The Cloud of Unknowing



“While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed his disciples; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.”   Luke 9:34

Among the classics in the Christian tradition, is a text written in the 14th century.  Anonymous, it is likely that it was written within the context of a monastic setting.  Though written in the Middle Ages as counsel for a young student whom the author knew well [1], it continues to be sought out as the definitive guidebook for those actively seeking a pathway to God.   But why was it called, “The Cloud of Unknowing?”

Unlike an aircraft or ship equipped with navigational instruments when caught within the grip of cloud or fog, both the disciples on the mountain that day with Jesus, and the writer who composed this classic – encountered the disorientation that can seize even the most rational of folk when there is no other point of reference to fall back on.

Writes the monk who crafted this ancient text,

When you first begin [this work], you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. […] Reconcile yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after [God] whom you love. For if you are [to expereince union with God], it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness. [2]

So what happened that day when accompanying their master and teacher up to a mountaintop, Jesus’ followers witnessed not only the unfathomable but became so overwhelmed that they were terrified?

Have you ever had an experience (be it a severe accident, illness or natural disaster) – that rendered you unable to respond given the magnitude of what was happening?    Have you ever felt so disoriented, that whatever responses you may have been able to muster at that moment – were inadequate in the face of what was happening?   Was there ever a time when you found yourself caught fast in the grip of not knowing what would come next?

Perhaps rather than reducing the divine to something tangible and familiar, the God who loves us beyond our imagining – desires that we move beyond comfortable and sentimental categories – to that realm where it is as we are in darkness, even in that cloud of unknowing?   What if all our powers of reason, rationalizing and justifying, are insufficient to save us?    What if the love we need to complete us, evades every category we’ve (out of our insufficiency) have unwittingly ascribed to it?

As seekers of God, what if the “cloud of unknowing” is the place where all of us must begin?

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016), pg. 122.

[2] William Johnson, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing: and the Book of Privy Counseling (July 1, 1996)





Author: Jessica McArdle

These are dark and corrosive times. As a writer and ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, I use prayer, poetry, reflection, and scripture to re-align our embattled spirits with the uniqueness and urgency of our God-given identity and call.

4 thoughts on “The Cloud of Unknowing”

  1. This is a very beautiful reflection Jessica! Indeed all of our reasoning, rationale, and intellectual groping can only lead us so far…… the rest is Grace in the dark! Which is when we can begin to see The Light of God! Thank you! Bless you!

    1. Thank you, Elaine, for this comment as well as yesterday’s conversation about the necessity of the contemplative life and in particular, centering prayer as an agent of healing for all of God’s people.

  2. Yes, I agree with Elaine. By tying the words of the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing to the disciples at the Transfiguration you remind us that these experiences happen not just at the beginning of our journey but over and over again, even when we are old enough to be advising the young in faith!

    1. Thank you, Maren. Yes, these experiences do happen over and over again. For me, it is always profoundly humbling but can stir those parts of me that need to be revitalized once more.

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