Excerpts from The Cloud of Unknowing

(James Walsh trans., New York : Paulist Press, 1981)

To you, whoever you are, who may have this book in your possession... I lay this charge upon you and implore you with all the power and force that the bond of charity can command. You are not to read it yourself or to others, or to copy it; nor are you to allow it so to be read in private or in public or copied willingly and deliberately, insofar as this is possible, except by someone or to someone who, as far as you know, has resolved with steadfast determination, truly and sincerely to be a perfect follower of Christ; and this not only in the active life, but in the contemplative life, at the highest point which a perfect soul in this present life can possibly reach, with the help of grace, whilst it still dwells in this mortal body. [prol.]

...there are four degrees and forms of the Christian life. They are: ordinary, special, singular and perfect. Three of these can be begun and ended in this life; and one may begin the fourth by grace here below, which is to last without end in the happiness of heaven.... Do you not see with what love and with what grace [God] has called you up to the third degree and manner of life, which is called singular? And in this state and manner of life of the solitary you are to learn to lift up the foot of your love [cf. Augustine], and step outwards towards that state and degree of life that is perfect, the last state of all. [c.1]

...[God] is a jealous lover and allows no other partnership, and he has no wish to work in your will unless he is there alone with you, by himself. He asks no help, but only you yourself. His will is that you should simply gaze at him, and leave him to act alone. Your part is to keep the windows and the door against the inroads of flies and enemies. And if you are willing to do this, all that is required of you is to woo him humbly in prayer, and at once he will help you.... [c.2]

This is the work of the soul that pleases God most.... [T]he souls in purgatory are eased of their pain, and you yourself are purified and made virtuous, much more by this work than by any other. [c.3]

...it is the easiest exercise of all and most readily accomplished when a soul is helped by grace in this felt desire; otherwise, it would be extraordinarily difficult for you to make this exercise. Do not hang back then, but labour in it until you experience the desire. For when you first begin to undertake it, all that you find is a darkness, a sort of cloud of unknowing; you cannot tell what it is, except that you experience in your will a simple reaching out to God [a naked entent unto God]. This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do, and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason, and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection. So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness. [c.3]

It is an exercise that does not need a long time before it can be truly done, as some men seem to think; for it is the shortest possible of all exercises that men can imagine. It is neither longer nor shorter than an atom [ca. .16 seconds].... So take good care of time, therefore, and how you spend it. Nothing is more precious than time. In one small particle of time, little as it is, heaven can be won and lost. This is a sign that time is precious: God, who is the giver of time, never gives two particles of time together, but one after the other. This is because he refuses to reverse the order and the regular chain of causes of his creation. Time is made for man, not man for time [cf. Mk 2:27].... Love is so powerful that it makes everything ordinary. So love Jesus, and everything that he has is yours [cf. Lk 15:31]. By his Godhead he is the maker and giver of time. by his manhood he is truly the keeper of time. And by his Godhead and manhood together he is the truest judge and accountant of the spending of time. [c.4]

Now all rational creatures, angels and men alike, have in them, each one individually, one chief working power, which is called a knowing power; and of these two powers, God, who is the maker of them, is always incomprehensible to the first, the knowing power. But to the second, which is the loving power, he is entirely comprehensible in each one individually; in so much that one loving soul of itself, because of love, would be able to comprehend him who is entirely sufficient, and much more so, without limit, to fill all the souls of men and angels that could ever exist. [c.4]

Pay careful heed... to this exercise, and to the wonderful way in which it works within your soul. For when rightly understood, it is nothing else than a sudden impulse, one that comes without warning, speedily flying up to God as the spark flies up from the burning coal. Marvellous also are the number of such impulses that can take place in one hour in a soul that is properly disposed for the exercise. Yet in one stirring out of all these, a man can suddenly and perfectly have forgotten every created thing. And equally quickly, after each impulse, because of the corruption of the flesh, the soul falls down again to some thought or some deed done or undone. But what matter? For straightaway it rises again as suddenly as it did before. [c.4]

