Selections from the Cloud of Unknowing

Johnston, William (introduction), The Cloud of Unknowing
New York: Doubleday, 1973 - Reissue August 1996

Footnotes (which are of my own composition) are intended to provide references either to points the author makes elsewhere, or to concepts of ascetic theology with which the author assumes the reader would be familiar. Words presented in italics had such emphasis in the original - the boldness is my own.

Chapter 4 - Page 52:
Human tendency towards self-deception and pride; inability to "produce" contemplation by our own efforts.

And now we come to the difference between the contemplative work and its counterfeits such as daydreaming, fantasising, or subtle reasoning. These originate in a conceited, curious, or romantic mind whereas the blind stirring of love springs from a sincere and humble heart. Pride, curiosity, and daydreaming must be sternly checked if the contemplative work is to be authentically conceived in singleness of heart. Some will probably hear about this work and suppose that by their own ingenious efforts they can achieve it. They are likely to strain their mind and imagination unnaturally only to produce a false work which is neither human nor divine. Truly, such a person is dangerously deceived.

Definition of the cloud:
Essentially, that God is "unknowable" - our created nature would know God intuitively, but our fallen nature does not

Do not suppose that because I have spoken of darkness and of a cloud I have in mind the clouds you see in an overcast sky or the darkness of your house when your candle fails…. When I speak of darkness, I mean the absence of knowledge. If you are unable to understand something or if you have forgotten it, are you not in the dark as regards this thing? You cannot see it with your mind's eye. Well, in the same way, I have not said "cloud," but cloud of unknowing. For it is a darkness of unknowing that lies between you and your God.

Chapter 8 - Page 58:

Regarding the active and contemplative lives - contrast with the Augustinian Walter Hilton's description of the mixed life of action and contemplation - author of the Cloud is addressing one called to a contemplative life, whose means of serving neighbour would be prayer - considering the Passion of Christ and suffering was a popular medieval practise which drew greater emphasis during the time of the Plague. There is a very strong emphasis, throughout, on the importance of contemplation as loving God for his own sake, not for His gifts.

The active life is such that it begins and ends on earth. The contemplative life, however, may indeed begin on earth but it will continue without end into eternity. This is because the contemplative life is Mary's part which shall never be taken away. The active life is troubled and busy about many things, but the contemplative life sits in peace with the one thing necessary.

In the lower degree of the active life a person does well to busy himself with good deeds and the works of mercy. In the higher degree of the active life (which merges with the lower degree of the contemplative life) he begins to meditate on things of the spirit. This is when he ought to ponder with sorrow the sinfulness of man, so as to enter into the Passion of Christ(1)and the sufferings of his saints with pity and compassion. It is a time when one grows in appreciation of God's kindness and his gifts, and begins to praise and thank him for the wonderful ways he works in all his creation. But in the higher degree of contemplation - such as we know it in this life - all is darkness and a cloud of unknowing. Here one turns to God with a burning desire for Himself alone and rests in the blind awareness of his naked being.

Becoming more fully human:
Always moving towards the created nature (intuitive awareness of God) - contemplation can only be a gift of grace (indwelling of the Trinity)

The activities of the lower degree of the active life in themselves leave much of man's natural human potential untapped. At this stage he lives, as it were, outside himself or beneath himself. As he advances to the higher degree of the active life(2) (which merges with the lower degree of the contemplative life), he becomes increasingly interior, living more from the depths of himself and becoming, therefore, more fully human. But in the higher degree of the contemplative life, he transcends himself because he achieves by grace what is beyond him by nature. For now he is bound to God spiritually in a communion of love and desire….

This is why I urge you to dismiss every clever or subtle thought no matter how holy and valuable. Cover it over with a thick cloud of forgetting because in this life only love can touch God as he is in himself, never knowledge. As long as we live in these mortal bodies the keenness of our intellect remains dulled by material limitations whenever it deals with spiritual realities and most especially God. Our reasoning(3), therefore, is never pure thought, and without the assistance of divine mercy it would lead us deep into error.

Chapter 64 - p. 131
Of reason and will; how they functioned before original sin

Reason .. enables us to distinguish the bad from the good, the good from the better, and the better from the best.. Before man sinned he did this naturally and easily, but now Reason, blinded as a consequence of original sin, errs unless it is illumined by grace. The Mind embraces both Reason and its object.

