The Cloud of Unknowing - A BOOK of CONTEMPLATION - Tradition of Areopagite (ORIGINAL VERSION)

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  1. Christian Contemplative Tradition
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  4. Thomas Keating

God can never be fully comprehended through human intellect or reason; God can only be embraced by the means of profound humility and love. By turns encouraging, gentle, challenging and demanding, this spiritual guide has inspired countless readers through the centuries to seriously engage with the contemplative life. But his overall tone remains positive and optimistic. Consider this statement, made on the last page of the book and in some ways a summation of its hopeful theology:.

Christian Contemplative Tradition

It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be. Considering that it is written for one who desires to plumb deeply the contemplative life, this is a wonderful and inspiring sentiment: we who aspire to drink deeply from the wells of Divine silence can do so knowing that God sees us not in terms of our failings or our foibles, but in light of that deepest desire of our hearts.

In the eyes of God, we are already mystics and contemplatives. All we have to do, now, is to learn how to simply allow that to unfold. Even within the mysterious mists of the cloud of unknowing. But the profundity of Rolle's experience is a witness in itself, not necessarily to be emulated, that God does enter our innermost life. First, the author of Cloud would not advocate contemplation for everyone. He repeatedly urges readers to make sure they have discerned this vocation within themselves and with a spiritual director or spiritual friend.

The author understands contemplation as being a gift to certain people, and that it would be damaging to one's spirituality to strive for this gift when not called to it. The author also talks about actives and contemplatives being misunderstood. There are three expressions of the spiritual life: acts of mercy and charity;spiritual meditations of sorrow, contrition and gratitude; and loving God for God's own sake, apart from human actions. Actives find themselves in the first two areas.

Contemplatives are mostly in the third. Actives can't understand the mysterious calling of contemplatives, and often accuse them of wasting their time. Contemplatives must forgive them and not listen to their criticism. Then he goes on to mention how the true contemplative is changed to be more merciful and how people are drawn to them: " It gives him discernment, when he needs it, to read people's needs and characters. It gives him the knack of being at home with everyone he talks to, habitual sinner or not, without sinning himself This involves a constant attending and listening with the heart, to get through the clouds of distracting thoughts, either of who God is, or of our own sin.

The effect of this devotion is a person rooted in God and in a sense becoming God for those people who interact with them. The contemplative's work is to see God, and in doing so allow God to be seen by others who seek guidance. In our own time, this is difficult to answer. During the Middle Ages, contemplatives were removed from the life of society, although not completely so. They withdrew to listen for God, but made themselves available for counsel.

Some even became spiritual directors for leaders of their time. I think the focus of their work was not withdrawal from life, but cultivating the ability to tune into God. The language of The Cloud of Unknowing mostly speaks of God as external, but the experience he describes is an inner one. The early contemplatives were the pioneers of the divine within. The question for today is, can one live a contemplative life while still being in it? Withdrawal is necessary in order to become detached from daily concerns enough to hear the deeper strains of our lives. It's as if these people vouchsafe a place for divine-human dialogue.

For those who cannot achieve this themselves, they seek out contemplatives for guidance to the inner life. Is contemplation open to all? I think a modern contemplative could be an artist, poet or writer. Someone who has been able to concentrate themselves to apprehend God within their life, and to reflect this image to others who seek it.

Contemplation in modern terms - seeing and loving God within all of life -could be anything. But it still requires a deep desire to seek out God, and allow space in your life where you can meet him. The author of Cloud says that contemplation is a gift, that God seeks us out anyways.

Transcendental psychology speaks to this as well. Within each life is the potential to see God at work. Without doubt it is in the stamping out all remembrance of God's creation, and in keeping them covered by that cloud of forgetting" The Cloud of Unknowing , With this quotation, Cloud seems to be suggesting that a God separate from creation is necessary for experiencing transcendence. This is the part of The Cloud of Unknowing I struggled with most.

It suggests an apaphatic imageless spirituality, an empyting. I struggled with the possible anti-matter stance this could encourage, as well as the dualism it could bring up in me: "anything I think of is illusion, only nothing could be God". Somehow this would get the soul in touch with the vastness and majesty of God and bring transcendence. But for me transcendence comes when I encounter images that break through my narrow perceptions: watching a bird on a branch, listening to a song, speaking with a friend, experiencing forgiveness, reading a book.


