“The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowing) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work suggests that the way to know God is to abandon consideration of God’s particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one’s mind and ego to the realm of “unknowing”…
The Cloud of Unknowing draws on the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Christian Neoplatonism, which focuses on the via negativa road to discovering God as a pure entity, beyond any capacity of mental conception and so without any definitive image or form. This tradition has reputedly inspired generations of mystics, from John Scotus Eriugena, Nicholas of Cusa, and John of the Cross, to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (the latter two of whom may have been influenced by The Cloud itself). Prior to this, the theme of The Cloud had appeared in the Confessions of St. Augustine (IX, 10) written in AD 398. Concerning the placement of The Cloud of Unknowing in the trends of the Catholic Church at the approximate time of its writing, the work joins a broader medieval movement within Christianity toward a religious experience of a more individual and passionate view of relationship with God.
The author is unknown. The English Augustinian mystic Walter Hilton has at times been suggested, but this is generally doubted. It is possible he was a Carthusian priest, though this is not certain.
A second major work by the same author, The Book of Privy Counseling (originally titled Prive Counselling), continues the themes discussed in the Cloud.
The Cloud of Unknowing is written specifically to a student…
The book counsels the young student to seek God, not through knowledge and intellection (faculty of the human mind), but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought.
The Cloud of Unknowing has 17 known manuscripts. The two best known are British Library Harley MS 2373 and Cambridge University Library Kk.vi.26. These contain all seven of the works attributed to the Cloud author, the former extensively glossed in Latin. Another important manuscript is British Library Harleian 2373, which contains all but Deonise Hid Divinity.
- Leonard Cohen refers to The Cloud of Unknowing in the 1979 song “The Window” from Recent Songs.
- J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey (1961) refers to The Cloud of Unknowing in a passage where the characters are discussing contemplative prayer.
- W. Somerset Maugham referenced The Cloud of Unknowing in The Razor’s Edge.
- The character Rev. Ames in Gilead (2004) by Marilynne Robinson refers to the book several times in an introspective journal/letter to his son.
- Appears atop a stack of religious volumes on the desk of Rev. Ernst Toller in Paul Schrader’s 2017 film First Reformed.”