The Cloud of Unknowing,
a masterpiece of simplicity that distills a complex mystical epistemology and discipline into engagingly readable prose, embodies a paradox. It offers a method by which the suitably disposed reader may practice an advanced and even austere form of contemplation - the divesting of the mind of all images and concepts through an encounter with a "nothing and a nowhere" that leads to the mysterious and unfathomable being of God Himself. Yet as the account of this exercise unfolds, the genial and hospitable tone of the author humanizes the austerity of the method and persuasively draws the reader into what Evelyn Underhill calls "the loving discernment of Reality" (Sequence,
We can begin to understand the meaning of the Cloud
by looking at what may be the most famous quotation in Western mysticism, the passage in the Confessions,
10, where Augustine muses upon the ecstasy at Ostia, an experience that he had in a final conversation with his mother, Monica (McGinn, p. 234). By its similarities and contrasts with the ideas of The Cloud of Unknowing,
this brief classical statement of the contemplative ascent can introduce us to the whole mystical tradition:
If to any man the tumult of the flesh grew silent, silent the images of earth and sea and air: and if the heavens grew silent, and the very soul grew silent to herself and by not thinking of self mounted beyond self: if all dreams and imagined visions grew silent, and every tongue and every sign and whatsoever is transient - for indeed if any man could hear them, he should hear them saying with one voice: We did not make ourselves, but He made us who abides forever: but if, having uttered this and so set us to listening to Him who made them, they all grew silent, and in their silence He alone spoke to us, not by them but by Himself: so that we should hear His word, not by any tongue of flesh nor the voice of an angel nor the sound of thunder nor in the darkness of a parable, but that we should hear Himself whom in all these things we love, should hear Himself and not them: just as we two had but now reached forth and in a flash of the mind attained to touch the eternal Wisdom which abides over all: and if this could continue, and all other visions so different be quite taken away, and this one should so ravish and absorb and wrap the beholder in inward joys that his life should eternally be such as that one moment of understanding for which we had been sighing - would not this be: Enter Thou into the joy of Thy Lord?
trans. Sheed, pp. 200-01).
What is striking about this passage is the combination of two movements: a sweeping review of nature, human psychology, and the world of signs, followed by the "silencing" or negation of everything that is not God. These two movements present us with affirmation and negation; or, in terms more proper to mystical discourse, with the kataphatic and apophatic phases of the mystical ascent. Moreover, the passage from Augustine, which is richly affirmative, is a fine example of illumination and union, which, together with purgation, are the mystic's three traditional types of experience. The Cloud of Unknowing,
by contrast, is essentially apophatic in its emphasis and focuses almost entirely on the "silencing" described by Augustine: it collapses the meditation on nature to brief allusion, and discusses the soul's activities only in the most practical manner. Perhaps most important, whereas Augustine refers to "that one moment of understanding" (intelligentia
the method of the Cloud
emphasizes the movement described earlier when, as all things grew silent, "the very soul grew silent to herself and by not thinking of self mounted beyond self."
Mystical union takes place by means of the highest, best, or most suitable human faculty, but whether that faculty primarily involves the heart or the mind varies with different writers. In the Augustinian tradition, the role of the mind has considerable emphasis, but the activity of the spiritual heart, the will, is by no means neglected. Similarly in the accounts of those writers who seem to favor an affective approach almost exclusively, there is a final celebration of the mind as well.
's de-emphasis on the activity of the intelligence represents a seemingly archetypal impulse hinted at even in Platonic texts: that the ultimate reality which the mystic seeks to experience is finally beyond the grasp of the intellect (Louth, p. 13). On the other hand, it seems that since in Platonism there is a kinship (syngeneia
between the soul and the Ideas, the search for knowledge of the forms is a homecoming, the return of the soul to its proper nature. Such an ontological bond does seem to result in a significant continuity between the initial and later stages of Platonic contemplation. Platonism conceived the contemplative ascent as a process that required successive purifications until the soul regained its pristine condition, although the final vision of the supreme Forms of the Good and the Beautiful is outside the soul's capacity and is simply given or revealed (Lees, p. 271; Louth, pp. 2-13).