If ever you come to this cloud, and live and work in it as I bid you, just as this cloud of unknowing is above you, between you and your God, in the same way you must put beneath you a cloud of forgetting, between you and all the creatures that have ever been made. It seems to you, perhaps, that you are very far from him, because this cloud of unknowing is between you and your God, However, if you give it proper thought, you are certainly much further away from him when you do not have the cloud of forgetting between you and all the creatures that have ever been made. [c.5]

...no man can think of God himself. Therefore, it is my wish to leave everything that I can think of and choose for my love the thing that I cannot think. Because he can certainly be loved, but not thought. He can be taken and held by love but not by thought. Therefore, though it is good at times to think of the kindness and worthiness of God in particular, and though this is a light and a part of contemplation, nevertheless, in this exercise, it must be cast down and covered over with a cloud of forgetting. You are to step above it stalwartly but lovingly, and with a devout, pleasing, impulsive love strive to pierce that darkness above you. You are to smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love. [c.6]

...if any man or woman should think to come to contemplation without many sweet meditations... on their own wretched state, on the passion, the kindness and the great goodness and the worthiness of God, they will certainly be deceived and fail in their purpose. At the same time, those men and women who are long practised in these meditations must leave them aside, put them down and hold them far under the cloud of forgetting, if they are ever to pierce the cloud of unknowing between them and their God. [c.7]

If you like, you can have this reaching out, wrapped up and enfolded in a single word. So as to have a better grasp of it, take just a little word, of one syllable rather than of two; for the shorter it is the better it is in agreement with this exercise of the spirit. Such a one is the word "God" or the word "love." Choose which one you prefer, or any other according to your liking--the word of one syllable that you like best.... With this word you are to beat upon this cloud and this darkness above you. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting; so that if any thought should press upon you and ask you what you would have, answer it with no other word but with this one. [c.7]

...there are two kinds of lives in holy Church. One is the active life, and the other is the contemplative life. The active life is the lower and the contemplative life is the higher. Active life has two degrees, a higher and a lower; and the contemplative life also has two degrees, a lower and a higher. Further, these two lives are so joined together that though in part they are different, neither of them can be lived fully without having some part in the other. For the higher part of the active life is the same as the lower part of the contemplative life....

The lower part of the active life consists in good and honest corporal works of mercy and of charity. The higher part of the active life, and the lower part of the contemplative, consists in good spiritual meditations and earnest consideration of a man's own wretched state with sorrow and contrition, of the passion of Christ and of his servants with pity and compassion, and of the wonderful gifts, kindness, and works of God in all his creatures, corporeal and spiritual, with thanksgiving and praise. But the higher part of contemplation, insofar as it is possible to possess it here below, consists entirely in this darkness and in this with a loving impulse and a dark gazing into the simple being of God himself alone.

In the lower part of the active life, a man is outside himself and beneath himself. In the higher part of the active life, and the lower part of the contemplative life, a man is within himself and on a par with himself. But in the higher part of the contemplative life, a man is above himself and under his God. He is above himself, because he makes it his purpose to arrive by grace whither he cannot come by nature: that is to say, to be knit to God in spirit, in oneness of love and union of wills. [c.8]

Just as Martha complained about her sister Mary, in the same way, even to this day, all actives complain about contemplatives....

I agree that there are many who appear to have forsaken the world, who do fall away and have fallen away in the past; and instead of becoming God's servants and his contemplatives, have become the devil's, because they would not permit themselves to be governed by true spiritual counsel. And so they turn out to be hypocrites or heretics, or they fall into frenzies and many other kinds of misfortune, to the scandal of all holy Church....

....Just as Martha had very little knowledge of what her sister Mary was doing, when she complained of her to our Lord; in the same way these people nowadays have little or no knowledge of what these young disciples of God are about, when they turn from the business of this world and dispose themselves to be God's special servants in holiness and righteousness of spirit....

"Only one thing is necessary." What is that one thing? Surely that God may be loved and praised for himself, above all other business, bodily or spiritual, that man can do. And lest Martha might think that she could both love and praise God above all other business, bodily or spiritual, and at the same time be busy about the necessities of this life, he wished to make it clear to her that she could not serve God both in corporal works and in spiritual works together perfectly...

