- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised ed. edition (January 29, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140447628
- ISBN-13: 978-0140447620
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #145,026 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works (Penguin Classics) Revised ed. Edition
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Text: English (translation) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
The identity of the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is not known, but he was undoubtedly an English priest who lived during the latter half of the 14th century. A. C. Spearing is Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He has published widely on medieval literature and has translated Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love for Penguin Classics.
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Top Customer Reviews
Spearing's translation of 'The Cloud of Unknowing' has replaced the previous Penguin edition presented by Clifton Walters. I would still recommend Walters' version, if you can find a copy. It gave a good introduction to the 'Cloud' and its background - useful to read alongside Spearing's introductory material. As we have remarked before, Christian 'prayer' is often taken to mean 'petitionary prayer' - asking for something (Eckhart said that "people want to use God, just as they would a cow" !). There is, of course, a perfectly noble and proper place for petitionary prayer, but in some ways, it does heighten our sense of separation from God - at the worst, leaving us as mere creatures, seeking creaturely rewards. The 'Way of Unknowing' - set forth in the 'Cloud,' represents a much neglected dimension of Christianity - the way of self-emptying. In a certain sense, it is more suited to an age tired of religious formalism and the mere externals of faith. Some of the 'Cloud-author's' comments - about Christians who literally 'look upwards' - as if God were in the sky etc., might be those of a contemporary critic. Nevertheless, the 'Cloud-author' speaks as an 'orthodox'' Christian, and he is by no means mocking the Church.
Nobody who reads the 'Cloud' has an obligation to consider inter-faith issues, but we live in 'global' age of inter-cultural - and, hopefully, trans-cultural values. Christians the calibre of Thomas Merton found it an enrichening experience to explore Buddhist horizons. With the possible exception of Suzuki Daistezu, after discovering Eckhart, Asian Buddhist writers have been inclined to dismiss Christian mysticism, saying much about the affective, emotional and allegedly 'sexual' feelings of the Christian mystics. There is no 'God' in Buddhism - which cannot be made into 'Theism' without considerable distortion. Still, there is a transcendental ground - in Buddhism, and that's what intelligent Christian mystics mean . . .by searching for God.
In one edition of the 'Cloud' text, Walters went into a digression on Zen, saying just enough to dismiss it as 'nihilism.' Having appreciated Walters' work, and finding that much in the 'Cloud' had an evident resonance with Zen, the reviewer contacted the author (a Christian priest), pointing out that Buddhism (cf. the Diamond Sutra) expressly warns us against holding 'nihilist' views.
Suzuki seemed to regard Eckhart as exceptional (the Church in his day charged Eckhart with heresy, and though he acquitted himself, the Church banned his books for centuries, after his death, just to be sure). On mature reckoning, however, Eckhart was but part of a mystical flowering which emerged throughout Western Europe. The 'Cloud' author was part of the same flowering, happily avoiding the pitfalls which had beset Eckhart.
One reviewer has described the 'Cloud' - as 'fun' to read. Understandably then, another reviewer has astutely pointed out that the 'Cloud' text is preceeded by an injunction, discouraging frivolous use of the material - and this, for good reasons (similar injunctions can be found in Buddhist contemplative manuals), for anyone who undertakes such practices needs to do so in disciplined manner. In their own way, the Christian mystics recognised what the Buddhists call 'ma-kyo' - demonic states or hindrances which can arise in the course of contemplation. Still, there is no superstitious fear of 'sin' or 'evil' here. Rather like a Zen master, utilising a kind of spiritual ju-jitsu, the 'Cloud-author' points out that - if you encounter obstructive hindrances, thoughts etc. - you can 'look over their shoulder' as it were, rather than giving them more power, by trying to resist them directly. The 'Cloud' is an amazing little text, which may yet gain fresh life and meaning.