An important concept in the Cloud
"the sovereinneste pointe" of the spirit or of contemplation (see lines 15; 36-37; 1371) - can suggest the richness of traditional elements present in the work, and can serve to focus both the continuities and the differences in the tradition of contemplation. The concept begins in Stoic philosophy as a reference to the "single faculty of the soul from which all others were held to derive" (Lees, p. 271) - to anotaton meros -
the topmost part, the Latin equivalent of which is apex mentis,
the summit of the mind. In association with what is considered to be this highest part, the intellectual and affective views of contemplative experience come into focus and interact. But in the main tradition followed by the Cloud,
the intellect and the imagination, which initiate the human ascent to God, must be abandoned so that contemplation may proceed by negation, or the apophatic method.
By contrast, a competing term from Augustine - ratio superior,
"the superior reason" - entailed a significantly different view of the mystical ascent, espoused especially by the twelfth-century Victorines, Hugh and Richard. Augustine believed that "an intellectual 'vision' of God is the goal of mystical contemplation" (TeSelle, p. 32). For Augustine, the superior reason is fulfilled by wisdom, just as the inferior reason is completed by knowledge. The wisdom that belongs to the upper part of reason is itself the image of God and contemplates the divine reasons. Later medieval writers refined these insights, but, although it undergoes subtle variations, Augustinian wisdom, or sapientia,
persists. Human wisdom participates in Divine Wisdom, which, for Augustine, is God Himself (De Trinitate,
XV, 7, V).
Given the wide range of Augustine's views, however, the emphasis on the intellect must be qualified by his observation that the best experience of God is to be found not in knowledge but in love, a view that signals his major influence on the affective mysticism of the Middle Ages as well. In fact, his treatment of the will and the affections is so central to his mystical thought that he could affirm, with considerable controversial impact, that the act of loving one's neighbor is an experience of God (TeSelle, p. 29). Nevertheless, continuity and "the efficacy of the purified intellect . . . remained characteristic principles of the Augustinian concept of the contemplative way" (Lees, p. 272). Consequently, a principal mark of the Augustinian tradition is illumination, the second stage of the mystical ascent, the one that, according to Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism,
p. 238), is the most densely populated, since for her it characterizes the mysticisms of nature and poetry. In the later Middle Ages, the two different emphases in mysticism take their place in a more widely debated controversy as to whether the intellect or the will is the primary or most noble human power. This is a difference that Dante attempts to reconcile in the Paradiso,
XI, 37-39, by celebrating as complementary both the splendore
that illumines the intellect and the ardore
that inflames the will.
At the Council of Nicaea in 325, the clarification of the doctrine that God created the world out of nothing, ex nihilo,
had a profound impact on another strain of the Christian mystical tradition. The doctrine denies the soul's natural kinship with the divine and affirms an uncrossable ontological gap between the creator and created human nature, an opposition that does not occur in the teachings of Plato and Plotinus. In the Platonic tradition, the most important ontological distinction is between the spiritual and the material, the soul and the body. In the Nicaean view, the most important distinction is between creator and creation, with the soul having a special kinship with the body (Louth, p. 77), a view that, I believe, has a special place in The Cloud of Unknowing.
Because of this radical difference, the Christian mystical ascent, as influenced by Gregory of Nyssa, is unlike the Platonic in that it puts greater restrictions on the use of the intellect, which has no natural kinship with divinity. Ultimate reality, in this tradition, is more emphatically beyond the grasp of the human mind. Most significant, however, is the key event that bridges this gap and makes union with God possible - the Incarnation of the Word. Athanasius seems to have responded to the Council of Nicaea by rejecting the Platonic tenet that the soul can reach the divine by the theoria
of contemplation. But Gregory of Nyssa, taking up a somewhat undeveloped pattern in Origen, presented three overlapping stages of the mystical ascent which eventually develop into the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive (Lees, p. 51). In the unitive phase, Gregory eliminates the activity of the intellect entirely and depicts a darkness in which the mystic feels the presence of God through love; and it is this tradition to which The Cloud of Unknowing
belongs primarily. Affirming the image and likeness of God in the human person, but denying any identity, Gregory insisted that man can never grasp the divine nature as it is in itself by means of the intelligence, so that final union with God must take place by a kind of unknowing, although the intellect is intensely active in the early stages of the ascent (Louth, p. 82). Together with love, this unknowing, or negation of knowledge in the ordinary sense, is the main activity of the apophatic method, although affirmation, the kataphatic movement, is frequently present.
