Extracts from some of the later chapters of the classic mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing. Here our anonymous author explains how to forget the self and some of the dangers of the contemplative path and how to deal with them:
from Chapter 43: A naked awareness of self
“Make sure that there is nothing stirring in your mind and will but God alone. Try to hack down all knowledge or experience of anything less than God and trample them thoroughly under the cloud of forgetting. You must understand that in contemplation you not only have to forget all other creatures apart from yourself (what they have done – and even what you have done yourself!) but that you must also forget yourself and all the good works that you have done for God’s sake. … This is how you must treat yourself: you must feel that anything that agitates your mind or will except God is hateful and tedious. …
So stamp down all knowledge and experience of anything whatsoever; above all you should concentrate on forgetting yourself. Your understanding and experience of everything else depends on your knowledge of yourself and it is far easier to forget other creatures once you have laid yourself to one side. If you try really hard to prove this, you will discover that once you have forgotten all other creatures and their deeds – and all your own affairs too – there remains between you and your God a naked apprehension of your essential being. This must go too before you can fully experience true contemplation.”
from Chapter 44: The death of the ego
“Now you are going to ask me how you can destroy this stark awareness of yourself. You might be thinking that if you destroy this sense of yourself, you will destroy everything else too and you will be right. But I will answer this fear by telling you that without a very special grace from God and without a particular aptitude on your part, you will never be able to get rid of this naked sense of self. For your part, this aptitude consists in a robust and profound sorrow of spirit.
But it is essential that you exercise discretion in this matter. You mustn’t put any excessive strain on your body or soul but should, as it were, sit quietly, almost as if you were asleep and entirely saturated and immersed in sorrow. This is what true and complete sorrow is like and if you can achieve it you will find that it helps you. Everybody has a special reason for grief, but the person who has a deep experience of himself existing far apart from God feels the most acute sorrow. Any other grief seems trivial in comparison. Indeed, anybody who has never experienced this grief should be really sorry for himself because he has never felt perfect sorrow! Once we have acquired this sorrow it not only purifies our souls, but it takes away all the pain merited by sin and thus makes the soul capable of receiving that joy which takes from a man all sense of his own being.
If this sorrow is genuine, it is full of holy longing. Otherwise nobody could bear it. Unless a soul is nourished from time to time with some of the consolations of contemplation, he could never endure this knowledge and experience of his nature. …”
from Chapter 45: Dangers of the contemplative life
“But I must warn you about one thing. It is very easy for a young contemplative, who is inexperienced and has not been tested in the spiritual life, to be deceived. Unless he is careful and does not get the grace to take care and humbly seek advice, it is possible that he may suffer physical damage, fall into spiritual delusions and become proud, sensual and a seeker of weird and wonderful mortal states.
This is how it happens. A young man or woman, who has recently entered this school of piety, hears about sorrow and longing: how a man must raise his heart to God and yearn incessantly to experience divine love. Immediately their trivial minds understand this in a material and physical sense, instead of spiritually as it was intended. So they put a quite excessive strain on their nervous systems. Because they lack grace and are proud and censorious, they strain in such crude, material ways that in no time at all they become hysterical, exhausted or fall into an unhealthy lethargy. To find relief of body and soul they try to escape into some useless exterior sensual or material pleasure. …”
Chapter 46: Don’t put too much strain on yourself
“So for the love of God be careful in this work and do not put too much strain on yourself, emotionally, beyond what you can bear. Eagerness is more effective in this matter than a show of useless force. The more eagerly you work, the more humble and spiritual you become, whereas the more crude force you employ, the more physical and animal. So be careful, for any brutish heart that presumes to touch the high mountain of contemplation will be beaten away with stones. Stones are hard and dry: whatever they hit they hurt. Similarly crude striving is inseparable from a more physical, material struggle and is dry from the lack of grace. They hurt the unintelligent soul very badly and it can fester in diabolical delusions. So keep this crude force at bay and learn to love eagerly, with a pliable, serious demeanour of body and soul. Wait upon the will of our Lord humbly and courteously and don’t grab at experience like a greedy greyhound, however hungry you are. You can make a game of it: do whatever you can to conceal the crude restlessness of your soul as though you were determined not to let him know how much you long to see him, to possess him, to experience him.
You probably think that I am talking childishly and playfully, but I really believe that anyone who has the grace to do as I say and enter into the spirit of it, would have a delightful game with God, rather as a father plays with his child, kissing and hugging him and glad to do so.”
Extracted from Karen Armstrong’s translation in The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century.
Next time: Final Words
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