Tag Archives: Cloud of Unknowing

Piercing darts of love

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But as for me, O Lord, I cry to you for help;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.

Lord, why have you rejected me?
why have you hidden your face from me? (Psalm 88:14-15)

In our English spiritual tradition one of the landmarks is a book from the late 1300s called The Cloud of Unknowing.

The anonymous author, most likely a country parson from the East Midlands, is counseling a younger monk with practical, pastoral advice about mystical prayer, especially dealing with the difficulty that arises when it seems that God has withdrawn — what John of the Cross some 300 years later called “the dark night of the soul.”

The author suggests that we should imagine, as it were, a “cloud of unknowing” hiding God from our senses. Our prayers should be as “piercing darts of love” aimed toward God through the cloud.

The hope of this pastoral approach to prayer is that eventually we will come to love God as he is, not for the consolations he provides. God’s seeming withdrawal, and our time spent under the cloud, can help us to mature in our love for God.

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Our Old Testament reading this morning is a poignant story of another wise priest, Eli, counseling the young man Samuel. Though “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Sam. 3:1), Eli helped Samuel to recognize that God had something to say to him. When Samuel heard the judgment of God against Eli’s sons, he “lay there until morning,” as if under a cloud.

Eli insists that Samuel tell him everything; he knows God is judging him and his sons, but he says “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam. 3:18). Though Eli will receive no consolation, he continues to love the Lord.

And Samuel? I can’t help but see the “piercing darts of love” foreshadowed when the story tells us that “as Samuel grew up, the Lord let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19).

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All who stand by night in the house of the Lord

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Therefore, if you would not fall, cease never in your intent, but beat evermore on this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt you and your God with a sharp dart of longing love, and be loathe to think on anything less than God. (The Cloud of Unknowing, 14th c.)

I am attending the Annual Lenten Retreat at the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin, led this year by Phyllis Tickle.

The topic of the retreat is “the Observant Christian: Pilgrims of the Emergence.”

While the content of Phyllis’ talks will be primarily on Emergence Christianity, the weekend is shaped by the practice of “fixed-hour prayer” using the offices she compiled in a series of volumes titled The Divine Hours. She organizes the prayers appointed for each season and day of the week so that you do not have to flip back and forth in a breviary but can more easily pray the offices.

The brief passage above from the Cloud of Unknowing is contained in the office of the Night Watch for today.

Whether you are awake before dawn on purpose or restless from being in an unfamiliar place, when you pray the Night Watch you join with all “who stand by night in the house of the Lord” (Ps. 134).

It is good to be back in this particular “house of the Lord,” a place that figures heavily in my own spiritual geography. I look forward to the next couple of days spent with Phyllis and my fellow-pilgrims.