But though there are only two lives, yet in these two there are three parts, each one better than the other.... [T]he first part consists in good and honest corporal works of mercy and charity. This is the first degree of the active life... The second part of these two lives consists in good spiritual meditations on a man's own wretchedness, on the passion of Christ and the joys of heaven. The first part is good, but this part is better; for this is the second degree of the active life, and the first of the contemplative life. In this part the contemplative life and the active life are joined together in spiritual relationship. They are made sisters after the example of Martha and Mary. An active may make progress in contemplation thus far and no further, unless very seldom, and by a special grace. A contemplative may not descend any lower towards active life than this, except very seldom and when there is great need.

The third part of these two lives stands in this dark with many secret impulses of love towards God himself. The first part is good, the second is better, but the third is the best of all.... The first part and the second, although both are good and holy, yet they end with this life. For in the other life, it will not be necessary to exercise ourselves in the works of mercy, or to weep for our wretchedness or for the passion of Christ.... But the third part, which Mary chose, let those choose who are called to it by grace; or to speak more truly, let those who are chosen for it by God tend toward it with desire. For that shall never be taken away; if it begin here, it will last without end. [c.18- 21]

...The work consists in the treading down of the awareness of all the creatures that God ever made, and in keeping them under the cloud of forgetting... Here is all the labour; for this, with the help of grace, is man's work. And the other beyond this, the impulse of love, this is the work of God alone. So press on with your own work, and he, I promise you, will certainly not fail in his.

...For though it is hard and constraining in the beginning, when you have no devotion, nevertheless afterwards, when you have devotion it shall become very restful and very easy for you, though it was so hard before. Then you shall have very little labour, or none at all. For then God will work sometimes all by himself; but not always nor even for a long time together, but when it pleases him and as it pleases him; then it will seem to you a joyful thing to leave him to get on with it. [c.26]

Then perhaps it will be [God's] will to send out a ray of spiritual light, piercing this cloud of unknowing between you and him, and he will show you some of his secrets, of which man may not or cannot speak. Then you shall feel your affection all aflame with the fire of his love, far more than I know how to tell you or may or wish to at this time. For I dare not take it upon me to speak with my blabbering, fleshly tongue of the work that belongs to God alone; and, to put it briefly, even though I dared so to speak I would not wish to. [c.26]

[When thoughts about particular sins you have committed intrude between you and God,] [t]ry to look over their shoulders, as it were, as though you were looking for something else: that something else is God, surrounded on all sides by the cloud of unknowing....

There is another device, which you can put to the test if you so wish. When you feel that you can in no way put down these thoughts, cower down under them like a poor wretch and a coward overcome in battle, and reckon it to be a waste of time for you to strive any longer against them. In this way, though you are in the hands of your enemies, you give yourself up to God; feel as though you were hopelessly defeated.... [This] is is nothing else but a true knowledge and experience of yourself as you are, a wretch, filth, far worse than nothing. This knowing and experience is humility. This humility merits to have God himself coming down in his power to avenge you against your enemies, to take you up, to cherish you and to dry your spiritual eyes, as the father does for the child that was in danger of death under the mouths of wild boars or mad, biting bears. [c.32]

...The nature of this work is such that its presence gives the soul the capacity to possess it and to experience it; and no soul can have this capacity without that presence. The capacity for this exercise is inseparably united to the exercise itself. The two cannot be divided. So whoever experiences this divine work is able for it, otherwise not; insomuch that without this divine work a soul is as it were dead and cannot covet it or desire it. For as long as you have a will for it and a desire for it, insomuch you possess it, neither more nor less. Yet it is not a will nor a desire, but something which you are at a loss to describe, which moves you to desire you know not what. You must not care if you understand no more of it; just press on with the exercise more and more, so that you are always engaged in it.

