“The cloud of unknowing,” according to the author of this Christian mystical text, is that state ‘partway’ (we might say) between our highest nature and God in himself. Unknowing is relative to what it is that human beings claim to know by drawing on “the bodily sense” and on the intellect. To not know in a mystical sense is thus to enter to enter into a “cloud” where neither the bodily sense nor the intellect nor any other faculty for that matter can aid us.
Is there anything that one must do in order to prepare for embarking on this path? The Cloud author urges all would-be contemplatives to “cleanse their consciences of all the particular sinful deeds they have previously committed, according to the accepted requirements of Holy Church” (The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, ed. and trans. A.C. Spearing, p. 52).
This is sage counsel and for two reasons. Firstly, a number of mystical traditions impress upon the spiritual aspirant the preliminary need to lead a virtuous life. Not infrequently, certain virtues are enumerated and are to be cultivated. For ethical and for spiritual reasons, one needs to have the right constitution to engage in this existential inquiry into the nature of the ultimate.
Secondly, leading a virtuous and wholesome life makes possible an opening tot his inquiry in the first place. One can’t really begin in earnest (save, any good Christian would say, for the grace of God) if he is living quite sinfully. There will be an immense cloud of sin and ignorance–neither, to be sure, a “cloud of forgetting” nor a “cloud of unknowing.” Both of these will remain occluded from view, well beyond his grasp.
Purgation, “cleaning oneself up” and leading an orderly life, is therefore the chief prerequisite.
The Cloud of Forgetting
After and as one purifies one’s soul, one is able to begin placing in the “cloud of forgetting” all matters external to the inquiry into God in himself. Where Advaita Vedanta would speak of asat, or the unreal, and where Buddhists would recommend vigorously yet gently “letting go” of any transient phenomenon, The Cloud author speaks of a “cloud of forgetting.” The practice entails putting everything creaturely into this cloud.
We may call “forgetting” an act of vigorously putting aside everything else so that the sole objective–being one with the divine–can come so fully into the foreground that it cannot, henceforth, be lost sight of.
The cloud of forgetting, then, is in the service of the cloud of unknowing, and the cloud of unknowing is “a strong signal” to God that one is so filled with earnest, humble longing and stirring that one is completely open, ready, and fully surrendered to him.
Humility and Superabundant Love
What seems to me of central importance in The Cloud is the ontological dependence of the creature on the Creator. Humility, on The Cloud author’s view, is the natural virtue to embrace whenever one fully comes to grips with “humanity’s impurity, wretchedness and weakness” (p. 37). Original sin is the state of such weakness.
The recognition must go deep into the heart. “I am not enough. I am weak. I can’t do.” And this recognition is religious, not psychological. By this means am I humbly aware of all is wanting in me owing to my prideful stance of ontological independence.
Humility, stemming from the recognition of human weakness, is set over and against God’s “superabundant love” (p. 37), which the mystic must also appreciate. That love, says The Cloud author, is so great, so complete, so awesome that it cannot be fathomed by the human mind or heart.
Humility and superabundant love set out ‘the terms of separation’ and the longing for union. The only thing left to do is to surrender completely.