The Cloud of Unknowing

and The Book of Privy Counseling

About the Book

THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING and THE BOOK OF PRIVY COUNSELING are the first explorations in the English language of the soul’s quest for God.
Written in Middle English by an unknown fourteenth-century mystic, THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING expresses with beauty a message that has inspired such great religious thinkers as St. John of the Cross and Teilhard de Chardin, as well as countless others in search of God. Offering a practical guide to the life of contemplation, the author explains that ordinary thoughts and earthly concepts must be buried beneath a “cloud of forgetting,” while our love must rise toward a God hidden in the “cloud of unknowing.” THE BOOK OF PRIVY COUNSELING, also included in this volume, is a short and moving text on the way to enlightenment through a total loss of self and a consciousness only of the divine.

William Johnston, an authority on fourteenth-century mysticism and spirituality, provides an accessible discussion of the works, detailing what is known about the history of the texts and their author. In a new foreword, Huston Smith draws on his extensive knowledge of the varieties of religious experience to illuminate the relevance of these works for contemporary readers.
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The Cloud of Unknowing

Chapter 1

Of the four degrees of the Christian life; of the development of his vocation for whom this book was written.

My dear friend in God, I would like to pass on to you what I have roughly observed about the Christian life. Generally, it seems to progress through four ascending phases of growth, which I call the Common, the Special, the Singular, and the Perfect. The first three may, indeed, be begun and completed in this mortal life, but the fourth, though begun here, shall go on without ending into the joy of eternity. Do you see that I have arranged these stages in a definite sequence? This is because I believe that our Lord in his great mercy is calling you to advance by these steps. I discern his call to you in the desire for him that burns in your heart.

You know yourself that at one time you were caught up in the Common manner of the Christian life in a day-to-day mundane existence along with your friends. But I think that the eternal love of God, which had once created you out of nothing and then redeemed you from Adam's curse through the sacrifice of his blood,(1) could not bear to let you go on living so common a life far from him. And so, with exquisite kindness, he awakened desire within you, and binding it fast with the leash of love's longing, drew you closer to himself into what I have called the more Special manner of living. He called you to be his friend and, in the company of his friends, you learned to live the interior life more perfectly than was possible in the common way.

Is there more? Yes, for from the beginning I think God's love for you was so great that his heart could not rest satisfied with this. What did he do? Do you not see how gently and how kindly he has drawn you on to the third way of life, the Singular? Yes, you live now at the deep solitary core of your being, learning to direct your loving desire toward the highest and final manner of living which I have called Perfect.(2)

chapter 2

A short exhortation to humility and to the work of contemplation.

Take courage, now, and frail mortal though you are, try to understand yourself. Do you think you are someone special, or that you have deserved the Lord's favor? How can your poor heart be so leaden and spiritless that it is not continually aroused by the attraction of the Lord's love and the sound of his voice? Your enemy will suggest that you rest on your laurels. But be on your guard against this treachery of his. Do not be deceived into thinking that you are a holier or better person because of your great calling or because you have progressed to the Singular way of life. On the contrary, you will be a most pathetic and culpable wretch unless, with God's grace and proper guidance, you do all in your power to live up to your calling. Far from being conceited, you ought to be all the more humble and devoted to your heavenly Lord when you consider that he, the Almighty God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, has stooped so low as to call you. For out of all his flock he has lovingly chosen you to be one of his special friends. He has led you to sweet meadows and nourished you with his love, strengthening you to press on so as to take possession of your heritage in his kingdom.

I urge you, then, pursue your course relentlessly. Attend to tomorrow and let yesterday be. Never mind what you have gained so far. Instead reach out to what lies ahead. If you do this you will remain in the truth. For now, if you wish to keep growing you must nourish in your heart the lively longing for God. Though this loving desire is certainly God's gift, it is up to you to nurture it. But mark this. God is a jealous lover. He is at work in your spirit and will tolerate no meddlers.(1) The only other one he needs is you. And all he asks of you is that you fix your love on him and let him alone. Close the doors and windows of your spirit against the onslaught of pests and foes and prayerfully seek his strength; for if you do so, he will keep you safe from them.(2) Press on then. I want to see how you fare. Our Lord is always ready. He awaits only your co-operation.

