I just finished reading Clifton Wolters’ 1961 translation of The Cloud of Unknowing for Penguin Classics. Since 1961, there has been a new Penguin translation by A. Spearing. I see on Amazon at least six other translations into modern English besides Evelyn Underhill’s popular edition. Reviews of this book are almost all pure adulation and recommendation. People love The Cloud of Unknowing.
Now, I am not anti-Cloud of Unknowing. But I do wonder how many of us are its target audience.
Although the book has some practical advice for contemplative prayer, it is also clear that the person who is urged to beat at the cloud of unknowing is seeking to enter into the higher of two levels of contemplative life, to which few ever ascend. It is also clear that most people live in the active life, and that entering this higher level of the contemplative life is a gift of grace. Not everyone is called or suited, and you can meet God in other ways and be holy in the active life as well as in the lower level of the contemplative life.
Now, the author of The Cloud is right in saying that since this is the result of grace, not of our own doing, it may require only a moment of work. We may, the instant we begin, receive the grace in contemplation that so many of us seek. But the author also describes what sounds like a more common journey — from a life of discipline and charitable works up to the lower level of contemplation — which is also the higher level of the active life — before ascending to this highest level of the ascetic-contemplative life.
I suppose I fear that many of us, many of the writers of glowing reviews, set aside some time for what we call “contemplative prayer” and follow some of the advice given in The Cloud without pursuing fasting, long periods of meditation on Scripture, giving away excess personal goods, wearing a simple wardrobe, eating plain food, following the advice of a spiritual director/father, engaging in acts of mercy and charity, et cetera.
If we are not pursuing the active life, are we ready to try the contemplative life?
Now, maybe more people are doing these things than I suspect. If so, this is great. And maybe more people receive the grace of contemplation without effort than I imagine. If so, this is great. However, if I am right, I hope that we will all start taking seriously the disciplined life as much as the contemplative life. There are no short cuts to holiness most of the time. There’s no such thing as “40 days to mountain top experiences of God.” God lives with us in the valleys and he helps us climb those mountains.
Remember that a likely original audience for this work was a person considering becoming a Carthusian! The guys who take a vow of silence. Remember that most of the great mystical works of the Middle Ages were written by monks and hermits like St Bernard, St Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, and St Thomas of Kempen. Whatever flowering of mysticism they may have encountered, they also lived the disciplined life of asceticism.
So, although there is profit in The Cloud of Unknowing, and I would recommend it to people interested in the western mystical tradition, I think most of us need to read some more ascetic books because, as easy as this one feels sometimes, I think it is beyond us.