Cloud of Unknowing: We cannot know God with the intellect

Extract from chapter 4 of the classic mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing. Here our anonymous author explains why we can’t understand ultimate reality or the nature of God using our minds:

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Chapter 4: We cannot know God with the intellect

“I must tell you a little more about this matter, as I see it, in case you make some mistake and get the wrong idea about contemplation. …

For God limits his divinity to come down to our level and our souls find an affinity with him because we have the great distinction of having been created in his image and likeness. And he alone and only he is able to fulfil the longing and intentions of our soul; by virtue of his grace, which recreates us, our soul is capable of comprehending him completely by love, though God can never be comprehended by any created intelligence – either by a human being or by an angel. But by that I mean that they do not comprehend him in their understanding, not by means of their love. He is only incomprehensible to their intelligence, not to their love.

Every single rational creature has two faculties: the power of knowledge and the power of love. God is always quite unable to be comprehended by the first faculty, that of intelligence, but he is totally and perfectly comprehensible by the second, the power of love. Every single creature, moreover, will know him differently. Thus each loving soul on its own can, through love, know him who is wholly and incomparably more than sufficient to fulfil all human souls or angels that could possibly exist. And this is the eternal and extraordinary miracle of love, because God will continue in this activity for ever, without ceasing. Dwell on this, if you have the grace to do so, because to experience this for oneself is everlasting joy, and the contrary is everlasting pain. …

So pay attention to his wonderful divine activity in your soul. Properly understood, it is always an impromptu and unpremeditated impulse, which leaps up to God as a spark springs from the coal. The number of such impulses that can be achieved in the space of a single hour by a soul that is inclined to this work is extraordinary. In just one of these impulses he could have completely forgotten the whole created world. Yet because we are fallen creatures, he can quickly fall prey after each impulse to some thought or memory of some deed that he has either done or left undone. But so what? The soul can immediately spring up again as unexpectedly as it did before.

This is the correct way to understand this work. And you should be quite clear that we are not talking about fantasy or a disordered imagination or any obscure and esoteric belief. Those works are the product of a proud and inquisitive mind that enjoys imagining things that do not exist, not of a humble stirring of love and blind faith. That kind of conceited and ingenious mental activity must be stamped out ruthlessly and trodden underfoot if this work of grace is to be properly understood and performed with a pure intention.

For anyone who reads or hears about this work and imagines that it can be achieved by intellectual effort and so sits down and tries to work it out cerebrally is barking up the wrong tree. He is concocting an experience that is neither physical nor spiritual and, however learned he may be, he has embarked on an extremely dangerous course. So much so, that if God does not mercifully intervene with some miracle to make him abandon this activity and acquire the humility to seek the advice of experienced contemplatives, he is likely to become seriously disturbed or else fall into the evil state of serious and demonic sins of the spirit. Thus he could easily be lost for all eternity, body and soul.

So for the love of God be careful and don’t put any great strain on your mind or imagination. For I tell you truthfully, you cannot achieve it by any such strain, so leave your intellectual and your imaginative skills strictly alone.

And don’t imagine that because I refer to a ‘cloud’ or ‘darkness’ that I am talking about a cloud of vapours that evaporates into thin air or a darkness you see in your house when your candle has been extinguished. That is the kind of darkness you can imagine with some degree of mental ingenuity on the brightest summer’s day, just as on the darkest winter’s night you can imagine a bright shining light. Do not waste your time with any of these false ideas. I didn’t mean anything like that. When I use the word ‘darkness’ I mean an absence of knowledge, as when you say that the things you don’t know or have forgotten are ‘dark’ to you because you cannot see them with your inner eye. And for the same reason, this ‘cloud’ is no cloud in the sky but a ‘cloud of unknowing’ between you and your God.”


Extracted from Karen Armstrong’s translation in The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century.

Next time: What is God?

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