Tuesday 19 September 2023

Notes towards a paper on ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’


Philip Harvey’s introduction to his presentation on ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, given at Spiritual Reading Group in the Carmelite Library, Wednesday the 20th of September 2023.

 Today we spend some time looking at a book about contemplation.

Contemplation of God.

Contemplation is the Middle English word used by its author.

We don’t know the name of the author or their exact identity.

The name of the book is ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’.

In library cataloguing the anonymous author is called ‘The Author of The Cloud of Unknowing’ because he (they are fairly certain it’s a he) wrote other works in similar vein that have been identified as his.

When I was a teenager, I remember trying to read this short book.

I didn’t have a clue, or at least not very many clues.

At least I was trying, which is what I find now is the ideal reader of this book.

Someone who wishes to live a more contemplative existence.

Because the author is a spiritual director whose job is to introduce the novice in religious life into contemplation of God.

Where to start?

Today I can see that ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ is not something you sit down and read from cover to cover.

In fact, as I read each short chapter I keep stopping and spending time on a single sentence.

Just one of its 75 short chapters is enough to keep me going all day.

Perhaps we should have 75 spiritual reading group sessions, one devoted to each chapter.

Progress is wherever you are up to in contemplation at the time.

We do what we can with what we’ve got, but we must have an intention towards God in order for anything to happen.

As a teenager I was much too impatient to notice any of this.

You have to work with whatever you’ve got at the time.

Reading ‘The Cloud’ you are made aware of its immediacy of language, like listening to someone sitting opposite you.

You are also aware of its time period, it is a short medieval guidebook to the practice of the contemplation of God.

The book is written in Middle English, and sometimes there are words in the original that speak volumes about contemplation, words no longer in use.

The word ‘stirring’ is a good example, the author encouraging us to be stirred by the Spirit, to be attentive to this stirring.

A testament to the book’s popularity are the many modernised versions of the text.

New translations appear fairly regularly over the decades.

Scholars think it’s likely the book is written in the vernacular because the novice in question is a local who cannot read Latin.

Many of the essential directions are derived from other medieval and earlier spiritual writers, writing in Latin.

The anonymous author turns these into his own English.

He arranges them in sequence following his own pattern of spiritual direction, his own understanding.

In this way, he succeeds in communicating with the young novice.

It is the freshness and immediacy of his language that speaks also to us today.

I began reading Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s recent version.

Over some weeks I slowly got through the book’s 75 chapters.

Slowly, because the whole time I had no idea how I was going to talk about contemplation.

Let alone contemplation as directed by the Author of the Cloud of Unknowing.

I became aware of my complete lack of ability in talking about prayer.

In fact, each chapter, though simplicity itself in terms of expression, was overwhelming to me in terms of what I could possibly say about it.

In fact, I may as well have been a novice.

It dawned on me after completing this deceptively simple book, that this book is not a novel or other text that we read for fun and profit.

Or even just out of interest, or for self-improvement.

In fact, if I was paying attention to even one brief sentence, that might be enough for now.

It was necessary to improve my knowledge by reading ‘outside the text’.

Some scholars think the author was a Carthusian.

The novice he is training in prayer wishes to become part of the Order and live a daily life of contemplation.

Carthusians are a silent order and interested in anonymity.

This is another reason why they think the author is a Carthusian, he’s not interested in making a name for himself.

Indeed, who he is is beside the point, in this context.

The focus is entirely upon our relationship with God.

Other scholars list some of the writers they identify as being quoted by the Author, or influencing him.

Dionysius Areopagite, St Bernard of Clairvaux, and other spiritual teachers inform parts of the thinking in ‘The Cloud’.

Yet, for all that, it is the writing of this into original English and the Author’s own take on them and on the spiritual life itself that makes the book special.

It was less important who thought what first, as that the thoughts are all there in one place for our own growth.

I found that early parts of the book are penitential, they are about self-awareness and bringing oneself to account.

Then there are chapters that face up to distractions, to lapses and doubts of all kinds.

All of this is reassuring and instructive for someone liable to distractions, lapses and doubts.

Other chapters teach about attention and not giving up, but also about living in a state of yearning, what he calls being bound by a “leash of longing”.

Gradually I found that although the book tracks progressions, it is not systematic, as the author returns to earlier directions.

After a while the book gives the impression of being the experience of a guide working with a pupil, a director working with a directee, as they makes advances only to have to go back to basics again from time to time.

Towards the end, the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing confides that he cannot think of anyone less suited or able to teach on this practice of contemplation of God, than himself.

This was very reassuring, given I myself felt I must be the most unsuitable and incompetent person alive to talk on this practice.

