The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing , anonymous

The Cloud of Unknowing


“Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know.”

The Cloud of Unknowing, the spiritual guide written by an anonymous 14th century mystic, was widely read during the century in which it was written and continues to this day to hold a hallowed place among the spiritual classics of the English language.

What is “the cloud of unknowing?” The author was talking about a type of contemplative prayer that happens in a state of complete unknowing, a state devoid not just of words but also of thought, a state he describes as “simply a reverent, conscious openness to God . . . a pure heart pressing upon that dark cloud of unknowing.”

“Remain blind during this time cutting away all desire to know, for knowledge is a hindrance here . . . Nature designed the senses to acquire knowledge of the material world, not to understand the inner realities of the spirit . . . Thought cannot comprehend God . . . By love alone may he be touched and embraced, never by thought.”

Why did this Christian mystic, very likely a member of the Church establishment, choose to remain anonymous? Perhaps because the type of contemplation he proposed required no church, no dogma, no thought of sin or redemption. It in fact required an absence of all thought of self or of God, an absence of any sense of identification with any belief system.

What’s more, in the same work the author spoke of Christianity in ways that were likely never heard from the pulpits of his time. He said that real Christianity was about love and humility and that “whoever acquires these habits of mind and manner needs no others, for he will possess everything.”

He also called out the fraudulent Christians of his time, the people who channel all of their energies into “affectations of piety . . . who are more anxious to appear holy before men than to be holy before God.” “If you weep in constant sorrow for your sins and for Christ’s passion,” he said, “and ponder unceasingly on the joys of heaven . . . all this is very little in comparison with the blind stirring of love in your heart.”

This anonymous mentor of souls presents complete “unknowing” as a high virtue and as the discipline most essential to the striving to be at one with God. The Cloud of Unknowing offers both practical guidance and inspiration for all explorers of spiritual insight.

The Gleam of Light Team

The Cloud of Unknowing
Cover image from 2009 Shambhala Publications edition
Translated by Carmen Acevedo Butcher

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