Gregory of Nyssa's insistence that God cannot be grasped by the mind enters into the thought of the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a mysterious, sixth-century Syrian monk. Denis, as he is simply designated by the author of the Cloud
(line 2371), was thought in the Middle Ages to have been the disciple of St. Paul mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles
17:34, and consequently his works were considered immensely authoritative. He was, however, a formidable thinker in his own right, and Aquinas in the thirteenth century quotes him about 1700 times (Pelikan, p. 21). A central tenet for Denis, as it was for Gregory of Nyssa, is the abandonment of the understanding in order to enter the final stage of mystical contemplation in favor of the will and the affectivity. In fact, in this tradition, God is beyond even personhood as we know it: in Deonise Hid Divinité,
author's version of Denis's Mystical Theology,
the phrase, "not sonship nor fatherhood" (Hodgson p. 28, lines 5-6) highlights this key negation; and, a happy respite from contemporary controversy, concerns with gender become as irrelevant as any other analogical designation.
The mysticism of Denis the Areopagite provides a system that becomes paradigmatic for the West. He works out a three-fold analogy between modes of being, modes of apprehension, and types of theology. That is, there are the ontological dimensions of the sensible, the intelligible, and the divine. Apprehending these dimensions are the imagination, the intellect, and a faculty "above mind." Finally, there are three modes of theology: sensible, intelligible, and mystical. The first two are kataphatic: they affirm God "by assigning to him names derived from the properties of creatures"; the third, mystical theology, is apophatic and denies that any of these names can be validly applied to God, who absolutely transcends nature and the human mind. Mystical theology then, entering the darkness that is above mind, "ascends to the creator himself" (Emery, p. 55). Denis does not say what the apprehension above mind is, but the Cloud
author speaks for the tradition when he asserts that the contemplative rises through love ("entren with affeccioun into derknes" Hodgson p. 122, lines 15-16), a view that goes back to Gregory of Nyssa (Louth, p. 81). This transcendent power of love, however, is by no means unique to the Dionysian tradition, because it plays a principal role not only in Augustine, but also in Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Victorines, Hugh and Richard.
The hierarchical ascent through the faculties, which is described in our initial quotation from Augustine and which is almost universal in the mystical tradition, appears in an elaborated yet concise way in one of the most attractive mystical treatises of the Middle Ages, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum
(The Mind's Journey unto God
by Bonaventure. Both Bonaventure's Mind's Journey
and the Cloud
are relatively short and come close to being about the same length. Bonaventure's treatise is a kind of medieval devotional summa,
in that he provides a compendium of symbolism, epistemology, metaphysics, theology, and prayerful exhortation. It is almost a handbook of medieval thought in its succinct offering of diverse information within what might be called a mystical ontology. Covering the three categories of the Dionysian tradition, he begins with a symbolic examination of the sensible vestiges of God in the universe, proceeds to the intelligible realm in the image of the Trinity reflected in the workings of the mind, and concludes with the divine names of being and goodness as they apply to the Trinity itself. The Mind's Journey unto God
contains seven chapters, but interestingly, only the last alludes to the experience addressed by the whole of the Cloud.
This contrasting proportion illustrates a central difference in scale and emphasis between the Cloud
and the Mind's Journey,
a difference that can also serve to distinguish the Cloud
from its more immediate sources and clarify its own simplicity and power. Most important, the Cloud
has, as a determining principle of structure, a practical technique for moving beyond illumination to union, a transitional praxis virtually absent from Bonaventure's treatise. On the other hand, the Cloud
's references to union as such are spelled out only in brief statements at the end of the work.
Yet even though the Cloud
skips the vigorous and explicit exercise of the imagination and reason that make Bonaventure's treatise so compelling and vital, it conveys, indirectly and by allusion, much incidental insight and information about the role of the senses, imagination, and intellect. The reason for this is that in order to define precisely what this non-conceptual focusing and its effects are, he must, with adequate detail, clarify what it is not. In other words, although the main concern of the Cloud
is apophatic, kataphatic affirmations, although brief and allusive, occur in a persistent dialectic.
