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On The Cloud of Unknowing
by Michael Brett
One of the best known works of European Mysticism is The Cloud of Unknowing, written in England between 1349 and 1395, by an unknown author who is thought to have been the spiritual director of a monastery.
The book is a series of spiritual exercises which rest upon the belief in the utter incomprehensibility of God. The natural facilities of intelligence are impotent to comprehend the being of God because God's nature is essentially different from the nature of man. Thus, any activity of the intelligence is a hindrance in the prayer of contemplation, and gives error when contemplating any idea of God.
However, the unknown writer of The Cloud, while laying stress upon God's transcendence, is careful to show that man's soul is not separated from the being of God. God is immanent in all things as well as transcendent above them. God is the Unity embracing all things and sustaining all things.
The soul should by its own efforts, assisted by grace, move towards God. In order to do this, the soul has to renounce all distractions and all discursive workings of the mind. It should move towards God in "a cloud of unknowing":
Like the works of S.L. Frank, The Cloud of Unknowing was written during a time of European catastrophe.
After 1330, England and much of Europe, was in the throes of the Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague that reduced the population of Europe by a third. It was the era when the new paintings on church walls showed the Dance Macabre, the figure of Death as a skeleton dancing with rich and poor alike, and a popular mass movement of ordinary people the Flagellants took to whipping themselves in public to assuage God's anger. Other mass movements included social uprisings, such as the Peasants Revolt of 1381, where a peasant army seized London, beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury and burned down the the Savoy Palace.
On the frontiers, Muslim armies were overrunning Africa and parts of Europe that had been Christian for centuries.
The spiritual leadership of Europe was in crisis. Two Popes both claimed to be the legitimate heirs of St Peter. One was based in Avignon and the other in Rome. In brief, all social institutions, including the Church, seemed to be either in crisis or collapse, when perhaps the only thing left to rely on was some kind of relationship with God. The purpose of the 'Cloud of Unknowing' being to bring an individual as close to God, and as aware of His presence, as was possible in life.
In 1942, Frank wrote in his notebook:
In 1941, Frank wrote God with us. Like The Cloud of Unknowing it is not a work of theology, but one of philosophy and mysticism. Indeed, God with us is, according to Boobbyer, "anti-dogmatic and hostile to conceptual theology."
"The central issue in religion," Frank wrote,
We know nothing of the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing save that he lived in a century of disease, disaster and war. Frank's life was not only adversely affected by revolution, war and exile, but he also refused to take refuge in the formulas of comfort of the societies around him. By remaining part of the Russian Orthodox Church, into which he had been received in 1912, he was part of something that was at least, in part, compromised and dominated by the Soviet state that had expelled him from Russia in 1922. In the final analysis, the only part of his religious life that was not part of a conflict was within himself, and was his own personal desire, and experience of God.
Frank did not turn to conventional formulas, or comforts when considering his life and the historical incidents that shaped it. For him, the Second World War was not a War of Liberation, or part of a progressive development that somehow justified its terrible loss of life and material destruction. The war was the culmination of a "false road in European culture" (Boobbyer ibid. p.212).
Frank saw the War as "a product of the divergence of the Christian and humanist currents in history." By this he meant that the Bolshevik Revolution was a product of the secularization of European thought, as well as sociological factors. He traced this, as well as the origins of the Second World War, to St Augustine's rejection of the goodness of man.
From that point on, Frank argues, all subsequent movements in this he included the Renaissance and the Reformation had to be declared by the power of man against God. This, to paraphrase him, split European intellectual history, and, by implication, placed God with those resisting progress and change, causing those on the other side to regard personal morality as something old fashioned at best, and reactionary at worst. To paraphrase him: cruelty was established as a principle of modernization.
For the unknown writer of The Cloud of Unknowing there were no 14th century secular alternatives to religious faith in a time of crisis and catastrophe. As a modern man, Frank had seen the alternatives, and rejected them. In a sense both the author of the 'Cloud' and Frank are like Descartes, falling back to a final position of Cogito ergo sum. But this formulation would exclude the God that they find in the centre of their lives and thoughts. Both Frank and the 'Cloud's author have abandoned formal theology, for a mystical belief in God.
Author Unknown The Cloud of Unknowing Early English Text Society, London 1944.
Boobbyer, Philip 'S.L.Frank The Life and Work of a Russian Philosopher' Ohio University Press 1995
© Michael Brett 2002