The centering prayer movement is one that has continued to gain popularity among many of my seminarian classmates. At the same time, there are many people who are uncomfortable with the practice because of its resemblance to trancendental meditation (some of the most vocal opponents of centering prayer are those who have come out of the transcendental meditation movement in the past). While I understand their concerns with centering prayer, and share many of them, I am also concerned that in their zeal to avoid syncretism and evil influences they may throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a contemplative tradition in Christianity, and many forms of Christian prayer–Hesychasm for instance, such as the Jesus Prayer–were inspirational to other religious traditions (there is no doubt that Byzantine monasticism had an impact on the Sufi brotherhoods for instance.) I do not think we can afford to reject aspects of our tradtion because others have adapted it for themselves and it has taken on the conotations of those traditions. Indeed, I believe we should emphasize truly Christian practices and traditions so that people in my generation realize that Christianity isn’t one dimensional or 10 miles wide and an half inch deep. To that end, I am posting my reflections from my first year of seminary on the anonymous spiritual classic from 14th century England The Cloud of Unknowing. Soon, I will post my own concerns about centering prayer and highlight what I think are the significant differences between traditional Christian forms of contemplation and the current fads.
The Cloud of Unknowing was written in the 14th century by an anonymous monastic and the character of the work is definitely marked by the monastic ideal. The highest ideal of the Cloud is the contemplation of and eventual union with God. Two things were most striking about the text, the first being the constant theme of lifting oneself to God and the next being the practice of ridding oneself of extraneous thoughts during the contemplation of God.
While conjecture and theories as to the identity of the author of The Cloud abound, it is the safest course to continue to refer to the author as anonymous. It seems that the strongest possibility is that the author was a Carthusian, though some believe him to have been a Cistercian. While the exact identity or order of the author is a mystery, the monastic context is apparent from the beginning when he writes the following admonition to the reader:
You are not to read it [the Cloud] yourself or to others, or to copy it; nor are you to allow it so to be read in private or in public or copied willingly and deliberately, insofar as this is possible, except by someone or someone who, as far as you know, has resolved to be a perfect follower of Christ. (p 101)
At this time a “perfect follower of Christ” would have been a monastic. Throughout the work the active and the contemplative life are continually juxtaposed as the author upholds the contemplative as the higher. Organizing the Christian life into four degrees, the ordinary, special, singular and perfect the author also breaks down the two types of Christian life, the active and the contemplative into four groups: “Active life has two degrees, a higher and a lower; and the contemplative life also has two degrees, a lower and a higher.” (p 115-116, p 136)
The structure given the Christian life by the author points toward one goal: contemplation of and union with God. The Cloud of Unknowing unfolds as a set of directions to attain the appropriate state of contemplation. Despite clearly ranking the contemplative life over the active life, the author of The Cloud clearly understands that there can be no clear demarcation between the two, as he says:
[. . .T]ese two lives are so joined together that though in part they are different, neither of them can be lived fully without having some part in the other. For the higher part of the active life is the same as the lower part of the contemplative life. (p136-137)
The author then, while upholding the contemplative life as the ideal, recognizes that each form of life must have elements of the other within it, or as he says “Hence a man cannot be fully active unless he is partly contemplative, nor can he be fully contemplative here below unless he is in some way active” (p137).
The contemplation of God which is the focus of The Cloud is seen sacramentally. When explaining how the exercise is done the author parallels this act to the Eucharist by saying “Lift up your heart to God with a humble impulse of love; and have himself as your aim, not any of his goods.” The theme of being lifted up is an important one that helps to explain the concept of the two clouds within the work. When someone begins this exercise and seeks to fully contemplate God they are to lift themselves to God, placing everything else they could possibly perceive of below them in the cloud of forgetfulness. Above them is the cloud of unknowing which is descriptive of the inability of our intellect to perceive or understand God:
When I say “darkness,” I mean a privation of knowing, just as whatever you do not know or have forgotten is dark to you, because you do not see it with your spiritual eyes. For this reason, that which is between you and your God is termed, not a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing (p128)
The intellect is unable to perceive God-indeed the author refers to those who attempt this as “perilously deluded”-but love is not. Rather than seeking to use the intellect, a person should lift themselves up in love to God.
The futility of using the intellect goes hand in hand with the obstruction that stray thoughts create. The way that the author of The Cloud describes eliminating these thoughts is helpful. As with centering prayer, the author recommends the reader or aspirant find a short word “of one syllable rather than two” and fasten it to his heart where it will be his “shield and [. . .] spear.” With this word the aspirant is to beat against the the cloud of unknowing and force all thoughts below the cloud of forgetting. The most interesting aspect of this was the response the author recommends for the thought that “should offer you, out of its great learning, to analyse the word for you and tell you its meanings, say to the thought that you want to keep it whole, and not taken apart or unfastened.” Because the thought will thereby be unable to “feed itself on [. . .] sweet meditations,” it will not stay long (p134).
The way in which the author of The Cloud speaks of contemplating God and removing extraneous thoughts is very beneficial in today’s world where there is so much “background noise.” While the monasticism of the author and his division of the Christian life into higher and lower pursuits may date the work, its message is more immune to this and more timeless. For England the 14th century was a chaotic and bloody time as the continental wars with the French continually drained resources. It is possible that this feeling of chaos makes the message of The Cloud more applicable to our own time; however, I tend to think that the message of The Cloud is one that is more timeless and would help people deal with many things, ranging from the worries of warfare to the banality of everyday life in the post-modern west.
My personal response to this work has been positive. While obviously not entirely accepting the worldview of the author, I believe that the overall practical way this work approaches the spiritual life is helpful. One of its most obvious effects has been that it has given me a new perspective on contemporary forms of contemplative prayer and a new way to think about the process. The idea of lifting oneself to God and the image of floating between a cloud of forgetfulness and a cloud of unknowing is attractive to me and one that I believe has helped in my own prayer life. Even as I appreciate the spiritual guidance of this piece, I consider my own calling to be one of more activity in the world, not feeling drawn to monasticism.