What is meant by “Cloud of Unknowing”

Yesterday, my son — two years and ten months old — looked at my copy of The Cloud of Unknowing and asked, “What’s that purple thing, Daddy?”

“That’s a cloud,” I said,

“Why, Daddy?” he asked. (I think that if he persevered and I had the stamina, we could someday reach, “Because God created the universe.”)

“Do you remember the story about Moses, how he went up the mountain to meet with God, and God gave him the Ten Commandments? Well, when Moses met with God in the mountain, God came to him in a cloud…”

At this point, he slipped down out of my lap and exited the conversation.

My own slow progress in The Cloud of Unknowing is mostly talking about how we need to clear our minds of all thoughts but God Himself — even good ones — in order to beat at the cloud of unknowing and encounter God. However, the use of this image is as old as Exodus — and, in theological literature, at least as old as St Gregory of Nazianzus and his best friend’s little brother, St Gregory of Nyssa. Alas, my copy of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses is locked away with most of my books. His approach is much the same as that of the elder St Gregory.

St Gregory of Nazianzus writes, in the Second Theological Oration (Oration 28):

What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; (Exodus 33:23) although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then shall you discourse of God; even were thou a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; (Exodus 4:2) even were thou caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, (2 Corinthians 12:2) and had heard unspeakable words; even were thou raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.

St Gregory of Nazianzus goes on to discuss the incomprehensibility of God which is the spiritual meaning of Moses ascending into the Cloud on Mount Sinai and encountering God there. Interestingly, this essentially “mystical” foundation of St Gregory’s theological enterprise is what allows him to lay out his more philosophical and systematic discussions of theology — it sets out the boundaries of the playing field. There is only so much we can know. And our formulations about God are not God Himself, who is unknowable as to His nature itself.

The saintly bishop from Nazianzus also maintains, in the chapter before this one, that only people who have attained a certain level of perfection are able to enter the Cloud and engage in contemplation and meet with God. He does not cite it, giving instead a spiritual understanding of the various persons and animals and their relationship to Mount Sinai in Exodus, but the Scriptural foundation for such thinking would be Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The Cloud of Unknowing would concur.

Some may think that this sort of approach is elitist. It certainly can be. It may also, however, be humble. Who is truly pure in heart? What makes us think that, apart from an inner transformation effected by God in His unmerited favour towards us, we are able to theologise clearly? The Gregories’ contemporaries in the Desert say that the monk must become all eye, and their elder brother from Syria, St Ephrem, speaks of the luminous eye and the need to have our sight purified.

I think that theology, mission, and asceticism all go hand in hand. Perhaps the failures of contemporary western Christianity stem from how so many of us compartmentalise them or focus on only one — evangelism without theology, book smarts without holiness, pure living without telling others about Jesus. The ideal, if not the lived reality, of the ancient church was a holistic embodiment of all three.

Can we do that today?

Boundaries and making disciples

One of the things I think about sometimes is the relationship between personal discipleship and making disciples (evangelism). One of the passages I often dwell on, and which I’ve blogged before, is the passage from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People about the arrival of Augustine and his companions in Kent in 597. Normally, I think on this passage in terms of the fact that these are a bunch of monks who succeed in making disciples of a good number of English people in Kent.

Today, I am thinking more about the straightforward evangelism bit of the story. First, if we look at Book 1, ch. 25, these people were up-front with what they were there for. They weren’t pretending to be something other than bearers of good news. Second, their first real sermon before King Aethelbert was preached at his invitation. In 1.26, we learn that “they preached the word of life to as many as they could” — open-air preaching? Later in the chapter, they are given a disused, Roman-era church. Presumably a lot of preaching happened there. Unbelievers have always been welcome at the preaching portion of a Christian service.

Their lifestyle and this preaching led to many being baptised.

In Acts, it also seems most of the preaching is done open-air or to people who are asking for it.

This aspect of ancient and medieval evangelism strikes me as important when we consider the boundaries of our friends and family who have not placed their faith in the Triune God. It does so particularly because today I read this piece entitled, “Christianity Has a Major Boundary Problem.” I do not agree with a lot of the author’s analysis, and he, a deconverted Southern Baptist, demonstrates in that piece a certain lack of knowledge of the Great Tradition and suchlike. I also feel that when Americans talk about “conservative evangelical Christianity,” my conservative evangelical Anglican Canadian parents are not what they have in mind.

Anyway, I think the article is worth reading because it shows us how a certain amount of standard evangelical practice is taken and how it goes down. Many take “preach the Gospel in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2) to mean that you can talk at people about Christianity whenever you want, and if they would rather you change the subject, keep on going, since you never know if that seed of social rudeness — I mean, the Gospel — might take root.