"But," you ask, "how am I to go on; what am I to do next?"

chapter 3

How the work of contemplation shall be done; of its excellence over all other works.

This is what you are to do: lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God's creatures or their affairs whether in general or in particular. Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them.

What I am describing here is the contemplative work of the spirit. It is this which gives God the greatest delight. For when you fix your love on him, forgetting all else, the saints and angels rejoice and hasten to assist you in every way—though the devils will rage and ceaselessly conspire to thwart you. Your fellow men are marvelously enriched by this work of yours, even if you may not fully understand how; the souls in purgatory are touched, for their suffering is eased by the effects of this work; and, of course, your own spirit is purified and strengthened by this contemplative work more than by all others put together.(1) Yet for all this, when God's grace arouses you to enthusiasm, it becomes the lightest sort of work there is and one most willingly done. Without his grace, however, it is very difficult and almost, I should say, quite beyond you.

And so diligently persevere until you feel joy in it. For in the beginning it is usual to feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknowing. You will seem to know nothing and to feel nothing except a naked intent toward God in the depths of your being. Try as you might, this darkness and this cloud will remain between you and your God.(2) You will feel frustrated, for your mind will be unable to grasp him, and your heart will not relish the delight of his love. But learn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to him whom you love. For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself it must be within this darkness and this cloud.(3) But if you strive to fix your love on him forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation I have urged you to begin, I am confident that God in his goodness will bring you to a deep experience of himself.(4)

chapter 4

Of the simplicity of contemplation; that it may not be acquired through knowledge or imagination.

I have described a little of what is involved in the contemplative work but now I shall discuss it further, insofar as I understand it, so that you may proceed securely and without misconceptions.

This work is not time-consuming even though some people believe otherwise. Actually it is the shortest you can imagine; as brief as an atom,(1) which, as the philosophers say, is the smallest division of time. The atom is a moment so short and integral that the mind can scarcely conceive it. Nevertheless it is vastly important, for of this minute measure of time it is written: "You will be held responsible for all the time given you." This is entirely just because your principal spiritual faculty, the will, needs only this brief fraction of a moment to move toward the object of its desire.

If you were now restored by grace to the integrity man possessed before sin you would be complete master of these impulses. None would ever go astray, but would fly to the one sole good, the goal of all desire, God himself. For God created us in his image and likeness, making us like himself, and in the Incarnation he emptied himself of his divinity becoming a man like us. It is God, and he alone, who can fully satisfy the hunger and longing of our spirit which transformed by his redeeming grace is enabled to embrace him by love. He whom neither men nor angels can grasp by knowledge can be embraced by love. For the intellect of both men and angels is too small to comprehend God as he is in himself.(2)

Try to understand this point. Rational creatures such as men and angels possess two principal faculties, a knowing power and a loving power. No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge;(3) but each one, in a different way,(4) can grasp him fully through love. Truly this is the unending miracle of love: that one loving person, through his love, can embrace God, whose being fills and transcends the entire creation. And this marvelous work of love goes on forever, for he whom we love is eternal. Whoever has the grace to appreciate the truth of what I am saying, let him take my words to heart, for to experience this love is the joy of eternal life while to lose it is eternal torment.

He who with the help of God's grace becomes aware of the will's constant movements and learns to direct them toward God will never fail to taste something of heaven's joy even in this life and, certainly in the next, he will savor it fully.(5) Now do you see why I rouse you to this spiritual work? You would have taken to it naturally had man not sinned, for man was created to love and everything else was created to make love possible.(6) Nevertheless, by the work of contemplative love man will be healed.(7) Failing in this work he sinks deeper into sin further and further from God, but by persevering in it he gradually rises from sin and grows in divine intimacy.

