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The Cloud of Unknowing

Evelyn Underhill

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This is Evelyn Underhill's translation of the medieval spiritual guidebook called The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous English monk. At the core is a mystical approach to Christian prayer, in which God is found not through rote knowledge, but through 'blind love.' It has been described as Christianity with a Zen outlook.

This book has 96 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1922.

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Excerpt from 'The Cloud of Unknowing'

THE little family of mystical treatises which is known to students as “the Cloud of Unknowing group,” deserves more attention than it has hitherto received from English lovers of mysticism: for it represents the first expression in our own tongue of that great mystic tradition of the Christian Neoplatonists which gathered up, remade, and “salted with Christ’s salt” all that was best in the spiritual wisdom of the ancient world.

That wisdom made its definite entrance into the Catholic fold about A.D. 500, in the writings of the profound and nameless mystic who chose to call himself “Dionysius the Areopagite.” Three hundred and fifty years later, those writings were translated into Latin by John Scotus Erigena, a scholar at the court of Charlemagne, and so became available to the ecclesiastical world of the West. Another five hundred years elapsed, during which their influence was felt, and felt strongly, by the mystics of every European country: by St. Bernard, the Victorines, St. Bonaventura, St. Thomas Aquinas. Every reader of Dante knows the part which they play in the Paradiso. Then, about the middle of the 14th century, England—at that time in the height of her great mystical period—led the way with the first translation into the vernacular of the Areopagite’s work. In Dionise Hid Divinite, a version of the Mystica Theologia, this spiritual treasure‑house was first made accessible to those outside the professionally religious class. Surely this is a fact which all lovers of mysticism, all “spiritual patriots,” should be concerned to hold in remembrance.

It is supposed by most scholars that Dionise Hid Divinite, which—appearing as it did in an epoch of great spiritual vitality--quickly attained to a considerable circulation, is by the same hand which wrote the Cloud of Unknowing and its companion books; and that this hand also produced an English paraphrase of Richard of St. Victor’s Benjamin Minor, another work of much authority on the contemplative life. Certainly the influence of Richard is only second to that of Dionysius in this unknown mystic’s own work—work, however, which owes as much to the deep personal experience, and extraordinary psychological gifts of its writer, as to the tradition that he inherited from the past.

Nothing is known of him; beyond the fact, which seems clear from his writings, that he was a cloistered monk devoted to the contemplative life. It has been thought that he was a Carthusian. But the rule of that austere order, whose members live  in hermit‑like seclusion, and scarcely meet except for the purpose of divine worship, can hardly have afforded him opportunity of observing and enduring all those tiresome tricks and absurd mannerisms of which he gives so amusing and realistic a description in the lighter passages of the Cloud. These passages betray the half‑humorous exasperation of the temperamental recluse, nervous, fastidious, and hypersensitive, loving silence and peace, but compelled to a daily and hourly companionship with persons of a less contemplative type: some finding in extravagant and meaningless gestures an outlet for suppressed vitality; others overflowing with a terrible cheerfulness like “giggling girls and nice japing jugglers”; others so lacking in repose that they “can neither sit still, stand still, nor lie still, unless they be either wagging with their feet or else somewhat doing with their hands.” Though he cannot go to the length of condemning these habits as mortal sins, the author of the Cloud leaves us in no doubt as to the irritation with which they inspired him, or the distrust with which he regards the spiritual claims of those who fidget.

The attempt to identify this mysterious writer with Walter Hilton, the author of The Scale of Perfection, has completely failed: though Hilton’s work—especially the exquisite fragment called the Song of Angels—certainly betrays his influence. The works attributed to him, if we exclude the translations from Dionysius and Richard of St. Victor, are only five in number. They are, first, The Cloud of Unknowing—the longest and most complete exposition of its author’s peculiar doctrine—and, depending from it, four short tracts or letters: The Epistle of Prayer, The Epistle of Discretion in the Stirrings of the Soul, The Epistle of Privy Counsel, and The Treatise of Discerning of Spirits. Some critics have even disputed the claim of the writer of the Cloud to the  authorship of these little works, regarding them as the production of a group or school of contemplatives devoted to the study and practice of the Dionysian mystical theology; but the unity of thought and style found in them makes this hypothesis at least improbable. Everything points rather to their being the work of an original mystical genius, of strongly marked character and great literary ability: who, whilst he took the framework of his philosophy from Dionysius the Areopagite, and of his psychology from Richard of St. Victor, yet is in no sense a mere imitator of these masters, but introduced a genuinely new element into mediaeval religious literature.

What, then, were his special characteristics? Whence came the fresh colour which he gave to the old Platonic theory of mystical experience? First, I think, from the combination of high spiritual gifts with a vivid sense of humour, keen powers of observation, a robust common‑sense: a balance of qualities not indeed rare amongst the mystics, but here presented to us in an extreme form. In his eager gazing on divinity this contemplative never loses touch with humanity, never forgets the sovereign purpose of his writings; which is not a declaration of the spiritual favours he has received, but a helping of his fellow‑men to share them. Next, he has a great simplicity of outlook, which enables him to present the result of his highest experiences and intuitions in the most direct and homely language. So actual, and so much a part of his normal existence, are his apprehensions of spiritual reality, that he can give them to us in the plain words of daily life: and thus he is one of the most realistic of mystical writers. He abounds in vivid little phrases—“Call sin a lump”: “Short prayer pierceth heaven”: “Nowhere bodily, is everywhere ghostly”: “Who that will not go the strait way to heaven, . . . shall go the soft way to hell.” His range of experience is a wide one. He does not disdain to take a hint from the wizards and necromancers on the right way to treat the devil; he draws his illustrations of divine mercy from the homeliest incidents of friendship and parental love. A skilled theologian, quoting St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and using with ease the language of scholasticism, he is able, on the other hand, to express the deepest speculations of mystical philosophy without resorting to academic terminology: as for instance where he describes the spiritual heaven as a “state” rather than a “place”:

“For heaven ghostly is as nigh down as up, and up as down: behind as before, before as behind, on one side as other. Insomuch, that whoso had a true desire for to be at heaven, then that same time he were in heaven ghostly. For the high and the next way thither is run by desires, and not by paces of feet.” 

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