Slow Book Group: The Cloud of Unknowing

Date: 14 October 2020 to 10 March 2021, 2nd Wednesday of the month, 7.30-8.30pm
Location: Online via Zoom

Back story

A number of members of Exeter Cathedral congregation responded to the first Coronavirus lockdown by starting online groups: I started Lectio Divina, Howard moved the prayers for healing group online, and Martin ran a group reading Martin Laird Into the Silent Land.

Martin’s group ran over eight weeks in July and August, reading one chapter a week. Laird’s book is subtitled “A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation” for those who desire to journey deeper into the silence of God, and draws on the rich tradition found in ancient Christian texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing.

Towards the end of the sessions, the group decided they would like to continue on this path. Martin stepped back to focus on other duties, and after a period of deliberation I stepped forward. As contemplative prayer accesses the deep places within us, it can raise unresolved neuroses and traumas which need healing. So I led the discussions, and Rev Phil Wales, the Cathedral Curate, provided the pastoral care presence alongside.

I was very clear at the outset that this was a case of the blind leading the blind. The Cloud has been an important part of my journey, but I had not spent the time immersed in it and its teachings to be a true guide. We were therefore exploring together. I would not have taken it on were it not for finding a framework for a group run by Whirlow Spirituality Centre. So heartfelt thanks to them, and I hope they don’t mind that I recycled it.

Part of my motivation for collecting together the material in this post is to pass on what I received from Whirlow, and partly is it to pass on what we received from God: “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” (John 6.12).

Our text

The Cloud was written in the English of the 14th century, and there are many different versions of it, from transliterations into the modern alphabet with annotations on words that are obsolete or have changed meaning, to straight translations, to paraphrases.

A paraphrase by Bernard Bangley was key to my turning to a contemplative path in 2010, so I am quite attached to it. But although it brought the text to life for me (here is an excerpt, pdf), it is not close to the original. Martin Laird cites the translation by AC Spearing, so it made sense to use that. I also referred to the version edited by Patrick Gallacher, which is close to the original text. It gives me a sense of the energy of the original, and got easier as I got used to it! It’s freely available online, and includes helpful translations of the old English words and notes on the text.

  • AC Spearing (ed) The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, Penguin Classics, 30 August 2001.
  • Patrick J. Gallacher (Editor) The Cloud of Unknowing, Medieval Institute Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1997.

Slow reading

The group recognised that the purpose is not about getting through as many books as possible, but to gain from them a deeper understanding of prayer and through that to deepen our own prayer lives and relationships with God. The Cloud of Unknowing counsels a young student to seek the Divine not through knowledge or intellect but through contemplation motivated by love.

So I put together some suggestions on how to read The Cloud, taking it slowly so that it sinks in. Many of these words come from the transcripts of the Turning to the Mystics podcast that James Finley is recording for the Center for Action and Contemplation. Heartfelt thanks also to him and them.

First, you might like to read the book all through each month – as commanded and beseeched in the Prologue – and then return to the chapters set for the month.

Taking the set chapters together, or chapter by chapter, you might like to read and re-read them a number of times. Each time, you might sit in prayer and meditation with your reading, and then if you’re so inclined, you might want to journal, and write out what came to you, and what questions it raises, or how does it reflect where you’re at, or how does it bear upon your life? Then the next day, you’d read it again, and after you sit with it, you journal again. So, after a few days, you would have sat with a reading several times. If you choose to do this, you will find that your journal reflections change between the first one and the last one. Because you have been on a journey. There’s this kind of deepening through sustained exposure where repetition is not redundancy.

Be very patient with yourself. The Cloud was published in the late 14th century, in a very different culture with different assumptions, and for much of the time you might not know what the author’s talking about. But what might get to you is the one-liners. So when you read, take just one thing that rings true, one saying or one word. Write it out long-hand, and keep it with you during the day. Or write it out in your journal, and ask yourself three questions:

  1. How have I or how am I experiencing this?
  2. If I were to say it, how would I say this?
  3. What is this asking of me?

You might use a mind map, so the sentence goes in the middle of the page, and the questions and any answers radiate out around it. If it’s a longer passage that strikes me, you might take it sentence by sentence.

