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[Watershed Online: Spirituality]
[Questions on The Cloud]
by Linda Tiessen Wiebe

WHO WROTE The Cloud of Unknowing and why? What is meant by "cloud of unknowing"? How did current understandings of God and humanity inform it? Since this rich medieval text was written over 600 years ago, these and other questions can help us understand what the writer meant in his own time and context. I have included personal answers, but the questions can also be used as a study guide. (Click here for an imaginative dialogue with the author of The Cloud of Unknowing).

  1. What is the historical context of The Cloud of Unknowing?

  2. What were some sources that influenced the author?

  3. What is meant by the term "Cloud of Unknowing"?

  4. How would you express the perspective of God as portrayed in Cloud?

  5. Paraphrase the Cloud's understanding of human nature.

  6. Compare/contrast the basic themes of Cloud's spirituality to that of Richard Rolle's Fire of Love.

  7. Karen Armstrong mentions our modern disdain for contemplatives, and goes on to say that "the author of The Cloud of Unknowing does not discuss the social dimension of the contemplative vocation." (Visions of God, 55, 57). How do you think the author of The Cloud of Unknowing understood the work of contemplation? What role do you see it playing in our time?

  8. "Well, where is the hard work [of contemplation] then? 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, 94). Cloud seems to be suggesting that a God separate from creation is necessary for experiencing transcendance. How does this compare with your own experience?


  1. What is the historical context of The Cloud of Unknowing?

    • The Cloud of Unknowing written between 1350 - 1390
    • Latin/Greek conflict - 1204, sacking of Constantinople - Greeks not helping West with fighting Turks - West saw Greeks as inferior/heretical
    • Scholasticism/rationalism
    • Papal fissure (Rome/Avignon)
    • Development of city states - guilds - growing merchant/guild class
    • John Wyclif (first English translation of Bible, 1380)
    • 100 Years War in progress (1327 - 1485) - caused severe economic crisis in 1339
    • Black Death - 1349/50
    • Establishment of distinctly English literature with writing of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer (1387)

  2. What were some sources that influenced the author?

    • Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173)
      - prior of Abbey of St. Victor in Paris
      - exegete, philosopher, theologian, psychologist, mystic
      - placed high value on reason, took a rational approach to contemplation
      - believed in the unity of all forms of knowledge
      - his definition of contemplation: "a power to co-ordinate a variety of perceptions into one all-embracing intuition fixed with wonder on divine things." Clifton Wolters, Penguin edition of The Cloud of Unknowing.
      - author of Cloud probably translated one of his works, Benjamin Minor


    • Dionysius the Areopagite (sixth century)
      - pseudonymous name, anonymous Syrian monk
      - basic thesis: the absolute unknowability of God
      - from eastern Greek tradition- via Negative
      - "It is because the truths about God are so overwhelmingly positive and real that we cannot describe them." Clifton Wolters, Penguin edition of The Cloud of Unknowing.
      - author of Cloud likely translated Dionysius' Mystical Theology.

  3. What is meant by the term "cloud of unknowing"?

    In order to understand this, we need to have a better appreciation for how the author understood mysticism.

    As traced elsewhere, western mysticism began in the 13th century as a response to several factors. Maybe it was the failure of the church to provide coherence. Or maybe it was, as Armstrong suggests, a coming of age, the ripe time for Christianity to begin exploring its inner life. By this time there were two distinct flavours of Christianity: the western Latin church, centered in Rome, and the eastern Greek church rooted in Constantinople. The former favoured an Aristotelian rational approach to faith, while the latter leaned towards the futility of knowing God. Greek thought wasn't new to England by the time Cloud was written. Dionysius' Mystical Theology was probably widely read among the literate. But Cloud is different in that it is written by a western (probably a monk) with an Eastern stance. All the other mystics at the time, while influenced by Dionysius, were still rooted in the western tradition.

    The general pattern of the contemplative life was to enter an order, live a simple life and practise a disciplined regiment of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. Reading involved scripture and the writings of monks, abbots or mystics. Meditation was usually on images of Christ's life or verses of scripture, or on God's mercy on human depravity. The first three required something of the novitiate; contemplation was the reward of visions of God. It is in his understanding of the nature of contemplation that the author of Cloud differs from his contemporaries.

