We don’t know who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, the fourteenth-century classic work on contemplative prayer. We do know he was a priest or a monk of some kind, and this book is his advice to a twenty-four year old friend who wished to follow him on the path of mystical communion with God. In a world ravaged by plague and war, he wrote a guide to taking up permanent residence in divine peace, and his words are just as refreshing in our world.
“We cannot think ourselves to God, because God can be loved, but not thought.” This is the anonymous author’s thesis. He urges his readers to let their minds dwell only on God when they pray, to cover all earthly worries, dreams, pleasures, fears, and relationships with the eponymous “cloud of unknowing.” Wise, often witty, and sometimes very blunt, he provides step-by-step instructions on the methods of prayer that have worked for him and the type of relationship with God he feels is worth pursuing with all his heart. I’ve found this book, with its beautiful and very applicable lessons averaging a page in length, to be an excellent devotional, like daily letters from a loving mentor.
I’ll provide a few of my favorite quotes here, although I feel a bit funny doing so because the author begs his reader at the very beginning not to quote it, read it to others, or copy it in any way unless he’s sure those who listen or read the quotes are “ready to go to the next level, advancing beyond the active life to the highest contemplative life.” But if you’re reading this, that probably describes you, right? Anyway, this is one work I can never keep from sharing, and hopefully you’ll see why!
“Cheer up. Yes, you’re weak. And, yes, life is hard. Accept this, and then take a good hard look at yourself… You’re human, so watch out for that enemy, pride. Never think you’re holier or better than anyone else. Never confuse the worth of your calling with who you are.”
“Live up to your high calling by lowering yourself. Become more loving to your spiritual partner [God], never forgetting how he – almighty God, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords – chose to humble himself for you. He was so compassionate that he chose you from among his flock of sheep as one of his special disciples. He put you in his pasture to eat the sweetness of his love, letting you sample your eternal, heavenly inheritance.”
“Do [the work of prayer] until you feel the delight of it. In the trying is the desire. 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… Be sure you make your home in this darkness. Stay there as long as you can, crying out to him over and over again, because you love him. It’s the closest you can get to God here on earth, by waiting in this darkness and this cloud.”
“Thoughts will come. If you find yourself obsessed with one pressing down on you from above, trespassing between you and that darkness, and asking, ‘What are you looking for? What do you want?’ tell it that you want only God – ‘I crave God. I seek him and nothing else.'”
So, are you hooked yet? Are you looking for a copy of this book right now? You won’t regret it, especially on those days when your enthusiasm for prayer is sorely lacking; this book will be a shot in the arm of love, zeal, and determination.
A note on translation: All quotes above are taken from the fantastic 2009 translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher. While I definitely believe this book is worth reading in any translation (and some are available for free online), I’d especially encourage you to seek out this one. Butcher’s bold, playful, immensely readable modern English keeps the spirit of the original Middle English alive, and her many footnotes describe the delicious bits of wordplay she couldn’t directly translate. This translation is steeped in joy, the author’s joy in prayer and Butcher’s joy in the author’s character and command of language.
Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Lunchtime, conference room again. There’s something incredibly beautiful about praying in such a prosaic place, literally centering my busy day around 15 minutes of sacred silence.