Your answers might be blank – “I don’t know. I don’t know how I would say that.” – whatever is true to you at that time. Maybe a certain word or phrase will occur to you during the day. Let it cross your mind and sit with it, stay present to it.

Then the next day when you come back to the reading, you could start from the beginning or pick up where you left off. You would take another word, phrase or sentence. And gradually, if you take time over it, you’ll start to connect the dots between your sentences. And also, as the Prologue to The Cloud says, later material may explain earlier material. You’ll start to soak in and absorb the text and internalize it in your life.

Good reading!

Overview of each session

The sessions were on the third Wednesday of each month. On the preceding Monday, Phil and I met briefly to go over the session content and potential sticking points or triggers in the text.

I then emailed the participants with a reminder of the text, themes and questions, and the Zoom details.

We generally started each session with some ‘health warnings’ – a reminder of the medieval context in which The Cloud was written, and that the translation does not always convey the sense of the original.

We finished each session with 3 minutes of silence.

I encouraged participants to continue to sit with the text for a few more days, allowing what had been shared in the group to sink in, before turning to the next month’s text. Then after one week, I followed up each session with an email reminder of some of what we shared and/or my further thoughts, and information about the next month.

October 2020

Read: Prologue & Chapters 1-7

Themes to bear in mind as you read: What is contemplative prayer, how to approach it

Questions and things to ponder:
1. Note down your understanding of the method of contemplative prayer which the chapters propose
2. What do you understand by the ‘cloud of unknowing’ and the ‘cloud of forgetting’?

Structure

This month, we simply took the two questions in turn, spending about half of our time on each.

Follow-up

I found the following helpful in my understanding of contemplative prayer as intercessory prayer.

From Chapter 3 of The Cloud, Spearing translation: “All people living on earth are marvellously helped by this work [of lifting the heart up to God], in ways you do not know.”

Thomas Merton had insomnia in the monastery. He wrote in his journal that as he is lying there, “suddenly the bed becomes an altar and in a distant city somewhere someone is able to pray.”

Nick Martin’s sermon on Prisoners’ Sunday, 11 October 2020: “One verse from Acts when Peter gets released from prison and the angel comes there: the cell was filled with light [Acts 12.7]. Your prayers, your thoughts, can fill the cells with light. Please pray for anyone in prison today.”

November

Read: Chapters 8-23

Themes: Sin, humility, seeking silence

Questions:

1. How do you identify with Mary and Martha?
2. What do you learn about humility from reading The Cloud?

Structure

We started with some extra questions:

  • What struck you while reading this section?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What brought joy? Or the opposite?
  • What lifted your heart to God? Was encouraging? Was discouraging?

…and then addressed the two questions sent in advance.

Follow-up

This quote from Marianne Williamson (used by Nelson Mandela in his inauguration address) was mentioned: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Phil wrote about humility in The Cloud in this article in Cathedral Life.

I’ve also been reading Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, written some 200 years after The Cloud. Here she is on humility: “I was wondering once why Our Lord so dearly loved this virtue of humility; and all of a sudden—without, I believe, my having previously thought of it—the following reason came into my mind: that it is because God is Sovereign Truth and to be humble is to walk in truth, for it is absolutely true to say that we have no good thing in ourselves, but only misery and nothingness; and anyone who fails to understand this is walking in falsehood. She who best understands it is most pleasing to Sovereign Truth because she is walking in truth. May it please God, sisters, to grant us grace never to fail to have this knowledge of ourselves. Amen.”

And if you want the really long read, I’ve attached the chapter on humility in the Rule of St Benedict (pdf). As is typical of the Rule, it is pragmatic and practical. I certainly find it challenging!

December

Read: Chapters 24-34

Themes: Love, Grace and Practicalities

Questions:

  1. What do we learn about love in these chapters?
  2. What does it mean to be called to a contemplative life?
  3. What role does grace play in contemplative prayer?

Structure

We started with a slow reading of a sentence from Chapter 34, asking three questions of it:

Gallacher near-original: “The condicion of this werk is soche, that the presence therof ablith a soule for to have it and for to fele it. And that abilnes may no soule have withoutyn it.”