The achievement of the Cloud
in directness and persuasiveness becomes dramatically clear when compared to the methods of two of its more immediate sources, the works of the Victorine, Thomas Gallus, and the Carthusian, Hugh of Balma. Moreover, the often subtle relationships between the faculties of knowing and loving further qualify these differences. Thomas Gallus, who influenced Bonaventure as well as the Cloud
author, ultimately derives the different stages in the progress towards union from Denis (Lees, p. 275). For "the devoted rather than the highly educated" (Walsh, in Lees, p. 185), Gallus wrote a paraphrase of several Dionysian works, which he called the Extractio.
The combination was a more usable text than the translation made by John Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century, or John Saracenus in the twelfth century. Gallus's attempt to make the teaching of Denis as accessible and as clear as possible (Théry, in Lees, p. 182) represents an intention that seems to govern the Cloud
Since Gallus follows Denis quite closely and since he influenced Bonaventure, a somewhat detailed look at his thought can provide a sense of the tradition in a form that directly influenced the Cloud of Unknowing
and at the same time convey the intellectual calm of its contrasting simplicity. As in Denis's treatises and in Bonaventure's The Mind's Journey unto God,
there are a somewhat overwhelming nine levels of ascent. This elaboration of the three phases of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, though it comes from Denis, probably owes something to Augustine's festival of triads in the De Trinitate.
The multiplication of triads exists also in Proclus, who is the immediate Neoplatonic source of Denis himself and who extensively develops the traditional threefold ontology of the One, the Intelligence, and the Soul (Louth, p. 162). More precisely, in Gallus there are three groups of levels, or mansions, and each group itself contains three subdivisions. Paralleling each of the nine levels in Gallus are the nine orders of the Celestial Hierarchy - angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. The justification of such an elaborate schema, which occurs also in Bonaventure's mystical treatise, would seem to lie in how effectively it presents the transcendence of God, and its insistence that the ascent does not take place all at once, but by deliberate and careful gradations, a point suggested by the use of the Latin passus
in Bonaventure. Interestingly, this term also describes the stages of the Middle English poem, Piers Plowman.
In startling contrast is the simplicity of the Cloud,
where avoiding such complexities seems to be a principal aim.
In spite of the numerical complexity of these schemas, the pattern is fundamentally and even simply determined by a dialectical emphasis on nature and grace, reason and affectivity. In the first mansion of the Temple of God which is the soul, understanding and affectivity operate naturally in the natural sphere, although helped by illuminating grace. In the second mansion, nature and grace work together. In the third mansion, the understanding and affectivity are illuminated and supported by grace alone.
This final mansion is governed by synderesis,
a widely used term "given to intellect and will as they work together in the way of contemplation" (Walsh, in Lees, p. 326). Historically synonymous with two other Stoic terms for the principal part of the soul, to hegemonikon
and to anotaton meros,
it becomes in the Christian tradition "the natural impulse by virtue of which the soul is the image of the Sovereign Good and naturally adheres to it. This impulse, when perfectly purified by the love of God, is called the scintilla,
or 'spark' of the synderesis -
a phrase used by Bonaventure also, for it flies above the soul like the spark above the fire" (Walsh, in Lees, p. 326). A similar image is used in the Cloud
(line 385) and Book Three, poem 9, of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy,
where the First Mover calls back the souls scattered throughout the universe "like leaping flames" (trans. Green, p. 61).
This final stage of union, which is where much of the diversity in the tradition comes, is subdivided into three further gradations, once more determined by a dialectical emphasis on grace, affectivity, and types of understanding: the first, corresponding to those angels called Thrones, is the reception of infused grace and the divine attraction of the intellect. The second, a point on which Hugh of Balma will strongly disagree with Gallus, is the perfection of intellectual knowledge by infused illumination. In Hugh of Balma, by contrast, the intellect exercises no initiative at all in what corresponds to these last three subdivisions. The third gradation of the last stage in Gallus is the perfection of union in the apex affectus,
the "summit of the emotions" (Lees, p. 277).
Although the loving power is non-conceptual, Gallus insists that it is nevertheless cognitive. He makes his point by an analogy with the senses. The powers of sight and hearing apprehend their objects without becoming intimately involved with them. Knowledge through love, however, is experiential and, like taste, touch, and smell, involves contact between receiver and received (Lees, p. 279), a point that recalls how the mind attains to "touch
the eternal Wisdom," in Augustine's account of the experience at Ostia. For Gallus, as opposed to Hugh of Balma, the intellectual faculty achieves its peak in the second movement of this last stage of union; but the affective faculty remains dominant in the final phase. "The unitive experience is thus achieved through the power of love, in the apex affectus
(Lees, p. 279). Nevertheless, Gallus continues to stress the cognitive power of love: "the very removal of intellectual cognition in a certain way leads into superintellectual cognition" (Lees, p. 283; my translation). The soul apprehends God ecstatically in the unitive wisdom of sapientia
or "knowledge-in-love" (Lees, p. 280), an essential concept in Gallus which seems to have an Augustinian coloring. In fact, the language of Augustine is echoed throughout the whole tradition, especially his use of touch imagery (Poque, p. 199) and the word sapientia.