It is worth noting that I know atheists and hard-line skeptics and agnostics who behave just as badly as the Christians described in the article every time they meet a professing Christian.

I would like to say that I enjoy having conversations about the Christian faith with those who don’t believe. Some of them ask for it. Sometimes it — honestly — is part of the natural turn of conversation. However, I think we need to realise that a dinner party or getting together for coffee with a friend is not the same thing as what we see in Acts nor is it what Augustine and his forty monks did in Canterbury.

If they had private conversations, as we see sometimes in Acts, it was with willing partners.

That is to say, I think we need to actually become friends with people or pray for actual, natural openings for the Gospel. Sometimes these natural openings just fall into your lap — like a student I met at a party in Germany who learned what I researched and wanted to talk about the supernatural. Or the man I had dinner with once in Rome; conversations in Rome often turn at least to Catholicism, and people frequently express their skepticism about the Christian faith in response to what they see at the Vatican. Such moments, if taken respectfully, are evangelistic gold. I found myself talking about the wonders of grace in the Christian Gospel.

Not that I have talked to either of those people since. Nonetheless, the opportunities were real. I did not engineer them, nor did I just start talking about Christianity in the face of an unwilling conversation partner.

You would think we wouldn’t have to keep reminding ourselves of treating people with dignity, of treating friends as real friends (and not simply as potential converts, no matter how badly we wish to see them enlivened by the Holy Spirit). After all, what I’m talking about here has been termed “friendship evangelism”, as seen in the classic 1979 book Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World by Rebecca Manley Pippert. It’s been 14 or 15 years since I read that book, but as I imagine “friendship evangelism”, it’s pretty basic:

  1. Make actual friends with other people.
  2. Don’t hide the fact that you are a Christian.
  3. Talk to them about spiritual things when it’s relevant.
  4. Love them and support them and be there for them regardless of how much or little they want or allow you to talk about Christianity.

Maybe some of us forget that fourth one. So a final thought about boundaries: Make yourself worthy of sharing your deep beliefs with your friends who do not agree with you. Be a real friend to them. Love them.

The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.

In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.

At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.

I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)

But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?

I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:

  1. Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
  2. Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)

The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.

When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?

Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.

How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.

Contemplation and mission

A conversation I was having with a student today reminded me of the importance of that unpopular, old-fashioned idea of ‘evangelism’. The conversation headed in the direction of a belief that people of the far-right, hate-mongers and suchlike, should be stopped from assembling. I expressed my belief that no speech, excite incitement to violence, should be outlawed. I feel this way partly out of a concern that if they stop the racists from speaking and assembling, who will be next? And when will they come knocking on Father Raphael’s door?

I also expressed, in the course of this conversation, my belief that the problem isn’t legislation but the human heart. You can’t legislate evil away.

And so my thoughts about the need for mission arose from this context in two main ways.

First, how can we speak the truth of Gospel into a culture that thinks ‘dangerous speech’ should be banned?

Second, how can we, as Christians, actually see the transformation of the wicked human heart that we all desire?

I no longer know the answer to the first, for I have grown frozen in speaking Gospel.

The second relates to actually making disciples, so is related to the first.

Nonetheless, I was reminded of the need to bring the Gospel to a hurting, broken world.

And all of this ties into the title of this post because I sometimes get a feeling from some corners of the Interwebs that Christians can be drawn into the mystical, contemplative, liturgical traditions of the Church as part of a reaction against some of the spiritual toxicity that is out there in some parts of evangelicalism.

And what I feel like I see sometimes is a retreat not simply from things like politics (which may be a good thing) but from God-talk altogether. Christian spirituality becomes therapy for me, and is spoken of as therapy for a broken world, but without actually engaging in the dreaded discipline of talking to other humans about the Gospel and God of grace, how are we really healing that broken world?

I am guilty of this to some degree, although I resist ‘mysticism as therapy’ as best I can.

My theory has always been that if we engage in spiritual disciplines, we will love God more, look like Him more, and be more comfortable as who we are. As a result, we will be able to speak Gospel to a broken, hurting world, a world that includes both racists and those who want to legislate against dangerous speech.

Question: Can someone give me evidence of this working for them?

St Cuthbert: Action & contemplation in Northumbria

Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe

Today is the Feast of St Cuthbert. Not only is my office a two-minute walk from the tomb of the Venerable Bede (d. 735), it is also about the same distance from that of St Cuthbert (d. 687),* whose life Bede wrote a few times — once in verse, once in prose, and once as part of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. So before my thoughts on contemplation and action really get biblical, they’re going to be historical.

