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Cloud of Unknowing, The

Product no.: 0-385-03097-5
An authority on fourteenth-century spirituality provides an accessible introduction to the original Middle English text.

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Publisher's Synopsis

William Johnston, an authority on fourteenth century spirituality and specifically on the writings of this unknown author, provides a substantive and accessible introduction detailing what is known about the history of this text and its relevance throughout the Ages. Also included here is the author's other principal work The Book of Privy Counseling, a short and moving text on the way to enlightenment through a total loss of self and consciousness only of the divine. 

The Cloud of Unknowing is primarily concerned with how best to conduct one's interior life so that one can ultimately become one with the Beloved, or God. Purgation of earthly desires and material preoccupations is an important theme in the work, since those elements stand in the way of illumination, or knowledge of God.

However, the cloud of unknowing that the title refers to cannot be cleared away through knowledge alone, but only through love. By repeatedly and fervently invoking the simplest prayer, consisting wholly of a one-syllable word such as “love,” one can push aside the reasoning mind and other distractions that keep the believer from union with God.

The Cloud of Unknowing emphasizes a personal approach to God which, at the time it was written, was not condoned by the Roman Catholic Church. The writer of the treatise also cautions the reader to avoid false piety and sanctimoniousness and to always remain humble in his or her spritiual journey.

"Apophatic mysticism seeks to find the Holy at a level deeper (or higher) than any physical thing — or even beyond any word or mental image. For the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, this meant that God cannot be grasped by the intellect; he can only be approached in a context of profound humility and love. Therefore, The Cloud’s author advocates contemplation: prayer steeped not in language or the imagination, but in cultivated inner silence. The author describes at length the virtue of putting all thoughts, all images, all concepts beneath a metaphorical 'cloud of forgetting' found within, and then single-heartedly seeking to love God, without concept or control, allowing the naked intent of our love to flourish, even though God remains hidden from our finite awareness by a 'cloud of unknowing.'

To pierce that cloud, the author instructs the reader to send 'sharp darts' of 'longing love' — for while we may never fully know God, at least we are able to the best of our ability to love God. One remarkable feature of The Cloud of Unknowing is that it advocates the use of a single-syllable 'prayer word' to effectively discipline the mind and to keep it focused while the heart attempts to grow in its supramental task of loving God. This spiritual exercise involves repeating a short word like 'God' or 'love' repeatedly, in order to help surrender all extraneous thoughts and seek the place of inner silence, where one may 'be still and know' the God who is lavish love. This practice of using a prayer word has been adapted in our own day by the monks who developed the method of centering prayer, a form of meditation which again relies on the repeated single-syllable word as a tool of 'centering' or allowing the mind and body to come to a place of resting in the Divine presence."        ~Carl McColman, Patheos


"As for the worldly gossips, flatterers, the scrupulous, talebearers, busybodies and the hypercritical, I would just as soon they never laid eyes on this book. I had no intention of writing for them and prefer that they do not meddle with it."

A short exhortation to humility and to the work of contemplation.

"Take courage, now, and frail mortal though you are, try to understand yourself. Do you think you are someone special, or that you have deserved the Lord's favor? How can your poor heart be so leaden and spiritless that it is not continually aroused by the attraction of the Lord's love and the sound of his voice? Your enemy will suggest that you rest on your laurels. But be on your guard against this treachery of his. Do not be deceived into thinking that you are a holier or better person because of your great calling or because you have progressed to the Singular way of life.

On the contrary, you will be a most pathetic and culpable wretch unless, with God's grace and proper guidance, you do all in your power to live up to your calling. Far from being conceited, you ought to be all the more humble and devoted to your heavenly Lord when you consider that he, the Almighty God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, has stooped so low as to call you. For out of all his flock he has lovingly chosen you to be one of his special friends. He has led you to sweet meadows and nourished you with his love, strengthening you to press on so as to take possession of your heritage in his kingdom."   ~Chapter 2

Editor Johnston, William
Author Anonymous
Book Type Trade Paperback
Page Count 195 pp.
Publisher Image Books 1996
Gold Medal

Gold Medal


  Gold Medal Essential Reading

Browse these categories as well: Mystic and Esoteric Christianity, The Church: Doctors, Saints and Mystics, Christian Classics: Ancient and Modern, Western Prayer and Contemplation, Masterworks of the Western Mystery Tradition, Gold Medal Essential Reading

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