After Reason has determined what is good, the Will moves toward it with love and desire and finally rests in it with satisfaction, delight, and full consent. Before original sin, man was in no danger of choosing and loving a false good because in his primordial integrity he experienced each thing as it really was. All his faculties were sound and he was not liable to be deceived by any of them. But in the present order of things, man cannot consistently choose the good without the assistance of grace. Original sin left him wounded and blind so that he is easily deceived by appearances and chooses an evil which has disguised itself as good.

Chapter 24 - Page 80
Charity perfectly contained in contemplative love - genuine detachment

For in real charity one loves God for himself alone above every created thing and he loves his fellow man because it is God's law(4). In the contemplative work God is loved above every creature purely and simply for his own sake. Indeed, the very heart of this work is nothing else but a naked intent towards God for his own sake.

I call it a naked intent because it is utterly disinterested. In this work the perfect artisan does not seek personal gain or exemption from suffering. He desires only God and him alone. He is so fascinated by the God he loves, and so concerned that His will be done on earth, that he neither notices nor cares about his own ease or anxiety(5)…. In this work God is really loved perfectly and for his own sake. For a true contemplative may share with no other creature the love he owes to God(6).

Moreover, in contemplation the second and subsidiary command of charity is also and completely fulfilled. The fruits of contemplation bear witness to this even though during the actual time of prayer the skilled contemplative has no special regard for any person in particular… no man is a stranger to him because he looks on each one as a brother. All are his friends. Even those who hurt or offend him in everyday life are as dear to him as his best friends and all the good(7) he desires for his best friends he desires for them.

Chapter 34 - Pages 90-92
God gives the gift of contemplation freely; methods can never induce it

If you ask me just precisely how one is to go about doing the contemplative work of love, I am at a complete loss. All I can say is I pray that Almighty God in his great goodness and kindness will teach you himself. … It is a divine activity, and God will do it in whomever he chooses. No one can earn it. Paradoxical as it may seem, it would not ever occur to a person - no, nor to an angel or saint - to desire contemplative love were it not already alive within him… Often our Lord deliberately chooses to work in those who have been habitual sinners(8)rather than in those who, by comparison, have never grieved him at all… He wants us to realise that he is all-merciful and almighty, and that he is perfectly free to work as he pleases, where he pleases, and when he pleases.

Yet he does not give his grace nor work this work in a person who has no aptitude for it. But a person lacking the capacity to receive his grace could never gain it through his own efforts either. No one at all, neither sinner nor innocent, can do so. For this grace is a gift, and it is not given for innocence nor withheld for sin. Notice that I say withheld, not withdrawn(9). ..

Beware of pride; it is blasphemy against God in his gifts and makes the sinner bold…. Contemplative prayer is God's gift, wholly gratuitous. No one can earn it…. The aptitude for this work is one with the work… He who experiences God working in the depths of his spirit has the aptitude for contemplation and no one else(10). For without God's grace a person would be so completely insensitive to the reality of contemplative prayer that he would be unable to desire or long for it.

Chapter 40 - Page 99

Immerse yourself in the spiritual reality (of God) 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. He finds and experiences all of them in God, who is the source and essence of all goodness. A contemplative has come to realise that if he possesses God he possesses all goodness, and this is why he desires nothing in particular but only the good God himself. And so you must do, insofar as you can, with his grace. Let this little word (God) represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God. Let nothing except God hold sway in your mind and heart.

Chapter 49 - Page 111
Essence of perfection is a good will

And so you may confidently rely on this gentle stirring of love in your heart and follow wherever it leads you, for it is your sure guide in this life and will bring you to the glory of the next. This (love) is the essence of a good life and without it no good work is possible. Basically, love means a radical personal commitment to God. This implies that your will is harmoniously attuned to his in an abiding content and enthusiasm for all he does.

A good will like this is the essence of the highest perfection. The delight and consolations of sense and spirit, regardless how sublime, are but accidental to this and wholly dependent on it… because it matters very little whether or not a person experiences them. (Consolations) are incidental to life on earth, but in eternity they will be essential elements of man's final glory, just as his body (which feels them now) will be united actually and essentially forever with his spirit. But on earth the kernel of all consolation is the inner reality of a good will(11). Moreover, I feel certain that a person who has matured in the perfecting of his will (at least insofar as he may in this life) experiences no earthly delight or consolation that he would not willingly and joyfully renounce(12)if God so wished.

