Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Cloud of Unknowing: Reflections #1

This morning, I began my study of The Cloud of Unknowing, a work by an Anonymous author in about the fourteenth century. Uneducated about such things, I had previously believed that meditating directly on God without thought was an Eastern practice that Christians had adopted in fairly modern times. To see how far back this tradition is in the Christian tradition surprised me.

As I learned from St.Teresa of Avila, humility and desire for God are the two essential ingredients for any form of spiritual growth and fulfillment. Silencing thought is not, for St.Teresa did not attempt to do it, although it was the essential byproduct of her practice. St.Teresa was able to have many experiences completely unfathomable and unexplainable to others. Anonymous writes that what is required for contemplative prayer is "sincere and humble blind stirrings of love,"because “he is complete and can fill every longing.”

The “cloud of unknowing” is the absence of knowing between us and God. He recommends that we place all of our knowledge, good and bad, into the Cloud of Forgetting beneath us. St.Teresa writes how in the end, she naturally reached a point where she forgot herself. In the practice taught by Anonymous, this goal is sought secondarily to the foundations of humility and desire.

Anonymous describes three kinds of prayer: action, reflection (which includes both remorse and gratitude) and relating to the “cloud of unknowing.” He at first calls these “higher and lower” prayer. But then states, paradoxically that the highest is also the lowest. When I was following new Age practices and teachings, I also learned to meditate without thinking. It was amazing. But, here I am, starting over with my spiritual journey, wondering if I'm ready.

My first thought was that I'm not ready for this “higher prayer” because the lower is so fulfilling now. But, as I examined motives, I realized avoidance was based on fear. Specifically, the fear has been of misusing motives. Although I was urged to examine motives before, to avoid ego snags, that did not include avoiding self-indulgence as a motive. Whether I misconstrued these teachings or whether they did not include this is a mystery today. Regardless, Anonymous encourages using a “Naked Intent,” a beautiful way of describing purity of heart and will aligned to God's will.

When I began meditative prayer a few weeks ago, it was because James Finley's book, Christian Meditation, showed me the way. An example given was of meditating on just one verse. I chose the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” As I had heard this in the past, I thought, “Hey, good. I'll see him. I know my heart is pure!” As I meditated much more deeply over a series of many days, I realized this could not be further from the truth. Instead of this being discouraging, it was to me the best realization ever. Was I seeing God all the time? Uh, no. So, uh, is my heart pure? Uh.. no.

I do not know if my intent is “naked.” Humility also is a puzzle. Every time I contemplate it, I get the same result. “No, not humble,” comes the verdict from my conscience. Fortunately, I read that St.Teresa grappled with this every day, to the end. We will just never be humble or pure enough. So, that is a good thing to realize, since thinking we've achieved it destroys the process of achieving it.It's the examination of the conscience that brings satisfaction if we look at it this way. As we always work on it, we're doing our best and that is all we can do at any given moment. Because of this, if we approach it this way, that would mean doing our best.

If we wait until we are “ready” to practice higher prayer (how Anonymous refers to “meditation,”) we will be waiting for Godot. Thanks to my reading, at least now I understand what the foundations are and what methods may help.

“Let whichever of you feels surest of herself fear most.” -St.Teresa of Avila

1 comment: