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.