While reflecting on this past Sunday’s Ordinary Life presentation, I was inspired to go back to my study of the Cloud Unknowing. I was introduced to the 14th century document by a family friend and later by the sisters at the Cenacle Retreat House. It had a profound impact on my healing. It is a story that, as Bill put it this week, “...seeks our attention and is one of union, wholeness, and healing.” At the bottom of this posting, for reference and further study, I lifted part of the text from my Ordinary Life presentation on August 31, 2014.
The Cloud of Unknowing was very appealing to me probably at the time I was introduced to it because I really wanted to relinquish all human authority over the image of and thoughts about God. I wanted to release all “authority on God,” including my own. I wished to let go of the thread I grasped at an early age. Through my studies and my intense intent on spiritual formation, the more I let go of the thread, the more I let go of everyone else’s visions. The more I released my own, the more I felt that I was no longer gripping a tiny thread, but that I felt a gentle woven tapestry lightly cradling me. A veil too thin for me to see, soft yet strong enough to suspend me in more questions than answers. I began to prefer questions.
I recently discovered many Khalil Gibran poems on the poemhunter.com website. One of my favorites is The Song of the Soul. Reading it made me think of The Cloud of Unknowing.
In the depth of my soul there is
A wordless song - a song that lives
In the seed of my heart.
It refuses to melt with ink on
Parchment; it engulfs my affection
In a transparent cloak and flows,
But not upon my lips.
How can I sigh it? I fear it may
Mingle with earthly ether;
To whom shall I sing it? It dwells
In the house of my soul, in fear of
When I look into my inner eyes
I see the shadow of its shadow;
When I touch my fingertips
I feel its vibrations.
The deeds of my hands heed its
Presence as a lake must reflect
The glittering stars; my tears
Reveal it, as bright drops of dew
Reveal the secret of a withering rose.
It is a song composed by contemplation,
And published by silence,
And shunned by clamor,
And folded by truth,
And repeated by dreams,
And understood by love,
And hidden by awakening,
And sung by the soul.
It is the song of love;
What Cain or Esau could sing it?
It is more fragrant than jasmine;
What voice could enslave it?
It is heartbound, as a virgin's secret;
What string could quiver it?
Who dares unite the roar of the sea
And the singing of the nightingale?
Who dares compare the shrieking tempest
To the sigh of an infant?
Who dares speak aloud the words
Intended for the heart to speak?
What human dares sing in voice
The song of God?
A few years ago, while I was working on building a spiritual community, I shared the story of my journey and I used the term Sacred Mystery as a name for God. Afterwards, someone approached me and reflected back to me how I struggled to talk of God’s presence and influence in my story. He suggested that I consider using the term Love as a name.
This week, that memory, the Gibran poem, and The Cloud of Unknowing swirled together as stories seeking my attention, bringing with them a sense of union, wholeness, and healing.
As I considered it being “my turn” to post something on the blog, I was a bit frozen with the other story, one of separation, comparing, competing. This showed up in the form of “Who do I think I am, offering my uneducated, simple-minded insights on a platform with Bill and Holly for Pete’s sake?” “What do I possibly have to offer that is of any use outside my own private journal?” You can see how these patterns of thought surely separate, compare, and compete. So I turned back to Love, to healing, wholeness, and union. I turned back to the notes I made in class Sunday. I released the grip of the thoughts and allowed the questions to take me back to the other story seeking me.
If I translate God as Love, and I also translate sin, using the Spanish word, sin, without, without love, then I translate accepting Jesus as my Lord and savior this way, Love is my love and savior. Love is always saving us from living without love.
What if I continue to tell the story to myself this way,
I am love, son of the the living love and so are you.
The stories told that seek me, seek union, wholeness, and healing are stories of love.
The birth story reads like this to me then, Mary, mother of love, birthed love from love. One courageous enough to love without separating, comparing, and competing. One who loves without ceasing. One to call love and dares us to call ourselves love to accept love as our calling.
A calling to union.
A calling to wholeness.
A calling to healing.
To make our lives stories of love.
And whenever we find ourselves full of “without love,” then all we need do is
Turn in to
Our given name
What calls us
What we are called
That which weaves us together
Which holds us
Which holds us all
Regardless of the words we choose
Regardless of the stories we tell
Regardless of the versions we believe.
This story comforts me. It brings me ease, peace, and
At one with love.
Even now, I resist the urge to seek a human authority to validate this story that brings me greater capacity for love.
This doubt pulls me away from the story of union, wholeness, and healing.
I am reminded to
Turn again into
Grace in and peace out,
Cloud of Unknowing excerpts from my talk on August 31, 2014
(The full transcript and video can be accessed here)
All material in this document that is quoted and not cited are quotations from Carmen Acevedo Butcher's translation of The Cloud of Unknowing.
“The mind is always distorting, reframing, 'clouding' what we can see."
"In an attempt to achieve union, I must leave all the things I can think, to love the thing I cannot think."
The cloud was written by an anonymous author. While we do not know his name, he is known to be a fourteenth century English mystic, theologian and spiritual friend. It is considered a work of mystical genius. He took the framework of his philosophy from Dionysius the Areopagite, and his psychology from Richard of St. Victor. Yet it is not considered a copy of either but a new element in medieval literature.