Chapter 40 - pages 112-113
Sensible consolations

God in his great wisdom determines what is best for each one. Some people are so spiritually fragile and delicate that, unless they were always strengthened with a little sensible consolation, they might be unable to endure the various temptations and sufferings that afflict them as they struggle in this life against their enemies from within and without. And there are others so frail physically that they are unable to purify themselves through rigorous discipline(13). Our Lord in his great kindness purifies these people spiritually through consolations and tears. Yet there are others so spiritually virile that they find enough consolation in the reverent offering of this gentle, little love and in the sweet harmony of their heart's with God's. They find such spiritual nourishment within that they need little other comfort. Which of these people is holier or nearer to God, only he knows. I certainly do not.

Chapter 52 - page 114
Snares for the presumptuous

…The neophyte hears and reads that he should cease using his external faculties on external things and work interiorly. This is true as far as it goes, but because he does not understand how to work interiorly, his efforts miscarry. He becomes morbidly introspective and strains his faculties, as though by brute force he could make his eyes and ears see and hear interior things. In like manner he abuses all his senses and emotions. Thus he does violence to his nature and drives his imagination so mercilessly with this stupidity that eventually his mind snaps. Then the way is clear for the evil one to feign some fantasy of light or sound, some sweet odour or delicious taste. Or the devil may excite his passions and arouse all sorts of bizarre sensations…

The poor fool is deluded by these wiles and believes that he has achieved a peaceful contemplation of God beyond all temptations to vain thoughts. Indeed, he is not altogether wrong, for he is now so satiated with lies that vain thoughts do not really trouble him. Why? Because the same fiend, who would harass him with temptations if he were engaged in genuine prayer, is the very one directing this pseudo-work, and he is not so stupid as to hinder his own work with the obvious. Cleverly he leaves the fool he has trapped with lovely thoughts about God, so that his evil hand will not be detected.

Chapter 55 - page 119
Those who condemn sin with indiscreet zeal

Again, the fiend will deceive some people with another insidious plot. He will fire them with a zeal to maintain God's law by uprooting sin from the hearts of others. Never will he come right out and tempt them with something obviously evil. Instead, he incites them to assume the (false) role of a zealous prelate supervising every aspect of the Christian life, like an Abbot overseeing his monks. He reprimands anyone and everyone for his faults just as if he were a legitimately constituted pastor. He feels he must rebuke them lest God's wrath descend upon himself, and he maintains that the love of God and the fire of fraternal charity impel him. But really he lies, for it is the fire of hell in his brain and imagination that incites him.

…In the case of false zeal.. (the devil) so inflames the imagination of his contemplatives with the fire of hell that suddenly and imprudently they will lash out with unbelievable conceit. They arrogate to themselves the right to admonish others, often crudely and prematurely.

Chapter 67 - page 135
We are made almost divine through grace

…there will come times when your mind is … totally taken up with the being of God Himself. This is the contemplative work I have been describing in this book. And at such time you transcend yourself, becoming almost divine, though you remain beneath God.

…(You) have gained by grace what is impossible to you by nature, for this union with God in spirit, in love, and in oneness of desire is the gift of grace. Almost divine - yes, you and God are so one that you (and any real contemplative) may in a sense truly be called divine. Yet, of course, you are not divine in the same way as God Himself is; he without origin or end is divine by nature. You, however, were brought into being from nothingness at a certain moment in time. Moreover, after God had created you with the almighty power of his love, you made yourself less than nothing through sin. Because of sin you have not deserved anything, but the all-merciful God lovingly re-created you in grace, making you, as it were, divine and one with him for time and eternity. Yet, though you are truly one with him through grace, you remain less than him by nature.

Chapter 69
Love wonderfully transofrmed in the experience of nothingness

How wonderfully is a man's love transformed by the interior experience of this nothingness and this nowhere. The first time he looks upon it, the sins of his whole life rise up before him… Mysteriously and darkly they are burnt into it…

At times the sight is as terrible as a glimpse of hell, and he is tempted to despair of ever being healed and relieved of his sore burden…. But they have not understood that they were not ready for the spiritual comfort which would have succoured them had they waited.

