Monday, October 1, 2012

The Cloud of Unknowing

Two Catholic Men & a Blog
Reading Chair/Time Machine
Reading books from centuries ago may be the closest thing to time travel we have, especially the kind of non-fiction where the author is sharing an experience or trying to teach you something. One can imagine going back in time to learn, or the author coming forward in time to teach, or some amazing rendezvous in-between. If reading Catholic classics, it’s a great reminder of the communion of saints. The saints are alive and in God’s presence as are we, except we cannot yet see God face to face, never the less, we are together in a sense.
Reading The Interior Castle by St. Therese of Avila (AD 1577), The Compendium of Theology by St. Thomas Aquinas (AD 1273) and Confessions by St. Augustine (AD 397) are examples of when I’ve had this sense of learning right at the feet of the masters, especially when stumbling upon a paragraph like this one from Confessions Book I. “To whom am I narrating this? Not to you, my God, but to my own kind in your presence – to that small part of the human race who may chance to come upon these writings. And to what end? That I and all who read them may understand what depths there are from which we are to cry to you.” Think about it; reading Confessions from AD 397 in the year 2012 is like someone reading this post in the year 3627! It boggles the mind!

Star Date 3627.0
No book could give a more direct communication from the past than the very first sentence of a book called The Cloud of Unknowing; a contemplative classic written by an anonymous English monk during the late 1300’s. The Cloud of Unknowing is a metaphor for a privation of knowing that stands between us and God. The monk speaks of “the exercise” which can help one to “smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love.” In modern Catholic language I think one could interpret “the exercise” as Centering Prayer.
The Cloud of Unknowing
Here is the opening sentence that immediately got my attention (to say the least) “To you, whoever you are, who may have this book in your possession, whether as owner or custodian or barrow: I lay this charge upon you and implore you with all the power and force that the bond of charity can command.” He goes on to basically say that the book is only for those who are sincere about following Christ in BOTH the active and contemplative life.
This brings me to what I actually would like to share. The unknown mystic from the past speaks of our spiritual life in terms of two parts, the active life and the contemplative life, both of which have two levels, a high and a low. The low active life consists of good & honest corporal works mercy and charity. The high active life AND the low contemplative life both involve spiritual meditations. The high contemplative life happens in the cloud of unknowing with a loving impulse and gaze into the simple being of God.  All of this is described in three levels of good, better and best. Whenever a “best” is proclaimed it normally demands that at least two things precede it, a “good” and a “better”.
A visual would be most helpful at this point:
It would be wrong and a hindrance for someone engaged in contemplative life to turn their mind to outward corporal works during meditation. This may sound dismissive of outward corporal works, but the 14th century monk reminds his reader that only one thing is necessary.  It is the “one thing” spoken of at the house of Mary & Martha (see Luke 10:38-42). Martha might think that she or Mary could love and praise God above all other business and at the same time be busy about the many things of this life, but Jesus made it clear to her that she could not serve both perfectly; imperfectly she could, but not perfectly.
It is the nature of the active life to begin and end in our lifetime. Not so, however, of the contemplative life; it begins in this life, but lasts without end. The “best” is truly yet to come. As The Lord said to Martha, it is the part that shall NEVER be taken away, because that perfect moment of love which begins here shall last without end in the bliss of heaven.
I’ll close with the monks own words in the book’s last paragraph:
“Farewell, spiritual friend, in God’s blessing and mine. And I beseech almighty God that true peace, sane counsel, and spiritual comfort in God with abundance of grace always be with you, and all those who on earth love God. Amen”

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