The author of The Cloud of Unknowing has another less well known work called An Epistle on Prayer. In this letter, written to a spiritual friend, the author describes prayer as if it were a tree. The root of the tree is fear; the trunk of the tree is hope; and the fruit which this tree bears is a deep loving affection for God, which is the true goal of prayer.
This very closely resembles the three medicines of Julian of Norwich: which are: contrition, compassion, and true longing for God. For Julian, contrition is about hope in God’s mercy and for the author of The Cloud hope follows and balances fear. Contrition is essentially a mixture of fear and sadness that is healthy and life giving rather than destructive.
And so, our prayers have their root in fear – that is to say that we begin by praying for deliverance from our enemies, illnesses, and other dangers. The trunk of the tree is hope – that is to say that we pray in hope for those things which are good for us. Though we may begin by praying out of fear, and that is good in itself, we progress into prayers of hope. Even these prayers of hope, however, will need to be left behind if we wish to bear spiritual fruit pleasing to God which leads us into union with her.
Fear and hope are both feelings which are turned inwardly towards the self. This is the main reason for The Cloud’s use of these two spiritual conditions. They are opposite sides of the same coin – fear is the inverse of hope and hope is what we have when our fear is turned inside out. These are motivating factors in our inner life because they together fully express human selfish desires.
When we are motivated by fear and hope then we are not motivated by true longing for union with God. In union with God our hopes and fears must be left behind. Only love, which is God’s nature, may pass through the cloud of unknowing which separates us from Eternity. Yet, both fear and hope are necessary. They keep us safe and moving in the right direction – away from what hurts us and towards what is helpful.
The fruit cannot exist without the trunk or the roots, it is the fulfilment of all the tree’s striving. The tree makes its fruit as beautiful and delicious as it can by drawing from the strength and nourishment of the trunk and roots. In like manner, even though the virtues of fear and hope do not cross the threshold which separates Heaven and Earth, they are an essential part of producing good fruit which does.
Fear combined with hope, the author tells us, leads to true reverence which cannot be entirely fear or entirely hope but must be a mixture of both. These contraries combine and lead us to true reverence. The way that we are to develop these two opposite virtues is by the awareness of two truths.
Firstly, while we are praying, we should keep in mind that we may die before our prayer has finished. We do not know the day of our death and it may come upon us at any moment. This awareness of our own mortality is the root of this holy fear. The fear of death is perhaps the most primal of all human fears, embedded deep within all of us. We can evoke fear within us by remembering our own death.
Secondly, to balance this fear which we have evoked, we also remember the sure hope of salvation. While our own mortality is a cause for fear, our faith in Jesus Christ and the salvation he brings is a sure cause for hope. By remembering both death and resurrection we evoke both fear and hope. This hope of salvation is a trust in God’s mercy and it is the solid trunk of the tree which cannot be shaken.
The branches which grow out from this tree are deeds of love and kindness. By balancing the remembrance of our own death with the true hope of salvation we are free to live our lives in service of others and of God unburdened by fear and detached from vain hopes of immortality.
The true goal of prayer is a loving affection for God which is simultaneously a burning desire and a humble reverence – and it is the fruit which grows on the branches of this tree. So long as the fruit remains on the tree it retains a certain aspect of the greenness of the tree and it is unripe. In order for this reverent love of God to become fully ripe it must become detached from the tree.
We must leave behind both fear and hope in order for the fruit to reach perfection, even though they are what nurtured it and brought it into existence in the beginning. The true fruit of prayer consists in loving God because God is lovable not because of the reward you hope to receive or the pain you fear to experience. We will not come to know God by hoping for Heaven or fearing Hell, but only by pure love detached from selfish motives.
So long as the fruit of our prayer is still hanging on the tree, it is not fully ripe. As long as our prayers are still attached to the hope which they grew out of, they are green and not yet ready. The fruit is said to be ripe when it detaches naturally from the tree. When our prayer is mature, it will no longer be attached to our hopes or fears. It will, rather, be sweet in and of itself and this sweetness will be carried with it even after it is detached from the tree and taken into God.
This means that detachment is the essential quality of mature prayer. Fear and hope are both about the self, even if they can be virtues. True prayer is no longer about you as an individual with your hopes and your fears but rather it is entirely about God. We must pluck the fruit of prayer and remove it from all concerns other than God’s sweetness so that we can offer it to God as a simple desire detached from all other concerns. The author of the Cloud says,
“For all this, the fruit on the tree, offered continually so far as human frailty permits, merits salvation. But the ripe fruit, separated from the tree and suddenly offered to God without intermediary – that is perfection. You may see from this that the tree is good, even though I urge you to separate the fruit from it so as to gain greater perfection. Thus I am setting it in your garden, because I want you to gather the fruit from it and keep it for your Lord; and also because I want you to know what kind of exercise joins a human soul to God and makes it one with him in love and harmony of will.”
When we offer this fruit, fully ripe and separated from the tree of personal desires, God eats it and takes it into herself. By this, our reverent affection has its desire fulfilled in union with God’s being. The sweet consolations of prayer, when God gives us spiritual gifts of special love that rejuvenate our soul, is when God breaks open this fruit and shares it with us. While these moments are beautiful and good, they are not themselves union with God and we may be one with God without such consolations.
The tree is our soul and the prayer grows there and is nurtured by it. But, in order for the fruit to reach its full potential, in order for it to fulfill its purpose, it must be detached from the tree altogether. Our prayers, while they rightfully begin in our fears and hopes, must be fully detached from every aspect of self before they can truly ripen and be offered to God.
And so, my friends, when you pray, keep firmly in your mind the fact that you may die before your prayer has finished and alongside that keep another thought which is that God’s mercy is boundless and that you can have hope in it. Allow these two thoughts to be like a tree which you climb up towards the fruit of contemplation. When that fruit is ripe, detach it from self will and offer it to God with a reverent affection. If you find it becomes difficult to pray with many words, even though at one time you had a myriad of words which you wanted to give lovingly to God, do not feel that this is a failure in your prayer life. It is quite possible that this is actually a maturing of your prayer and the fruit is ripe and ready to be detached from the tree of hopes and fears.
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