    To contemplate, the author believed, is to remove yourself from all you know or think you know about God or yourself. At first this seems a negation of reality. We use images to understand ourselves and our experiences. I think this is what the reading, praying, meditating disciplines teach. But there comes a time when, to experience God, you must make room. Images shape our perceptions; to be completely open to reality is to hold our perceptions loosely. Clifton Wolters, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics translation of The Cloud of Unknowing, talks about it as the reality of God being so full and so beyond our language, that it is better not to try to speak of him or to use language,images or ideas. The preceding disciplines have helped the novice build trust in God; now that trust has to take a deeply personal path. The Cloud of Unknowing is accompanied by an utter reliance on God. Cloud uses the image of piercing the darkness with one's love for God. In this way the novice moves towards loving God completely for his own sake, not for God's goodness (or God's benefit to himself/herself)

  4. How would you express the perspective of God as portrayed in Cloud?

    God is seen as remote at first. But as you understand the context of the book, you understand that God is so other he appears to be apart, but that God is also suffused into all of reality. So the language of union is also present.

  5. Paraphrase the Cloud's understanding of human nature.

    The human is unworthy, but is also the temple of God. Only when both threads are held together do you see the mystery of contemplation: the realization of God within humanity. In some of his advice to the novice-reader, the author of Cloud reveals a psychological, humanist leaning in his understanding. For instance, he suggests we can get preoccupied with meditating on sinfulness to the point of distracting ourselves from the object of meditation - the presence of God. The author of Cloud also had a developmental approach to spiritual formation. I think this work shows that the theme of the divinization of humans is affecting the traditional original-sin psychology. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing hasn't integrated the views, but he shows a lively tension that prefigures humanism. Perhaps the mystics' quest for God within humanity helped prepare the soil for humanism.

  6. Compare/contrast the basic themes of Cloud's spirituality to that of Rolle's The Fire of Love.

    Rolle focused his spirituality on the direct experience of God, either literally through the senses, or using sense lanaguage metaphorically. His writing is a testimonial to his experience of God. Rolle is episodic, seeking solace from God. The author of Cloud's writing is focused more on the process of becoming a contemplative - his intent is educational. His spirituality focuses on learning to love God as himself. It is process oriented. He finds some solace in his own search, in the objective fact of the incarnation (that God chose humanity as a dwelling place). They both affirm that direct experience of God's love and guidance is possible.

    They also both affirm that the body is a part of that experience (whatever you make of Rolle's interpretation). Both struggle with abasing the body and seeing it as a means of God's grace, although I think Rolle was less conscious of this dichotomy. Both discuss the impossibility of knowing God. For Rolle this was a polemic against scholastic learning of God, which could have become anti-intellectualism and anti-reason for him. For the author of Cloud, it is more a hermeneutical stance, a way of interpreting the spiritual life: we strive to know God but can only know him through Love. Both emphasize that the resolution of the tension between spirit and flesh is in Love. For Rolle it is experienced Love, for the author of Cloud it is expressing Love towards God. Also, both talk about the inner apprehension of God, but I think Rolle had a deeper experience of this. At least he writes from that experience. The author of Cloud may have, but is not drawing directly from that, because he is more outer-focused. But the profundity of Rolle's experience is a witness in itself, not necessarily to be emulated, that God does enter our innermost life.

  7. Karen Armstrong mentions our modern disdain for contemplatives, and goes on to say that "the author of The Cloud of Unknowing does not discuss the social dimension of the contemplative vocation." (Visions of God, 55, 57). How do you think the author of The Cloud of Unknowing understood the work of contemplation? What role do you see it playing in our time?

    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:

    "...for whoever really has [this gift of contemplation] will be well able to control both himself and his possessions by virtue of it. 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...to the astonishment of the onlooker, and with a magnetic effect on others, drawing them by grace to the same spiritual work that he practises." (chapter 54)

    From this I would say the author of Cloud understands the primary purpose of contemplation to be loving God completely on God's own merits, with devotion and undivided attention. 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.

  8. "Well, where is the hard work [of contemplation] then? 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, 94). With this quotation, Cloud seems to be suggesting that a God separate from creation is necessary for experiencing transcendence. How does this compare with your own experience?

    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. It's what C.S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy, the unexpected encounter in simple things with the deepest Ground of Being. These encounters can't be manufactured, but on reflection I see a Personality behind them. I appreciated Wolters' definition of Cloud as God being so vast that no image can completely describe God. But the awe of this vastness for me is evoked by Presence. How amazing that the creative force of the universe is so deeply imbedded in this earth, that traces of Personality are described in sub-atomic particles. Or more simply, how amazing that two people could ever forgive and learn to love one another. I am drawn to wonder when my eyes are open.

    From another point of view, The Cloud of Unknowing offers a critique to my experience. The author's whole reason for advocating the "cloud of forgetting" is that God can be loved apart from function or benefits. I think I'm often too absorbed in my own life (or my own images) to think of God as God is. I'm not sure I'm called to contemplation as defined by Cloud. But I'm called to a dialogue with God in my own life. I feel sometimes I only hear God as God relates to my concerns. After reading this book, I'm left wanting to listen more attentively, to see more clearly who this God I want to follow is. Perhaps I could use the metaphor of emptying as emptying of my own need for God.

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