Thursday, February 20, 2014

From The Book of Privy Counseling

By the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing
   [Middle English, 14th century]

When you go apart to be alone for prayer, put from your mind everything you have been doing or plan to do. Reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil. Do not pray with words unless you are really drawn to this; or if you do pray with words, pay no attention to whether they are many of few. Do not weigh them or their meaning. Do not be concerned about what kind of prayers you use, or whether you formulate them interiorly, by thoughts, or express them aloud in words. See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out toward God. Leave it stripped of every particular idea about God (what He is like in Himself or in His works) and keep only the simple awareness that He is as He is. Let He be thus, I pray you, and force Him not to be otherwise. Search into Him no further, but rest in this faith as on solid ground. This awareness, stripped of ideas and deliberately bound and anchored in faith, shall leave your thought and affection in emptiness except for a naked thought and blind feeling of your own being. It will feel as if your whole desire cried out to God and said: “That which I am I offer to You, O Lord, without looking to any quality of Your being but only to the fact that You are as You are, and nothing more.”

      Let that quiet darkness be your whole mind and like a mirror to you. For I want your thought of self to be as naked and as simple as your thought of God, so that you can be spiritually united to God without any fragmentation and scattering of your mind. God is your being, and in the Divine you are what you are, not only because God is the cause and being of all that exists, but because the Divine is your cause and the deep centre of your being. Therefore, in this contemplative work think of your self and of God in the same way: that is, with the simple awareness that God is as God is, and that you are as you are. In this way your thought will not be fragmented or scattered, but unified in God who is all.


      Yet keep in mind this distinction between yourself and Him: He is your being but you are not His. It is true that everything exists in Him as in its source and ground of being, and that He exists in all things, as their cause and their being. Yet a radical distinction remains: He alone is His own cause and His own being. For as nothing can exist without Him, so He cannot exist without Himself. He is His own being and the being of everything else. Of Him alone may this be said: and thus He is wholly separate and distinct from every created thing. And thus, also, He is one in all things and all things are one in Him. For I repeat: al things exist in Him; He is the being of all.


      And since this is so, let grace unite your thought and affection to Him, while you strive to reject all minute inquiry into the particular qualities of your blind being or of His. Leave your thought quite naked, your affection uninvolved, and your self simply as you are, so that grace may touch and nourish you with the experiential knowledge of God as He really is. In this life, this experience will always remain dark and partial so that your longing desire for Him be ever newly enkindled. Look up joyfully, then, and say to your Lord, in words or desire: “That which I am, I offer to You, O Lord, for You are it entirely.” Go no further, but rest in this naked, stark, elemental awareness that you are as you are.


      It is not hard to master this way of thinking. I am certain that even the most uneducated man or woman, accustomed to a very primitive type of life, can easily learn it. Sometimes I smile to myself (though not without a touch of sadness), and marvel at those who claim that I write to you and others a complicated, difficult, lofty, and strange doctrine, intelligible to only a few clever and highly trained minds. It is not simple, uneducated folk who say this either; it is scholars and learned theologians. To these people in particular I want to reply. It is a great pity and a sad commentary on the state of those supposedly committed to God that, in our day, not just a few people but nearly everyone (excepting one or two of God’s special friends, here and there) is so blinded by a mad scramble for the latest theology or discoveries in the natural sciences that they cannot begin to understand the true nature of this simple practice; a practice so simple that even the most uneducated peasant may easily find in it a way to real union with God in the sweet simplicity of perfect love. Unfortunately, these sophisticated people are no more capable of understanding this truth in sincerity of heart than a child at his ABCs is able to understand the intricacies of erudite theologians. Yet, in their blindness, they insist on calling such a simple exercise deep and subtle; whereas, if they examined it rationally, they would discover it to be as clear and plain as the lesson of a beginner.


      Surely it is beginner’s fare, and I consider him hopelessly stupid and dull who cannot think and feel that he is; not how or what he is, but that he is. Such elemental self-awareness is obviously proper to the dumbest cow or most unreasonable beast. (I am being facetious, of course, for we cannot really say that one animal is dumber or more unreasonable than another.) But it is only fitting for a man to realize and experience his unique self-existence, because man stands apart in creation, far above all the beasts, as the only creature graced with reason. And so, go down to the deepest point of your mind and think of yourself in this simple, elemental way. (Others will mean the same thing, but because of their experience, speak of the mind’s “pinnacle”, and of this awareness as the “highest human wisdom”.) In any case, do not think what you are but that you are. For I grant that to realize what you are demands the effort of your intelligence in a good deal of thought and subtle introspection. But this you have done for quite a while with the help of God’s grace; and you understand to some degree (as much as you need to for the present) just what you really are – a human being by nature and a pitiful, fallen wretch through sin. Well do you know this. Yes, and probably you feel that you know only too well, from experience, the defilements that follow and befall a man because of sin. Fie on them! Forget them, I pray you. Reflect on them no further for fear of contamination. Instead, remember that you also possess an innate ability to know that you are, and that you can experience this without any special natural or acquired genius.


Step up bravely, then, and take this medicine. Lift up your sick self, just as you are, to the gracious God, just as He is. Leave behind all inquiry and profound speculation into your being or his. Forget all these qualities and everything about them, whether they be pure or defiled, natural or grace-given, divine or human. Nothing matters now except that you willingly offer to God that blind awareness of your naked being in joyful love, so that grace can bind you and make you spiritually one with the precious being of God, simply as He is in Himself.


I want you to understand clearly that in this work it is not necessary to inquire into minute details of God’s existence any more than of your own. For there is no name, no experience, and no insight so akin to the everlastingness of God than what you can possess, perceive, and actually experience in the blind loving awareness of this word, is. Describe Him as you will: good, fair Lord, sweet, merciful, righteous, wise, all-knowing, strong one, almighty; as knowledge, wisdom, might, strength, love, or charity, and you will find them all hidden and contained in this little word, is. God in His very existence is each and all of these. If you spoke of Him in a hundred like ways you would not go beyond or increase the significance of that one word, is. And if you used none of them, you would have taken nothing from it. So be as blind in the loving contemplation of God’s being as you are in the naked awareness of your own. Let your faculties rest from their minute inquiry into the attributes of His being or yours. Leave all this behind and worship Him with your substance: all that you are, just as you are, offered to all that He is, just as He is. For your God is the glorious being of Himself and you, in the naked starkness of his being. And thus you will bind everything together, and in a wonderful way, worship God with Himself because that which you are you have from Him and it is he, Himself. Of course, you had a beginning – that moment in time when He created you from nothing – yet your being has been and shall always be in Him, from eternity to eternity, for He is eternal.


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