By Rebecca Hall
The Abbey’s reading group studied The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel, mining these ancient texts for helpful instruction and encouragement for our own contemplative practice. We found this book simultaneously deeply insightful and challenging. At times the author, referred to as Anonymous, at times seems divisive and overly focused on the sinful side of human nature. Yet at other times, his descriptions of love, grace, union with the divine, and the fruits of contemplative practice are exactly the spiritual food we need in order to keep up this good work.
The following list of helpful tips and wise counsel are paraphrased from Anonymous’ entries of mixture of practical advice, reflections on the spiritual life and journey, and descriptions of the fruit of contemplative practice in our lives.. The numbers below do not correspond to Anonymous’ entries.
The practice Anonymous is teaching through The Cloud he calls contemplation. Contemporary versions of this type of meditation (somewhat based on this book) might be Centering Prayer or Christian Meditation. You might also have a Mindfulness Meditation practice already, and you will recognize some of the universal wisdom in this list of teachings.
This list is offered as a resource for your own contemplative practice. We hope you find it uplifting, encouraging, and helpful.
The Cloud of Unknowing
- Lift up your heart to God. Focus on God and only God.
- Let all thoughts go into the “cloud of forgetting”, or simply let them go. Let even holy or good thoughts go.
- Become familiar with and at home in the dark, in the Cloud of Unknowing, which is simply the space between you and God.
- As you begin, watch for the fruit of contemplation. Notice over time how it affects your whole life.
- Choose a one-syllable word to help you focus, like “God” or “love”. Say this word over and over to settle your mind. Let the word go when you don’t need it.
- You will grow in self-knowledge through this practice. Embrace what you learn; don’t judge. You will experience how much love for you God has, just as you are.
- Persevere. It can be difficult. God’s grace will help you.
- If you have unresolved issues in your life, they will eventually come up in contemplation. Consider making amends before you begin.
- Two ways to deal with unwanted thoughts: ignore them (let them go) and give up, surrender. This is the way our minds are. Don’t give up contemplation, simply accept that you have many thoughts.
- Continue with foundational spiritual practices: reading, reflecting, and praying liturgically. These lead people to the practice of contemplation.
- Practice moderation in everything. Take care of yourself.
- You may experience spiritual consolations (pleasurable experiences) during contemplation, or you may not. Either way is fine. Avoid becoming attached to these experiences. And do not worry or lament if you don’t have them. They are not God.
- Persevere but don’t strain (try too hard to the point of exhaustion). This work is a gift, a grace. Straining and striving draw us away from God.
- Bow eagerly to love and follow its humble stirrings in your heart.
- Look for the metaphorical meaning in spiritual teachings. Avoid taking the words literally.
- Get to know your mind and how it works. Learn it’s structure, where it helps you become one with God and where it leads you astray.
Anonymous’s Explanation of our Soul’s Powers (How our minds work)
“The mind is such a miraculous power”. Understanding it leads to self-knowledge
Inside the Mind: Reason, Will, Imagination, & Sensuality
“Reason is the Power that helps us distinguish the evil from the good, the bad from the worst, the better from the best.” This discernment (of what God desires for the world) requires the help of God’s grace since nothing is black or white, but many and all shades of the rainbow!
“Will is the power that helps us choose the good and that has been selected by reason. It also helps us love and desire this good and rest in God, completely confident and joyful.” It is easy to confuse our deepest desire to be one with God and God’s call with some of our secondary desires. God’s grace helps us with this discernment.
“Imagination is the power that helps us form mental images of anything present or absent.” The imagination is capable of amazing things! We need to be careful how we use this power as it can lead us away from God as easily as toward God.
“Sensuality is the power that affects and controls our body’s perceptions. It allows us to know and experience all of physical creation, both pleasant and unpleasant. It works in two ways: it looks after our physical needs, and it also serves the pleasures of the five senses.” This power can both lead us toward and away from God, like imagination. Developing self-control is an important way to hone this power.
- Contemplation makes you one with God in spirit, love and will. It causes you to grow in self-knowledge and heals your wounds. Sometimes people call this the process of “perfection”, but a better way to think about it is spiritual maturation.
The Book of Privy Counsel
- Empty your mind of everything except a “naked intent” (a pure and unadorned) reaching out to God. That is, let all thoughts go. It is simple (difficult, but simple!). Open your heart (also simple but difficult!).
- Contemplative prayer means training the mind (see above). This means learning to focus that you are instead of on what you are. We feed our thoughts when we endlessly focus on the complex nature of ourselves. Let these thoughts go during contemplative prayer.
- Live Solomon’s advice: Honor God with your substance and with your first fruits feed the poor. This is worshiping God wholly. No greater love exists than this. He also describes this as having an inner love for God and exterior kindness for the world.
- Spiritual maturity is only possible in this life through the union of the human with the divine. This work will make you wise, whole, virtuous, and joyful.
- Above all, the foundation for this work is love and through it we learn to make love our foundations.
- There is also a cross to bear, and that is that you forget yourself entirely in exchange for a total awareness of God.
- Sometimes this work involves waiting on God. Just wait. God will show up.
- Remember this: in contemplative prayer it is God who does the work. Let God be the one in charge. The work is done through grace and grace alone.