Indeed, so complete was my feeling that I would come to spiritual reading group with nothing to say, that I became quite anxious that the whole session would be an hour and a half of pregnant pauses and useless statements and vague promises and false starts and awkward claims.

While I thoroughly enjoyed everything I saw in ‘The Cloud’, and related to some of it in my own experience, who was I to tell anyone else how to do all of this?

I noticed it was much the same feeling being expressed by the author of ‘The Cloud’.

I had reached a halt.

As happens in reading, the resolution to my quandary came when I picked up another book from the stack beside me.

It was Austin Cooper’s book ‘The Cloud’, published over 30 years ago now, in 1989.

The scholar Austin Cooper was deeply read in Christian spirituality.

He spoke everywhere about the spiritual life, including in this very space here in the Carmelite Library.

In a tribute to him, Christian Fini OMI writes that “Austin Cooper has been an outstanding priest and dedicated Oblate of Mary Immaculate.” He was “highly capable as well as being a man of prayer and deep spirituality … inspirational to many students with a great kindness and a lovely sense of humour.” (Fini)  

Fr Austin was especially knowledgeable and insightful on the manifold English traditions, including the great works of the English mystics of the 14th-century, Dame Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the rest.

Amongst his many publications, ‘The Cloud: reflections on selected texts’ (Cooper) is a work intended to speak to the modern reader about the practice of the contemplation of God, as explained in ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’.

Suddenly, I had my own guide to this medieval work.

Furthermore, Austin could be a guide for others.

We can hear his voice and thought absorbed in this marvellous work.

Reading his book ‘The Cloud’, we meet regular translations of the original from Middle English.

His introduction lists three recommended translations (Underhill, Walsh and Wolters), but we find under the two Early English Text Society versions of Phyllis Hodgson this sentence in brackets: The translations in this commentary have been made from these two works. (Cooper 12)

The only conclusion we can make from this modest statement is that the translations were done by Austin Cooper.

Who, me?

So rather than worrying about various translations and which one is best and all that, I thought that we would listen to some of Austin’s modernisations, then hear what he himself has to say about these passages.

This then is how we will proceed, by looking at some of the sentences in ‘The Cloud’ and how we can use them in our own lives.

We will listen to Austin’s own personal way of thinking about sentences in ‘The Cloud’, using his own voice.

This session is also an opportunity to appreciate the work of two Melburnians, recently departed, who wrote with insight about this spiritual classic, the poet Jordie Albiston (1961-2022) (we will hear from Jordie at the conclusion today) and, as I have said, the priest-scholar Austin Cooper (1931-2023).

This session is offered in their memory.




Wednesday 13 September 2023

Reading Group on The Cloud of Unknowing

 Spiritual Reading Group, Philip Harvey on Ways of Reading ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, Wednesday 20 September, 10.30am to 12.00pm

You are welcome to attend this session, which will be 'in person' in the Carmelite Library  216 Richardson Street, Middle Park.

‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ is a short medieval guidebook to the practice of contemplation of God. Written in Middle English, the many modernised versions of the text are a testament to the book’s popularity. In this session, held ‘in person’ in the Carmelite Library, we look at some of the sentences in ‘The Cloud’ and how we can use them in our own daily lives. The session is also an opportunity to appreciate the work of two Melburnians, recently departed, who read and wrote with insight about this spiritual classic, the poet Jordie Albiston (1961-2022) and the priest-scholar Austin Cooper (1931-2023).



Monday 28 August 2023

Spinning Straw into Gold: the Rumpelstiltskin Effect: being an Overcomer (1) CECILY CLARK


On Wednesday the 21st of June Cecily Clark gave a Spiritual Reading Group presentation on the story of Rumpelstiltskin.  Here, in two parts, are Cecily’s notes for the session.


      The inner meaning of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’

      Read the story aloud

      The origin of the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin

      The value and importance of fairy tales

      Archetypes and symbols

      Jungian Character archetypes

      Symbols within the tale of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’

      Seven Jungian story archetypes

      Symbols and their meanings from a Christian mystic viewpoint

      Spinning straw into gold inner meaning

      The Rumpelstiltskin Effect

      Share your own ‘spinning straw into gold’ story and creative responses


Inner meaning of the fairy tale: “Rumpelstiltskin”

”When life seems to hold no promise for tomorrow but loss or death; a locked door – inside us or out – opens by itself. A curious-looking little man hobbles in and sits down at the wheel to summon what we lack out of the dross that lies under our feet, beneath notice. Straw is transformed into gold again. We grow closer to what we hoped to be.” [“Spinning Straw into Gold” by Joan Gould]

Once there was a poor miller who had a beautiful daughter. As he wanted to become more important, he went to the King and said to him, "I have a daughter who can spin straw into gold."

