The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing
The Cloud of Unknowing  
Author(s) Anonymous
Original title The Cloude of Unknowyng
Country England
Language Middle English
Subject(s) Spiritual guide to contemplative prayer
Genre(s) Christian mysticism
Publication date late 14th century
Followed by The Book of Privy Counseling

The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowyng) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages.

Manuscripts of the work are today at British Library and Cambridge University Library. [1][2]


History and influence

The Cloud of Unknowing draws on the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Christian Neoplatonism[3], which focuses on the via negativa road to discovering God as a pure entity, beyond any capacity of mental conception and so without any definitive image or form. This tradition has reputedly inspired generations of mystical searchers from John Scotus Erigena, through Book of Taliesin, Nicholas of Cusa and St. John of the Cross to Teilhard de Chardin (the latter two of whom may have been influenced by "The Cloud" itself). Prior to this, the theme of "Cloud" had been in the Confessions of St. Augustine (IX, 10) written in AD 398. [2]

This work had already become known to English Catholics in middle 17th century, later ascetic and Benedictine mystic, Augustine Baker (1575-1641), wrote an exposition on its doctrine. Today a transcript of the work dated 1677 is at the Ampleforth College , apart from several at the British Library. English mystic Evelyn Underhill edited an important version of the work in 1922. [3]


The book counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and intellection (faculty of the human mind), but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. This is brought about by putting all thoughts and desires under a "cloud of forgetting", and thereby piercing God's cloud of unknowing with a "dart of longing love" from the heart. This form of contemplation is not directed by the intellect, but involves spiritual union with God through the heart:

"For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens."[4]

In a follow-up to The Cloud, called The Book of Privy Counseling, the author characterizes the practice of contemplative unknowing as worshiping God with one's "substance," coming to rest in a "naked blind feeling of being," and ultimately finding thereby that God is one's being.

The practical prayer advice contained in The Cloud of Unknowing forms a primary basis for the contemporary practice of Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation developed by Trappist monks William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating in the 1970s.[5]


Ch. 39-40 quotation: other versions

Evelyn Underhill (1922/2003)
And if we will intentively pray for getting of good, let us cry, either with word or with thought or with desire, nought else nor no more words, but this word “God.” For why, in God be all good.. Fill thy spirit with the ghostly bemeaning of it without any special beholding to any of His works—whether they be good, better, or best of all—bodily or ghostly, or to any virtue that may be wrought in man’s soul by any grace; not looking after whether it be meekness or charity, patience or abstinence, hope, faith, or soberness, chastity or wilful poverty. What recks this in contemplatives?.. they covet nothing with special beholding, but only good God. Do thou.. mean God all, and all God, so that nought work in thy wit and in thy will, but only God.[6]

Middle English original
And yif we wil ententifly preie for getyng of goodes, lat us crie, outher with worde or with thought or with desire, nought elles, ne no mo wordes, bot this worde God. For whi in God ben alle goodes.. Fille thi spirit with the goostly bemenyng of it withoutyn any specyal beholdyng to any of His werkes whether thei be good, betir, or alther best, bodily or goostly—or to any vertewe that may be wrought in mans soule by any grace, not lokyng after whether it be meeknes or charité, pacyence or abstynence, hope, feith, or sobirnes, chastité or wilful poverté. What thar reche in contemplatyves?.. thei coveyte nothing with specyal beholdyng, bot only good God. Do thou.. mene God al, and al God, so that nought worche in thi witte and in thi wile, bot only God.[7]

From a description of how to practice contemplation (from chapters 39 and 40):

When we intend to pray for goodness, let all our thought and desire be contained in the one small word "God." Nothing else and no other words are needed, for God is the epitome of all goodness.. Immerse yourself in the spiritual reality it speaks of yet without precise ideas of God's works whether small or great, spiritual or material. Do not consider any particular virtue which God may teach you through grace, whether it is humility, charity, patience, abstinence, hope, faith, moderation, chastity, or evangelical poverty. For to a contemplative they are, in a sense, all the same.. Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God.[8]

From elsewhere (chapter 23, The Book of Privy Counseling):

"And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest."[9]

Popular culture

  • Leonard Cohen refers to "The Cloud of Unknowing" in the 1979 song "The Window" (of Recent Songs)
  • Todd Rundgren refers to "a cloud of unknowing" in the 1989 song "Parallel Lines" (on the album "Nearly Human")
  • Jan Garbarek, the 2004 album In Praise of Dreams includes a track called "Cloud of Unknowing"
  • Plastic Beach, the 2010 album by Gorillaz, includes a track called "Cloud of Unknowing"
  • James Blackshaw released an album in 2007 by the same name
  • John Luther Adams' orchestral work "Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing", completed in 1995, was inspired by "The Cloud of Unknowing"
  • Steve Roach's album The Magnificent Void (1996) includes a track named "Cloud of Unknowing"
  • Don DeLillo refers to "The Cloud of Unknowing" in the 1998 novel "Underworld"
  • In the episode A Measure of Salvation of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica television series, Lee Adama mentions that the Cylons were saying a prayer to the Cloud of Unknowing
  • The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble album Eternal Interlude (2009) features a track titled "The Cloud." There is a short spoken-word segment paraphrasing a passage from the book

Other works

In addition to The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, the Cloud author is believed to be responsible for several other spiritual treatises and translations, including:


Editions of related texts include

  • Deonise Hid Divinite: And Other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer Related to The Cloud of Unknowing (1955). ed., Phyllis Hodgson. Early English Text Society. Oxford University Press, 2002 paperback: 0859916987
  • The Pursuit of Wisdom: And Other Works by the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing (1988). translator, James Walsh. Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality. paperback: ISBN 0-8091-2972-8.

See also


  1. ^ British Library MS Harleian 674, British Library MS Royal 17 C xxvi and Cambridge University Library
  2. ^ a b Introduction
  3. ^ a b Introduction by Evenlyn Underhill, 1922.
  4. ^ The Cloud of Unknowing and other works. Penguin Classics. 2001. ISBN 978-0-14-044762-0.  Translated by A. C. Spearing
  5. ^ Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (2006/1986). by Thomas Keating. Continuum International Publishing Group. paperback: ISBN 0-8264-0696-3, hardback: ISBN 0-8264-1420-6.
  6. ^ Cloud (version), Underhill (2003), pp. 69-72, Accessed 23 May 2010.
  7. ^ Cloud (original), Gallacher (1997), lines 1426 - 1471, Accessed 23 May 2010.
  8. ^ Johnston (1996), pp. 98-101.
  9. ^ Johnston (1996), p. 188 (paperback).

External links

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