This week I have been reading an excellent classic work of Catholic spirituality, the Cloud of Unknowing, written around the 14th century by an anonymous English monk. The work was unknown for many years and is not mentioned in the 1917 "Catholic Encyclopedia", the first modern translation of it in English having only appeared in 1912. It was scorned for the first half of the 20th century as a piece of foolishness and only became an object of intense scholarly study in the late 1970's. Nevertheless, in its time it inspired St. John of the Cross and many of its ideas are found in Thomas a' Kempis, though it is uncertain whether the Imitation predated the Cloud, or vice versa.
The essence of the Cloud is that the attempt to seek union with God ought to be based in love instead of knowledge. The phrase "cloud of unknowing" refers to the infinite barrier that will always exist between Creator and creature that can never be fully penetrated but must nevertheless be attempted. Book XVII, iii says of this cloud, "This one thing I tell you, there has never yet been a pure creature in this life, nor shall there ever be one so completely transported by contemplation and the love of the Godhead that there will not still remain a large and wonderful cloud of unknowing between him and his God."
We have to be careful when approaching some of these medieval mystical works. Often times they can stray into pietism, quietism, fideism, or sometimes a quasi-pantheism. Meister Eckhart is a good example, who said "the eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me." That can obviously imply some kind of heresy, but the problem with a lot of mystical works is the words are so symbolic that it is hard to pin down what the author means, and there is oftentimes a scorn for the intellect.
Not so in the Cloud, for the meaning is clearly explained; there is no quietism here. Though the work (like all good mystical treatises) is absorbed with talk on interior contemplation, it still exhorts the reader to "labor and sweat, therefore, in every way that you can" (XIV, ii) in seeking God, something a true quietist would never say. But the labor is ultimately a labor of love. Speaking of Mary, the sister of Martha, the author of the Cloud says: "When our Lord spoke to Mary as representative of all sinners who are called to the contemplative life and said, "Thy sons be forgiven thee," it was notonly because of her great sorrow, nor because of her remembering her sins, nor even because of the meekness with which she regarded her sinfulness. Why then? It was surely because she loved much."
Unfortunately, the Cloud of Unknowing has obtained a somewhat bad reputation among orthodox Catholics in the past fifteen years because of its use by the heretic Trappist monk M. Basil Pennington in his eastern "Centering Prayer" practices. But these practices are not contained in the Cloud and we ought not to condemn the work of the 14th century pious English monk because of the abuses of the 20th century heretical American monk. I can heartily recommend this book; it is easy to read and very helpful in developing the virtue of meekness, with which almost over half of the book is concerned.