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The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowyng) is an

The Cloud of Unknowing
anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half
of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Author Anonymous
Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work suggests that the way to know Original title The Cloude of
God is to abandon consideration of God's particular activities and attributes, and be Unknowyng
courageous enough to surrender one's mind and ego to the realm of "unknowing", at Country England
which point one may begin to glimpse the nature of God.
Language Middle English
Subject Spiritual guide to
contemplative prayer
Contents Genre Christian mysticism
History Publication Late 14th century
Contents date
Other works by the same author Followed by The Book of Privy
Manuscripts Counseling
Later influence
References in popular culture
See also
External links

The Cloud of Unknowing draws on the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Christian Neoplatonism,[1] which
focuses on the via negativa road to discovering God as a pure entity, beyond any capacity of mental conception and so without any
definitive image or form. This tradition has reputedly inspired generations of mystical searchers from John Scotus Eriugena, Nicholas
of Cusa, and John of the Cross, to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (the latter two of whom may have been influenced by The Cloud itself).
Prior to this, the theme ofThe Cloud had appeared in the Confessions of St. Augustine(IX, 10) written in AD 398.[2]

[3] It
The author is unknown. The English Augustinian mysticWalter Hilton has at times been suggested, but this is generally doubted.
is possible he was a Carthusian priest, though this is not certain.

A second major work by the same author, The Book of Privy Counseling (originally titled Prive Counselling), continues the themes
discussed in the Cloud. It is less than half the size of the Cloud, appears to be the author's final work, and clarifies and deepens some
of its teachings.[5] In this work, the author characterizes the practice of contemplative unknowing as worshiping God with one's
"substance," coming to rest in a "naked blind feeling of being", and ultimately finding thereby that God is one's being.

The book counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and intellection (faculty of the human mind), but through
intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought.[note 1] Experience of a "cloud of unknowing" is introduced
Chapter 3:

When you first begin [this work], you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. [...] Reconcile
yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you
are to feel him or see him in the life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness.

This is brought about by putting all thoughts and desires under a "cloud of forgetting," and thereby piercing God's cloud of
unknowing with a "dart of longing love" from the heart. This form of contemplation is not directed by the intellect, but involves
spiritual union with God through the heart:

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither
grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence
of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself,
it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a
devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of
unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens."

Chapters 39 and 40 recommend the focus on a single word as the means to invoke the fullness of God:

When we intend to pray for goodness, let all our thought and desire be contained in the one small word "God."
Nothing else and no other words are needed, for God is the epitome of all goodness. Immerse yourself in the spiritual
reality it speaks of yet without precise ideas of God's works whether small or great, spiritual or material. Do not
consider any particular virtue which God may teach you through grace, whether it is humility, charity, patience,
abstinence, hope, faith, moderation, chastity
, or evangelical poverty. For to a contemplative they are, in a sense, all the
[7][note 2]
same. Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God.

Chapter 23 of The Book of Privy Counselingglorifies experience over knowledge:

"And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive
you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds.
Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest."[10]

Other works by the same author

In addition to The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, the Cloud author is believed to be responsible for a few
other spiritual treatises and translations, including:

Deonise Hid Divinity, a free translation of theMystical Theology by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. A vernacular
translation of the Mystical Theology was unprecedented; however, it was clearly not widely read, since only two
manuscripts survive.[11]
A Letter of Prayer (A Pistle of Prayer), which survives in seven manuscripts. Online);
A Letter of Discretion of Stirrings(A Pistle of Discrecioun of Stirings). (Online, part VI of "The Cell of Self
It is possible, but doubtful,[11] that he wrote A Treatise of Discernment of Spirits(originally titled A Tretis of
Discrecyon of Spirites), a free translation of Sermones di Diversis nos 23-24, by Bernard of Clairvaux, (Online).
It is possible, but doubtful,[11] that he wrote A Treatise of the Study of Wisdom that Men Call Benjamin (also called
Pursuit of Wisdom, and, in its original, A Tretyse of the Stodye of Wysdome that Men Clepen Beniamyn), an
abbreviated and free translation of theBenjamin Minor by Richard of Saint Victor (Online).
The Cloud of Unknowing has 17 known manuscripts.[5] The two best known are British Library MS Harleian 674 and Cambridge
University Library These contain all seven of the works attributed to the Cloud author, the former extensively glossed in
Latin.[2] Another important manuscript is British Library Harleian 2373, which contains all but
Deonise Hid Divinity.[12]