In a persuasive interpretation of Thomas Gallus (Lees, pp. 281, 287), the dualism of intellect and love disappears, and the soul becomes a simple "é1an," a "towards God" (ad Deum
simplification that dilates the spirit for a richer contemplation and that anticipates the Cloud's
"naked intent" towards God.
For Gallus, this transintellectual union encounters God "more deeply than the mind because it unites the soul to the whole plenitude of desire . . . by a proportion beyond understanding" (Lees, p. 284; my translation). The "negative dialectic of Dionysian theology as a whole does not dominate Gallus's works" and is everywhere qualified by "the positive devotional language" expressed in "loving aspirations to union" and "knowledge-in-love" (Lees, p. 286), as is the case with the Cloud.
It is significant that Gallus explicitly distinguishes his own superintellectual account of the unitive experience from that of his fellow Victorine, Richard. For Richard, who in contemplation, as Dante says in Paradiso
X, 132, was more than man, the case is different. In his treatise, Benjamin Minor,
which was translated by the Cloud
author (Hodgson, pp. 129-45) and which owes more to Augustine than to Denis, union takes place through "the higher function of the intellect, the intelligentia.
" For Richard's intelligentia,
Gallus substitutes principalis affectio
"the instrument of unitive knowledge" (Lees, pp. 280-81).
Hugh of Balma, thoroughly influenced by Gallus and perhaps the most immediate source of the Cloud,
stresses the importance of the intellect in the first two stages of the mystical ascent, like virtually everyone else in the tradition. For both Gallus and Balma, sapientia
is the highest achievement of the contemplative (Lees, p. 293), which they both identify with the portion chosen by Mary, the sister of Martha (Cloud,
line 927 ff.). Sapientia
for Hugh of Balma is a "loving awareness of God which transcends the discursive knowledge achieved through the intellect" (Lees, p. 294). This wisdom rises in the affectivity, and no intelligence can thoroughly apprehend it. But even here the intellect is by no means excluded entirely, because in Balma's first mystical stage, the mind is in any event disposed to learn this true wisdom (Lees, p. 294). It is an awareness that seems to begin at least in the illuminative stage, when the soul by meditation "begins somewhat to be moved towards [God] by sending forth sparks" (Lees, p. 294, my translation; Cloud
, line 385). In the unitive stage, however, he denies any effective initiative to the intellect whatsoever, and differs from Thomas Gallus in this respect. However, the emphasis on affectivity that so characterizes these two writers moves, somewhat paradoxically and surprisingly, to a final celebration of the mind.
Hugh of Balma's division between the illuminative and the unitive phases, although more pronounced than that of Thomas Gallus, can easily be overemphasized. That is, though the intellect ceases to function at the beginning of the unitive stage, it has been instrumental in stimulating love earlier; and the implication seems to be that the love evoked in the illuminative stage finally just takes over. But even Hugh of Balma is so far from being an anti-intellectual that his praise of the knowledge received by the mystic after the final union is somewhat breathtaking - and may have an echo in the Cloud
. This experienced sapientia,
which is operative in illumination, and for which the purgative stage prepares, achieves a final transformation: it becomes
more universal and more useful than other sciences, cognitions and apprehensions. It not only elevates the affection above itself and unites the creature perfectly with the most high spouse by ecstatic love, but it also so elevates the intellect that it is much more illumined by every prudence and knowledge through the divine lightnings than it could have been by any exercise of natural ability. (Lees, p. 307, my translation; compare Hodgson, p. xxv)
The Cloud of Unknowing
emphatically de-emphasizes the role of the intellect and, in this apophatic mode, differs markedly from Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, and the Victorines. However, the Cloud
author seems to realize just where he stands in the tradition. Although he resolutely proceeds by negation, his appreciation of the mind and imagination appears in a memorable image (lines 2007 ff.). Just as there are some who will foolishly break a fair cup after drinking from it, some contemplatives will show disrespect for the imagery and intellection of the first stages, an attitude that the author deplores. Or there is the image of the tree whose fruit is the imageless and non-conceptual focusing on God - fruit, however, which grows out of the trunk, branches, and leaves of imaginative meditation (Cloud
, lines 2025 ff.; The Epistle of Prayer,
Hodgson 103/6). It is instructive in this context to remember that most of the writings of Denis himself employ the intellect and imagination extensively; or, as William Johnston (p. 32) observes, Denis "never denies the power of discursive reason to come to the knowledge of God," although he clearly privileges the exercise of mystical unknowing.
