The Cloud of Unknowing

“The quality of the contemplative effort which measures all progress in the interior life of the solitary is immediately related to the reflex conscious awareness of the self in its relationship to God, the supreme and single object of its desire” (64). While James Walsh in writing the Introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing understands that the author is not directly writing his text to a single individual nor is the author writing strictly for a solitary contemplative as Walter Hilton did in The Scale of Perfection, Walsh does bring forward the author’s intention of addressing all who desire to love God with intentionality and of single purpose. Walsh underscores the author’s awareness that one must be fervent in prayer and love; grace will continue to lead him away from sin and closer to God. In this idea the author echoes Aquinas in that God calls to us, and we respond through God’s gift of grace to draw near and love God. Walsh notes varying forms of grace: prevenient, subsequent, operative, and cooperative. He also references Aquinas again when he notes the author observing that God moves us and we respond and “wish for the good” (31). God, subsequently, will change the will by adding to it, by offering a greater form or a purer form of God’s love. And this addition draws us closer through our own desire.

Walsh draws upon this love and passion for God, which is a response from God to us through grace, and the simple and unalterable fact that following God is work. Yet, within the work is peace. Walsh remarks in this peace when he states, “That Christ-like patience signalized from the beginning in the mystery of Gethsemane is truly the gift of the Holy Spirit, ‘the angel of the agony’ ” (93). This alignment with the Creator is laborious and arduous. It will be frustrating and empty at times through the illuminative and unitive movements of relationship. Walsh includes the author’s instruction of “treading down these thoughts and covering them ‘with a thick cloud of forgetting’ against the law of sin” (75). The author offers direction to be relentless and consistent, and, in turn, God will extend His beautiful grace to comfort and bolster the contemplative. “The grace is measured according to the God-given capacity for its reception; and those who are given the capacity, no matter what their previous spiritual history, will never lack the gift” (77). It seems Walsh focuses throughout his Introduction on the author’s foundation of grace, a persistent and responsive grace that rewards the searcher. Grace seems to be the thread that joins God to us, (and perhaps it is a mind on Spring Break that likens this movement of grace to a fisherman who casts his line and, hooking a fish — employing work and persistence — is rewarded with a fine catch). Furthermore, Walsh captures the author’s passion for instruction and offering aid to his contemplative. For example, he states that “the author is obsessed with the mystery of God’s love.” Love draws us. Love keeps us. The author knows this duality and reinforces it. Walsh speaks of this active love and reinforces the awareness that the author needs his contemplative to desire God, to long for God, as He does us.

This piece is written as a reflection on The Cloud of Unknowing, the Classics of Western Spirituality edition.

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