Quotations from this interview were slightly reworded with Young's permission for The Kansas City Star column.
Topic: "The Cloud of Unknowing"
1) Who wrote the Cloud and for whom and when?
The Cloud is an anonymous text, so speculation about its author and intended audience involve some uncertainty, but there are indications that it was probably a monastic text. It seems to have been written by an older, experienced spiritual director for a young person to whom he was giving instruction. It was written in Middle English in the late fourteenth century.
2) What translation do you recommend?
I like the translation done by James Walsh and published by Paulist Press as part of its Classics of Western Spirituality series of books.
3) What are the stages the Cloud describes?
The Cloud divides Christian life into two categories: active and contemplative. Generally speaking, active life involves doing things in the world, whereas contemplative life involves withdrawal from the world into a life of prayer.
However, the Cloud author elaborates on this basic distinction. He suggests that there are actually three stages of spiritual life and that each of these has a particular spiritual practice that is appropriate to it. The fist stage is lower active life, which entails doing acts of service for others in the world. The second stage is a mixture of higher active and lower contemplative lives, and this involves a practice of reflectively meditating on topics such as the passion of Christ, the lives of holy persons, and one’s own sinfulness. The final stage is higher contemplative life, which is characterized by an experience of simply resting in God’s presence in a silent consciousness that is beyond ordinary thought. Here, the emphasis is on a person loving rather than thinking about God. It is at this point that one enters what the author calls “the cloud of unknowing.”
It’s worth noting that, in the Cloud author’s understanding, active and contemplative lives are not completely separate from one another. This can be seen at the mid-point of the progression through these stages, where there is a mixture of action and contemplation. Thus, all persons have a mixture of active and contemplative lives within themselves.
4) Why is the Cloud important for those seeking spiritual depth in today’s secular society?
I’d suggest there are two things that really stand out about the Cloud as a text of Christian spirituality. The first is that it suggests that God cannot be truly known with the ordinary categories of human thought and language. In this, I believe it can serve as a reminder that religions’ claims to truth need to be tempered with a certain humility, since the sacred can never be fully understood. This perspective can also lead to a healthy respect for other religions that contain perspectives different from our own, since all of us are trying to understand and respond to a sacred reality that is ultimately beyond the human ability to comprehend it.
The second thing I’d suggest is distinctive about the Cloud is that it describes a concrete spiritual practice with which one can prepare for the consciousness of God’s presence. Rather than just talking about this in the abstract, the Cloud describes a form of prayer in which one’s thoughts and words are reduced until one is simply at rest in God’s presence. Briefly described, the method of prayer discussed in this text involves a reduction of one’s thoughts and words until one prays with only a single word, such as “God” or “Love.” When one becomes distracted and the thoughts wander, this word is repeated as a way to return one’s awareness to God’s presence.
(In answering this question, I didn’t really address the issue of secular society; rather, I simply talked about what the Cloud might offer to the religious concerns of contemporary persons.)
5) What kind of responses have you had from audiences when you’ve presented on the Cloud?
In general, audiences respond positively to learning about the Cloud. I think it appeals to them for largely the reasons addressed in the previous question: its conception of a God who is beyond ordinary thought and its offer of a practice for awareness of this God.
That being said, it is sometimes difficult
for persons in contemporary culture, where a great deal of emphasis is
put on rational thought, to appreciate the value of not thinking. When
discussing the Cloud, I’ve had students ask questions such as “are we supposed
to brain dead” in prayer, or “how can we love God if we don’t think about
who God is?” Questions such as these are very valuable because they point
to a clarification that needs to made about the Cloud. This text doesn’t
say the persons should never think or talk about God; what it does say
is that there are times when one’s love for God is experienced in such
a profound way that it transcends anything that could be thought about.
I liken this to an experience many persons have had, in which they say
to another person something like this: “I love you more than I can say.”
This is very much how the Cloud describes the human-divine relationship.