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.




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