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The Cloud Of Unknowing (1a) - Prefaces

Fleshly janglers, open praisers and blamers of themselves or of any other, tellers of trifles, ronners and tattlers of tales, and all manner of pinchers, cared I never that they saw this book. For mine intent was never to write such thing unto them, and therefore I would that they meddle not therewith; neither they, nor any of these curious, lettered, or unlearned men. Yea, although that they be full good men of active living, yet this matter accordeth nothing to them. But if it be to those men, the which although they stand in activity by outward form of living, nevertheless yet by inward stirring after the privy spirit of God, whose dooms be hid, they be full graciously disposed, not continually as it is proper to very contemplatives, but now and then to be perceivers in the highest point of this contemplative act; if such men might see it, they should by the grace of God be greatly comforted thereby
Cloud of Unknowing - Christian Classics Ethereal Library

This translation is by Evelyn Underhill.  Written nearly 100 yeas ago, it retains some of the flavor of the Middle English in which it was originally written by its anonymous author.  The copy i am using is translated by William Johnston was produced forty years ago and retains nothing of the middle english flavor.  It is, of course, much easier to read and understand.  I am referrencing Underhjll here because i owe her a great personal debt for her own writings on mysticism and since, frankly, i do not wish to laboriously hunt and peck to get portions of Johnston's translation into my journal.

Had i been alive when the anonymous monk wrote Cloud we would not have wanted me to read it.  He probably needn't have worried.  Possibly at the very time Cloud was being written, the first modern book was being printed on a printing press in Korea.  It would be nearly fifty years before any book would be printed in Europe, and 100 years before Cloud would be mass produced.  Though other means of publishing existed, hand copying was the usual way in which books were produced.  There were no doubt very few copies lying about to mislead or confuse anybody.  Yet, i am told by Johnston that Cloud was widely read in the fourteenth century, the copies must have circulated rapidly or a lot of hours were spent making copies.

Augustine of Hippo had suggested that their were certain truths that the rabble need not and should not be exposed to.  Things had not changed much in the intervening thousand years.  Democracy was no doubt implicit in much mystical literature but it was explicit nowhere.

Then there was the inquisition which was in force and which (however locally and politically) condemned Meister Eckhart for taking far fewer liberties with the sanctioned theologies.  John of the Cross, who Johnston sees having much in commion with the unnamed monk, was imprisoned by his order which probably ruined his health and contributed to an early death..

The unnamed monk probably had neither of these concerns.  He worried about people's souls.  There is a thin line between non-duality and nihilism and many have probably tripped over.  There is a freedom in mysticism  which could potentially endanger public order.  As conservatives in the 1960s U.S. might have put it, the best can become the worst enemies of the good.   Take care, the monk may have thought, that your contemplation not jump ahead of your humility, modesty, mercy, or other mundane features of your calling.


At the above link, there is a fine introduction by Ms. Underhill.  In my copy there is a brief foreword by Huston Smith and a thirty page introduction by the translator, William Johnston,  There is a seven page table contents which is practically a synopsis of the book.

Smith calls attention to the growing interest in contemplation in the modern world (1973).  If Newtonian Science had ever "caged" our minds, quantum mechanics has uncaged us.  We may once again behold mystery.  Divine mystery is not like crime mystery; it must be attended to, but it cannot be "solved."  As the "island of knowledge grows," the "shoreline of wonder" grows ever faster.

Smith also amens the monk's preface: "Unless the via negativa works with a solid via positiva to extend its trajectory, we are left looking around aimlessly and emptily."  Well, maybe, but some of us have no choice.  When "dad" says "my way or the highway," some must say: "the highway or no way."



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