     The King replied, “If your daughter is so clever, bring her tomorrow to my palace and I will put her to the test."

     The miller brought his beautiful daughter to the King, who took her into a room which was quite full of straw, gave her a spinning-wheel and said, "Now set to work and if by to-morrow morning, you have not spun this straw into gold, you must die."

Then the King locked the room and left her there alone. Having no idea how to spin straw into gold, she began to weep.

     Suddenly, the door opened and in came a little man who said, "Good evening, mistress miller, why are you crying so?"

"Alas," answered the girl, "I have to spin this straw into gold but I do not know how to."

     "What will you give me," said the manikin, "if I do it for you?"

     "My necklace," said the girl.

     The little man took the necklace, seated himself in front of the wheel, and whirr, whirr, whirr, spinning and spinning all night long, until the reels were full. In the morning, the straw had been spun into gold.

The next morning, when the King saw the gold, he was very astonished. But because he was so greedy, he wasn’t satisfied. He took the girl into a much larger room and commanded her to spin even more straw overnight, if she valued her life. The girl was very upset. Once more, the door opened and the same little man appeared saying, "What will you give me if I spin this straw into gold?"

     "The ring on my finger," answered the girl.

     The little man took the ring and began spinning the straw again. By morning, he had spun all the straw into glittering gold.

     The King rejoiced, but he still wanted more gold. He took the girl into an even larger room full of straw and said, "You must spin this, straw too, if you value your life. And if you succeed, you shall be my wife."

When the girl was alone, the manikin came for the third time and said, "What will you give me if I spin this straw into gold?"

     "I have nothing left to give you," answered the girl.

     "Then promise me, if you should become Queen, to give me your first child."

    Not knowing what else to do, she promised him what he wanted. Then the manikin once more spun the straw into gold.

     When the king arrived the next morning and found all as he had wished, he took her in marriage. The pretty miller's daughter became his Queen.

 A year later, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. However, she had forgotten all about the manikin. Suddenly, he appeared and said, "Now give me what you promised."

Then the horror-struck Queen began to lament and cry, so that the manikin pitied her.

     "I will give you three days," said he, "and if by that time you find out my name, then shall you keep your child."

     The Queen sent out a messenger to enquire over the entire kingdom, hoping to find out the manikin’s name. The next day when he came, she said, “Is it Caspar, Melchior, or Balthazar?”

He laughed and said,”No! They are not!"

On the second day, the messenger gave her some more names. She said, “Perhaps your name is Short Ribs, Sheepshanks, or Lace Leg?” But he answered, "These aren’t my names either."

     On the third day the messenger returned and said to the Queen, "I saw a little house in the mountains and outside this cottage a fire was burning. Round about the fire a ridiculous little man was jumping on one leg and shouting -

     'To-day I bake, to-morrow brew,

    the next I'll have the young queen's child.

     Ha, glad am I that no one knew

     that Rumpelstiltskin I am styled.'"

     You may imagine how happy the Queen was when she heard the name. Now when the manikin returned and said, "Well, mistress Queen, what is my name?"

At first she said, "Is your name Conrad?"


     "Is your name Harry?"


     "Perhaps your name is Rumpelstiltskin?"

     "Some evil creature has told you that," shouted the little man. He stomped and stomped about so angrily that he was swallowed by the earth and was never seen again.


The origin of Rumpelstiltskin

      Originated in Europe in the 16th Century by the French poet Rabelais and German scholar Fischart (“Gargantua” 1577)

      The name Rumpelstiltskin is believed to have come from an old children’s game called ‘Rumpele stilt oder der Poppart’ (meaning ‘a little rattle stilt’ or a goblin that makes noises)

      Brothers Grimm collected traditional fairy tales in 1812, including this tale.

      Durham University researchers believe the origin of this tale is around 4,000 years old.

      References to the tale can believed to be in “Dio of Halicarnassus’s Roman Antiquities” (First Century AD)

      King Midas and the Golden Touch (Greek Mythology: Second Century BC)


The Myth of King Midas and His Golden Touch (2nd Century BC)

The summary of “King Midas' Golden Touch”

“King Midas and His Golden Touch” tells the story of a rich king who lived a long time ago. He had a little daughter named Marigold, whom he loved very much, but not as much as his gold. Even though he was very rich, he was still greedy for more wealth. One day, he met a fairy boy in his gold room. The

fairy gave him magic powers so that anything he touched would turn to gold. He was very happy because his dream came true. However, he accidentally turned his daughter into a golden statue. The king regretted his choice and called the fairy back. He gave up his “golden touch” in exchange for his daughter. After that, he never longed for more gold again.