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The Cloud of Unknowing (2) - First Chapter


Of four degrees of Christian men’s living; and of the course of his calling that this book was made unto.

GHOSTLY friend in God, thou shalt well understand that I find, in my boisterous beholding, four degrees and forms of Christian men’s living: and they be these, Common, Special, Singular, and Perfect. Three of these may be begun and ended in this life; and the fourth may by grace be begun here, but it shall ever last without end in the bliss of Heaven. And right as thou seest how they be set here in order each one after other; first Common, then Special, after Singular, and last Perfect, right so me thinketh that in the same order and in the same course our Lord hath of His great mercy called thee and led thee unto Him by the desire of thine heart. For first thou wottest well that when thou wert living in the common degree of Christian men’s living in company of thy worldly friends, it seemeth to me that the everlasting love of His Godhead, through the which He made thee and wrought thee when thou wert nought, and sithen bought thee with the price of His precious blood when thou wert lost in Adam, might not suffer thee to be so far from Him in form and degree of living. And therefore He kindled thy desire full graciously, and fastened by it a leash of longing, and led thee by it into a more special state and form of living, to be a servant among the special servants of His; where thou mightest learn to live more specially and more ghostly in His service than thou didst, or mightest do, in the common degree of living before. And what more?
Yet it seemeth that He would not leave thee thus lightly, for love of His heart, the which He hath evermore had unto thee since thou wert aught: but what did He? Seest thou nought how Mistily and how graciously He hath privily pulled thee to the third degree and manner of living, the which is called Singular? In the which solitary form and manner of living, thou mayest learn to lift up the foot of thy love; and step towards that state and degree of living that is perfect, and the last state of all.

Cloud of Unknowing - Christian Classics Ethereal Library

I find the anonymous monk's Middle English almost unreadable, but Underhill's version retains much of the flavor of the original and it is interesting to see a full page of it.  Also, this is my first impression (well, third impression after the off putting foreward and the opening prayer) of the monk's thought.  But i am reminded of the pitfalls or first impressions.  On first reading, i did not like this chapter and could have decided that i did not want to read further.

Expressions of the Perennial Philosophy are always presented within a particular time, culture, and mind.  We recognize the peculiarities of other times, cultures and minds as particulars; but we tend to take our own peculiarities as universals.  I inflate the importance of my own perspective and diminish the value of different perspectives to the point of totally missing the perennial wisdom that might be there.  When i read Teresa of Avila's Way of Perfection i almost missed the permanent wisdom imbedded in her sixteenth century Spanish Catholicism.  That would have been my loss.  Fortunately i value my wife's opinion and she values Teresa's so i stuck with her until i could sense the wisdom that is there.

The monk is not creating categories for the  purpose of grading Christians A, B, C, D; he is trying to describe a process through which a person comes to value a contemplative experience and a contemplative life.  Its like learning to count and add and think abstractly before one tackles calculus.  The minds of twentieth century Americans may* not be ready for contemplation without preparation.  The same may* have been true for fourteenth century Englishmen, even those committed to a monastic life.  It is out of sympathy for the Common and Special minds of his brothers that he describes these "types," which are actually steps in a process leading, perhaps*, to perfection.

Where are the women in all this?  Well, i guess we will let St. Teresa take care of them?

* the conditional "mays" and "perhaps" reflect a hesitation to buy into elitist, illuminati, notions of spirituality,  Spiritual experience is a gift and while i may not recognize it, be ready for, or appreciate it, it is a gift that comes whether i want or  not.  Hildegarde of Bingen was given visions  at age five; many of the Hindu mystics were nearly that young.  Therese of Liseaux' "second half of life" must have started when she was twelve.  And i am especially reminded of Rumi's retelling of the Turkish folk tale (which i have mentioned several times) of Moses and the shepherd.
The shepherd's "infantile" prayer is condemned by Moses who is in turn called down by God.  Why did you send my servant away? asks God.  Moses scurries to apologize to the shepherd, who, partly because of Moses' admonition has attained a level of prayer beyond what Moses has experienced.  It is unwise for a human being to make juidgments about the spiritual development of another.



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