To put it more clearly, let it do with you and lead you as it will. Let it be the one that works; you simply must consent to it. Simply look at it, and just let it be. Do not interfere with it, as though you wished to help it on, lest you spill it all. Try to be the wood and let it be the carpenter; the house, and let it be the husbandman dwelling in the house. During this time be blind, and cut away all desire of knowing; for this will hinder you more than it will help you. It is enough for you that you feel moved in love by something, though you do not know what it is; so that in this affection you have no thought of anything in particular under God, and that your reaching out is simply directed to God. [c.34]

...do not be afraid of the devil, for he cannot come so close. He can never come to move a man's will except very rarely, and very indirectly, no matter how clever he is. [c.34]

...in this exercise men must use no intermediaries, nor can they come to it through intermediaries. All good intermediaries depend on it, but it depends on none of them; nor can any intermediary lead you to it. [c.34]

...there are certain preparatory exercises which should occupy the attention of the contemplative apprentice... They may be called... reading, reflecting and praying.... [T]hese three are so linked together that there can be no profitable reflection without previous reading, or hearing. (Reading and hearing come to the same thing: the clerics read the books, and the layfolk read the clerics when they listen to them preaching the word of god.) Nor will beginners or proficients come to true prayer without previous reflection. [c.35]

By "sin" you must mean some sort of undefined lump: nothing else, in fact, than yourself. It is my belief that in this obscure looking at sin, as a congealed mass which is none other than yourself, there should be no need to look for anything to hold down during this time more irrational than yourself. [c.36]

...if words are used [in personal prayer]--and this happens rarely--they are very few indeed; in fact, the fewer the better. And it is my belief that a little word of one syllable is better than of two, and more in accordance with the work of the Spirit. This is because a spiritual worker in this exercise should always find himself at the supreme and sovereign point of the Spirit.... When a man or a woman is suddenly seized with fear of fire or of death, or some similar happening, that person is suddenly smitten in the depths of his spirit to cry out and beg for help. And he does this not in many words, or even in one word of two syllables.... So he breaks out in a loud and hideous scream, using a little word of one syllable, such as "fire!" or "out!"

Just as this little word "fire" suddenly beats upon and jars most effectively the ears of the bystanders, it is the same with the little word, whether spoken or thought or even obscurely conceived in the depth, or we may call it the height, of the spirit.... And thus it bursts upon the ears of almighty God much more than any long psalm mumbled away in an inarticulate fashion. And this is why it is written that a short prayer pierces heaven.

Why does this little prayer of one syllable pierce the heavens? Surely because it is offered with a full spirit, in the height and the depth, in the length and the breadth of the spirit of him who prays. In the height: that is with the full might of the spirit; in the depth: for in this little syllable all the faculties of the spirit are contained; in the length: because if it could always be experienced as it is in that moment, it would cry as it does then; in the breadth: because it desires for all others all that it desires for itself....

...If a man happened to be your deadly enemy and you heard him cry out with such terror, in the fulness of his spirit, this little word "fire!" or this word "out!" you would have no thought for his enmity, but out of the heartfelt compassion, stirred up and excited by the pain expressed in that cry, you would get out of bed even on a night in mid-winter, to help him put out the fire, or to bring him comfort in his distress. O Lord, if a man can be moved by grace to such mercy and compassion for his enemy, his enmity notwithstanding, what compassion and what mercy will God have for the spiritual cry of the soul welling up and issuing forth from the height and the depth, the length and the breadth of his spirit, which contains by nature all that a man has by grace, and much more!... [c.37-38]

In all your other activities you are to have discretion... But in this exercise there is no question of moderation; I would prefer that you should never leave off as long as you live.... [Y]ou should always be either doing it or preparing for it; that is to say either actually or in intention. [c.41]

...During this exercise, it is very easy for a young disciple to be deceived, who is not yet accustomed to spiritual exercises, and is little experienced in them....

...When young men or women who are beginners in the school of devotion hear... how a man must life up his heart to God and desire without ceasing to experience the love of his God; then, straight away, in their false reasoning they understand these words not as they are meant, spiritually, but carnally and physically, and they strive in their foolishness to raise up the heart in their breasts.... Or,... through their spiritual blindness and the way in which they play on their sensations during the time of this false, animal and far from spiritual exercise, it is likely that their hearts will be inflamed with an unnatural fervour, due to the way in which they treat their bodies or to this false exercise, or else there is created in their imagination a false heat, the work of the devil, their ghostly enemy....

...after the illusions in their feelings, there immediately follows a deception in knowing, which belongs to the devil's school; in the same way as a true knowledge in God's school follows immediately on a true experience. For it is true that the devil has his contemplatives even as God has his....

