Category Archives: Carthusian

The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing

by Anonymous (2006 trans., originally 14th cent.)

Unlike another spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, written in present-day Netherlands slightly later, this work was (no pun intended) unknown to me until about two or three years ago. Then all of a sudden, I was seeing it everywhere. It would be referenced in one book, and then another, until my curiosity was piqued. I was shocked to learn that the author of such a work was (not again!) unknown.

Nevermind. So I finally grabbed this modern translation of the original Middle English (presumed written by a Carthusian monk in Great Britain) and eventually got around to reading it. The book consists of 75 extremely short chapters, some a half page long, with the longest around three or so pages.

The basic premise is that you need to let go of your conceptual idea of God because it stands in the way of actually getting to know God. Because we are all susceptible to this, we actually have to keep at this repeatedly. What we think of God needs to be let go of, so that we can get to know him, again and again. It all sounds so Jedi mind trick, but if you relax and let the proposal penetrate you, much like faith, believing becomes seeing.

Or so that’s how my interpretation of it goes. If you start to read more widely, you are likely to see references to this book. It’s probably less frustrating if you have already read this book by the time that becomes a regular occurrence.

Do not let me leave you with a false impression: I do recommend this book. You will just need to be prepared for a very different sort of reading experience. It’s just a slippery sort of topic. A little hard to grasp at first, but it can be done.

Here is all of Chapter 5, “The Cloud of Forgetting”:

If you want to enter, live, and work in this cloud of unknowing, you will need a cloud of forgetting between you and the things of this earth. Consider the problem carefully and you will understand that you are farthest from God when you do not ignore for a moment the creatures and circumstances of the physical world. Attempt to blank out everything but God.

Even valuable thoughts of some special creatures are of little use for this exercise. Memory is a kind of spiritual light that the eye of the soul focuses upon, similar to the way an archer fixes his gaze upon a target. I tell you, whatever you think about looms above you while you are thinking about it, and it stands between you and God. To the extent that anything other than God is in your mind, you are that much farther from God.

I will also say, with reverence and respect, that regarding this exercise, even thinking about the kindness and worthiness of God, of any other spiritual being, or of the joys of heaven contributes nothing. These are uplifting and worthy subjects, but you are far better off contemplating God’s pure and simple being, separated from all his divine attributes.

– pg. 11

(NOTE: See the discussion of the less-common usage of “simple” at the bottom of the post for The Sanctifier.)

UPDATE: There is an impressive documentary on the Carthusians, which is available for streaming free online: Into Great Silence (the comment at this site states that there are no subtitles, nor are any needed–while largely true, there are scripture quotes interspersed throughout, and the version streaming on Netflix has subtitles for those, which you might want).