The Cloud of Unknowing

Photo by Edward Dufresne

After a long time I think that I am at last emerging from a great “cloud of unknowing.” I take that term from the title of an anonymous fourteenth century work written in the apophatic spiritual tradition. Its central tenet is that all we can know of the Holy is essentially negative: God is, but God is not this nor is God that; we will never find the words to describe God adequately. Divinity is rightly perceived only through the via negativa, the path of negation according to the Cloud of Unknowing.

My own recent great “unknowing” came with the physical symptoms of lightheadedness, dizziness and weakness that stalked me for weeks. I even fainted once, (the first time in my life), waking up flat on my back on the floor of my optometrist’s office. For too long, my mind was almost a blank; I was wrapped in a a great unknowing fog. In such a state, writing seemed impossible. Ideas eluded me. I didn’t have the energy to string three sentences together, let alone write an essay every few days. I was forced to live in the moment even as the capacity to meditate on or write about any moment at all — past or present — escaped me. It was humbling to live bereft of personal resources that I once took so easily for granted. It certainly put to the test my trust in the Reformation doctrine that my intrinsic value depends not on what I produce but on who I essentially am — God’s beloved child.

My reduced circumstances and lack of writing output did not go unnoticed by others. Maybe there is something to that maxim, “to live is to write” since many subscribers to my blog contacted me just to be sure I was still alive and kicking. I was grateful for their concern and am pleased that their worst fears have happily proved unfounded. I’m feeling better now that the fog has begun to lift. I’m profoundly grateful to be back to feeling better because, in the end, I do believe that much of my purpose in life is bound up in continued writing, preaching and teaching. It’s my calling, a vocation that, I hope and trust, is pleasing to God.

But I recognize now that my time of ‘unknowing,’ of stolidly living my life in the midst of a physical and mental cloud proved to be an unexpected gift for me. I have come to appreciate the innate value of persons whose lot in this life is nothing more and nothing less than just being who they are, simply living with whatever disabilities and limitations that may be theirs. This, too, is a way of praising God, of living a life that perhaps produces little, that doesn’t achieve or accomplish very much at all. Living such a life means being vulnerable and limited, but also, I believe, it is standing as a first-in-line candidate for God’s reassuring, merciful love. 

“Blessed are the meek,” Jesus taught, (Matthew 5:5). That biblical Greek word ‘meek,’ (πραΰς, praus), means more than simply being weak and mild. It strongly suggests that a person who is blest by meekness is one who lives only by God’s strength and not at all by their own. And in that, they are blessed, (μακάριος, macarios), more accurately translated ‘happy.’ Happy are those whose existence might appear to be a life lived in the midst of a cloud, a life of not much knowing and of little achievement. Happy are we who look only to our loving God and nowhere else for our worth and our value. What we may be blessed to accomplish in life will always be small beer in comparison to that wonderful, merciful, sustaining love that God offers us, whatever our skills and capacities may be.

2 Thoughts on “The Cloud of Unknowing

  1. Calvin Peters on October 29, 2019 at 8:00 am said:

    Thank you Edward! I know only too well what you have written. We just returned to Florida after a wonderful weekend with our dear friend and former Rector at All Saints Winter Park for 22 years and helped him celebrate his 80th birthday. Fr Dave Wilson in Nashville. God Bless you in your walk! Cal

  2. Thank you Edward. I appreciate how you connect The Cloud with your actual experience of disability. Once again I’m reminded of our dear friend, Henri Nouwen, who saw through this Cloud when he gave his life to work with handicapped people at L’Arche. Remember, he often said, “We’re not called to be productive, but rather fruitful.” Your reflections are always fruitful for me. By the way, I’m writing a book about the Holy Trinity as a spiritual practice. It includes detailed reflections on the Cloud, the apophatic way, and how to live it. When you’re feeling well enough to read, I’d love to hear your response to some chapters. And if you can’t read, no matter, I send you love and blessings. Jonas

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