The Cloud of Unknowing

The Contemplative Life and Working Out

I used to be an athlete.  I pretty much had a sport for every season and I was good at most of them.  Football, in particular, was a big part of my life and I had the opportunity to play through college.  

Football is the kind of sport that you're always training for.  In the offseason, even though I was playing other sports, I was always training for football.  Squats, power cleans, bench press, rows, cardio, plyos, sprints.  It was hardcore.  My goal was to have the fastest, strongest body I could in order to be the best football player I could be.

After college, I stopped lifting and working out so much.  Part of it was that I no longer had as much of a reason to.  If I wasn't training to excel in a sport, what was my motivation?  It seemed to me that my motivation to work out, and especially lift weights, was to look better.  Pure vanity.  So I stopped.  I was okay that that season of my life had passed.

Fast forward to my early 30's.  I'm getting old.   Not old old.  But old.  Not working out in your 30's is a different thing than not working out in your 20's.  In your 20's you can get away with it.   You can still be generally healthy without training too much. In your 30's the pounds come real quick.  

So I'm starting to train again.  

Any action can be performed for self and any action can be performed for something beyond self.  In my spiritual life, I've come to the conclusion that, while it isn't necessarily wrong to do things for self, it's just empty.  I think training so that I can have a good looking body is an empty and unfulfilling goal.  It simply leads to more ego – more "I," "me," "mine" – which leads to more unrest.  Training to have more energy, a positive mood, and a healthier body so that I can better serve the world?  That's different.  According to Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.  A pure heart wills only "the good."  The saint lives purely to complete the will of God as she understands it.  From this point of view, if an action is directed toward "doing the most good," or "completing the will of God in the world," it comes from a pure motive.  

I can work out for self, or I can work out for something beyond self. 

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, when speaking about the work of contemplative practice, has this to say about physical training:


"I am serious when I say that this work demands a relaxed, healthy, and vigorous disposition of both body and spirit. For the love of God, discipline yourself in body and spirit so that you preserve your health as long as you can."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 41




So I'm going to start discipling my body again.  And, as with just about every action I perform in life, I'll probably have mixed motives in doing so.  The less it's about self and the more it's about something beyond self, the better.

The Book of Privy Counseling: Thought Unified in Him Who is All

The Book of Privy Counseling is often packaged with The Cloud of Unknowing.  This short work is written by the same author as The Cloud, and represents his mature thought, after years of giving himself to the spiritual work.  

Chapter 1 of The Book of Privy Counseling could serve as a summation of the author's understanding of apophatic prayer.  

"When you go apart to be alone for prayer, put from your mind everything you have been doing or plan to do.  Reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil.  Do not pray with words unless you are really drawn to this; or if you do pray with words, pay no attention to whether they are many or few.  Do not weigh them or their meaning.  Do not be concerned about what kind of prayers you use, for it is unimportant whether or not they are official liturgical prayers, psalms hymns, or anthems; whether you formulate them interiorly by thoughts, or express them aloud, in words.  See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out toward God.  Leave it stripped of every particular idea about God (what he is like in himself or in his works) and keep only the simple awareness that he is as he is.  Let him be thus, I pray you, and force him not to be otherwise.  Search into him no further, but rest in this faith as on solid ground.  This awareness, stripped of ideas and deliberately bound and anchored in faith, shall leave your thought and affection in emptiness except for a naked thought and blind feeling of your own being.  It will feel as if your whole desire cried out to God and said:

   That which I am I offer to you, O Lord,
   without looking to any quality of your
   being but only to the fact that you
   are as you are; this, and nothing more.

Let that quiet darkness be your whole mind and like a mirror to you.  For I want your thought of self to be as naked and as simple as your thought of God, so that you may be spiritually united to him without any fragmentation and scattering of your mind.  He is your being, and in him, you are what you are, not only because he is the cause and being of all that exists, but because he is your cause and the deep center of your being.  Therefore, in this contemplative work think of your self and of him in the same way: that is, with the simple awareness that he is as he is, and that you are as you are.  In this way your thought will not be fragmented or scattered but unified in him who is all.

Yet keep in mind this distinction between yourself and him: he is your being but you are not his.  It is true that everything exists in him as in its source and ground of being, and that he exists in all things, as their cause and their being.  Yet a radical distinction remains: he alone is his own cause and his own being.  For as nothing can exist without him, so he cannot exist without himself.  He is his own being and the being of everything else.  Of him, alone may this be said; and thus he is wholly separate and distinct from every created thing.  And thus, also, he is one in all things and all things are one in him.  For I repeat: all things exist in him; he is the being of all.

