My spiritual friend in God, you are to understand that …..there are four degrees and forms of the Christian life. They are: ordinary, special, singular and perfect. Three of these can be begun and ended in this life; and one may begin the fourth by grace here below, which is to last without end in the happiness of heaven (Chapter 1).
For when you first begin to undertake [this exercise], all that you find is a darkness, a sort of cloud of unknowing; you cannot tell what it is, except that you experience in your will a simple reaching out to God. This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do, and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason, and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection. So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness. So, if you labour at it with all your attention as I bid you, I trust, in his mercy, that you will reach this point (Chapter 3).
It is my wish to leave everything that I can think of and choose for my love that thing that I cannot think. Because [God] can certainly be loved but not thought. He can be taken and held by love but not by thought……With a devout, pleasing, impulsive love strive to pierce that darkness above you. You are to smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love (Chapter 6).
This anonymous mystical text also comes from late-14th century England. Unlike Julian’s writings, the original audience for The Cloud was probably monastic and explicitly contemplative. Yet over the last hundred years the book has achieved wide popularity as a primer in contemplative prayer for all kinds of people even beyond Christianity. In terms of the spiritual path, the author would have assumed that his audience (and it is certainly a “he” who writes) was ready to enter into the way of contemplation. Yet, in another sense, this is nevertheless a work for contemplative beginners. The author would have seen this readiness for contemplation as the real entry-point into an authentic spiritual life beyond a mere quest for conversion and moral virtue within our everyday existence. Again, unlike Julian, there are Neo-Platonic elements in the emphasis on stilling the senses, on imagelessness and on moving beyond our rationality and will-power in the spiritual life. Hence the author refers to a cloud of unknowing or a cloud of forgetting. Whoever and whatever God “is” is beyond concepts, language, and definition – and certainly beyond our powers to compel or control. To reach towards God, we are simply to learn how to “rest” in the darkness and “cloud of unknowing” as the first step. This resting in darkness cultivates our desire and longing. Our understanding cannot break through the cloud that separates us from the deep reality of God. We have to learn to let go of such attempts. Rather, it is our love alone that can reach God by piercing the darkness. “You are to smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love”.