The Cloud of Unknowing is one of the key books for traditions of contemplative prayer, written anonymously by the late fourteen century’s monk in England. The book is a sort of guidance for spiritual pursuit, focusing on the state of contemplation. It consists of seventy five chapters. Like the Bible and other spiritual readings, we should read them slowly, reflecting on each section.
In the first chapter, the author starts from the four degrees or forms of “Christian men’s living.” Seeking God, we need to go up each stage one by one:
GHOSTLY friend in God, thou shalt well understand that I find, in my boisterous beholding, four degrees and forms of Christian men’s living: and they be these, Common, Special, Singular, and Perfect. Three of these may be begun and ended in this life; and the fourth may by grace be begun here, but it shall ever last without end in the bliss of Heaven.The Cloud of Unknowing
These are simple yet radical. Knowing God superficially, we live our lives in the form of Common. In it, our key concerns are how to live in this material world. We pray to God for our success and happy life.
In the form of Special, however, we would know the meaning of “God first.” Realizing our sinful nature and God’s undeserved grace and love, we could understand such ultimate importance of seeking God first. In its full realization, the form of Singular would emerge. The author also said that the form of Perfect would take place in heaven.
Seest thou nought how Mistily and how graciously He hath privily pulled thee to the third degree and manner of living, the which is called Singular?The Cloud of Unknowing
In the form of Singular; in our existential realization, God would call us to leave everything behind. It reminds me of the following verse. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” Peter and Andrew left their nets and immediately followed Jesus.
And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.Matthew 4:18-20
In this Singular degree, we would leave everything behind. “Nets” were the critical tools for fishermen. But they left them immediately. Why were they able to follow Jesus at once? What made them such confident? (As we know, Peter was still weak as he would deny Jesus three times during the Crucifixion.)
The truth was that nothing was clear for them; nevertheless or because of that, they followed Jesus. Everything was in the misty fog.
Here, the author calls such misty fog “the Cloud of Unknowing.”
Seeking and knowing God could be an effort of impossibility, as long as we rely on our cognitive, conceptual efforts. We would inevitably face an infinite gap “betwixt thee and thy God.” All our thoughts and conceptualization would be completely useless in this gap.
Thus, we could scarcely call it “the Cloud of Unknowing.” In it, only hope, faith, and love would rest in our selflessness. We hope, believe, and love Him, which is paradoxically never from our side; only God hopes, believes, and loves us.
Seeking God in the form of Singular, we face the Cloud of Unknowing. But we can never enter it without leaving everything behind, including our false self. The author calls such condition “the Cloud of Forgetting.”
Thee thinketh, peradventure, that thou art full far from God because that this cloud of unknowing is betwixt thee and thy God: but surely, an it be well conceived, thou art well further from Him when thou hast no cloud of forgetting betwixt thee and all the creatures that ever be made. As oft as I say, all the creatures that ever be made, as oft I mean not only the creatures themselves, but also all the works and the conditions of the same creatures. I take out not one creature, whether they be bodily creatures or ghostly, nor yet any condition or work of any creature, whether they be good or evil: but shortly to say, all should be hid under the cloud of forgetting in this case.The Cloud of Unknowing
Seeking God, we are about to enter the Cloud of Unknowing. Leaving everything behind, we are also to enter the Cloud of Forgetting. In this misty darkness, we can rely on nothing but His underserved love and grace.
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