He who patiently abides in this darkness will be comforted and fell again a confidence about his destiny, for gradually he will see his past sins healed by grace …. The suffering he endures is really not hell at all, but his purgatory(14). Then will come a time when he recognises in that nothingness no particular sin(15) but only the lump of sin itself, which though but a formless mass is none other than himself; he sees that in himself it is the root and pain of original sin. When at other times he begins to feel a marvellous strengthening and untold delights of joy and goodness, he wonders if this nothingness is not some heavenly paradise after all. And finally there will come a moment when he experiences such peace and repose in that darkness that he thinks surely it must be God himself.

Yes, he will suppose this nothingness to be one thing and another, yet to the last it will remain a cloud of unknowing between him and his God.

Chapter 70 - page 139

…man knows the things of the spirit more by what they are not than by what they are… However much a man may know about every created spiritual thing, his intellect will never be able to comprehend the uncreated spiritual truth which is God. But there is a negative knowledge which does understand God. It proceeds by asserting everything it knows: this is not God, until finally he comes to a point where knowledge is exhausted.


Primary (principal powers) - related to spirit - can function independently of Imagination and Feeling when they deal directly with spiritual things

Secondary - related to the material, both present and absent

Chapter 64 - p. 131
Of reason and will; how they functioned before original sin

Reason .. enables us to distinguish the bad from the good, the good from the better, and the better from the best.. Before man sinned he did this naturally and easily, but now Reason, blinded as a consequence of original sin, errs unless it is illumined by grace. The Mind embraces both Reason and its object.

After Reason has determined what is good, the Will moves toward it with love and desire and finally rests in it with satisfaction, delight, and full consent. Before original sin, man was in no danger of choosing and loving a false good because in his primordial integrity he experienced each thing as it really was. All his faculties were sound and he was not liable to be deceived by any of them. But in the present order of things, man cannot consistently choose the good without the assistance of grace. Original sin left him wounded and blind so that he is easily deceived by appearances and chooses an evil which has disguised itself as good.

Chapter 65 - page 132

Before original sin, Imagination co-operated completely with Reason … (faithfully reflecting) each image as it really was… This integrity of our nature is lost, and Imagination never ceases.. to distort the image of material creatures, to create counterfeits of their spiritual essences or to conjure up fantasies of spiritual things in our minds. Without the help of grace, it is liable to great error in perceiving and thus produces many counterfeits of reality.

The undisciplined nature of Imagination is evident in the experience of neophytes newly turned from the world and beginning to give themselves to the contemplative way of life. It is with great difficulty that they wrench their minds away from the myriad delightful thoughts, images, and daydreams of their past … This habitual undisciplined activity of the Imagination is one of the painful consequences of original sin. As these neophytes progress in the practises of the contemplative life, however, meditating faithfully on their own human frailty, the Passion of Christ, his transcendent goodness, and the other truths of the interior life, Reason is gradually healed, regaining its rightful ascendancy over the Imagination.

Chapter 66 - page 133

Feeling is the faculty of our soul which extends to the senses and is master there. We are blessed with this faculty because it enables us to know and experience every material creature and determine whether or not it is good for us. (Feeling) rebels when the body lacks any necessity and that is apt to move us to excess in satisfying any need. It grumbles at the deprivation and the infliction of pain and is heartily pleased when pain is removed and pleasure restored.

…Before man sinned it was a perfect servant (of the will), all its delight and disdain being perfectly ordered to reality. It communicated to the Will no disordered feeling about any material creature nor any counterfeit spiritual experience aroused by the devil in the interior senses.

…Due to original sin, (Feeling) experiences pain when deprived of the inordinate pleasures it blindly craves and when restrained by salutary discipline, which is abhors. Grace must strengthen the Will to accept humbly its share of original sin's consequences so that it will restrain Feeling from overindulgence in legitimate pleasures and give it a taste for wholesome discipline.

1. The author distinguishes between the "early stage" of awareness of the Incarnate Christ and later awareness of the Risen Christ. Classic ascetic theology sees awareness of Christ in his humanity as what essentially is the "starting point," because we must be able to grasp this and identify with it before we can progress. Contemplative love is based on the indwelling of the Trinity - and of the Risen Christ as the Second Person. In this and other classic works, contemplatives were to reach a point where they no longer focussed on the humanity of Christ, but this action could only be the work of divine grace, and neither could nor should be anticipated.

