Cloud of Unknowing, The


Cloud of Unknowing, The
(ca. 1350–1400)
   One of the best-known mystical treatises in MIDDLE ENGLISH, The Cloud of Unknowing is a prose work in a North East Midland dialect from the later 14th century. Its anonymous author seems to have been familiar with the works of Richard ROLLE (d. 1349), with whom he disagreed, and to have been known by Walter HILTON, whose Scale of Perfection (1395) is written, at least in part, as an answer to the Cloud. The Cloud author is concerned with the process of preparing the mind and soul for contemplation that may lead to mystical union with God—thus the “cloud” referred to in the title is the gulf that separates human from divine. The Cloud author’s method for crossing this gulf, derived essentially from the influential early Christian mystic known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, involves negation (what mystics call the apophatic method): The negation of the self, the senses, even the intellect—since none of these can experience God—and the elevation of love alone as the faculty that can penetrate the cloud. The Cloud author belongs to a tradition dating back to the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa, who discussed the mystical experience as encompassing three stages—purgation, illumination, and unity. The first two stages must involve the mystic’s intellect as he prepares himself for the experience, but the final stage eliminates the activity of reason, and the mystic—through love and a kind of negation of our common ways of knowing— is aware of the presence of God in an engulfing darkness. The Pseudo-Dionysius, whom the Cloud author calls Denis (originally thought to be the follower of Saint Paul mentioned in Acts 17.34, but apparently in fact a sixth-century Syrian monk) also emphasizes the importance of the mystic’s rising beyond reason in the final stage of unity with God, and emphasizes the negation of all physical categories in that stage of unity. The Cloud author, who was probably a priest and well-read in church fathers and medieval theologians, seems to have been particularly influenced by Gregory and especially Dionysius. The text consists of 75 chapters, and does not proceed in any linear kind of argument; rather, its mode of organization has been compared to a spiral, in which the author keeps returning to his thesis, first stated explicitly in chapter 3: The mystic must focus on God in love, and must expunge from his mind any of God’s creations or anything associated with them, so that nothing remains but the stark will toward God alone. To this point the author returns again and again, spending some time clarifying and illustrating this necessity, explaining pitfalls, acknowledging the importance of intellect and imagination in the first stages of contemplation (that is, purgation and illumination) and the necessity for building on them, but always returning to the apophatic stage of unity with the Godhead.
   One of the aspects of the Cloud that critics have found fascinating is the author’s pervasive use of bodily imagery to make his readers better able to follow the abstract argument about the negation of bodily senses. The climax of the book, occurring in the brief description of actual union in chapters 67 and 68, juxtaposes the physical desire to play with something and physically everywhere with the spiritual union occurring physically nowhere and with a physical nothing. For the Cloud author, the mystic must transcend the reliance on the senses, by which we know through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, because spiritual realities have no such qualities; rather by the very elimination of the senses, we become cognizant of the spiritual. Ultimately, The Cloud of Unknowing presents its readers with a method by which those seeking contemplation might prepare for a mystical experience, rise above the intellect and all physical images and concepts, and pierce through the nothingness that is the cloud. The treatise seems to have been well known in its own day, as 17 extant manuscripts of the text survive. On the basis of style, subject matter, and manuscript association, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is also believed to be the author of six other late medieval mystical texts: The Book of Privy Counseling, The Epistle of Prayer, the Denis [i.e., Dionysius] Hid Divinity (the Cloud author’s own version of one of Dionysius’s texts), Benjamin Minor, The Epistle of Discretion in Stirrings, and Of Discerning Spirits. None of these minor texts has achieved the popularity, the readability, or the simple fresh appeal of the Cloud, which remains a classic of Western and mystical spirituality.
   Bibliography
   ■ Burrow, J. A. “Fantasy and Language in The Cloud of Unknowing,” in Essays in Criticism 27 (1977): 283–298. Reprinted in Essays on Medieval Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984, 132–147.
   ■ Clark, John P. H. “The Cloud of Unknowing.” In An Introduction to The Medieval Mystics of Europe, edited by Paul E. Szarmach, 273–291. Albany: State University of New York Press. The Cloud of Unknowing. Edited by Patrick J. Gallacher. Kalamazoo,Mich.:Medieval Institute Publications, 1997.
   ■ Emery, Kent, Jr. “The Cloud of Unknowing and Mystica Theologia.” In The Roots of the Modern Christian Tradition, edited by E. Rozanne Elder, 46–70.
   ■ Kalamazoo,Mich.: Cistercian Publishing. Englert, Robert William. Scattering and Oneing: A Study of Conflict in the Works of the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Analecta Cartusiana 105. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1983.
   ■ Hodgson, Phyllis, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing. EETS e.s. 218. London: Oxford University Press, 1944.
   ■ Johnston,William. The Mysticism of the Cloud of Unknowing: A Modern Interpretation. 2nd ed. St. Meinrad, Ind.: Abbey Press, 1975.
   ■ Lees, Rosemary Ann. The Negative Language of the Dionysian School of Mystical Theology: An Approach to the Cloud of Unknowing. Analecta Cartusiana 107. 2 vols. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1983.
   ■ Wolpers, Clifton, trans. The Cloud of Unknowing. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1961.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • The Cloud of Unknowing — This article is about the medieval book. For other uses, see The Cloud of Unknowing (disambiguation). The Cloud of Unknowing   Author(s) Anonymous …   Wikipedia

  • The Cloud of Unknowing (disambiguation) — The Cloud of Unknowing is a 14th century guidebook by an anonymous English monk.The Cloud of Unknowing may also refer to: * The title of one of the sections in Underworld (DeLillo novel) * The name of a song by The Claudia Quintet, on their album …   Wikipedia

  • The Cloud of Unknowing — Die Wolke des Nichtwissens (engl.: The Cloud of Unknowing) ist der Titel einer Schrift über den mystischen Weg, die am Ende des 14. Jahrhunderts (um 1390) in England in mittelenglischer Volkssprache entstanden ist. Weil der Autor seinen Namen in… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • The Claudia Quintet — is an eclectic post jazz [1] ensemble formed by drummer and composer John Hollenbeck. Contents 1 Personnel 2 History and name 3 Discography …   Wikipedia

  • Cloud (disambiguation) — A cloud is a visible mass of condensed droplets or frozen crystals suspended in the air. Cloud(s) may also refer to: Contents 1 Fiction 2 Literature 3 …   Wikipedia

  • The Magnificent Void — Infobox Album Name = The Magnificent Void Type = studio Longtype = Artist = Steve Roach Released = 1996 Recorded = at The Timeroom in Tucson, Arizona Genre = Ambient Length = 69:35 Label = Fathom Producer = Steve Roach Reviews = *Allmusic… …   Wikipedia

  • The Swords Trilogy — Infobox Book | name = The Swords Trilogy title orig = translator = image caption = Cover of the first edition author = Michael Moorcock illustrator = cover artist = country = United States language = English series = Corum subject = genre =… …   Wikipedia

  • Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite — Full name Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite Other names Pseudo Dionysius , Pseudo Denys , mistakenly identified as Dionysius the Areopagite Born unknown, 5th to 6th century AD Died unknown, 5th to 6th century AD Era Ancient philosop …   Wikipedia

  • List of The Brady Bunch episodes — The Brady Bunch opening grid, season one The Brady Bunch is a situ …   Wikipedia

  • Roman Catholicism — the faith, practice, and system of government of the Roman Catholic Church. [1815 25] * * * Largest single Christian denomination in the world, with some one billion members, or about 18% of the world s population. The Roman Catholic church has… …   Universalium


Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.