February 19, 2008

Contemplate This!: Cloud of Unknowing

I always read, in the dissenting Catholic arena, about people extolling the virtues of, and recommending, contemplative prayer. My dissent-TAR usually goes off. By contemplative prayer, they usually mean something New Agey or Buddhist-inspired. I always ask myself: what’s wrong with the contemplative prayer the Church has already given us? You can use the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary as a meditation. You can contemplate Christ upon the Cross. You can slowly meditate upon the words of the “Hail Mary”. You can practice lectio divina, a practice of meditating upon Sacred Scripture that H.E. Coadjutor John Nienstedt is a proponent of (I'm reasonably sure the sessions His Excellency leads at University of St. Thomas are informed by Catholic teaching). You can reflect upon the Sacred Host in Eucharistic Adoration.

But, no, for some reason none of those tried and true Catholic practices are good enough or exotic enough. Too boring or too difficult. I’m not sure which. Maybe both. It can’t be because everyone’s doing them and they’ve lost their appeal.

Maybe “Catholics” with no real exposure to Catholic devotions are too easily susceptible to outside influences? “Hey, I read about that Buddhist stuff on the bulletin board at the coffeehouse. Sounds cool, I think I’ll go”. Maybe we don’t advertise our devotions to the outside world enough? Well, I’m sure we don’t, since we can barely advertise it among our own people. It doesn’t help that so few parishes bother to offer traditional Catholic devotions or instruction on how they can help you grow deeper in holiness.

I feel like some of us are ashamed of our Traditions. Why? They are so beautiful and many of them were organically created from the bottom up: meaning lay people or future saints, (CATHOLICS) implemented and nourished them. I would think the dissenters would be attracted by that aspect since they are continually ranting about the top-down aspect of Holy Church.

That said, some will say, they are trying to do that bottom-up movement with contemplative prayer. If they start it as laypeople eventually the Holy Father will be sitting on a Muslim prayer rug in an Adoration chapel reciting Vajrayana chants before a statue of Vishnu. I say: Why in the world, would Holy Church sanction movements that arose from non-Christian religions? I say the day the Holy Father is seen doing that _______ (fill in favorite synonym for BS here) is the day he’ll need to be asked to step down since he’s clearly lost his mind.

Father Thomas Keating is usually pegged as the father (ha-ha!) of the modern contemplative prayer movement. The story goes that Father decided to bring monastic contemplative prayer to laypeople in response to Christians who were looking for a Buddhist path because they told Father that Christianity has no path. Huh? If true, that is an alarming statement. Do Catholics think that once they receive the Sacraments of Initiation that’s it? They’ve reached full understanding? They can’t grow anymore? Have thousands of Catholics completely misunderstood what orienting to the East really means?

I’ve known my Dad my whole life. I probably know him better then anyone else living. Does that mean he fails to surprise me? Does that mean I’ve quit learning stories of his life? Does that mean I find him boring? I think you can never fully know anyone, but you can discover nuances to their personality each day. To do so, involves effort and interaction. So, it is with our path as Christians. We need to interact and make an effort. We need to keep growing. If I thought I was a perfect Catholic, I’d take the statue of the Virgin Mary down from her niche in my parish and put up a statue of myself instead. It would serve me right if she fell on me and crushed me dead.

Father Keating describes contemplative prayer as not attention, but intention. When I read his interviews or his books, I always get the feeling that the point is not for us to give attention to God, it's for us to wait until God comes to us and then tell Him what we intend. Does it follow then that modern contemplative prayer can be to make OUR intentions known to God or is it for us to attempt to learn what God intends for us by giving Him our attention? Sure, I’m all for being still and waiting for God to make His wishes known. But, I'm always skeptical that sometimes the point of modern contemplative prayer seems to intend for us to decide internally what is the best path-rather than discerning what God's plan for us is and do it wholeheartedly. I'm not always sure the modern contemplative prayer movement proponents are really trying to hear the voice of God or the voice of their own.

One of the texts contemplative prayer proponents base their movement upon is an anonymous 14th century monastic work called the Cloud of Unknowing. To their credit, this is an authentic Catholic text but I wonder how much of the modern contemplative movement that is inspired upon this work actually emphasizes how severe the original work really is?

Actual excerpts from the Cloud of Unknowing:

“AND, therefore, if thou wilt stand and not fall, cease never in thine intent: but beat evermore on this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt thee and thy God with a sharp dart of longing love, and loathe for to think on aught under God, and go not thence for anything that befalleth. For this is only by itself that work that destroyeth the ground and the root of sin. Fast thou never so much, wake thou never so long, rise thou never so early, lie thou never so hard, wear thou never so sharp; yea, and if it were lawful to do—as it is not—put thou out thine eyes, cut thou out thy tongue of thy mouth, stop thou thine ears and thy nose never so fast, though thou shear away thy members, and do all the pain to thy body that thou mayest or canst think: all this would help thee right nought. Yet will stirring and rising of sin be in thee. “ (Chapter 12)

