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The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing
Original titleThe Cloude of Unknowyng
LanguageMiddle English
SubjectSpiritual guide to contemplative prayer
GenreChristian mysticism
Publication date
Late 14th century
Followed byThe Book of Privy Counseling 

The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowing) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work suggests that the way to know God is to abandon consideration of God's particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one's mind and ego to the realm of "unknowing", at which point one may begin to glimpse the nature of God.


The Cloud of Unknowing draws on the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Christian Neoplatonism,[1] which focuses on the via negativa road to discovering God as a pure entity, beyond any capacity of mental conception and so without any definitive image or form. This tradition has reputedly inspired generations of mystical searchers from John Scotus Eriugena, Nicholas of Cusa, and John of the Cross, to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (the latter two of whom may have been influenced by The Cloud itself). Prior to this, the theme of The Cloud had appeared in the Confessions of St. Augustine (IX, 10) written in AD 398.[2]

The author is unknown. The English Augustinian mystic Walter Hilton has at times been suggested, but this is generally doubted.[3] It is possible he was a Carthusian priest, though this is not certain.[4]

A second major work by the same author, The Book of Privy Counseling (originally titled Prive Counselling), continues the themes discussed in the Cloud. It is less than half the size of the Cloud, appears to be the author's final work, and clarifies and deepens some of its teachings.[5] In this work, the author characterizes the practice of contemplative unknowing as worshiping God with one's "substance," coming to rest in a "naked blind feeling of being", and ultimately finding thereby that God is one's being.


The book counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and intellection (faculty of the human mind), but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought.[note 1] Experience of a "cloud of unknowing" is introduced Chapter 3:

When you first begin [this work], you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. [...] Reconcile yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel him or see him in the life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness.

This is brought about by putting all thoughts and desires under a "cloud of forgetting," and thereby piercing God's cloud of unknowing with a "dart of longing love" from the heart. This form of contemplation is not directed by the intellect, but involves spiritual union with God through the heart:

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens."[6]

Chapters 39 and 40 recommend the focus on a single word as the means to invoke the fullness of God:

When we intend to pray for goodness, let all our thought and desire be contained in the one small word "God." Nothing else and no other words are needed, for God is the epitome of all goodness. Immerse yourself in the spiritual reality it speaks of yet without precise ideas of God's works whether small or great, spiritual or material. Do not consider any particular virtue which God may teach you through grace, whether it is humility, charity, patience, abstinence, hope, faith, moderation, chastity, or evangelical poverty. For to a contemplative they are, in a sense, all the same. Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God.[7][note 2]

Chapter 23 of The Book of Privy Counseling glorifies experience over knowledge:

"And so I urge you, 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."[10]

Other works by the same author

In addition to The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, the Cloud author is believed to be responsible for a few other spiritual treatises and translations, including:

  • Deonise Hid Divinity, a free translation of the Mystical Theology by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. A vernacular translation of the Mystical Theology was unprecedented; however, it was clearly not widely read, since only two manuscripts survive.[11]
  • A Letter of Prayer (A Pistle of Prayer), which survives in seven manuscripts. (Online);
  • A Letter of Discretion of Stirrings (A Pistle of Discrecioun of Stirings). (Online, part VI of "The Cell of Self Knowledge")
  • It is possible, but doubtful,[11] that he wrote A Treatise of Discernment of Spirits (originally titled A Tretis of Discrecyon of Spirites), a free translation of Sermones di Diversis nos 23-24, by Bernard of Clairvaux, (Online).
  • It is possible, but doubtful,[11] that he wrote A Treatise of the Study of Wisdom that Men Call Benjamin (also called Pursuit of Wisdom, and, in its original, A Tretyse of the Stodye of Wysdome that Men Clepen Beniamyn), an abbreviated and free translation of the Benjamin Minor by Richard of Saint Victor (Online).


The Cloud of Unknowing has 17 known manuscripts.[5] The two best known are British Library Harley MS 2373 and Cambridge University Library These contain all seven of the works attributed to the Cloud author, the former extensively glossed in Latin.[2] Another important manuscript is British Library Harleian 2373, which contains all but Deonise Hid Divinity.[12]

Later influence

Given its survival in only seventeen manuscripts, The Cloud of Unknowing was not as popular in late medieval England as the works of Richard Rolle or Walter Hilton, perhaps because the Cloud is addressed to solitaries and concentrates on the advanced levels of the mystical path. Two Latin translations of the Cloud were made in the late fifteenth century. One was made by Richard Methley, a Carthusian of the Charterhouse of Mount Grace in Yorkshire, and finished in 1491.[13] The other is anonymous. Neither, however, enjoyed wide dissemination.[5]

This work became known to English Catholics in the mid 17th century, when the Benedictine monk, Augustine Baker (1575–1641), wrote an exposition on its doctrine based on a manuscript copy in the library of the monastery of Cambrai in Flanders. The original work itself, however, was not published until 1877. English mystic Evelyn Underhill edited an important version of the work in 1922.[1]

The work has become increasingly popular over the course of the twentieth century, with nine English translations or modernisations produced in this period. In particular, The Cloud has influenced recent contemplative prayer practices. The practical prayer advice contained in The Cloud of Unknowing forms a primary basis for the contemporary practice of Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation developed by Trappist monks William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating in the 1970s.[14] It also informed the meditation techniques of the English Benedictine John Main.[5]

The contemplation method urged in The Cloud is similar to Buddhist meditation and modern transcendental meditation.[15] For example, the last paragraph of chapter 7 says:

If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as "God" or "love" is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defence in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you.