And since this is so, let grace unite your thought and affection to him, while you strive to reject all minute inquiry into the particular qualities of your blind being or of his.  Leave your thought quite naked, your affection uninvolved, and your self simply as you are, so that grace may touch and nourish you with the experimental knowledge of God as he really is.  In this life, this experience will always remain dark and partial so that your longing desire for him will be ever newly enkindled."

The Book of Privy Counseling, Chapter 1

This will be the last post in The Cloud of Unknowing series.  Coming from a Christian background, this is one of the first books that led me down the contemplative path.  I personally believe that this is one of the profound works of contemplative thought in world history and highly recommend getting a copy to dig into it further.  See the Centering Prayer page for more on The Cloud of Unknowing and its relationship to the Centering Prayer movement.

To end this series, here is a lecture on The Cloud given by Father Dennis Billy from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.  

The Cloud of Unknowing: No Moderation

In many forms of modern contemplative practice, moderation is suggested.  In the Centering Prayer movement, leaders suggest two, twenty minute sessions per day.  The same recommendation seems to be present in the TM and Zen communities.  The idea is to encourage regular practice, not irregular, long sessions.  

Some of the concern, at least from Centering Prayer teachers, is that longer sessions may lead to an overload of intense psychological material being released from the subconscious.  For this reason, if a new practitioner wishes to dig deeper, many of these teachers will suggest a ten day retreat in the presence of experienced leaders, who may be able to lead someone through this experience in a safe way.

It is somewhat ironic that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing shows little concern for moderation in prayer.  In fact, he encourages none at all.  In the following exerpt, the author encourages "the middle path" in virtually all areas of life, but in the work of contemplative love, he wishes it would never cease.

"Now if you ask me what sort of moderation you should observe in the contemplative work, I will tell you: none at all.  In everything else, such as eating, drinking, and sleeping, moderation is the rule.  Avoid extremes of heat and cold; guard against too much and too little in reading, prayer, or social involvement.  In all these things, I say again, keep to the middle path.  But in love take no measure.  Indeed, I wish that you had never to cease from this work of love.

But as a matter of fact, you must realize that in this life it will be impossible to continue in this work with the same intensity all the time.  Sickness, afflictions of body and mind, and countless other necessities of nature will often leave you indisposed and keep you from its heights.  Yet, at the same time, I counsel you to remain at it always either in earnest, or, as it were, playfully.  What I mean is that through desire you can remain with it even when other things intervene.  For the love of God, then, avoid illness as much as possible so that you are not responsible for unnecessary infirmity.

I am serious when I say that this work demands a relaxed, healthy, and vigorous disposition of both body and spirit.  For the love of God, discipline yourself in body and spirit so that you preserve your health as long as you can.  But if, despite your best efforts, illness overtakes you, be patient in bearing it and humbly wait for God's mercy.  This is enough.  Indeed, your patience in sickness and affliction may often be more pleasing to God than tender feelings of devotion in times of health."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 41

Again, the author commands his student to "beat relentlessly" on the cloud, so that he may experience the healing of God.

"And so stand firmly and avoid pitfalls, keep to the path you are on.  Let your longing relentlessly beat upon the cloud of unknowing that lies between you and your God.  Pierce that cloud with the keen shaft of your love, spurn the thought of anything less than God, and do not give up this work for anything.  For the contemplative work of love by itself will eventually heal you of all the roots of sin.  Fast as much as you like, watch far into the night, rise long before dawn, discipline your body, and if it were permitted – which it is not – put out your eyes, tear out your tongue, plug up your ears and nose, and cut off your limbs; yes, chastise your body with every discipline and you would still gain nothing.  The desire and tendency toward sin would remain in your heart.

What is more, if you wept in constant sorrow for your sins and Christ's Passion and pondered unceasingly on the joys of heaven, do you think it would do you any good?  Much good, I am sure.  You would profit no doubt and grow in grace, but in comparison with the blind stirring of love, all this is very little.  For the contemplative work of love is the best part, belonging to Mary.  It is perfectly complete by itself while all these disciplines and exercises are of little value without it.  

The work of love not only heals the roots of sin, but nurtures practical goodness.  When it is authentic you will be sensitive to every need and respond with generosity unspoiled by selfish intent.  Anything you attempt to do without this love will certainly be imperfect, for it is sure to be marred by ulterior motives.  Genuine goodness is a matter of habitually acting and responding appropriately to each situation, as it arises, move always my the desire to please God."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 12


The Cloud of Unknowing: Let That Mysterious Grace Move

In this excerpt, the spiritual director uses the image of being wood to a carpenter.  The idea is that the practitioner of Centering Prayer is passive.  The goal is not to "do something," but to let something be done in you.  To let that mysterious grace move.