Later influence
Given its survival in only seventeen manuscripts, The Cloud of Unknowingwas not as popular in late medieval England as the works
of Richard Rolle or Walter Hilton, perhaps because the Cloud is addressed to solitaries and concentrates on the advanced levels of the
mystical path. Two Latin translations of the Cloud were made in the late fifteenth century. One was made by Richard Methley, a
Carthusian of the Charterhouse of Mount Grace in Yorkshire, and finished in 1491.[13] The other is anonymous. Neither, however,
enjoyed wide dissemination.[5]

This work became known to English Catholics in the mid 17th century, when the Benedictine monk, Augustine Baker (1575–1641),
wrote an exposition on its doctrine based on a manuscript copy in the library of the monastery of Cambrai in Flanders. The original
work itself, however, was not published until 1877. English mystic Evelyn Underhill edited an important version of the work in

The work has become increasingly popular over the course of the twentieth century, with nine English translations or modernisations
produced in this period. In particular, The Cloud has influenced recent contemplative prayer practices. The practical prayer advice
contained in The Cloud of Unknowing forms a primary basis for the contemporary practice of Centering Prayer, a form of Christian
meditation developed by Trappist monks William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating in the 1970s.[14] It also informed
the meditation techniques of the English BenedictineJohn Main.[5]

The contemplation method urged in The Cloud is similar to Buddhist meditation and modern transcendental meditation.[15] For
example, the last paragraph of chapter 7 says:

If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather
than a long one. A one-syllable word such as "God" or "love" is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then
fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defence in conflict and in
peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the
cloud of forgetting beneath you.

References in popular culture

Leonard Cohen refers to The Cloud of Unknowingin the 1979 song "The Window" fromRecent Songs [16]
James Blackshaw released an album in 2007by the same name
John Luther Adams' orchestral work Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, completed in 1995, was inspired by
The Cloud of Unknowing
Steve Roach's album The Magnificent Void (1996) includes a track named "Cloud of Unknowing"
J. D. Salinger's novel Franny and Zooey (1961) refers to The Cloud of Unknowingin a passage where the
characters are discussing contemplative prayer.
W. Somerset Maugham referenced The Cloud of Unknowingin The Razor's Edge.
Todd Rundgren refers to The Cloud of Unknowingin the 1989 song "The Waiting Game" from Nearly Human
Current 93's 1994 album, Of Ruine or Some Blazing Starre, includes a song titled "The Cloud of Unknowing"
In Don DeLillo's 1997 book, Underworld, Part 3 (of 6) is entitled "The Cloud of Unknowing: Spring 1978"
The character Rev. Ames in Gilead (2004) by Marilynne Robinson refers to the book several times in an
introspective journal/letter to his son.
Gorillaz' 2010 album, Plastic Beach, includes a song titled "Cloud of Unknowing"
Swans' 2016 album, The Glowing Man, includes two songs titled "Cloud of Forgetting" and "Cloud of Unknowing".
Appears atop a stack of religious volumes on the desk of Rev
. Ernst Toller in Paul Schrader's 2017 film First

Butcher, Carmen Acevedo (2018).The Cloud of Unknowing. Boston: Shambhala Pocket Edition.ISBN 978-1-61180-
Butcher, Carmen Acevedo (2009).The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel . Boston: Shambhala.
ISBN 978-1-59030-622-2.
The Cloud of Unknowing: And The Book of Privy Counseling(1944). ed., [Phyllis Hodgson]. Early English e Txt
Society. Oxford University Press, hardback:ISBN 0-19-722218-8.
The Cloud of Unknowing(1957). translator, Ira Progoff. Dell/Doubleday. 1983 paperback: ISBN 0-440-31994-3, 1989
paperback: ISBN 0-385-28144-7
Johnston, William; preface:Huston Smith (1996) [1973]. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling .
New York: Image Books. ISBN 0-385-03097-5. (first edition, 1973)
John J. Kirvan (1996).Where Only Love Can Go: A Journey of the Soul Into the Cloud of Unknowing . Ave Maria
Press. ISBN 0877935912.
The Cloud of Unknowing and other works. Penguin Classics. 2001.ISBN 978-0-14-044762-0. Translated by A. C.
The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. New York: Penguin Books. 1961.ISBN 0-14-044-385-1. Translated by
Clifton Wolters. Includes The Cloud of Unknowing, The Epistle of Privy Counsel, Dionysius' Mystical Teaching, and
The Epistle of Prayer.
Editions of related texts include

Deonise Hid Divinite: And Other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer Related to The Cloud of Unknowing(1955). ed.,
Phyllis Hodgson. Early English Text Society. Oxford University Press, 2002 paperback: 0859916987
The Pursuit of Wisdom: And Other Works by the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing(1988). translator, James Walsh.
Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality. paperback: ISBN 0-8091-2972-8.