“LOOK up now, weak wretch, and see what thou art. What art thou, and what hast thou merited, thus to be called of our Lord? What weary wretched heart, and sleeping in sloth, is that, the which is not wakened with the draught of this love and the voice of this calling! Beware, thou wretch, in this while with thine enemy; and hold thee never the holier nor the better, for the worthiness of this calling and for the singular form of living that thou art in. But the more wretched and cursed, unless thou do that in thee is goodly, by grace and by counsel, to live after thy calling. And insomuch thou shouldest be more meek and loving to thy ghostly spouse, that He that is the Almighty God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, would meek Him so low unto thee, and amongst all the flock of His sheep so graciously would choose thee to be one of His specials, and sithen set thee in the place of pasture, where thou mayest be fed with the sweetness of His love, in earnest of thine heritage the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Chapter 2)

“Do on then, and travail fast awhile, I pray thee, and suffer meekly the pain if thou mayest not soon win to these arts. For truly it is thy purgatory, and then when thy pain is all passed and thy devices be given of God, and graciously gotten in custom; then it is no doubt to me that thou art cleansed not only of sin, but also of the pain of sin. I mean, of the pain of thy special foredone sins, and not of the pain of the original sin. For that pain shall always last on thee to thy death day, be thou never so busy. Nevertheless, it shall but little provoke thee, in comparison of this pain of thy special sins; and yet shalt thou not be without great travail. For out of this original sin will all day spring new and fresh stirrings of sin: the which thee behoveth all day to smite down, and be busy to shear away with a sharp double‑edged dreadful sword of discretion. And hereby mayest thou see and learn, that there is no soothfast security, nor yet no true rest in this life.” (Chapter 33)

Wow! What an earth mother happy-go-lucky piece of work that is! How you'd like to contemplate the words: 'sloth', 'sin' and 'wretch' for an hour? Something tells me the modern contemplative prayer fans substitute: 'tired', 'bad' and 'sad'-assuming they bother with the "negative energy". I’m sure that the language has probably been updated and retranslated somewhere. I wonder how closely any retranslations adhere to the unblinking harshness of the original? In a moment of great irony, it so happens that today's Magnificat has a modern excerpt from Cloud of Unknowing that, unfortunately, I can't find in the original because I think it's been extensively rewritten from the original text. Great title though: Cloud of Unknowing-probably goes over big with the organic, locavore, granola crowd. I bet Matthew Fox just loves this work! *Meow*.

I believe the roots of contemplative prayer are solidly Catholic but I fear that too often these days the practice drifts into paganism. If you are going to a contemplative prayer group or session: use caution. It saddens me to say that but this is the reality we live in. Ask yourself: How closely is this adhering to the Catholic tradition? Is there too much emphasis on non-Christian words or prayers? What is the faith background of the people leading this event? Is it sponsored in a Catholic church or a community center? If it has the label Catholic on it, are the location or the people leading it, dissenting from Catholic teaching by their words, compositions or actions?

One last thing for you to contemplate: “[Centering prayer] is . . . a journey into the unknown. It is a call to follow Jesus out of all the structures, security blankets, and even spiritual practices that serve as props.“, Open Mind, Open Heart, by Father Thomas Keating.


Blogger Terry Nelson said...

Wow! Excellent post!

I'll have to re-read it.

February 19, 2008 7:45 PM  
Anonymous georgette said...

Hey Cath! :)

I did not know that the new-agey dissidents liked _The Cloud of Unknowing_! I was introduced to this work a while back by a lady, and now I'm starting to wonder if she is much more new-agey than I thought! Hmmm. I found it completely difficult to understand, at any rate. Maybe the dissidents don't understand it either--they just think the title sounds cool: "unknowing" sounds like emptying your thoughts like they tell you to do in yoga and mantra-chanting!

Anyway, the way "contemplative" prayer was explained to me by some Carmelite tertiaries is that it pretty much is a state of prayer as a total gift of God. Some folks attain it, some do not. And you never know if you will get it until you try it...usually by starting out meditating on the mysteries, or scriptural passages, or spiritual reading, or just communicating to God in quiet meditation, when suddenly He gifts you with it. The way I understand it, there are three states of prayer: spoken (either silently or aloud) prayer, meditative prayer (actively thinking about something of spiritual merit,like some aspect of the life of Christ, something scriptural, etc), and contemplative prayer. Whereas the first two forms of prayer require an active effort on our part, contemplative prayer is a passive form where God moves towards us.

At least that is how I understand it and I may be completely wrong! At any rate, I love discussing this topic and this is an interesting post--thanks!

February 20, 2008 10:37 AM  
Anonymous georgette said...

Er, correction in my lloooooonnnnggg comment: it's supposed to be "vocal" prayer, not spoken prayer as I said.

Here is the CCC reference to the three forms of prayer:


love and prayers,

February 20, 2008 10:47 AM  
Blogger Ray from MN said...

As usual, a good and thought provoking post, Cathy.

During my pagan days when I first began my slow reversion back to the Church, I read "The Cloud of Unknowing" and still regard it as one of the most important of the many books that I did read at the time. But it is difficult.