I come back to this image often.

"...become increasingly faithful to this work until it becomes your whole life.  

To put it more simply, let that mysterious grace move in your spirit as it will and follow it wherever it leads you.  Let it be the active doer and you the passive receiver.  Do not meddle with it (as if you could possibly improve on grace), but let it be for fear you spoil it entirely.  Your part is to be as wood to a carpenter or a home to a dweller.  Remain blind during this time cutting away all desire to know, for knowledge is a hindrance here.  Be content to feel this mysterious grace sweetly awaken in the depths of your spirit.  Forget everything but God and fix on him your naked desire, your longing stripped of all self-interest."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 34


The Cloud of Unknowing: A Cloud of Forgetting

In this excerpt, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing instructs the practitioner that he must put a cloud of forgetting between himself and all created things.  That is to say, during this type of prayer, no thought is welcomed or indulged.  The author is describing apophatic prayer – what is sometimes conceptualized as "resting in God." 

"If you wish to enter into this cloud, to be at home in it, and to take up the contemplative work of love as I urge you to, there is something else you must do.  Just as the cloud of unknowing lies above you, between you and your God, so you must fashion a cloud of forgetting beneath you, between you and every created thing.  The cloud of unknowing will perhaps leave you with the feeling that you are far from God.  But no, if it is authentic, only the absence of a cloud of forgetting keeps you from him now.  Every time I say "all creatures," I refer not only to every created thing but also to all their circumstances and activities.  I make no exception.  You are to concern yourself with no creature whether material or spiritual nor with their situation and doings whether good or ill.  To put it briefly, during this work you must abandon them all beneath the cloud of forgetting.

For although at certain times and in certain circumstances it is necessary and useful to dwell on the particular situation and activity of people and things, during this work it is almost useless.  Thinking and remembering are forms of spiritual understanding in which the eye of the spirit is opened and closed upon things as the eye of a marksman is on his target.  But I tell you that everything you dwell upon during this work becomes an obstacle to union with God.  For if your mind is cluttered with these concerns there is no room for him.

Yes, and with all due reverence, I go so far as to say that it is equally useless to think you can nourish your contemplative work by considering God's attributes, his kindness or his dignity; or by thinking about our Lady, the angels, or the saints; or about the joys of heaven, wonderful as these will be.  I believe that this kind of activity is no longer any use to you.  Of course, it is laudable to reflect upon God's kindness and to love and praise him for it; yet it is far better to let your mind rest in the awareness of him in his naked existence and to love and praise him for what he is in himself."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 5

The Cloud of Unknowing: Contemplative Work of the Spirit

The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous work, written by a spiritual director from the Catholic contemplative tradition in the 14th Century.  In it, the author describes a type of prayer in which one strives to reject all thought, hoping to experience and be healed by God in stillness of mind.  The author calls this state, one in which all thoughts are rejected and the mind is stilled, the cloud of unknowing.  He believes that encountering God in this way is the way to a changed spirit and character, and, ultimately, to union with God.  The modern Centering Prayer movement is based on the method of prayer found in this book.

Here, the author describes this "contemplative work of the spirit":

"This is what you are to do: lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts.  Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.  Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God's creatures or their affairs whether in general or particular.  Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them.

What I am describing here is the contemplative work of the spirit.  It is this which gives God the greatest delight.  For when you fix your love on him, forgetting all else, the saints and angels rejoice and hasten to assist you in every way – though the devils will rage and ceaselessly conspire to thwart you.  Your fellow men are marvelously enriched by this work of yours, even if you may not fully understand how; the souls in purgatory are touched, for their suffering is eased by the effects of this work; and, of course, your own spirit is purified and strengthened by this contemplative work more than by all others put together.  Yet for all of this, when God's grace arouses you to enthusiasm, it becomes the lightest sort of work there is and the one most willingly done.  Without his grace, however, it is very difficult and almost, I should say, quite beyond you.

And so diligently persevere until you feel the joy in it.  For in the beginning it is usual to feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknowing.  You will seem to know nothing and to feel nothing except a naked intent toward God in the depths of your being. Try as you might, this darkness and this cloud will remain between you and your God.  You will feel frustrated, for your mind will be unable to grasp him, and your heart will not relish the delight of his love.  But learn to be at home in this darkness.  Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to him who you love.  For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself it must be within this darkness and this cloud.  But if you strive to fix your love on him forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation I have urged you to begin, I am confident that God in his goodness will bring you to a deep experience of himself."

– The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 3