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It's what C. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy , the unexpected encounter in simple things with the deepest Ground of Being. Moreover, despite the often opposing strands of the intellectual and the affective in the mystical tradition, the mind is explicitly at play here, for the contemplative is well taught by the All to grasp the reason "kon skyle" of all things, bodily or spiritual, without special focus on any one thing by itself lines This brief passage is reminiscent of the apotheosis of the intellect that Hugh of Balma describes as occurring after the affective union with God see Introduction, p.

In Chapter Sixty-nine, he says that the "nothing" encountered is first a reflection of one's personal sins. Sometimes this nothing seems to be hell; then not hell but purgatory. Sometimes it seems to him that it is paradise because of the sweetness, comfort, joys, and virtues found there. Finally, it seems to be God Himself, for the peace and rest found there. But it is always a "cloude of unknowyng" line There is a Dionysian coda in Chapter Seventy, a last meditational exercise followed by two explicit references to Denis himself lines , It is, so to speak, a bodily valediction, made less threatening at this stage, and even welcomed, because of his persistent concern to remove all physical stress and tension.

In a detailed summary aimed at demonstrating the limitations of sense experience, we meet a final blend of affirmation and negation, of the kataphatic and the apophatic. You cannot conceive of anything by your eyes without length and breadth, smallness and greatness, roundness and squareness, farness and nearness, and color.

Nor by your ears, but by some sound. Nor by your nose, but by stench or savor. Nor by taste, but by sour or sweet, salt or fresh, bitter or pleasant.

Nor by touch, but by hot or cold, hard or tender, soft or sharp. Contemplatives, or spiritual workers, must not expect to see, hear, smell, or taste spiritual realities, but by the very failure of the senses, we are made aware of the spiritual. Similarly, we have knowledge of created spiritual realities, but by no means can we know an "unmade" spiritual reality, or God. But again, in this very failure of understanding, in the Dionysian formula, we know by unknowing.

Although he mentions the ecstasy ravisching , line of the unitive phase, he does not describe it at any length. In Chapter Seventy-one, he focuses on an allegory of the ark of the covenant, which appears to gather up several governing motifs: the grace of contemplation and this werk line ; this lityl love put line ; and the perfeccion of this werk line Lastly, he observes that the feeling of this activity is sometimes withdrawn for various reasons, but if it comes back with greater fervor and longing, that is a sign that the reader is called to this work.

Capping the whole treatise is a final optimistic and encouraging exhortation: Think not upon what you are, or have been, but upon what you would be. Having looked summarily at the whole Cloud of Unknowing, we might note in conclusion the remarkable fact that in the Middle Ages, mysticism is one of the most important sources for aesthetics, the analysis of the nature and manifestations of beauty.

The treatise on the Divine Names by Denis the Areopagite discusses both beauty and the value of the widely differing types of imagery that can be applied to God. The beauty of the universe is where Augustine begins his account of mystical experience in the quotation with which we began; and this preoccupation with the beautiful continues in Bonaventure and the Victorines.

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The disappointment of Umberto Eco p. Minnis p. Many of these writers we have looked at, including Thomas Gallus and Hugh of Balma, do begin with sensible and intellectual beauty; but, as even Augustine says, all of these beautiful things are signs that must grow silent in order to allow that which is most beautiful, the source and cause of all beauty, to speak from the depths of the divine darkness. The Cloud of Unknowing says nothing of beauty, but rather invites the reader immediately into this darkness.

And yet the literary qualities of the Cloud have a clear aesthetic appeal, as contemporary scholars such as Hodgson, Burrow, and Riehle have shown. Moreover, the Cloud has attracted the keen interest of readers as different as Robert Bateman, an influential seventeenth-century Baptist who owned a manuscript of the Cloud Hodgson xvii ; the novelist, Aldous Huxley; and the psychologist, Ira Progoff Johnston, pp.

Quite recently, the enduring interest in The Cloud of Unknowing appears in a study of "intimacy and spiritual development" by John W. Perhaps one source for further consideration of this issue is the medieval teaching that the word beautiful refers to the same reality as the words good and true. They are simply different names for one Being, towards whom the Cloud uncompromisingly directs the reader, beyond any human capacity to name.

Go To The Cloud of Unknowing. Cambridge University Library Kk. Editions and Translations Hodgson, Phyllis, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing. EETS e.

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London: Oxford University Press, Analecta Cartusiana 3. Johnston, William, ed. Garden City, N. McCann, Justin, ed.

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Thomas Keating

London: Burns, Oates, Progoff, Ira, trans. New York: Dell, Walsh, James, ed. New York: Paulist Press, Wolpers, Clifton, trans. Baltimore: Penguin Books, Works Consulted Abrams, M.