A final point, the Amazon.com editorial notes repeated the erroneous 'blurb' placed on the back-cover of the book by the publisher, attributing the 'Mystica Theologia' (Pseud. Dionsyius) to the 'Cloud-author.' While 14th c. mystics such as the 'Cloud-author' used the 'Mystica Theologia' (Mid. Eng.'Deonise Hid Divinitie)to support their ideas, the 'Mystica Theologia' was written centuries before, circa 500 a.d. The 14th c. works in this book are 'The Cloud of Unknowing,' 'The Book of Privy Counselling' and 'An Epistle of Prayer.'
Incidently, I think the reason many works on contemplation don't seem applicable to daily life is that many of them were written for and by monastics. In response to the other reviewer, as Ellis Peters says one shouldn't become a contemplative merely to escape from the world without...one must be on fire for the world within.
The writer of the 'Cloud' also wrote several other works, including a translation of Dionysius the Aeropagite's 'Mystical Theology' and other works written for a monk starting his novitiate at the writer's monastary. The writer was probably a Carthusian monk, and also the spiritual director (or perhaps even the abbot) of a Cathusian monastary in medieval England.
The writer had a standard though thorough education and he was influenced by St Thomas Aquinas, Richard of St Victor, and also by Dionysius the Aeropagite. The writer is an enthusiastic advocate of what is now called the 'via negativa' or the form of theology or mystical contemplation which emphasis the unknowability and 'darkness' of God.
The writer counsels his 'spiritual friend in God' to discard any images he has of God, as well as consoling visions and feelings. The writer urges his student to put a 'cloud of forgetting' between himself and God, and between all creatures and God. When asked 'What is God' the writer replies 'I don't know' but carefully emphasis while God's essence cannot possibly be known by the human mind, God can be understood and grasped by a 'sharp dart of love' aimed at God.
The rest of the writer's works unfold outlining and expanding on these themes, in a brilliantly lucid fashion which avoids any ornaments of rhetoric, condescending spiritual pride, and unneccessary displays of cleverness and erudition. The Cloud author in fact attacks such people quite strongly, saying they have more in common with the devil than with God, merely learning in order to puff themselves up while completely forgetting their own creator and his amazing gifts.
I think the Cloud author is one of the finest mystics in the Christian tradition and all Christians can read this work with enjoyment, and without fear that the mystical is connected with weird ideas of the occult or of pantheistic union with God. The author takes great pains to attack those who indulge in occult speculations (as perhaps theosophists might today) or in outbursts of hysterics or unbalanced emotion, like Margary Kempe and many other English mystics (and also others in Europe also) sometimes indulged in. As Thomas Merton wisely said, the mystical path is a calling for all Christians but also an extremely dangerous one; the journey into our interior can easily lead us astray, either by our own self-deceptions, or else through those of the devil. The author is also careful to emphasize our union with God (unlike Eckhart or Quietists like Margaret Porete) is not one of substance but of loving wills and natures, and there is no fusion of the divine which involves the total and final annihalation of our own being.
The tradition the Cloud author follows is firmly rooted in the via negativa. While this approach and also mysticism generally has come under severe criticism from many quarters recently, I think the Cloud author is certainly one of the most sober and 'safe' mystics in the Christian tradition, and avoids many of the excesses other mystics have fallen into.
While some of what the Cloud author says will no doubt have similarities to other religions like Buddhism (especially in meditation), it should be emphasized the Cloud author is firmly Christian in his approach and frequently mentions the necessity of following Christ and also other things like the liturgy and sacraments. He also frequently refers back to the Bible, and while his biblical references are not as common as those of John of the Cross, 'Biblical' Christians will find this author is careful to keep his ideas within Christian bounds, and to exclude any elements which are clearly foreign to the Christian tradition. He certainly tones down or ignores for example many of the Neo-Platonic spiritual elements which exist in the system of Denys the Aeropagite.
So far as contemplation goes, this little work is a beautiful clear gem, to be treasured as well as admired across the ages. Certainly when I read this I often feel like the Cloud author is also talking to me, and whenever a writer can do this, you know you have a great writer in your hands.