It's a book, like the "Imitation of Christ", another important book of about that era, written for professed monks and nuns, that must be read slowly.

But you are correct in saying that its initial attraction, for me and for others, was its mystical and contemplative features. I have the Paulist Press "Classics of Western Spirituality" edition.

And there is a warning in the last chapter: "All those who read the subject-matter of this book...[who] think that this is good and congeniel to them, are not on that account called by God to undertake this exercise, simply because of this congenial feeling that they have in the time of their reading. It can happen that this feeling comes more from a natural intellectual curiosity than from any calling of grace....

First let them see to it that they have first done all that in them lies to prepare themselves for it by the cleansing of their conscience according to the judgment of holy Church, and with the approval of their spiritual director."

I didn't use a spiritual director [Please, mother, I'd rather do it myself!], but I must say that it was the first book that I read that brought home to me that God's love for me was what was most important. Unfortunately, it took me another 20 years to really accept and understand that.

I think I'll read it again this Lent.

February 20, 2008 11:25 AM  
Anonymous Adoro said...

"The Cloud of Unknowng" is actually not a New Agey work, but like other solid theological works, it gets taken out of context and used inappropriately.

Also, just want to comment that contemplative prayer is totally a gift.

A great book for anyone looking for info is Fr. Dubay's "Prayer Primer" followed by "The Fire Within"

FYI..."The Cloud of Unknown" is often quoted in Magnificat.

February 20, 2008 1:28 PM  
Blogger Adrienne said...

The centering prayer that is being pushed has been rebuked by the Vatican. End of that story.

A simple litmus test to prayer is to check out the direction. Is it moving toward God or toward ourselves. Keating and his best friend M. Basil Pennington are on the wrong path.

February 20, 2008 1:57 PM  
Blogger Kristen said...

Learning here~So you are saying what is traditionally contemplative prayer is not the same as what is being touted as contemplative prayer as of late and that the latter is borderline paganism? Also, was it not St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila who were very involved in contemplative prayer (the true form), also Bl. Pope John Paul II was very deep in contemplative-prayer since a young age. But perhaps, again, what you are saying is that this is very different than what is being called contemplative-prayer today?

February 22, 2008 8:04 AM  
Blogger Laura The Crazy Mama said...

Long winded, fancy BS is still BS, in my opinion. I guess I just don't have time for all that flowery junk. Even read slowly, I just sit there more confused then ever as to the author's intentions for what I'm supposed to "get out of it". To me, reading something should be either a. a no-nonsense reflection on reality, or b. a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Any time I hear the word "centering prayer" I run screaming. Aaahhhhhooooooooommmmmmmb.

February 22, 2008 9:45 AM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

kristen: Correct. At its roots, as you pointed out, contemplative prayer was very much rooted in authentic Catholic spirituality. Some times today it still is but I think people need to use caution because, unfortunately, some of the folks leading it today are not very faithful to Holy Church.

February 22, 2008 12:11 PM  
Blogger Ray from MN said...

"Laura the Crazy Mama": say, aren't you getting kinda large about now?

Anyhow, more to the point of the Cloud of Unknowing, I've begun to re-read it slowly. I came across this in Chapter III (very short chapters):

Now all rational creatures, angels and [people] alike, have in them, each one individually, one chief working power which is called a knowing power, and another chief working power called a loving power; and of these two powers, God, who is the maker of them, is always incomprehensible to the first, the knowing power. But to the second, which is the loving power, He is entirely comprehensible in each one individually; in so much that one loving soul of itself, because of love, would be able to comprehend Him who is entirely sufficient, and much more so, without limit, to fill all the souls of [humans] and angels that could ever exist.

This is the everlasting wonderful miracle of love, which shall never have an end. For He shall ever work it and shall never cease to do so. Let [them] understand it who can do so by graces for the experience of this is endless happiness, and its contrary is endless suffering.

So, Laura, don't worry about "knowing." "Loving" is what it is all about.

February 22, 2008 12:48 PM  
Blogger jerry said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

March 05, 2010 11:04 PM  
Anonymous Rachel S. said...

Here's a website link that has a pdf version of the book, which is the 1922 translation, and may be closer to the old English of the original text, if that is what you're looking for.


I just purchased the more recent edition, translated into a more modern style of English.

I bought it, because I found lines and headings throughout, that seem to describe a type of spiritual desire and prayer that I have been intuitively expressing for a few years now, through the "inexpressible groanings of the Spirit," as it cries out within me.

I would be concerned with a style of prayer that is detached from Jesus, and of any form of prayer that leaves out the Cross. For me, the prayer of desire, expressed from deep within my heart though without human words, started and has grown through Mass and moments in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

I believe the key is a two-fold reciprocity: to empty one of oneself, and then, while eastern religions stop here and spiritually fall short, Christians know that we empty ourselves so as to make room for a filling by God, and so we must ask Jesus to fill our hearts with Himself.

God bless each of you on your journey towards Him!

December 14, 2011 6:13 PM  

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