Pearls of wisdom from “The Cloud of Unknowing” (Christian contemplative prayer/meditation)

The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works (Penguin Classics)

I’ve just finished reading the medieval Christian book “The Cloud of Unknowing”, which is a classic of Christian mysticism. I always take such books with a pinch of salt, because I think you’ve got to approach mysticism carefully and use the Bible as your boundary. But I did find a lot of great wisdom in this little book. Here are some examples, with quotes:

1) Seek God for God alone, and not what He can give you

Peace, love and the Spirit are wonderful benefits of contemplative prayer – but not always. And one of the blocks to knowing God that I’ve found is if I’m only doing the prayer to feel good. Instead, it’s important to just seek God and God alone – love requires that we are not seeking for only what we can get.

Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God himself, and not what you get out of him… Try to forget all created things that he ever made, and the purpose behind them, so that your thought and longing do not turn or reach out to them either in general or in particular.

There’s encouragement to wait in prayer, even when it seems difficult:

When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, and this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God… Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love.

2) Christian meditation / contemplative prayer is very different to Eastern, Buddhist styles of meditation

It’s not a game of trying to seek knowledge, and pride is a danger.

Whoever hears or reads about all this, and thinks that it is fundamentally an activity of the mind, and proceeds then to work it all out along these lines, is on quite the wrong track. He manufactures an experience that is neither spiritual or physical. He is dangerously missed and in real peril.

Indeed he points out that you need a foundation of knowing your own sinfulness, meditating on the Cross and the kindness of God.

See to it that there is nothing at work in your mind or will but only God. Try to suppress all knowledge and feeling of anything less than God, and trample it down deep under the cloud of forgetting.

Although the Christian meditator is seeking to lose ‘self’ it is ONLY to give it to God in love – to surrender all we have to our Creator.

3) As you reach towards God, run away from all that is bad

By its very definition, if you are seeking God you must turn away from all wrongdoing – all sin.

In itself prayer is nothing else than a devout setting of our will in the direction of God in order to get good, and remove evil… all evil is summed up in sin… if we pray with intention for the acquiring of goodness, let us pray, in word or thought or desire, no other word than ‘God’. For in God is all good, for he is its beginning and its being.

Being aware of this great separation can be a help if we’re struggling with sin, or with hiding from God:

Feel sin in its totality – as a lump – without specifying any particular part, and that all of it is you. And then cry ceaselessly in your spirit this one thing: ‘Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!

4) The fruit of contemplative prayer is love, and intimacy with Christ

This kind of prayer is done to know God more, and to love him more.

The nature of love is that it shares everything. Love Jesus, and everything he has is yours.

…He may, perhaps, send out a shaft of spiritual light, which pierces this cloud of unknowing beteween you, and show you some of his secrets… then will you feel your affection flame with the fire of his love, far more than I can possibly say now…

Happy praying!

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