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The Cloud of Unknowing: and The Book of Privy Counseling Paperback – July 1, 1996


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts. So less thinking and more loving."

This is William Johnston's summary of the message of The Cloud of Unknowing. Nobody knows who wrote the book, or exactly where he lived, or whether he was a member of a religious order, or even, really, whether he was part of any church at all. The text first appeared in Middle English in the 14th century, and it has inspired generations of mystical searchers (from St. John of the Cross to Teilhard de Chardin). The mysterious conditions of its composition, however, focus the reader's attention squarely on the book's message--an almost Zen rendering of Christianity, which has a great deal to teach our querulous, doctrine-obsessed churches: "And so I urge you," the author writes, "go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest." --Michael Joseph Gross

From the Publisher

William Johnston--an authority on fourteenth century spirituality and specifically on the writings of this unknown author--provides a substantive and accessible introduction detailing what is known about the history of this text and its relevance throughout the ages. Also included here is the author's other principal work, The Book of Privy Counseling--a short and moving text on the way to enlightenment through a total loss of self and consciousness only of the divine.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Image; Reissue edition (July 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385030975
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385030977
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #28,162 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

This is a book to read many times in a lifetime.
J. Bunker
Also, I would recommend this book to any person of the Christian, or any other faith, that feels the need, and wants to deepen their faith.
Matthew Murch
This makes a good companion to Merton's CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER and St. John of the Cross's DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL.
Craig Chalquist, PhD, author of TERRAPSYCHOLOGY and DEEP CALIFORNIA

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

122 of 127 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan W. Robie on October 3, 1997
Format: Paperback
This is the best book I have ever read on the life of prayer, and it has transformed my prayer life. It was originally written as a series of letters to teach mystical prayer to one particular monk. This book tells us that our minds are too small to grasp God, and when we try to approach him intellectually, we freeze up, entering into a "Cloud of Unknowing" which our minds can not penetrate. Yet God is approachable - "Because he may well be loved, but not thought. By love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never." We are told to long for God, to "strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love". This longing love calls us to give up everything else for the sake of God - "a naked intention directed to God, and himself alone, is wholly sufficient".
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193 of 208 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on February 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
It seems only proper to begin a review of this book with the warning given by the anonymous author in his/her prologue. My paraphrase of that warning goes something like this, "In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and in the bond of love I beg you not to read, copy, or look at this book unless you are ready. Furthermore I beg you not to copy it, loan it out, or give it to anyone else to read unless they, too, are ready for this depth of spiritual growth, lest they misunderstand the things written herein and fall into error."
In this age of newly rediscovered Christian mysticism I agree with the author. This, almost zen-like book, can lead the novice into an empty, shallow, form of spirituality that misses the substance of our true faith. Do not be misled by sensational experiences. Most people experienced in meditation can put themselves into an "alpha" state almost at will. Do not forget the old saying, "Study without prayer is flat; prayer without study leads to error."
OK . . . NOW THAT I'VE GIVEN THE DISCLAIMER . . .
There is another old saying that is relevant here.
Let prayer lead to meditation.
In meditation allow God to grace you with contemplation.
Contemplation, in God's timing, leads to intuition.
Intution ushers in oneness with God.
This book reminds us that if we have the ability to conmprehend all there is to know about God, our God is too small. When I first read this book, I wasn't ready. It didn't make sense. However one day, years later, while I was praying, all the pieces came together and the book made sense.
If you read this book years ago and didn't like it, read it again. If you are a novice in the contemplative life begin with works by Nouwen and Thomas Merton. Then, dig deeper into the writings of St. John of the Cross. Hold on to The Cloud of Unknowing until you are ready for it.
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78 of 81 people found the following review helpful By The Good Crone on October 22, 2002
Format: Paperback
If you are following a way of prayer, you really should read this book. It is considered foundational to much present-day teaching on Christian meditation and prayer. Although it was written for a monk in 14th-century England, this good translation by William Johnston makes it very accessible.
Is this book for everybody? No, and the author starts right out by saying so. If you don't care about nurturing your relationship with God in deep prayer, if you have no experience of spending time in God's presence, and don't want to, then you should forget about this book! But, if you want to grow in prayer and experience God in your heart and yourself in God's heart, this is written especially for you.
Review by Janet Knori, author of Awakening in God
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39 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Didaskalex VINE VOICE on July 5, 2002
Format: Paperback
The theme of the writings:
In short but instructive chapters, the mysterious Briton, who mastered the way of the mystics gave an admirable essay on Christian life and its development through contemplation. Prayer is in fact the core of Christian life, and the backbone of this marvelous work, where he explained conducting oneself with respect to examining and silencing the thoughts with humility. Love is the goal in which a faithful should abide through contemplation.
His smaller work "the Book of Privy Counseling," is a more mature but moving treatise on attaining salvation by enlightenment through kenosis (self denial). What is left should only be consciousness of the presence of the Lord!
Apophatic tradition of the Orientals:
Eastern monastics started the root to mysticism, practicing the Macarian arrow prayer (K. Ware, in Study of Spirituality p176), carried to Europe as "The Jesus Prayer," through the Praktikos of Evagrius Ponticos.In chapter 38 of the Cloud, this holy English mystic speaks of a little prayer of one syllable Kyriya Elaison (Lord have mercy) that is powerful enough to pierce the heavens.
Origen was the initiator of the Apophatic concept (commentary on song of Songs), carrying over from Philo, based on roots that go all the way to Asaph, Ps 73:21-24. But, the crystallization of the whole theology took final shape in the writings of a Syrian monk of early six century of pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite (who was probably a student or companion of Severus of Antioch), taking to himself the name of St. Paul's Athenian disciple.
The wave of Mystical Milieu:
During 14th and 15th century Europe, a pilgrimage to the unknown God started by Eckhart and his fellow Dominicans Susa and Tauler based on spiritual poverty.
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