I’ve blogged on St Cuthbert before, and I’ve had an accidental (providential?) tendency to follow him around. St Cuthbert started his contemplative career as a monk of Melrose (which I’ve visited), and one of his duties while holding office in the monastery was preaching in the countryside. It is extremely likely that the country folk of what is now southern Scotland in the mid-600s were still practising whatever Anglo-Saxon paganism was.** So evangelism was part of his monastic career from fairly early on.

Remember that the professed goal of monasticism is to go off and spend time in intentional community (or entirely alone) and pray, seeking purity of heart and freedom from the passions so that you can get to know God better. What’s interesting is how few monks ever get to spend all that time alone; too many of them end up helping others. Indeed, the missionaries of Britain from both the Continent and Ireland were monks. Monk missionaries are a thing.

Worth contemplating. 😉

Later, St Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne, which was the episcopal see for the Kingdom of Northumberland. His job was the care of souls as well as the management of the monastery on Holy Island. He oversaw the introduction of the Rule of St Benedict on Lindisfarne. His life of contemplation remained wedded to a life of service and action.

Even later, St Cuthbert became a hermit on an island called Inner Farne and had little desire to spend time with anybody but the local birds and Jesus. The hermit’s life is meant to be a life of single-minded devotion to Jesus and cultivation hesychia, or peacefulness/stillness. People still brought their problems to him, though.

St Cuthbert is Northumbria’s biggest hit. He was so popular that, when local unrest and a few Viking raids made the monks leave Lindisfarne, they brought St Cuthbert (and King St Oswald’s head) with them, eventually depositing him in their new cathedral on the rocky peninsula that is Durham. Lots of miracles of one sort or another are attributed to his relics and to visions of him and suchlike.

In 1104, the tomb was opened and a very laborious inventory made, described by Symeon of Durham — including St Cuthbert’s undecayed body.

Anyway, for us today, we should consider this dual life of St Cuthbert — the preaching and praying. The contemplation and action. The monasticism and mission. The evangelism and eremetism. I believe that this sort of radical commitment to the love of God through prayer and meditation, coupled with love to neighbour through preaching and acts of mercy, is what will fuel the new evangelisation of Europe.

Not choral evensong. Not the latest light show on the stage. Not ‘relevant’ sermons. Not making church feel less ‘churchy’. Not more gospel tracts. Not better gospel tracts. Not contemporary Christian music. Not organ concerts. Not serving fairtrade coffee after church.

Contemplation and mission.

*Actually, in terms of straightforward proximity, I am closer to Cuthbert than Bede, but because one enters Durham Cathedral from the back, and Bede is buried near the narthex but Cuthbert in the amubulatory, Bede is closer in terms of walking distance.

**We know very little because, although they loved writing almost as soon as they converted to Christianity, Anglo-Saxons did not love writing about their pagan past. And, since the Old Norse Eddic poetry and sagas are about as far in time from St Cuthbert as St Cuthbert is from Jesus, they are actually less helpful than you’d think.

Liturgy and evangelism/mission

One reason, I suspect, why some evangelical Anglicans have dropped liturgy is a desire to engage the culture around them, to be more evangelistic, to be missional, to make disciples. The storyline thus goes that liturgy, whether Common Worship or the BCP, is not relevant to our post-Christian culture, and Sunday morning must be made accessible to the unchurched ‘seeker’ who may wander in or who has been invited by a friend.

Thus, make church look as little like ‘church’ as possible.

If my initial premiss is correct, it is worth noting that even a ‘seeker-friendly’ church service will still, in fact, look nothing like any ‘normal’ event your unchurched ‘seeker’ has ever been to. Prayers of any sort are not part of the secular culture. Preaching, Bible reading, singing songs led by a guitarist, shaking hands with strangers — none of these things is part of a normal event that I can think of, except for those ‘humanist’ churches that have consciously modelled themselves after Christian worship.

The ‘seeker-friendly’ church service thus fails, anyway.

Nonetheless, the concern is, to a degree, valid: How can we help the curious unbeliever find Jesus and be part of the Sunday morning worship event? How can we worship God in a way that does not simply leave the uninitiated confused?

Liturgy need not leave the unchurched or non-Christian visitor bewildered or turned off.

To keep our focus on the Eucharistic liturgy (or ‘Holy Communion’ or ‘the Lord’s Supper’), I have seen churches that print out leaflets with marginal notes to help those unfamiliar with liturgy to understand what is going on. Liturgy itself is no longer an obstacle to the unbeliever.

