The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowyng) is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer and the esoteric techniques and meanings of late medieval monasticism.
It is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The style of language is very similar to the non-dual writings of Suzanne Foxton.
The book counsels a young student not to seek God through knowledge but through what the author speaks of as a “naked intent” and a “blind love.” This is brought about by putting all thoughts except the love of God, 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.
“…may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought.
“By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never. And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting.”
“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.”
It is important to note that the monk is not advocating emotions over the intellect. Rather he is pointing beyond both thoughts and feelings to pure awareness.
The purest form of love is simple attention. Attention is like a light that illuminates what we shine it on. So often we shine it on external objects, but if we turn attention on itself we find that we are that light, that pure awareness, that purest form of love itself. Our true nature is simple awareness.
“Yea! and, if it be courteous and seemly to say, in this work it profiteth little or nought to think of the kindness or the worthiness of God, nor on our Lady, nor on the saints or angels in heaven, nor yet on the joys in heaven: that is to say, with a special beholding to them, as thou wouldest by that beholding feed and increase thy purpose.
“I trow that on nowise it should help in this case and in this work. For although it be good to think upon the kindness of God, and to love Him and praise Him for it, yet it is far better to think upon the naked being of Him, and to love Him and praise Him for Himself.”
This means looking beyond the praiseworthy attributes of God to His attributelessness. It is looking beyond to effect to the source. It is looking beyond the fragrance to the rose. Looking beyond the Sun’s radiance to the Sun itself.
Initially, we look outside ourselves for the Sun – this thing which illuminates and animates all of life. But in time we realize that we are the Sun looking out. The highest form of love then is when the Sun ceases to look outwards for itself, but rests in its own nature, having finally found itself.
Robert Browning says in Paracelsus:
“Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise
From outward things, whate’er you may believe.
There is an inmost centre in us all,
Where truth abides in fulness; and around,
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
This perfect, clear perception – which is truth.
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds it, and makes all error: and to KNOW
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without.”
Update: Note how the monk does not throw the baby out with the bath water. He recognises the value of contemplating God’s fine attributes as well His attributelessness.