He was most likely influenced by Gregory of Nyssa who insisted that God cannot be grasped by the mind and by the sixth century Syrian Monk, Pseudo-Dionysius who contends that the abandonment of the understanding is required to enter the final stage of mystical contemplation in favor of the will and affectivity. God is even beyond personhood, he uses the phrase “not sonship, or fatherhood”, labels, relations, even genders becomes irrelevant. In his system we see a three fold analogy “sensible, intelligible, and mystical”, the first two affirm God and are kataphatic, using “properties of creatures” to describe and understand Him. The third, mystical, is apophatic, denying that
any human way of naming or describing can be validly applied to God. God transcends nature and the human mind. In this way, entering the darkness above the mind “ascends to the creator himself”.
The author offers a practical technique for moving beyond illumination to union. The chapters read like spiral teaching where topics are covered in different depth with the same point coming back around later with a different warning or a deeper meaning. The chapters alternate, irregularly, through instruction, warnings, encouragements, description of the benefits of the effort, and various insights.
When this was written, in the fourteenth century, there was crop failure and famine, and the Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population. During that time there were social upheavals. There were power struggles between and among various levels of church and state. In both church and state, it seemed everything was for sale.
I think that the time period that this was written, in the midst of misuse of power in religion, politics, separation and exclusion through use of literal interpretations of scripture, we have body of work that seeks to challenge us, in our time, to connect with a unifying, all encompassing, love that transcends human constructs.
Maio Tsan writes, in his book, Just Use This Mind , “I had the opportunity to see firsthand the differences between Eastern and Western Cultures, and I was able to perceive their respective shortcomings. In the process, I observed that many religious groups hold so tightly to their traditions that their attempts to spread a spiritual message end up creating more discrimination and biases than do the efforts of non-religious groups. This situation not only thwarts the original intent of their traditions, but it also contributed to the emergence of wars and conflicts that have burdened humanity. And, ultimately, it casts doubt on the very purpose of religion.”
“All our experiences are the reflection of our mind’s functioning.”
“Human beings hypnotize themselves unconsciously: Every habitually created thought deepens our own belief. It solidifies the same door, the same experiences, the same relationships and the same issues, so that we live in a state of amnesia, a dream-like illusion.”
Maio Tsan also states, “Life is the most profound learning experience, but we can only remove the obstructions and create a better, more fulfilling life when the right doors are open.”
“All human beings attempt to make the world conform to their ideas, but at the same time we depend on our faulty ideas and limited experience to handle the problems in our lives. Because our attachment to these ideas causes confusion in a dualistic existence, most of us lead lives that are busy, chaotic, and unsatisfying.”
“To move from this chaos toward freedom, the first thing we have to do is correct how we think and get rid of our attachment to our old, erroneous ideas.”
(all above quotes from Maio Tsan)
The author of The Cloud is telling us that it is time to wake up and that we do this by unknowing this consciousness. We let go of our story, our habits, our thoughts, our visions, we put it all under the cloud of unknowing. This is how we wake up.
Who is willing to attempt to love sacred mystery unconditionally, to attempt to be still in union? Only someone who is willing and able to let go of their humanness and its judging, comparing, knowing, analyzing, strategizing, feeling, wanting, belonging, believing, expecting, hoping, and even longing.
The message I deemed from the study of the cloud was that anyone that is ready and pulled into darkness and is capable of trying on a regular basis will begin to feel a shift, one that cannot be expressed in words or even art. It is a matter purely of the heart. It is a presence that floats formless above each moment and surrounds each interaction.
Group meditation on love –lead the group on the fullness and inexplicable nature of love.
Think of a time when you felt the most fullness of love. First seek to really experience the fullness of love and do not let my words interfere with your experience. Let your mind and body relax into the sensations that are brought up by recalling this fullness. Focus as little as you can on your thoughts about the experience and let your body recall the sensations. Write down a description of this group of sensations on your paper. Recall the sensation again and see if your description was adequate. There is a reason we describe divine love in metaphor, words are not enough. Our intellect and creativity are not enough to comprehend the source of this love either.
“Whenever we hear or read about something that our body’s superficial senses cannot describe to us in any way, we can be sure that this thing is spiritual and not physical.”
As we move into the work of the Cloud of Unknowing we begin to attempt to deepen into oneness with the sacred that none of these words will be able to describe. It is as if we can only build a relationship by removing all building blocks. We are not equipped to comprehend this. It is by doing, thinking, and feeling nothing that we are able to be with everything and everywhere.
“It sounds so simple but it can only be done through the grace given by the One who knows us best and loves us most.”
“To see God fully as himself cannot happen through knowing, only through loving.”
The author suggests that our human intellect, no matter how powerful and our creativity, no matter how extraordinary, are not capable of comprehending the nature of God.
The worst of our imaginings can portray a violent and punishing God.
Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Even our best of imagination, creativity, divinely inspired art cannot portray Sacred Mystery accurately. We are not capable of perceiving that measure of beauty, compassion, love,………… I can’t even begin to use words here to make my point.
Energy follows attention. The only true choice we have is what we pay attention to. Even when we manage to pull our attention into the present moment, we focus on information that is subject to our filters. In the practice the author suggests, we allow that energy to flow as much as possible back into the source.
“Time is made for man and not man for time. Moments are the most indivisible and most pure and at the same time infinite. Why waste a single one not attempting to achieve Union?”
This strikes me as a challenge not only to dedicate more time to centering, but also to become more mindful of the moments that make up everyday situations, in our ordinary lives. As simply as Jim Carrey described at the Maharishi University commencement speech, “all that will ever be is what’s happening here, in the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.” He urges the graduates to be present to this choice and choose love.
I think that he’s describing and suggesting living a contemplative life. When the author of the cloud talks about the importance of ceasing “doing” in favor of “being” he compares the work of Mary and the work of Martha as an illustration for how we may contribute to Sacred Mystery through love.