...They strain themselves, as though they could possibly see inwardly with their bodily eyes and hear inwardly with their ears; and so with all their senses... The result is that the devil has power to fabricate false lights or sounds, sweet smells in their nostrils, wonderful tastes in their mouths and many other strange ardours and burnings in their bodily breasts or in their entrails...

...Whoever might happen to catch sight of them and of their behaviour at the time when their eyes are wide open will see them staring like madmen do, looking as though they were seeing the devil. And indeed they had better beware; for the devil indeed is not very far away. The eyes of some of them are so set in their heads as though they were sheep suffering from the brain disease, and were near death's door. Some of them hold their heads on one side as though a worm were in their ears. Some squeak instead of speaking normally, as though there were no breath in their bodies....

...some people are so burdened with quaint and unseemly posturing in their behaviour, that when they have to listen to anything, they waggle their heads from side to side and up and down most oddly. They gape with open mouths, as though they are listening with them and not with their ears. Others, when they have to speak, use their fingers, either poking on their own fingers or their chests, or the chests of those to whom they are speaking. Others yet can neither sit, stand, nor lie still; they have to be tapping with their feet, or doing something with their hands. Some make rowing motions with their arms whilst they speak, as though they were in for a long swim. Some are always laughing and smiling with every other word, as though they were girlish gossips or amateur jugglers unsure of their balance. [c.45-53]

...I would have you be neither outside yourself, above yourself, nor behind, nor on one side or the other.

"Where then," you will say, "am I to be? According to your reckoning, nowhere!" Now indeed you speak well, for it is there that I would have you. Because nowhere bodily is everywhere spiritually. Take good care, then, that your spiritual exercise is nowhere bodily. Then, wherever the object is on which you set yourself to labour in the substance of your mind, truly you are there in spirit, as truly as your body is in the place where you dwell bodily. And though all your bodily faculties can find there nothing to feed on, because they think that what you are doing is nothing, carry on, then, with that nothing, as long as you are doing it for God's love. Do not leave off, but press on earnestly in that nothing with an alert desire in your will to have God, whom no man can know. For I tell you truly that I would rather be in this way nowhere bodily, wrestling with this blind nothing, than to have such power that I could be everywhere bodily whenever I would, happily engaged with all this "something" like a lord with his possessions.

Leave aside this everywhere and this everything, in exchange for this nowhere and this nothing. Never mind at all if your senses have no understanding of this nothing; it is for this reason that I love it so much the better. It is so worthy a thing in itself that they can have no understanding of it.... Who is he that calls it nothing? It is surely our outward man, not our inward. Our inward man calls it All, for because of it he is well taught to have understanding of all things bodily or spiritual, without any specific knowledge of any one thing in itself. [c. 68]

Some people believe that this work is so difficult and so awesome that they say it cannot be undertaken without great toil preceding it; that it can be achieved only very seldom, and this during the time of rapture.... There are some who cannot reach it without long and frequent spiritual exercises; and even then it is only very seldom that they will experience the perfection of this exercise, at the special calling of our Lord; this is what is meant by rapture.

But there are some who are so refined by grace and in spirit, and so familiar with God in this grace of contemplation, that they may have the perfection of it whenever they will, in their ordinary state of soul: whether they are sitting, walking, standing or kneeling. And at the same time they have the full command of all their faculties, bodily and spiritual, and can use them if they so wish: not without a certain hindrance, but one not hard to overcome. We have an example of the first type in Moses, and of the second in Aaron, the priest of the Temple....

...what Moses could only come to see very seldom, Aaron, because of his office, had it in his power to see in the Temple within the veil, as often as it pleased him to enter.... [c.71]

...This is one of the clearest and simplest signs that a soul can have to know whether he is called to undertake this exercise or not: if he fells, after... a delay and a long absence of this experience, when it comes suddenly, as it does, achieved without any intermediary, that he has a greater fervour of desire and a greater longing to get on with this exercise than he ever had before; so much so that often, I believe, he has more joy in the finding of it than ever he had sorrow in the losing of it. If it is thus, then it is truly a most authentic token that he is called by God to undertake this exercise, whatever his state is or has been.

Because it is not what you are nor what you have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.... [c.75]

text edited by Richard Kieckhefer

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