Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 4 July 2010
4 July 2010 at 9:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence
Some Late Medieval Spiritual Classics (1): The Cloud of Unknowing
One of the classic texts of English spirituality is The Cloud of Unknowing. The author’s starting point is that knowing God is not the same thing as knowing about God. His central teaching is summed up in the words ‘by love [God] can be caught and held, but by thinking never’.
I have always loved the last words of the Fourth Gospel: ‘But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’ (Jn 21: 25). These are words written about the Risen Christ, so they apply not just to the things that Jesus did in the time he was with the disciples, but to all the things that Jesus goes on doing from that time to this. It is because Christians believe that the Risen Christ is with us today that we pray to him and ask for his help in living our lives. It is because of this sense of the presence of Jesus that new books about the Christian life go on being written all the time, leaving us with so many it is hard to know where to begin.
Over the next few weeks I want to talk about five classics of Christian literature. Each is in its own way a book that helps us pray – to come directly into touch with God. They are not so much books about God, but books that invite us into a relationship with God. They are all from the same period: the late Middle Ages, which was a time of great social upheaval and also a time of wonderful Christian writing. I’ve tried to choose books which are easy to get hold of and easy to read in a modern translation, so if you want to try them for yourself you can. What I would say is try them: if you don’t find them helpful, then there’s lots else to explore. But the books I have chosen are all spiritual classics which have helped many people down the years.
The first is The Cloud of Unknowing. In telling you about this little book, I am already disobeying the author, who begins by saying, ‘I charge and beg you, with all the strength and power that love can bring to bear, that whoever you may be who possess this book … you should, quite freely and of set purpose, neither read, write, nor mention it to anyone …unless that person is in your judgement really and wholly determined to follow Christ perfectly’ (p. 43). Since you have come here this morning, I am going to assume you seriously want to follow Christ. You want to be a disciple and you want to learn to pray. If that is the case, you may well find all sorts of helpful insights in The Cloud of Unknowing.
It is simple and practical. We don’t know who wrote it – perhaps a fourteenth century parish priest who wanted to help a solitary nun or anchorite to pray. The author knows some of the classic sources like Augustine and the spiritual writer, Dionysius. His teaching follows that of other great spiritual writers before him. His starting point is that knowing God is not the same thing as knowing about God. There are many learned theologians who know a lot about God because they have studied the Bible and the Christian tradition. But the way to know God is not by use of the intellect. If we are to know God, we have to start by recognising how little we really know about God. We have to enter the cloud of un-knowing, where we are stripped of the confidence that we know anything about God at all. The way to know God is by loving God, even in the darkness: ‘By love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never’ (p. 60).
The author is surprisingly clear that the Bible gives us pictures of God - but these are merely pictures to help us think about him. The Bible may speak of heaven as ‘above’ but that is not to be taken literally: ‘Spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that’ (p. 126). We should not be misled into thinking medieval people read their Bibles or thought about their faith in a naïve way, with heaven literally above and hell literally beneath. Here is the evidence that they didn’t.
The key thing is what you desire, what your heart really longs for. If your heart really longs for God, for truth, beauty and goodness, then you can be one with God. Or, to speak more in line with the Cloud of Unknowing, God can be one with you. This is because we only have this longing in our hearts if it is put there by God. It is grace that works in our hearts to give us this longing for God. If the longing is there, we can stifle it or we can cultivate it. This wonderfully sensible little book has been written to help us cultivate the love of God.
The author’s word for the kind of quiet prayer he is talking about is contemplation. To contemplate is to let the mind dwell on God, and if God gives grace, in God. There are certain things we can do to prepare ourselves for contemplation. The author speaks of the need to enter a cloud of forgetting. We have to be prepared to leave sin behind: to acknowledge our sin, to repent of it, and to let it go. He gives us no tricks of the trade, no great and elaborate method of prayer. If we are to pray for people or situations on this world, we don’t have to invent long and elaborate prayers. We won’t know what we really want to pray for before we give time to contemplation - but when we do embark on contemplation unexpected prayers will spring up within us. The way we pray should be very simple: ‘If [our prayers] are in words, as they seldom are, then they are very few words; the fewer the better’, for ‘Short prayer pierceth heaven’ (pp. 96-7). This is a really important insight: it takes time to know what we really want to pray for, but when we find what that is, all we have to do is ask, and that is that. Archbishop Michael Ramsey was once asked how much time he spent in prayer each day. He said, ‘About two minutes – but I spend about an hour preparing!’ Benedict tells us in his Rule that there is no virtue in long prayers. If we want to ask God for something, we should simply ask.
The Cloud of Unknowing is in essence a meditation on the first commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ If, though, you are going to allow yourself to be guided by your own, deepest love for God, there is lots that will have to be stripped away - you will have to enter the ‘cloud of un- knowing’, when you begin to see the things you thought you knew about God as the very things that get in the way of knowing God. The Cloud of Unknowing reminds us that our ways of talking about God are as likely to mislead as to clarify and illuminate. We have to learn how inadequate our words are, so God can speak to our hearts in a way that goes beyond words. We have to learn, by the way of darkness and un-knowing – truly to trust God.
All I have been able to do this morning is to introduce you to one of the great spiritual classics written in English. The Cloud of Unknowing is really quite short but there’s lots in it I have had no time to discuss. Its central teaching is summed up in the words I used at the beginning: ‘by love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never’. The question we face when we read The Cloud of Unknowing is not, ‘Am I clever enough to be a Christian?’ but ‘Am I prepared to enter the cloud of un-knowing – to learn through darkness and confusion how truly to trust in God’s unfailing love?’