Cloud of Unknowing: What is God?

Extracts from chapters 6, 7 and 9 of the classic mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing. Here our anonymous author explores the nature of God and how to go about your contemplations:

Cloud 2

Chapter 6: What is God?

“But now you are going to ask me: ‘How am I supposed to think about God himself? What is he? and I can only answer: ‘I have no idea!’

Because with this question you have brought me into the darkness and the cloud of unknowing that I want you to be in yourself. For, through grace, a man can have perfect knowledge of everything else and can think adequately about other matters – even about the works of God himself – but nobody can think about God’s essential being. So I must be willing to leave all the things I can conceive with my mind on one side and choose for my love the one thing that I cannot think about. Why? Because he can be loved most satisfactorily but he cannot be thought about. He can be grasped and held by love but never by thought. And that is why, although it can sometimes be beneficial to think carefully about the kindness and excellence of God and although this can be both a revelation and a part of contemplation, nevertheless in this work it must be thrown aside and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step over it resolutely and gladly and with a dedicated and pleasurable impulse of love try to pierce the darkness that you seem to encounter above you. And beat upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of yearning love. And never for a second think of giving up.”

from Chapter 7: Trample on your thoughts!

“You can, if you like, encapsulate and contain this intention in a single word, to help you concentrate. So take a little word of just one syllable to help you focus your attention. The shorter the word the better, because it is more like this particular activity of the Holy Spirit. Choose a word like ‘God’ or ‘love’ or any other word of one syllable that appeals to you and impress it indelibly on your heart so that it is always there, whatever happens.

This word must be your shield and your spear in times of peace or war alike. With this word you must batter the cloud and the darkness above you. With this word you must beat down all kinds of intellectual or analytical activity under the cloud of forgetting. So much so that if you are ever tempted to ask what you are looking for, answer with this one word – don’t try to find other words or concepts. And if you should be tempted to analyse and reflect learnedly on the meaning of this word, your talisman, insist that you want to preserve it as a simple whole and not divide and subdivide it into separate categories. If you are determined to hold fast to your purpose, you can be confident that thought will eventually fade away. Why? Simply because you will not let your mind feed on the consoling meditations about God that we mentioned earlier.”

from Chapter 9: Suppress the imagination

“I am not saying that any spontaneous idea that rises in your mind against your will and conscious intention about a pure spiritual matter which is less than God, even if you cultivate it to increase your devotion, is actually evil, even though it will impede your progress in this kind of contemplation. No indeed! God forbid that you should misunderstand me in this way! But I do say that as long as you are engaged in this higher spiritual activity – however good or holy such a thought may be, it will be more of a hindrance than a help. Surely anybody who is wholly set on the quest for God can find no rest in the thought of a mere angel or saint in heaven?”


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

Next time: Techniques to get rid of distractions

More from The Cloud of Unknowing