Spearing translation: “The nature of this work is such that its presence gives a soul the capacity to have it and feel it; and no soul can have that capacity without it.”

  1. How have I or how am I experiencing this?
  2. If I were to say it, how would I say this?
  3. What is this asking of me?

Then we turned to the third question sent in advance.

Follow-up

I said last week that I wasn’t convinced by some of Spearing’s translation choices – eg ‘experience’ for ‘profe’ where there might be a better option such as ‘fruit’; or ‘desire’ for ‘covetyse’, which might be better rendered ‘avarice’; or ‘menes’ as ‘intermediaries’, which is clunky and better rendered as ‘techniques’ or ‘methods’.

But I think he got it right with rendering ‘abilnes’ as ‘capacity’ in our sentence. Thank you for your insights into that. Here are some other similar texts you might like to reflect on:

  • St Augustine describes hope in terms of expanding the desire of our hearts to see God face to face, stretching the capacity of our souls to contain more of the fullness of God’s presence.
  • In the fourth mansion of the Interior Castle, St Teresa draws on Psalm 119.32: “I will run the way of your commandments, for you shall enlarge my heart.” She describes an interior spring of God’s presence welling up: “as this heavenly water begins to flow from this source of which I am speaking – that is, from our very depths [that are God’s dwelling place] – it proceeds to spread within us and cause an interior dilation and produce ineffable blessings, so that the soul itself cannot understand all that it receives there.”
  • As did St Benedict in the Prologue to his Rule: “For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.”

January 2021

Read: Chapters 35-50

Questions:

  1. What do you think the terms moderation, self-denial, sorrow, comforts mean for the author? (see chapters 41-50)
  2. How might the author’s continued teaching on using a single word in prayer affect your understanding and/or practice? (see chapters 36-40 and 48)
  3. What do you make of the author’s suggestion in chapter 46-47 to play a game with God and discover ’the joy of God’s playfulness’?

Structure

As we had reached the half-way stage, we started with randomised Zoom break-out rooms. In threes, we shared briefly something of what we had noticed about our practice, or our desire to practise, and how it has been changing over these months. I gave these 5 minutes, but 10 minutes would have been better – less rushed, more spacious.

We then turned to the three questions.

Follow-up

Compline by Chris Southgate:

Into thy hands
I commend my spirit
It fits them
Exactly.

With respect to Chapter 39 on letting go of sin and cleaving to God, I spoke briefly about this breathing prayer exercise, which can be a useful way of starting any period of silent prayer:

  • Slow down your breathing by breathing in deep… Holding your breath… And then slowly exhaling…
  • As you breathe in, think of it as breathing in God’s Spirit along with the oxygen in the air…
  • As you hold your breath, you hold your sense of the indwelling Holy Spirit…
  • And then you breathe out your sin and anxieties with the carbon dioxide…

And here is a lovely 30-second bonus snippet from the Turning to the Mystics podcast, in which James Finley paraphrases Teresa of Avila!

February

Read: Chapters 51-61

Themes: Body and Spirit in Prayer

Questions:

1. What do you think the author means when he warns about understanding bodily what is said spiritually?
2. What do you learn about silence and theology from these chapters?

Structure

This section included a lot about what not to do! So we started by asking what we can pick out that is helpful for us today, eg teaching or encouragement.

We then turned for a time to the two questions sent in advance, before we did another slow reading of a short sentence from the encouraging second half of Chapter 60, that itself draws on St Paul:

Gallacher near-original: “Thof al oure bodies ben presently here in erthe, nevertheles yit oure levyng is in heven.”

Spearing translation: “[T]hough our bodies are at present here on earth, ‘yet none the less our life is in heaven’.”

  1. How have I or how am I experiencing this?
  2. If I were to say it, how would I say this?
  3. What is this asking of me?

Follow-up

A few of the quotations that were shared:

  • St Patrick’s Breastplate: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left…”
  • St Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
  • William Blake: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour”
  • Anne Lamott: “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.”

The Cloud has occasionally appeared in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, which you can sign up to on the CAC website. There is an archive of meditations, which are handily tagged, so you can read what Rohr and others have written on The Cloud.