Not only that, the liturgy itself is a recapitulation, a symbolic (with all the weight of symbolon in Greek) re-enactment of the Gospel as well as a prefiguration of the heavenly banquet we all look forward to. We evangelicals like to proclaim the Gospel that is Christ crucified for us. In word and action, the Eucharistic liturgy brings to the mind this very Gospel we love to preach. And it does so in words almost entirely drawn from Scripture.

The Canadian BAS and the BCP (and, I assume, Common Worship) include penitent confession as well as a proclamation of absolution through Christ’s redeeming death on the Cross. The ‘Comfortable Words’ of 1662 (a series of Bible verses about repentance and forgiveness) are a proclamation of God’s willingness to forgive the repentent sinner as powerful as any Billy Graham Crusade, I would argue.

Moreover, in a BCP service of Holy Communion, there are at least two Bible readings; if it is preceded by Morning Prayer, increase that to four plus a Psalm(s)! We evangelicals believe that the word of God is living and active — it can cut to the quick and save souls, can it not? And if it can be obscure, is that not what the homily is for?

Add to this the rich tradition of evangelical hymnody that proclaims in beautiful verse the Gospel of Christ crucified.

I truly believe that a service of Holy Communion done with clarity and even a little guidance is not only not a hindrance to the unbelieving visitor but proclaims the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Finally, while there may be some who would be turned off by liturgy of any sort, there are others in our culture who are drawn to symbol and sacrament and turned off by touchy-feely, folksy church services. If we are to be utilitarian about liturgy, why reject our Anglican heritage in the name of evangelism, doing things in a way that will actually keep some unbelievers (let alone folks like me, who seem not to matter) from returning?

This is why it saddens me to see evangelical Anglicans jettisoning our rich liturgical heritage in favour of faddish ‘seeker-friendly’ church services — it need not be this way.

Further thoughts on missionary monks

Reflecting on my most recent post, the question arising is: What did Gregory’s missionary monks do, what did they look like? According to the Venerable St Bede (672-735, saint of the week here):

As soon as they entered the dwelling-place assigned to them, they began to imitate the Apostolic manner of life in the primitive Church; applying themselves to constant prayer, watchings, and fastings; preaching the Word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as in nowise concerning them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they taught, and being always ready to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In brief, some believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their blameless life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine. There was on the east side of the city, a church dedicated of old to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, was wont to pray. In this they also first began to come together, to chant the Psalms, to pray, to celebrate Mass, to preach, and to baptize, till when the king had been converted to the faith, they obtained greater liberty to preach everywhere and build or repair churches.

When he, among the rest, believed and was baptized, attracted by the pure life of these holy men and their gracious promises, the truth of which they established by many miracles, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the Word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to have fellowship, through faith, in the unity of Christ’s Holy Church. It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his teachers a settled residence suited to their degree in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of divers sorts as were necessary for them. (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.26 trans. Sellar)

These two paragraphs likely cover a longer period of time than it seems.1  Nonetheless, we see here the evangelistic or ‘missional’ outworkings of the contemplative life upon the Kentish court. The life of the missionary monks resembles in many ways that of a monastery whether we look to Benedict, Columbanus, Cassian, or Basil. It also looks a lot like Acts 2:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It is typified, according to Bede by:

  • prayer
  • watchings (or vigils)
  • preaching to as many as they could
  • despising all worldly things
  • receiving only what they truly needed from the disciples
  • submitting themselves to suffering
  • gathering together
  • chanting the Psalms
  • celebrating Mass

If we are being inspired by the contemplative missionary, the two most controversial are likely to be despising worldly things and receiving from those they taught. Concerning the latter, I believe the idea is not that they are seeking material gain but rather the opposite. Unlike Jim and Tammy Bakker, Augustine and his companions accepted only what they needed to survive. This is in accord with what St Paul says of evangelists as well as The Didache. We pay our pastors, after all. But it does mean that this aspect does not apply to any of us laypersons who wish to start emulating the monastic mission in our own lives.

Despising worldly things has always been a hang-up for the affluent. I have no easy way around it, honestly. In our culture, especially, we should probably be seeking the Freedom of Simplicity and endeavouring to be Dethroning Mammon.

I hope and pray we can take their example seriously in our lives as individuals, families, and church communities. Perhaps we can see similar results, with the conversion not of kings but of colleagues, bosses, friends, parents, siblings, or — to look higher — CEOs, judges, politicians. Imagine true disciples of Jesus Christ being made in our midst at every turn by contemplative activists?


1. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, argues that the process described by Bede may have taken years. I am not a Bede scholar, so I leave the question as to duration open.