Quaker Universalist Conversations

Richard Rohr on The Cloud of Unknowing

Excerpts from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

Richard Rohr, OFM Fr. Richard Rohr is a globally recognized ecumenical teacher bearing witness to the universal awakening within Christian mysticism and the Perennial Tradition. He is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing is a 14th century spiritual classic written by an anonymous English monk….

The author of The Cloud wrote in the language of the common people because the book’s purpose is to give practical guidance for direct experience of God. Education or high social status is not required, only a sincere longing to encounter God….

I am thinking of those who feel the mysterious action of the Spirit in their inmost being stirring them to love. I do not say that they continually feel this stirring, as experienced contemplatives do, but now and again they taste something of contemplative love in the very core of their being….

Cloud Of Unknowing f.23v, British Museum Online GalleryThe author believes that the spiritual journey demands full self-awareness and honesty, a perpetual shadow-boxing with our own weaknesses and imperfections. While physical withdrawal from the world is not essential, letting go of attachments to people, expectations, and things is. This requires contemplative practice, a true spiritual discipline

Rather than teaching passivity, the path into the cloud of unknowing requires active intent, willingness, and practice—knowing enough to not need to know more, which ironically becomes a kind of endless, deeper knowing.

Much of our contemplative practice will feel like failure, but the author encourages “anyone who wants to become a real contemplative” to “let the wonderful transcendence and goodness of God teach you humility rather than the thought of your own sinfulness, for then your humility will be perfect. Attend more to the wholly otherness of God rather than to your own misery.…”

In his introduction to his translation, Ira Progoff writes: “The ultimate goal of the work of The Cloud of Unknowing is union with God, not as God is thought of or imagined to be, but as God is in [God’s] nature.…”

Cynthia Bourgeault uses The Cloud of Unknowing to teach non-dual consciousness.… She emphasizes the power of our attention when it is withdrawn from its usual subject/object orientation and placed in what the Tibetan Buddhists call “objectless attention.”

When we hold our attention in this way, we gather it as a “field of perceptive energy.” Cynthia says the author of The Cloud “calls this alternative system of perceptivity love….”

It comes down to this, if God wants to work in your soul, God has to work in secret. If you knew, you would get puffed up, you would run in fear, you would try to take control of the process, or you would close down the whole Mystery with your rational mind. We each must learn to live in the cloud of our own unknowing.


—Adapted from Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gates,
and an exclusive teaching within the Living School program
Copyright © 2015 Center for Action and Contemplation

Image Source

Cloud Of Unknowing,” The British Library Online Gallery.

The Cloud Of Unknowing is a manual on contemplative spirituality by an anonymous author, written about 1375. Here it is introduced by the initial ‘I’ halfway down the page: ‘In the name of the holy trinity, here beginneth a book of contemplation, the which is cleped the Cloude of Unknowing . . .’. A later owner has glossed the Middle English word ‘cleped’ with its modern equivalent ‘called’, in the left margin.


If I knew the will of God, for the devil knew it as well to generate all sort of obstructions. It takes a lot of faith to walk into an open door of unknowing.
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