Christianity’s Best-Kept Secret: On Cynthia Bourgeault and The Cloud of Unknowing

“God can be held fast by love, but by thought never.”

The questions that arise upon encounter with this and other such confounding lines from the Christian mystical classic The Cloud of Unknowing (What is meant by “God,” anyway? What is love? What can be “known” beyond thought?) are what keep many potential readers from approaching the great fourteenth-century work. But the Cloud was in fact not intended for spiritual professionals or academics. It is a series of intimate instructions in the life of prayer written by an elder (or eldress maybe—the author remains unknown) to a younger disciple. That it contains many seemingly confusing statements may simply have to do with the fact that, to paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki, “what isn’t paradoxical isn’t true.”

More than forty years ago, the people who devised the practice now called Centering Prayer—among them the Trappists Thomas Keating and William Meninger—used The Cloud of Unknowing as their primary source. Centering Prayer has gone on to be a major phenomenon, widely practiced by Christians across the traditions. Cynthia Bourgeault’s new book, The Heart of Centering Prayer, offers a complete course in the practice, and then takes us back to its textual roots by offering a detailed commentary of The Cloud of Unknowing as it relates to Centering Prayer and to the perception of nonduality of which the anonymous author speaks. The feeling is almost like Cynthia putting her arm around your shoulder and leading you through the text, illuminating it as she goes, showing that it’s not really that scary, and, yes, that it is indeed intended for you. What the Christian mystics sought is truly for everyone.

Once you’ve gotten intimate with the Cloud through Cynthia’s commentary, you’ll likely want to read the entire text, and she recommends two particular translations among the several available: The first, by Ira Progoff, The Cloud of Unknowing: A New Translation of the Classic 14th-Century Guide to the Spiritual Experience (Delta Books, 1957), takes a psychological approach to the classic and emphasizes its place as a pioneering work in the phenomenology of consciousness, which puts in in sync with Cynthia’s own view. The second is actually published by Shambhala: The Cloud of Unknowing: A New Translation, by the Middle English scholar Carmen Acevedo Butcher. Cynthia recommends Carmen’s for its “spark” and readability. “When I first came upon this edition,” she says, “I found the translations so lively and contemporary that I assumed that [Carmen] was taking huge liberties with the text—but no, her translations are actually closer to the original than many of the others so far mentioned. For newcomers to Christian mystical literature, I recommend this book hands down for its sheer immediacy—almost as if ‘Anonymous’ (as Carmen cheekily addresses him) is sitting right there in the room with you—and for its fabulous way of conveying the energy of the medieval original.”

Whether you decide to go further into the Cloud yourself or not, Cynthia Bourgeault’s books, especially The Heart of Centering Prayer, are a wonderful introduction to the wisdom it contains, and they present compelling evidence that nondual awareness is in fact the foundation of the Christian experience.

Also see the Carmen Acevedo Butcher talking about her translation of the Cloud of Unknowing.