Cloud of Unknowing PDF, alt

See also
Apophatic theology (known also as the via negativa)

1. An important introductory section of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica states a recurring premise of the work:
that "we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but
rather how He is not." As for how to proceed: "Now it can be shown how God is not, by denying of Him whatever is
opposed to the idea of Him" (Intro to Treatise on Divine Simplicity, Prima Pars, Q. 3). It's possible either that the
author of the Cloud was influenced by Aquinas, or correspondingly , both the author and Aquinas were influenced by
Pseudo-Dionysius. Orthodox Christian philosophy is also influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius.
2. Ch. 39-40, other translations:
* Evelyn Underhill (1922/2003): "And if we will intentively pray for getting of good, let us cry , either with word
or with thought or with desire, nought else nor no more words, but this word “God.” For why , in God be all
good.. Fill thy spirit with the ghostly bemeaning of it without any special beholding to any of His works—whether they
be good, better, or best of all—bodily or ghostly, or to any virtue that may be wrought in man’ s soul by any grace; not
looking after whether it be meekness or charity , patience or abstinence, hope, faith, or soberness, chastity or wilful
poverty. What recks this in contemplatives?..they covet nothing with special beholding, but only good God. Do thou..
mean God all, and all God, so that nought work in thy wit and in thy will, but only God. [8]

* Middle English original: "And yif we wil ententifly preie for getyng of goodes, lat us crie, outher with worde or with
thought or with desire, nought elles, ne no mo wordes, bot this worde God. For whi in God ben alle goodes.. Fille thi
spirit with the goostly bemenyng of it withoutyn any specyal beholdyng to any of His werkes whether thei be good,
betir, or alther best, bodily or goostly—or to any vertewe that may be wrought in mans soule by any grace, not lokyng
after whether it be meeknes or charité, pacyence or abstynence, hope, feith, or sobirnes, chastité or wilful poverté.
What thar reche in contemplatyves?.. thei coveyte nothing with specyal beholdyng, bot only good God. Do thou..
mene God al, and al God, so that nought worche in thi witte and in thi wile, bot only God. [9]

1. "Introduction", The Cloud of Unknowing, (Evelyn Underhill, ed.) 1922(
2. "Introduction", The Cloud of Unknowing, (Patrick Gallacher, ed.) (TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 1997) (http://
3. The Cloud of Unknowing, (James Walsh, ed.) (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p. 2.
4. Walsh pp. 3-9.
5. McGinn, Bernard. The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, (New York: Herder & Herder, 2012), p396.
6. The Cloud of Unknowing and other works. Penguin Classics. 2001.ISBN 978-0-14-044762-0. Translated by A. C.
7. Johnston (1996), pp. 98-101.
8. Cloud (version), Underhill (2003),pp. 69-72 (, Accessed 23 May
9. Cloud (original), Gallacher (1997),lines 1426 - 1471 (
Archived (
February 2009 at the Wayback Machine, Accessed 23 May 2010.
10. Johnston (1996), p. 188 (paperback).
11. Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, (New York: Herder & Herder, 2012), p398.
12. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. by A. C. Spearing (London: Penguin, 2001), p. xl.
13. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed James Walsh, (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p16.
14. Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel(2006/1986). by Thomas Keating. Continuum
International Publishing Group. paperback:ISBN 0-8264-0696-3, hardback: ISBN 0-8264-1420-6.
15. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. by A. C. Spearing (London: Penguin, 2001), p. xviii; Ninian Smart,
'What Would Buddhaghosa Have Made ofThe Cloud of Unknowing?', in Mysticism and Language, ed. by Steven A,
Katz (New York, 1992), pp. 103-22.
16. See verse four of the song.
17. Don DeLillo, Underworld (New York: Scribner, 1997), p. 273.
18. "Official trailer for First Reformed"(
1). Appears at :10. Retrieved June 8, 2018.

External links
The Cloud of Unknowingread by Carmen Acevedo Butcher
Introduction to Online textwith analysis and bibliography

Online text in Middle English, 2528 lines in 75 chapters on onehtml page

John Watkins 1922 London edition with introduction by Evelyn Underhill
John Watkins 1922, London edition, multipleformats CCEL
The Cloud of Unknowingpublic domain audiobook atLibriVox

Retrieved from "


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