Sermon given at Evensong on 27 March 2011
27 March 2011 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
The Cloud of Unknowing
‘Are words enough to talk about God?’
The sermon this afternoon is part of a series on spiritual and devotional writers from the end of the fourteenth century, in which I have commended the authors as spiritual guides during Lent. The first two addresses about Mother Julian of Norwich and Thomas à Kempis are available on the Abbey website, and this afternoon I am moving on to my third and final work, The Cloud of Unknowing.
The period in which these authors flourished was a remarkable one not only for the diversity of contemplative styles, but also for its significance in the life of Westminster Abbey.
The imprint of Richard II, King of England from 1377 until his deposition by Henry Bolingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, in 1399 can be seen all around the Abbey. In the fine effigies of Richard and his wife, Anne of Bohemia—originally depicted holding hands—the tomb which Richard had prepared for Anne, and in which he was re-interred by Henry V to atone for his father’s probable murder of Richard. In the extraordinary portrait of Kind Richard which hangs at the West End of the Abbey, the earliest contemporary representation of an English monarch. His emblem—the White Hart—appears in the gallery above you in the South Transept, most likely signalling the place where his archives were kept. He added several bays to the West where Henry III had run out of money, and is strongly associated with the Jerusalem Chamber where you will see the mitre of Abbot Litlyngton and the crown of Richard II painted on the underside of the roof. The irony that this was where his captor, Henry IV, died gazing up at his captive’s crown will not have been lost.
And, alongside this political narrative, what stands out for us is the sheer diversity of religious development and, in particular, the variety of spiritual writings. Where Mother Julian of Norwich sought unification with God through contemplation of the sufferings and Passion of Christ, Thomas à Kempis looked for practical living in the vita communis, The Brothers and the Sisters of the Common Life. Others took a more radical stance, and in 1395 The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards were pinned to the door of Westminster Hall, just across the road from us, condemning ‘prayers and offerings made to blind roods and deaf images of tree and stone be near kin to idolatry’ .
So the question was: ‘What should mediaeval Christians do? Seek union with God by an intense contemplation of the Cross of Christ? Give up worldly possessions and live a communal life of poverty? Dismiss the uses of icon and images as mere superstition?’
All of these were possible answers, then as now, but a radical alternative came in a series of seven works from the end of the fourteenth century. The best known of these is The Cloud of Unknowing, written—as far as we can tell—by a priest using the dialect of the East Midlands.
He sets out his stall in the opening title: ‘Here begins a Book of Contemplation called The Cloud of Unknowing in which a soul is made one with God’.
And how are we made one with God? The Sacraments of the Church are a great help. We should begin with ‘faithful reformation through contrition and confession and satisfaction according to the established practices and laws of the universal Church’ . However, the Sacraments—he asserts—will only take you so far: when we lift up our hearts towards God with a humble stirring of love, we will find between ourselves and God ‘only a darkness, and as it were a clouding of unknowing, you do not know what’ . Our only hope is to ‘beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love’ and then to ‘put a cloud of forgetting beneath you, between you and everything that was ever created’ .
To put it most simply, in order to draw near to God we need to set aside, and forget, every description of him which ties our thoughts to the world—a classic statement of the apophatic tradition:
‘Beginning from what is further, we first remove from God that which is without substance, and everything that does not exist …and then we remove the things that exist and have life but lack feeling … and after that we remove those that have feeling but lack reason and understanding … and at the same time we remove from him all bodily things … such as shape, form, quality, quantity, weight, location … and all coming into existence and all decay, all division and all possibility … For he is not and has not any of these, or any or all other things perceptible to the senses’ .
This via negativa is a clearing of the ground, sweeping aside all the distractions which come to us from the world and it enables us to focus solely on God: ‘there is no knowledge of him; he is neither darkness nor light, neither error nor truth … For the perfect and unique Cause of all things must necessarily lack the possibility of comparison with the highest height’ .
If this all sounds rather strange to you, The Cloud of Unknowing looks directly to the Bible for support. The account in Luke 10:38–42 of Jesus’s visit to Martha and Mary reveals the responses of two very different personality types, the active and the contemplative. Martha is distracted by her many tasks, while Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens.
Generations of Christians have looked to this passage to explain different responses to the incarnate God. The Cloud of Unknowing focuses on the phrase: ‘But one thing is necessary’. He puts it like this: ‘above all other human concerns, bodily or spiritual, God alone should be loved and praised. And so that Martha should not think she could both love and praise God above all concerns … while at the same time being concerned with the necessities of this life … he added that Mary had chosen the best part… For the perfect stirring of love that begins on earth is of a piece with that which will last without end in the bliss of heaven’ .
This is an extraordinary work, fashioned in the Middle English, which Geoffrey Chaucer was popularising. Most astonishing of all, The Cloud intends us to doubt the very use of language—he really does want us to question whether anything we can say about God is of value. And the main reason for this doubt is that language itself is bodily in origin: ‘of the work that belongs to God alone I dare not take it upon me to speak with my blabryng fleschely tonge’ . This realisation of the limitation of language is one which is well understood by modern philosophers. To quote Jacques Derrida: language is ‘the crevice through which the yet unnameable glimmer beyond the closure can be glimpsed’ .
You’ll perhaps not be surprised to hear that I could happily preach another sermon to refute this idea and to make a strong case for the Incarnational—en-fleshing—nature of the Christian faith. But you will also be relieved that that will have to wait for another day.
In the meantime, however you mark your pilgrimage through this holy season of Lent, I commend to you The Cloud of Unknowing, as an enriching and challenging vein within the Christian tradition of contemplation.
To end with the mediaeval Collect of the Mass of the Holy Spirit with which The Cloud of Unknowing opens:
O God, to whom all hearts are open,
and to whom all desires speak,
and from whom no secrets are hidden,
I beseech you to cleanse my heart’s purpose
with the inexpressible gift of your grace,
so that I may perfectly love you and worthily praise you. Amen.