The Cloud of Unknowing
is at once simple, subtle, and profound. While avoiding an extensive, technical epistemology, or the elaborate, angelically coordinated stages, the Cloud
author provides the reader with a persuasively modest discipline that is at the same time a deeply authentic spiritual experience. Moving the reader's focus with care and ease from the sensible world, where time, the senses, and spatial direction dominate, he provides a realization of the spirit's independence of these modes. Some sense of how this happens can be gotten from a closer look at the text itself.
Analysis of The Cloud of Unknowing
Although the structure of the text's seventy-five chapters is by no means as systematized as its sources, the very importance of focusing the mind on God without imagery or concepts creates a discernible order (Hodgson, p. 155). The author states his whole method of contemplation briefly in Chapter Three: the contemplative must lift up his heart in love to God, "mene" God and none of his goods, forget every created thing and its associations (lines 274-79), and feel in his will a naked intent unto God (line 290). This is the core of the mystical contemplation enjoined in the Cloud,
and the author gradually illumines and clarifies this activity from different points of view. The characteristic structure of the book is generally circular or perhaps that of a spiral, in that it comes back again and again to the same points in widening courses that include further insights and information important to the "blinde beholdyng unto the nakid beyng of God Himself only" (lines 565-66). But with each return, the author imagines more circumstances, warns against more pitfalls, and explores the experience in greater depth. Important concepts and motifs weave throughout the book and provide a unifying pattern that is both conceptual and verbal. Paradoxically, the role of negation in the Cloud
introduces a richly existential dimension to the progress of the work (Myles, 1986, p. 141). This specific pattern, in my view, interacts with bodily imagery to provide a blend of the metaphysical and the concrete that may be at least rhetorically unique to the mystical tradition. In effect, like a good medieval teacher, the author of the Cloud
begins with the more known - the experience of the senses - and proceeds to the less known and even incomprehensible - the being of God as He is in Himself.
In the first chapter of the book, at lines 235-36, the reference to creation from nothing
paralleled in the same chapter by the word something (oughtes,
line 243), introduces a founding theological pattern. Although creation itself remains an implied background, the word nought
("nothing") becomes an important meditational instrument, even the gate to final mystical union in the Cloud.
In Chapter Three, ought
something and nothing, occur once more in meditational antithesis (lines 275-76). Nought
occurs also in Chapter Eighteen, lines 884-85, as a term derogatorily applied to contemplation by those who do not understand it; and, in Chapter Forty-four, by recommending to the contemplative a sorrow connected with the fact that he simply exists or is
(line 1555), the author evokes a deeply ontological variation of this "nothing" that suggests the longing of contingency for absolute being. In Chapter Sixty-seven, the brief account of union with God is contrasted to the nought
of the contemplative before his creation and after sin (line 2277). In Chapter Sixty-eight, a final negation of spatial direction, which we will discuss later at some length, invokes a bodily "nowhere" that is spiritually "everywhere," and is followed by an exhortation to let be the sensible everywhere and something in favor of a nowhere and a nothing. But the nought
of the Cloud
author does not denote an absolute nothingness. On the contrary, this nought
can be actually felt, although not seen because of the abundance of spiritual light that prevents vision (line 2312), a fact that recalls the stress put by Thomas Gallus on the senses that involve physical contact. Finally, it is the outer man that calls it nothing: the inner man calls it Al (line 2314).