References in popular culture


  • Butcher, Carmen Acevedo (2018). The Cloud of Unknowing. Boston: Shambhala Pocket Edition. ISBN 978-1-61180-622-9.
  • Butcher, Carmen Acevedo (2009). The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 978-1-59030-622-2.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing: And The Book of Privy Counseling (1944). ed., [Phyllis Hodgson]. Early English Text Society. Oxford University Press, hardback: ISBN 0-19-722218-8.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (1957). translator, Ira Progoff. Dell/Doubleday. 1983 paperback: ISBN 0-440-31994-3, 1989 paperback: ISBN 0-385-28144-7
  • Johnston, William; preface:Huston Smith (1996) [1973]. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. New York: Image Books. ISBN 0-385-03097-5. (first edition, 1973)
  • John J. Kirvan (1996). Where Only Love Can Go: A Journey of the Soul Into the Cloud of Unknowing. Ave Maria Press. ISBN 0877935912.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing and other works. Penguin Classics. 2001. ISBN 978-0-14-044762-0. Translated by A. C. Spearing
  • The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. New York: Penguin Books. 1961. ISBN 0-14-044-385-1. Translated by Clifton Wolters. Includes The Cloud of Unknowing, The Epistle of Privy Counsel, Dionysius' Mystical Teaching, and The Epistle of Prayer.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing. New York: Paulist Press. 1981. ISBN 978-08091-2332-2. Translated by James Walsh

Editions of related texts include

  • Deonise Hid Divinite: And Other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer Related to The Cloud of Unknowing (1955). ed., Phyllis Hodgson. Early English Text Society. Oxford University Press, 2002 paperback: 0859916987
  • The Pursuit of Wisdom: And Other Works by the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing (1988). translator, James Walsh. Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality. paperback: ISBN 0-8091-2972-8.

See also


  1. ^ An important introductory section of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica states a recurring premise of the work: that "we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not." As for how to proceed: "Now it can be shown how God is not, by denying of Him whatever is opposed to the idea of Him" (Intro to Treatise on Divine Simplicity, Prima Pars, Q. 3). It's possible either that the author of the Cloud was influenced by Aquinas, or correspondingly, both the author and Aquinas were influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius. Orthodox Christian philosophy is also influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius.
  2. ^ Ch. 39-40, other translations:
    * Evelyn Underhill (1922/2003): "And if we will intentively pray for getting of good, let us cry, either with word or with thought or with desire, nought else nor no more words, but this word “God.” For why, in God be all good.. Fill thy spirit with the ghostly bemeaning of it without any special beholding to any of His works—whether they be good, better, or best of all—bodily or ghostly, or to any virtue that may be wrought in man’s soul by any grace; not looking after whether it be meekness or charity, patience or abstinence, hope, faith, or soberness, chastity or wilful poverty. What recks this in contemplatives?.. they covet nothing with special beholding, but only good God. Do thou.. mean God all, and all God, so that nought work in thy wit and in thy will, but only God.[8]
    * Middle English original: "And yif we wil ententifly preie for getyng of goodes, lat us crie, outher with worde or with thought or with desire, nought elles, ne no mo wordes, bot this worde God. For whi in God ben alle goodes.. Fille thi spirit with the goostly bemenyng of it withoutyn any specyal beholdyng to any of His werkes whether thei be good, betir, or alther best, bodily or goostly—or to any vertewe that may be wrought in mans soule by any grace, not lokyng after whether it be meeknes or charité, pacyence or abstynence, hope, feith, or sobirnes, chastité or wilful poverté. What thar reche in contemplatyves?.. thei coveyte nothing with specyal beholdyng, bot only good God. Do thou.. mene God al, and al God, so that nought worche in thi witte and in thi wile, bot only God.[9]


  1. ^ a b "Introduction", The Cloud of Unknowing, (Evelyn Underhill, ed.) 1922.
  2. ^ a b "Introduction", The Cloud of Unknowing, (Patrick Gallacher, ed.) (TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 1997)
  3. ^ The Cloud of Unknowing, (James Walsh, ed.) (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p. 2.
  4. ^ Walsh pp. 3-9.
  5. ^ a b c d McGinn, Bernard. The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, (New York: Herder & Herder, 2012), p396.
  6. ^ The Cloud of Unknowing and other works. Penguin Classics. 2001. ISBN 978-0-14-044762-0. Translated by A. C. Spearing
  7. ^ Johnston (1996), pp. 98-101.
  8. ^ Cloud (version), Underhill (2003), pp. 69-72, Accessed 23 May 2010.
  9. ^ Cloud (original), Gallacher (1997), lines 1426 - 1471 Archived 19 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine, Accessed 23 May 2010.
  10. ^ Johnston (1996), p. 188 (paperback).
  11. ^ a b c Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, (New York: Herder & Herder, 2012), p398.
  12. ^ The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. by A. C. Spearing (London: Penguin, 2001), p. xl.
  13. ^ The Cloud of Unknowing, ed James Walsh, (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p16.
  14. ^ Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (2006/1986). by Thomas Keating. Continuum International Publishing Group. paperback: ISBN 0-8264-0696-3, hardback: ISBN 0-8264-1420-6.
  15. ^ The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. by A. C. Spearing (London: Penguin, 2001), p. xviii; Ninian Smart, 'What Would Buddhaghosa Have Made of The Cloud of Unknowing?', in Mysticism and Language, ed. by Steven A, Katz (New York, 1992), pp. 103-22.
  16. ^ See verse four of the song.
  17. ^ Don DeLillo, Underworld (New York: Scribner, 1997), p. 273.
  18. ^ "Official trailer for First Reformed". Appears at :10. Retrieved 8 June 2018.

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