Therefore, be attentive to time and the way you spend it. Nothing is more precious. This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. God, the master of time, never gives the future. He gives only the present, moment by moment, for this is the law of the created order, and God will not contradict himself in his creation. Time is for man, not man for time. God, the Lord of nature, will never anticipate man's choices which follow one after another in time. Man will not be able to excuse himself at the last judgment, saying to God: "You overwhelmed me with the future when I was only capable of living in the present."

But now I see that you are discouraged and are saying to yourself: "What am I to do? If all he says is true, how shall I justify my past? I am twenty-four years old and until this moment I have scarcely noticed time at all. What is worse, I could not repair the past even if I wanted to, for according to his teaching such a task is impossible to me by nature even with the help of ordinary grace. Besides I know very well that in the future, either through frailty or laziness, I will probably not be any more attentive to the present moment than I have been in the past. I am completely discouraged. Please help me for the love of Jesus."

Well have you said "for the love of Jesus." For it is in his love that you will find help. In love all things are shared and so if you love Jesus, everything of his is yours. As God he is the creator and dispenser of time; as man he consciously mastered time; as God and man he is the rightful judge of men and their use of time. Bind yourself to Jesus, therefore, in faith and love, so that belonging to him you may share all he has and enter the fellowship of those who love him. This is the communion of the blessed and these will be your friends: our Lady, St. Mary, who was full of grace at every moment; the angels, who are unable to waste time; and all the blessed in heaven and on earth, who through the grace of Jesus employ every moment in love.(8) See, here is your strength. Understand what I am saying and be heartened. But remember, I warn you of one thing above all. No one can claim true fellowship with Jesus, his Mother, the angels, and the saints, unless he does all in his power with the help of grace to be mindful of time. For he must do his share however slight to strengthen the fellowship as it strengthens him.

And so do not neglect this contemplative work. Try also to appreciate its wonderful effects in your own spirit. When it is genuine it is simply a spontaneous desire springing suddenly toward God like spark from fire.(9) It is amazing how many loving desires arise from the spirit of a person who is accustomed to this work. And yet, perhaps only one of these will be completely free from attachment to some created thing. Or again, no sooner has a man turned toward God in love when through human frailty he finds himself distracted by the remembrance of some created thing or some daily care. But no matter. No harm is done; for such a person quickly returns to deep recollection.

And now we come to the difference between the contemplative work and its counterfeits such as daydreaming, fantasizing, or subtle reasoning. These originate in a conceited, curious, or romantic mind whereas the blind stirring of love springs from a sincere and humble heart. Pride, curiosity, and daydreaming must be sternly checked if the contemplative work is to be authentically conceived in singleness of heart. Some will probably hear about this work and suppose that by their own ingenious efforts they can achieve it. They are likely to strain their mind and imagination unnaturally only to produce a false work which is neither human nor divine. Truly, such a person is dangerously deceived. And I fear that unless God intervenes with a miracle inspiring him to abandon these practices and humbly seek reliable counsel he will most certainly fall into mental aberrations or some great spiritual evil of the devil's devising. Then he risks losing both body and soul eternally. For the love of God, therefore, be careful in this work and never strain your mind or imagination, for truly you will not succeed this way. Leave these faculties at peace.(10)

Image Classics Series

Introduction to the Devout Life
The Cloud of Unknowing
Abandonment to Divine Providence
Models of the Church
The Way of Perfection
The Autobiography of Saint Therese
Saint Francis of Assisi
The Way of a Pilgrim
Saint Thomas Aquinas
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About the Author

William Johnston
WILLIAM JOHNSTON has translated several works from the contemplative traditions of both East and West, as well as work by the great Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. HUSTON SMITH, the author of The World’s Religions, is widely regarded as the most eloquent and accessible contemporary authority on the history of religions. He has taught at MIT and the University of California, Berkeley. More by William Johnston
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