As I have said, what seems to me a distinctive characteristic of the Cloud
is the way in which the author, in moving towards the spiritual goal of the apophatic way (i.e., the seeking of knowledge of God by way of negation or denial), makes extensive and paradoxical use of bodily imagery - even beyond the uses that John Burrow (p. 144) has noted. This procedure, a key example of the author's humanity and literary skill, not only delineates the possibilities for profound harmony between body and soul, but also renders comprehensible the otherwise prohibitively abstract stages of the apophatic way.
In the Cloud,
the very spirituality of the author endows the human body with a unique grace. God forbid, he says in Chapter Forty-eight, that he should part what God has coupled, the body and the spirit, which, together in service, are together in reward and the joy of heaven (lines 1687-90). Many exhortations occur which enjoin the reader to keep from straining the imagination or body in any way. In Chapter Twelve, for example, the importance of the central contemplative act markedly subordinates the role of bodily penance. The unpretentious affirmation of love, he insists, removes the ground and the root of sin much more effectively than fasting, abstaining from sleep, early rising, or uncomfortable beds. Again in Chapter Forty-five, the author points out that those who understand words in a bodily rather than in a spiritual way actually experience adverse repercussions in the senses themselves. Consequently they "streyne here veynes" (line 1594) or chafe their complexions into an unnatural heat and their bodily powers in such a crude and beastly way that they fall into a weariness and listless feebleness in body and soul. This is a false feeling which produces a false knowing (line 1608). Such an observation proffers a freedom to the reader who feels physically relieved and dispensed from meditational calisthenics or any "unordeynd streynyng of the fleschely herte" (line 1702). Such "fleschlines of bodely felyng" (lines 1627-28) injures the soul and festers in the imagination.
In Chapter Fifty-one, he continues to probe how the attempt to understand spiritual matters in a physical way affects the body. Those caught up in this misunderstanding turn their physical senses inward and strain themselves as if they would see there with their bodily eyes. Going against the course of nature, they turn their brains in their heads (lines 1812-14). One result is that they feel light, sound, smells, strange heats and burnings in their bodily breasts, bowels, backs, kidneys, and privy members (lines 1816-17). Such a catalogue evokes a concise, but detailed anatomical consciousness and allows the reader to unbend, breathe easily, and achieve transcendence through relaxation as well as negation. In Chapter Fifty-three, this corporeal self-consciousness provides an opportunity for comic relief, as the author satirizes the eccentric postures, grimaces, and physical bearing of some misguided contemplatives.
His discussion of the word up
(line 1977) in Chapter Fifty-seven introduces the next stage in his account of how contemplation should relieve the body of stressful anxieties. Since his technique is mainly apophatic, he sets forth what is essential to the contemplative act by negating, at this point, the value of spatial directions, which are taken up again later when he introduces the triad of without, within, and above (lines 2259-68). Giving a concrete, narrative form to his exposition, he introduces three instances of upward movement: the vision of St. Martin who, looking up, saw Christ clothed in the half-mantle given to the poor beggar; the vision of St. Stephen, who, while he was being stoned, turned his gaze upwards and saw Christ in glory; finally, and most important, the vision of the disciples who beheld Christ ascending into heaven. In his analysis of the Ascension, he employs an affirmative strategy of empathy by evoking a sense of bodily weightlessness; then, having induced this physical lightness, he negates it in his resolute progress towards apophatic experience. His intermediate goal is to have the reader feel the bodily effects of spiritual experience and then, by negating these effects, ease the movement into the divine darkness.
Before his final comments on the Ascension, in Chapter Fifty-nine, the author introduces a doctrine that further investigates the relations between contemplation and physical, spatial direction - the belief in the risen body, the participation of the just in the resurrection of Christ. At lines 2073-74, he refers to the traditional belief that the glorified human body can move physically to wherever the mind directs it. By briefly imagining this supernatural gift, the contemplative encounters the ultimate power of mind over matter. But the Cloud
author follows this positive use of imagery with its practical relevance to apophatic contemplation: in the present life, you cannot come to heaven bodily, but only spiritually. The quest for God cannot proceed in a manner that is physical, neither upwards nor downwards, nor on one side nor on another, behind nor before. By undercutting the sense of space that is primordially rooted in the body, he releases the reader and prepares him for spiritual experience. Moreover, the deftly antithetical wordplay in his analysis of the relationship between body and soul reinforces and, in a sense, helps to effect the movement of the consciousness away from discursive thought towards "meaning God" without images and concepts.
