiate my thoughts and filters from my true nature. Because I am still a novice, these tools mostly help me learn from when I have been swept away so that I can consciously bring myself back to awareness and reconnect to my true self and with Sacred Mystery. If I perceive that my reactions cause others suffering, I come from a place of love when attempting to reconnect with others. Or many times, that happens naturally out of calm connected love.
Above all in the cloud and under the cloud of forgetting is love, one love. I suspect that in order to rest in it as close to unconditional love for the sacred and all others that are part of this as possible, we must be floating in the cloud of constant longing and pulling of Sacred Mystery into the realm on loving him for himself. With our hearts on this, we will be in a genuine state of not judging any of the creations, their work, actions, or reactions but listening with open minds, open hearts, and open hands as much as humanly possible.
If you are drawn to the work, I encourage you to find someone that will listen you into your journey and love you into being while you deepen your practice of reading, reflecting, and praying into the indescribable unknowing.
Are you willing to stop (your) doing long enough to love the Divine into (your) being?
You carry precious cargo, so watch your step.
by Max Ehrmann
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.
© Max Ehrmann 1927
Works and Resources Cited
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14 Ehrmann, Max. Desiderata. Los Angeles: Brooke House, 1972. Print.
15 Butcher, Carmen Acevedo. The Cloud of Unknowing: With the Book of Privy Counsel. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2009. Print.
16 Underhill, Evelyn. The Cloud of Unknowing. Kila, MT: Kessinger Pub., 2004. Print.
17 Gallacher, Patrick J. Introduction. The Cloud of Unknowing. Kalamazoo Mich: Medieval Institute Publications Western Michigan U, 1997. N. pag. Print.