What is “The Cloud of Unknowing”? (for B. who asked)

photo by Janaka Dharmasena/freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Janaka Dharmasena/freedigitalphotos.net

You only need
a tiny scrap of time
to move toward God.
The Cloud of Unknowing
Anonymous, 14th century

Contemporary English Version by Bernard Bangley

A couple of weeks ago, I included this quote in my sermon on Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal. At the time, I simply gave the brief reference to The Cloud of Unknowing, since my main point was really that a pause might be a weekend retreat or a weekly Sabbath, a half-hour journaling or a prayer before a meal, or even a pause to take a breath—“you only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God.”

But here I can say more about The Cloud of Unknowing, which dates from the 14th century, most likely written by an English monastic to instruct members of his order. My Dictionary of Christian Spirituality explains the title this way: “The author insists that in our mortal existence, no one may ever fully comprehend God with our intellect. Instead, there is always a ‘cloud of unknowing’ between humanity and God, one that can be penetrated only by ‘darts of love’ sent by God toward us.”

[One aside is that since I’m writing this during Advent, my mind immediately jumps to the Incarnation—to Jesus Christ who is God-with-us, who “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” according to Hebrews 1:3. The evangelical anabaptist in me says that Jesus dispels the cloud of unknowing between humanity and God, but the contemplative in me knows that there is a lot of mystery that still remains.]

In its original Middle English, the title is The Clowde of Unknowyng, which might seem straightforward enough as The Cloud of Unknowing. But here’s how Bernard Bangley starts the second paragraph of chapter 4:

Many think contemplative prayer takes a long time to achieve. On the contrary, results may be instantaneous. Only an atom of time, as we perceive it, may pass. In this fraction of a second, something profoundly significant happens. You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God. (The Cloud of Unknowing, Contemporary English Version by Bernard Bangley, Brewster: Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2006)

And here’s the original:

This werk asketh no longe tyme er it be ones treulich done, as sum men wenen; for it is the schortest werke of alle that man may ymagyn. It is neither lenger ne schorter then is an athomus; the whiche athomus, by the diffinicion of trewe philisophres in the sciense of astronmye, is the leest partie of tyme; and it is so litil that, for the littilnes of it, it is undepartable and neighhonde incomprehensible.  This is that tyme of the whiche it is wretyn: Alle tyme that is goven to thee, it schal be askid of thee how thou haste dispendid it. And skilful thing it is that thou geve acompte of it. . . . (The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Patrick J. Gallacher, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997)

Now that’s what I call “neighhonde incomprehensible”! (nearly incomprehensible!) For a more readable but still literal translation, there’s the John M. Watkins version of 1922, but Bangley’s aim is different as he desires “a clean, smooth, easily read modernization that avoids antique syntax while remaining faithful to the teaching of the original.”

So, yes, I guess it’s right to say that the quote comes from The Cloud of Unknowing, but it’s definitely a la Bernard Bangley, and I love his rendition: “You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God.”


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7 thoughts on “What is “The Cloud of Unknowing”? (for B. who asked)

  1. How gracious God is to us, wanting so badly to spend time with us that even a tiny scrap of time with us is of great value! That is of great comfort to me!

  2. April, I saw that – having found my blog – you decided to follow it. Welcome! So I came to see what your blog looks like. And came across this post. It reminded me that I had decided to read “The Cloud of Unknowning” myself after have read about it several times in other books. At times puzzling, other times fascinating, and occasionally exasperating – but I am glad I read it through. I am not sure whose or which version I read, but I still have memories of struggling through at least some Old English. Congratulations on your upcoming book! I will be sure to come back and visit again. Shalom.

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