The discussion of sense experience in Chapter Sixty-six, which makes use of a specific category of medieval psychology, forms a kind of bridge passage from meditation on the spiritually perfected body to the final emphasis on the apophatic act. Addressing bodily pleasure and pain, he takes up "sensualité," the power that complains when the body lacks any needful or pleasurable thing and is delighted when they are present. It complains at unpleasurable things and is pleased in their absence. The short analysis of this power makes the reader aware of his own state of comfort or discomfort as a means of tempering this bodily consciousness. Before man sinned, this faculty was in perfect harmony with the will and never presented to it any disordered pleasure or complaining towards any bodily creature. But after the Fall, sensuality, unless ruled by grace to endure the pain felt in the absence of pleasure or in the presence of useful complaining, wallows in self-indulgence. The short meditations on the glorified risen human body and the body of Christ in the Ascension, by preceding this passage in the treatise, make the discipline of sensuality easier, and even entreat a special grace for the temperate calm enjoined in this passage. Virtually the only ascetical passage in the work, along with the brief account of the Seven Deadly sins in Chapter Ten, this exposition comes late in the treatise and places the role of physical self-denial in the most meaningful and integrated context. The analysis of tempered sensuality, motivated by reflections on the resurrection and ascension, is the author's last treatment of the powers of the soul, knowledge of which keeps the contemplative from being deceived in his effort to understand spiritual language and experience (lines 2281-87).
The account of the final stages of union begins with the Cloud
author's own variation on the traditional threefold structure of the mystical ascent, which for him becomes without/beneath, within/even, and above. Although his third level is Dionysian - "when thou felist thi mynde ocupyed with no maner of thyng that is bodely or goostly, bot only with the self substaunce of God, as it is and may be in the preof of the werk of this book . . ." (lines 2265-68) - it also closely echoes the motif of silence in the Augustinian passage with which we began. In a brief allusion to mystical union (lines 2272-74), just when the greatest strain could occur, there is no dissonant opposition between body and spirit; and the antithesis rather is between the Created and the Uncreated, a legacy of Nicaean theology. Moreover, although the Cloud
author insists upon pre-creational nothingness, he boldly affirms, with scriptural warrant (Ps. 81 , 6) that through grace the contemplative, in union with God, becomes a god (lines 2272-74; Hodgson 67/14).
At the beginning of Chapter Sixty-eight, the triad of without/beneath, within/even, above, once more engages spatial directions which are gradually denied literal status, a method followed earlier with the word up
(lines 1977 ff.). He says that although some advise the contemplative to gather his powers and wits entirely within himself (the whole mystical tradition seems to recommend this), the Cloud
author quite surprisingly does not. Nor, by contrast, does he advise the contemplative to be outside of himself - nor above, nor behind, nor on one side, nor on another. "Where then," asks the reader? He would have the contemplative to be "nowhere" - "For whi noghwhere bodely is everywhere goostly" (line 2296-97).
With this section, we have reached the climax of the work. I had rather be nowhere
in this way bodily, he says, wrestling with that blind nothing,
than to be so great a lord that I might, when I would, be everywhere
bodily, merrily playing with all this something,
as a lord with his own possession. Although this is a crucial apophatic moment, the author, by ruling out an imaginative meditation on the whole of creation, has already briefly engaged in it. But the passage is also an excellent example of the Cloud
author's preference for brief allusion over imaginative dilation. Our outer man calls this absence of imagery nothing; but our inner man calls it everything. 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 2314-15). 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. 8). 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 2341).
There is a Dionysian coda in Chapter Seventy, a last meditational exercise followed by two explicit references to Denis himself (lines 2369, 2371). 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 2383) 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 2397); this lityl love put
(line 2399); and the perfeccion of this werk
(line 2412). 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. The disappointment of Umberto Eco (p. 91) in the absence of aesthetic reflection in the mystical writers of the late Middle Ages, a disappointment shared by A. J. Minnis (p. 172), while understandable and even valid in some respects, finally misses the point of the whole mystical quest, for which Bernard McGinn has magisterially provided a modern context (pp. 265-343). 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. 20-22). Quite recently, the enduring interest in The Cloud of Unknowing
appears in a study of "intimacy and spiritual development" by John W. Flesey. 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
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
British Library MS Harleian 674.
British Library MS Royal 17 C xxvi.
Cambridge University Library Kk.vi.26.
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