PIERCING THE CLOUDS
“It is your face, O Lord, that I seek”
Illuminated Manuscripts – Prayer book
It seems to me that if you walk into any bookshop these days you are assailed by an extraordinary array of self-help manuals – anything from Heart Surgery for Dummies to How to be a Millionaire in Six Months. A huge number of cook books also lie in wait, providing recipes for every cuisine known to man. And of course social and main-stream media act as an ever-present conduit, providing us with a second-by-second commentary on the state of world and the situation of our friends and neighbours. Truly, this is the Age of Unavoidable Information.
But what if there was a book offering clear guidelines on how to be united with God Himself? That really would be something. Yet such a book exists, though it tends to keep itself out of sight. If you found it in a charity shop you probably wouldn’t give it a second glance – it was written seven hundred years ago in Middle English and the author is unknown. Worse than that, there are the direst warnings in the prologue to the effect that only those closely in union with Christ should even consider reading it – and which of us could pass that test? No, I think most people would give it a miss.
But hidden within this slight volume is a pearl of inestimable value – (Matt 13: 44-46). I say “hidden” but it’s not really – the style in its modern translation is in fact homely and accessible – almost conversational. Yet the book is “shy” – at least it was for me. By that I mean it took me many years before I actually got round to reading it. I first heard of it via the odd reference in the novels of Aldous Huxley and in the writings of Thomas Merton, John Main and others. Throughout my twenties it continued to – I nearly said “stalk” me – but it was much less aggressive than that – it was more like a cautious wild animal wandering out into a clearing every now and then. When I finally read it I knew that this would be a companion for life. The book is of course “The Cloud of Unknowing”.
This is not to say for one second that I passed the test set out in the prologue and considered myself “united with Christ” – far from it! The book was probably written for a contemplative monk already leading a life of prayer – but the great discovery of modern times is that this work is very relevant to all who wish to lead the Christian life and to deepen their prayer life. I would express it in this way – despite its almost informal tone, this is a serious work – the most serious work I have ever read – not a book to be trifled with, because it deals with the most important subject of all – our relationship with God Himself and how to allow Him to take over our lives.
So we should read it with reverence and care. The author assumes that we are conscientiously trying to lead the Christian life but it would be a tragedy if were to be put off simply because we did not think we were worthy of the book’s message, or that it had nothing to do with us because we are not monks or nuns. The call to contemplative prayer is universal and it is nothing less than a catastrophe that the tradition of this prayer all but disappeared in the Church as a whole for centuries, until its recent revival thanks to visionaries such as John Main and Thomas Keating.
I am very, very wary about recommending books. How many times have I found a book to be life-changing only to discover that a friend considered it flat and uninteresting? We each have our own moment in life to read a particular work – or perhaps it will never appeal to us. I only say that the Cloud for me was an extraordinary revelation. The sort of volume that, if it is your cup of tea, should be kept on your person at all times – you never know when you will be washed up on a desert island.
I am even more reluctant to embark on a detailed summary of the teaching of the Cloud. I feel I am not equal to the task and whatever I say will be misleading, for it must be read and re-read as a whole. Analysing the Cloud is like trying to catch the essence of a rose by tearing it apart and describing each petal. I would urge you to read the masterly translation and commentary by Fr John-Julian (in the “Paraclete Giants” edition). It is available from Amazon. The Penguin Classics edition, with an excellent introduction by Clifton Wolters, is also highly recommended.
Very briefly, The Cloud is a teaching about private prayer and, as mentioned above, the author takes it for granted that a person wishing to pray in this way is a practising Catholic, receiving the sacraments, attending Mass regularly and saying his or her prayers. This teaching is not some sort of special short-cut to God, quite the reverse. But having said that, if you feel drawn to this type of prayer, it would be a tragedy if you were put off because of feelings of unworthiness. The author stresses that we cannot really know God by means of the intellect but, through the extraordinary grace of God, He can be known by love. This is infinitely the most astonishing thing in our astonishing universe. Our lack of knowledge of God is like a Cloud obscuring Him. The author urges us to cast aside all thoughts and distractions and “with a piercing dart of longing love” strike against that thick cloud to pierce it. In prayer, seek God and nothing but Him. Trample down every other thought, however Holy.
“This blind activity of love towards God for His own sake – a love which
thrusts against the cloud of unknowing – is more beneficial to the health of
your soul, more worthy in itself, and more pleasing to God and to all the saints
and angels in heaven (yes, and more helpful to all your friends both bodily
and spiritually, whether they be living or dead)… than it is (to) hear all
the jubilation and music that is among the angels in heaven”
This stirring dart of longing love, says the author, is the “better part” chosen by Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42).
“Martha, Martha” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about
so many things, but few are needed, indeed only one” Luke 10:38-42)
If you want to find out more, I would strongly recommend that you read the translation and commentary mentioned above and Fr Thomas Keating’s book “Open Heart, Open Mind” (published by Amity House and also available from Amazon), which is a modern interpretation of the Cloud and a suggested way of adopting this type of prayer. We all pray in our own way of course, and the Holy Spirit is the only true guide!
We recently had a holiday in Malta. I saw a lady getting off the bus in Valetta and before she stood up she made the sign of the cross – she was obviously finishing the prayers she had made during the journey. It was like a spiritual electric shock to me. This is what we should be like – seeking any and every opportunity to say our prayers. The Cloud gives us a straight pathway. It is offered to each one of us.