Also, Maggie Ross has written a lot about The Cloud on her blog.

March

Read: Chapters 62-75

Themes: Further Reflections about the Pray-er and the Practice of Contemplative Prayer

Questions:

1. What do you find strange and/or helpful in the author’s account of human nature?
2. What do the closing chapters teach us about the grace of God?

Structure

We focused initially on the second question, and touched on the first.

Then I led a short guided reflection as a recap of the six months and a look forward to our individual next steps along the path of prayer:

  • Take a comfortable, balanced and open posture
  • Spend a few minutes stilling yourself and observing your breathing – in – out – in – out, just observing, not trying to change your breathing, then
  • Start by reflecting on the past, reading The Cloud over the last few months
    • What has encouraged you? Spend some time Give thanks to God
    • What has challenged you? Offer it to God
  • Now turn to the future
    • What commitment do you want to make? If not to contemplative prayer or continuing with the group for the moment, then maybe another commitment. Silently express that to God.
    • What would be helpful to you? Make a mental note to seek out these resources.
  • Finally, gently return to observing your breathing, and gradually allow yourself to return to the room

We had a short discussion of ‘what next’ for the group: whether to continue, what book to read from among those that had been proposed, when and how frequently to meet, and so on.

We finished with 3 minutes of silence, and the grace in the last paragraph of The Cloud.

Spearing translation: “Farewell, friend in the spirit, in God’s blessing and mine. And I beseech almighty God that true peace, sound advice, and spiritual comfort in God with abundance of grace, may evermore be with you and all God’s lovers on earth. Amen.”

Follow-up

Two things that were shared…

Deut 33.12

Of Benjamin he said:
The beloved of the Lord rests in safety—
the High God surrounds him all day long—
the beloved rests between his shoulders.

The Night by Henry Vaughan

John 3.2: “[Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ “

But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
To every mire,
And by this world’s ill-guiding light,
Err more than I can do by night.

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

Words from Maggie Ross’ blog

“The point of the spiritual life is not our personal private holiness but rather opening our selves so that the life of God can pour out on the community. One of the sure signs of authentic spiritual life is that the person cares less and less about their own interior life and more and more about what is happening to others.

“When the Cloud author talks about feeling, he’s not talking about experience … he’s talking about what might better be translated as an “inkling”—an inkling that something wonderful is going on out of sight and that what we most need to do is keep our hands and attention away from it so it can continue without our interference.

“A contemporary person might use the analogy of the oblique recognition that we are in “flow”. If you start paying too much attention to the fact you are in flow the flow will quickly stop!

“… Two of the main rules of meditation… are don’t evaluate and don’t expect. The hardest part of all of this is to let go our expectations, stereotypes… [and wanting] the reassurance that we are doing it “correctly”. We have to stop watching our own spiritual lives as if they were movies… Yes, we can and should read texts and give [the brain] information but then we have to leave it alone and do our silent practice and let it surprise us. Behold!”

My personal takeaway

The Cloud author calls contemplative prayer the “werk”. This sentence from Chapter 75 rings very true to me. So it is my werk. But for all that it is my path, I must not forget that it really is werk.

Gallacher near-original: “And yif hem think that ther is any maner of thing that thei do, bodely or goostly, that is sufficiently done with witnes of theire concyence, bot yif this privé litil love put be in maner goostly the cheef of alle theire werk, and yif thei thus fele, then it is a token that thei ben clepid of God to this werk. And sekirly elles not.”

Spearing translation: “And if it seems that there is nothing they do, in body or in spirit, that is done well enough to satisfy their consciences unless this secret little thrust of love is, as it were, the spiritual crown of all their work – if this is what they feel, then it is a sign that they are called by God to this work; and certainly not otherwise.”

What next?

When I was first mulling over whether to take on leadership of The Cloud discussion, I said that I hoped this would evolve into a rotating leadership. I also wanted a break for at least a couple of months.

In the event, a number of strands came together which resulted in Phil offering a slow book group on Rowan Williams Being Disciples from May to July 2021. Then I will offer a group on Maggie Ross Writing the Icon of the Heart from September 2021 to February 2022, possibly on Zoom, possibly (who knows?!) face-to-face.