Excerpt from The Cloud of Unknowing

Chap­ter 1

Of the four degrees of the Chris­t­ian life; of the devel­op­ment of his voca­tion for whom this book was written.

My dear friend in God, I would like to pass on to you what I have rough­ly observed about the Chris­t­ian life. Gen­er­al­ly, it seems to progress through four ascend­ing phas­es of growth, which I call the Com­mon, the Spe­cial, the Sin­gu­lar, and the Per­fect. The first three may, indeed, be begun and com­plet­ed in this mor­tal life, but the fourth, though begun here, shall go on with­out end­ing into the joy of eter­ni­ty. Do you see that I have arranged these stages in a def­i­nite sequence? This is because I believe that our Lord in his great mer­cy is call­ing you to advance by these steps. I dis­cern his call to you in the desire for him that burns in your heart.

You know your­self that at one time you were caught up in the Com­mon man­ner of the Chris­t­ian life in a day-to-day mun­dane exis­tence along with your friends. But I think that the eter­nal love of God, which had once cre­at­ed you out of noth­ing and then redeemed you from Adam’s curse through the sac­ri­fice of his blood, could not bear to let you go on liv­ing so com­mon a life far from him. And so, with exquis­ite kind­ness, he awak­ened desire with­in you, and bind­ing it fast with the leash of love’s long­ing, drew you clos­er to him­self into what I have called the more Spe­cial man­ner of liv­ing. He called you to be his friend and, in the com­pa­ny of his friends, you learned to live the inte­ri­or life more per­fect­ly than was pos­si­ble in the com­mon way.

Is there more? Yes, for from the begin­ning I think God’s love for you was so great that his heart could not rest sat­is­fied with this. What did he do? Do you not see how gen­tly and how kind­ly he has drawn you on to the third way of life, the Sin­gu­lar? Yes, you live now at the deep soli­tary core of your being, learn­ing to direct your lov­ing desire toward the high­est and final man­ner of liv­ing which I have called Per­fect.

Chap­ter 2

A short exhor­ta­tion to humil­i­ty and to the work of contemplation.

Take courage, now, and frail mor­tal though you are, try to under­stand your­self. Do you think you are some­one spe­cial, or that you have deserved the Lord’s favor? How can your poor heart be so lead­en and spir­it­less that it is not con­tin­u­al­ly aroused by the attrac­tion of the Lord’s love and the sound of his voice? Your ene­my will sug­gest that you rest on your lau­rels. But be on your guard against this treach­ery of his. Do not be deceived into think­ing that you are a holi­er or bet­ter per­son because of your great call­ing or because you have pro­gressed to the Sin­gu­lar way of life. On the con­trary, you will be a most pathet­ic and cul­pa­ble wretch unless, with God’s grace and prop­er guid­ance, you do all in your pow­er to live up to your call­ing. Far from being con­ceit­ed, you ought to be all the more hum­ble and devot­ed to your heav­en­ly Lord when you con­sid­er that he, the Almighty God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, has stooped so low as to call you. For out of all his flock he has lov­ing­ly cho­sen you to be one of his spe­cial friends. He has led you to sweet mead­ows and nour­ished you with his love, strength­en­ing you to press on so as to take pos­ses­sion of your her­itage in his kingdom.

I urge you, then, pur­sue your course relent­less­ly. Attend to tomor­row and let yes­ter­day be. Nev­er mind what you have gained so far. Instead reach out to what lies ahead. If you do this you will remain in the truth. For now, if you wish to keep grow­ing you must nour­ish in your heart the live­ly long­ing for God. Though this lov­ing desire is cer­tain­ly God’s gift, it is up to you to nur­ture it. But mark this. God is a jeal­ous lover. He is at work in your spir­it and will tol­er­ate no med­dlers. The only oth­er one he needs is you. And all he asks of you is that you fix your love on him and let him alone. Close the doors and win­dows of your spir­it against the onslaught of pests and foes and prayer­ful­ly seek his strength; for if you do so, he will keep you safe from them. Press on then. I want to see how you fare. Our Lord is always ready. He awaits only your co-operation.

But,” you ask, how am I to go on; what am I to do next?”

Chap­ter 3

How the work of con­tem­pla­tion shall be done; of its excel­lence over all oth­er works.

This is what you are to do: lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gen­tle stir­ring of love desir­ing him for his own sake and not for his gifts. Cen­ter all your atten­tion and desire on him and let this be the sole con­cern of your mind and heart. Do all in your pow­er to for­get every­thing else, keep­ing your thoughts and desires free from involve­ment with any of God’s crea­tures or their affairs whether in gen­er­al or in par­tic­u­lar. Per­haps this will seem like an irre­spon­si­ble atti­tude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no atten­tion to them.

What I am describ­ing here is the con­tem­pla­tive work of the spir­it. It is this which gives God the great­est delight. For when you fix your love on him, for­get­ting all else, the saints and angels rejoice and has­ten to assist you in every way — though the dev­ils will rage and cease­less­ly con­spire to thwart you. Your fel­low men are mar­velous­ly enriched by this work of yours, even if you may not ful­ly under­stand how; the souls in pur­ga­to­ry are touched, for their suf­fer­ing is eased by the effects of this work; and, of course, your own spir­it is puri­fied and strength­ened by this con­tem­pla­tive work more than by all oth­ers put togeth­er. Yet for all this, when God’s grace arous­es you to enthu­si­asm, it becomes the light­est sort of work there is and one most will­ing­ly done. With­out his grace, how­ev­er, it is very dif­fi­cult and almost, I should say, quite beyond you.

And so dili­gent­ly per­se­vere until you feel joy in it. For in the begin­ning it is usu­al to feel noth­ing but a kind of dark­ness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknow­ing. You will seem to know noth­ing and to feel noth­ing except a naked intent toward God in the depths of your being. Try as you might, this dark­ness and this cloud will remain between you and your God. You will feel frus­trat­ed, for your mind will be unable to grasp him, and your heart will not rel­ish the delight of his love. But learn to be at home in this dark­ness. Return to it as often as you can, let­ting your spir­it cry out to him whom you love. For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in him­self it must be with­in this dark­ness and this cloud. But if you strive to fix your love on him for­get­ting all else, which is the work of con­tem­pla­tion I have urged you to begin, I am con­fi­dent that God in his good­ness will bring you to a deep expe­ri­ence of himself.

From Feb­ru­ary through April of 2019, the Ren­o­varé Book Club is read­ing The Cloud of Unknow­ing. Learn more.

Excerpt­ed from The Cloud of Unknow­ing, trans­lat­ed by William John­son. Image Clas­sics / Dou­ble­day. 1973.

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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