2 Not, of course, that the good works should cease - this is multiplication, not subtraction, since it involves an awareness of love of God and his creation with a new depth.

3 Thomas Aquinas's belief that knowledge of God could be attained through reason, and that the pursuit of any discipline could lead to contemplation, was much under discussion then. The first is purely awareness that God exists, not an intuitive awareness of truth. The second assumes that those pursuing disciplines … already have a desire for union with God on a part with that of Thomas… Augustine would have thought that latter excessively optimistic, having direct proof that extraordinary intellect would not protect one from grave error.

4 This follows the Augustinian model, previously presented in the session on Walter Hilton, of loving others "in" or "for" God. We must not misinterpret the author as meaning that we grudgingly love others because it is a law! (Though many delicious paragraphs in the Cloud make it very plain how exasperating others could be in seeking to discourage contemplatives, and one may gather that it is essential to remember the command if all else fails.) Rather, we could not love God or neighbour truly without divine grace - love for others always includes the desire for their salvation and concern for their growth in love of God.

5 In a previous section, the author had mentioned that God will either provide for material necessities or give one the stamina to do without them until they are provided. The exhortation was basically grounded on the need not to abandon the eternally misunderstood work of contemplation. It is not a denial of physical needs, a Manichean approach to our human nature, or suggestion that neglect of such needs is a means to spiritual growth, and certainly is not a New Age or Eastern model wherein extreme physical deprivation is a way to attain special power.

6 The love one "owes to God" is a love of adoration, which naturally can be given to no other, and we cannot love others only for their own sake as we would God, for all love is in Him. The fruits of this love for God are, and must be, shared with others, and the author also gives attention to the importance of the special affection we will have for some others to whom we are particularly close, as was true in Jesus' life. The author's caution to think of no one in particular during contemplativeprayer is a means of avoiding distractions, not an implication that love for others is opposed to love of God. Prayers of petition or intercession would have been a part of the life as well, at the very least as part of liturgical prayer (which, as with the sacraments, is not mentioned in this work because it is assumed.)

7 The good, in this context, being primarily the others' salvation and union with God.

8 "Have been" - not "are"! Contrition is assumed, and would have involved a gift of grace and response that would have been the more intense for just how greatly the will would need to be turned from the previous state. Note the excellent implicit reminder that this gift is not one to inspire self-congratulation.

9 Both virtue and sin, as the author explains in a chapter related to mortal and venial sin, depend on use of reason, memory, and will - either choice involves full reflection and consent of the will in this context. Genuine love for God cannot co-exist with grave sin, and God cannot bestow the grace of contemplative love if our will is opposed to it. The grace can be withdrawn, but will not be withheld because of previous sins for which one is repentant.

10 This is not at odds with Walter Hilton's belief that we are all called to contemplation. Walter's reference was to holiness (the practise of perfect charity), where the Cloud's author is referring to a degree of mystic union which is not universal. Both, of course, are gifts of divine grace - and Walter's extensive work gently reminds the reader that the universal call is also a commandment. The Cloud's author is specifically addressing one whom he has judged to be called to mystic union.

11 Those advanced in the life of prayer undoubtedly would have learnt that there can be quite a gap between good intentions and true good will. "I meant well" is more often an evasion of truth than indicative of a will turned towards the Light.

12 Jumping ahead a few centuries: if Teresa of Avila's words on the subject are any indication, those who received such sensible consolations found them more bothersome than joyous - and one gathers they would have been more than happy to not have them were there a choice. In another chapter, the author of the Cloud reminds his reader not to "rest in" consolations for fear of growing weak, for the consolations expend a great deal of energy.

13 See the section about the Faculties for some reference to the discipline. This is not an implication that man can "acquire" contemplation by his own efforts, since it is a gift of grace. However, the "rigorous discipline" is a part of the contemplative's response to grace, recognising and compensating for the weakness of our intellect and will which is a result of original sin. The author of the Cloud repeatedly emphasises the need to realise that, because of this weakness, we do not perceive things as they really are.

14 Profitable though the Dante Alighieri version of this term was for many of the era, then and now, purgatory meant purification.

15 This corresponds to focussing on no particular virtue in the recognition of total goodness, as previously mentioned.