Over the next 3 weeks I would like to talk to you about how The Cloud of Unknowing suggests we develop our contemplative practice. What many people know today as Centering Prayer is one of many practices laid out in The Cloud. These other practices range from a handful of tips to let go of your thoughts to advice on reading scripture and mediating on its teachings. The author actually refers to centering prayer as a kind of work – “the work of contemplation”.
This fits very well into the Celtic way of understanding which emphasizes the importance of religious works. The Cloud says that many kinds of works are necessary and describes several of them. It insists that good works of mercy and compassion, study, liturgy, and verbal prayer are all necessary before one approaches the work of contemplation.
While contemplative prayer is said to be the most important of these various works, the book is clear that anyone who wishes to reach the contemplative state must be willing and eager to engage with other aspects of religious life.
Here is the quote from chapter 35 which I will be focusing on in this article:
Nevertheless, anyone who aspires to contemplation ought to cultivate Study, Reflection, and Prayer, or to put it differently, reading, thinking, and praying. I will say this to those who may read this book, both beginners and those a little advanced (though not to those highly skilled in contemplation): these three are so interdependent that thinking is impossible without first reading – or what amounts to the same thing – listening to others teach. Beginners and those a little advanced who do not make the effort to ponder God’s word should not be surprised if they are unable to pray. Experience bears this out.
The Cloud goes on to describe the reading of scripture as a mirror which allows us to see the stains on our soul. Without reading (or listening to preaching) we will never even realize that we need to be washed. Now, before we go on I would like to take a moment to interject my own thoughts about this.
I personally believe in continuing revelation. The idea that God never stopped inspiring scripture to be written. I think that the Holy Spirit is still at work and has inspired new scriptures throughout the ages. For instance, I consider The Cloud of Unknowing itself to be scripture, as well as many other texts written after the canon was closed.
That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the importance of the canonical books of the bible mind you. I search them diligently. But, the necessity of study which is being described here could just as easily include whatever texts inspire you and help you to see your own condition. Essentially any reading which allows you to move forward into the next step, which is reflection or, as we will discuss next week, meditation.
Do not hesitate to learn as much as possible. Do not let the fact that knowledge will not in itself carry you to God prevent you from pursuing knowledge, because it is the foundation upon which the contemplative practice is built. A healthy spiritual life is holistic. It includes times for centering prayer, times for study and learning, and times for reflection on who and what we are.
A great way to deepen your study of sacred texts is to use the threefold method of scriptural interpretation which Origen lays out. You can learn more about that in another article Origen and the Trinity of Scripture. By looking at the texts in various ways we can begin to see our reflection even more clearly. Be poetic in your reading, let your mind drift off to far off lands. Don’t be afraid to let your eyes wander off the page and out the window.
Lectio divina can be an important method of study. It is very similar in form to the methods of contemplative meditation and contemplative personal prayers we discuss in the next two articles. But, we should not neglect good rigorous study with notes and journaling and all that good stuff either. Lectio divina compliments study rather than replaces it, especially for those of us not terribly far along the contemplative path.
This is a subject we delve into in a little more depth in out virtual retreat (there’s a link below). We look at the way The Cloud describes the path from action to contemplation and the role which study, reflection, and prayer play in the middle of that process.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or sign up for our email list to receive weekly reflections. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.