Jesus found a house to stay in, and would like to have remained unrecognised, but that was impossible… The mirage will become a pool, the thirsty land bubbling springs…
When I was a student training for ministry I had an odd feeling that, once I was ordained, I’d be expected to have an unshakeable faith in God, combined with a learnèd understanding, so that I could offer encouragement to the doubter, and clarity to the confused. And here I am, ordained indeed, but far from being a paragon of prayerful piety. Things didn’t get off to a great start for me as a student when I read this: We cannot know what God is, but only what he is not. And this was from Thomas Aquinas, that 13th century master theologian and all-round good egg of orthodox belief. I wanted my money back.
Then I was introduced to a medieval work known as The Cloud of Unknowing. Hardly a promising title! In fact I felt that I was rapidly becoming an expert in knowing nothing. The Cloud was written for those who seek God; including students for ministry. But the author warns us that in seeking God we come face-to-face with darkness and a cloud of, you got it, unknowing… The writer of The Cloud gives us this: You will feel frustrated, for your mind will be unable to grasp him. Oh dear! The struggle and the darkness are a mélange of double agony, like the distress of soul and the physical suffering that Christ underwent, both secretly in the garden and publicly on the cross.
But The Cloud’s writer sets us this challenge: Learn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can. For if in this life you hope to feel and see God… it must be in this darkness and this cloud. He goes on to distinguish between what he terms ‘knowing power’ and ‘loving power’. God is known in the latter; the cloud is, as the title suggests, the result of a lack of knowing. But God becomes known through unknowing. By abandoning thought, God comes to be known by love. God may be loved, but not thought. God may be grasped by love, but not by thought.
We humans possess the dual powers of knowing and loving, but the process of recognising and knowing God is one of longing. Through God’s grace the human soul is restored to know God by love. To the intellect God remains unknowable. Only love is able to pierce the darkness, therefore prayer can be inspired only by love. And here we begin to find a way through this cloud, this thirsty land, this wilderness.
And now to the best part: the author of The Cloud of Unknowing recommends urgent and short prayers as being the most effective way to pierce through the cloud. Even one-word prayers, such as Help! or Mercy! Such prayers help us to avoid trying to ‘feel’ the fire of God’s love, those self-induced sensations of heat in the breast. Instead of relying on feelings the contemplative soul should remain in stillness, rejoicing in the experiences of warmth when they occur, and being content with quietness when they don’t.
If your spiritual life is anything like mine, if you have faith to move only small mole-hills, rather than mountains, take heart! Spiritual life can abide and even thrive within a quiet darkness, within the cloud, within the security and love of God’s presence. I, constantly struggling to pray better, was once advised to think of myself and to think of God in the same way: that God is as God is, and I am as I am, to become aware that I am unified in God who is all and in all. It’s not through ignorance but in ignorance that we behold God.
Why does St Mark tell us that Jesus would have liked to remain unrecognised?
It just wasn’t possible for Jesus to remain unrecognised because he went about healing the sick, proclaiming good news to the poor, and binding up the broken-hearted. Through these acts of love Jesus, God-made-flesh, was made known. The prophet Isaiah declared that because of God’s love for his chosen people, the wilderness should rejoice. Yes, that’s the barren, dry, useless wilderness which we experience as a cloud of unknowing.
The clear vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, blessed with milk and honey, is the exact opposite of wilderness and cloud. Such beauty, such radiancy of glory, such songs of triumph can only make our human hearts sink in our attempt to contemplate them. I know not, O I know not…
Only loving can lead to that knowledge of God which exceeds thought and words. So my dear brothers and sisters, my dear fellow cloud dwellers, in order to catch a glimpse of the vision glorious, to turn the thirsty land to bubbling springs, to know God’s presence and his very self, let us love: for love is of God.
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