The two traditions of The Cloud of Unknowing

Nike Kocijančič Pokorn

University of Ljubljana

(Article from the symposium organized by International Institute Jacques Maritain, Trieste, in frame of Forum Orient-Occident in May 2004 in Rozzaco, Italy)

In this paper an attempt will be made to show that rigid delimitations between the Eastern and Western thought are flawed and that Christian spirituality in the West has always appreciated and venerated the great Eastern spiritual tradition. I shall try to demonstrate that through a 14th-century English mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing which reveals that not only is a fruitful collaboration between the Western and Eastern Christian spirituality possible but that it has always existed and has not been interrupted by the Eastern Schism in 1054.

The Cloud of Unknowing, besides being one of the basic mystical texts of the century, is also one of the works that marks the begin­ning of English prose. It was written at the end of the fourteenth century, at the time when the English mysticism, as represented by the writings of Richard Rolle (†1349), Walter Hilton (†1396), Julian of Norwich (1343-1413) and Margery Kempe (c. 1373-c.1434), was flourishing. The language The Cloud uses is Middle-English, and the text originates from the central East Midlands. From its production onwards the text was kept and circulated within a limited monastic circle, in particular the Carthusians, of which order the author was most probably a member.

The Cloud consists of 75 chapters, in which the author portrays a transformation in the contemplative’s mind and heart. From a condition of scatteredness, the contemplative’s will and love become increasingly attracted towards a restful state of union with God. This main scheme of the work, however, does not progress in an organised sequence but is full of digressions and repetitions – which corresponds to the didactic nature of the work: The Cloud is written in the form of a series of letters from the master to his disciple, who has to understand and also remember all the basic tenets of their common ‘work’, i. e. contemplation.

This collection of letters of a master to his disciple form a mystical treatise that is eclectic by nature joining the Western and Eastern traditions of Christian theological thought in a unique but orthodox manner. The distinction between these two traditions is usually made by the assertion that the East prefers the apophatic, while the West the katapha­tic theology. Kataphatic theology is usually described as being concerned with God’s manifestation of Himself in and to the cosmos and therefore proceeds by way of affirmation; while apophatic theology is concerned with the secret, hidden relationship between the soul and God, and stresses with negation the absolute unknowability of God.

Many scholars have tried to show that The Cloud successfully joined the two traditions, or to be more precise, they argued that The Cloud is essentially an apophatic work with Western, kataphatic influences. For example, Rosemary-Ann Lees in her detailed thesis of the text argues quite convincingly that it was the work of Diony­sius Areopagite that influenced most profoundly the author of The Cloud. And indeed, besides using direct quotes from Dionysius’ work in The Cloud (e.g. “The most holy knowledge of God is that which is known by unknowing.” “The moste goodly knowyng of God is that, the whiche is knowyn bi vnknowyng.”[1])[2], The Cloud author also translated Dionysius’ De Mystica Theologia under the title Deonise Hid Diuinite, which is one of the first instances of the translation of this basic apophatic text in any vernacular language.

The Cloud is without any doubt basically an apophatic work, since its approach to the contemplative ascent is formulated according to Dionysian principles. It stresses the fundamentally negative way in approach to God, it insists on unknowing and rejects all that is not God as a means of attaining loving union with Him:

Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God himself, and not what you get out of him. Indeed, hate to think of any­thing but God himself, so that nothing occupies your mind or will but only God. Try to forget all created things that he ever made, and the purpose behind them, so that your thought and longing do not turn or reach out to them either in general or in particular. Let them go, and pay no attention to them.[3]

Moreover, the author formally allies himself with the Dionysian mystical tradition and uses the language which had evolved within negative theology (e.g. “darkness **)

It should be added, though, that The Cloud author most probably did not know Dionysius’ text in the original, and that he also translated his Mystical Theology from the existent Latin translations and commentaries, i.e. he took as a source text a work that had already been modified by its transla­tors, who had striven to make it acceptable for the Western dogmatic theology.

The history of latinization of Dionysian corpus had been quite a long one by the fourteenth century. The corpus first came to West in the ninth century. It was received at Compiegne in September 827 and deposited at the Abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris, where it was translated in Latin between 827 and 834 by the Abbot Hilduin on the instruction of Charles le Chauve. In the same century Scot Erigena translated the corpus again – both translations, Hil­duin’s and Erigena’s, were, however, full of transliterated Greek words, which were most probably the result of their limited knowledge of the Greek language. Next important translation was done by Sarracenus, completed around 1167. The translation was ordered by his philosophical friend John of Salisbury, a typical scholar of his day, with only a rudimentary knowledge of Greek, which was not enough to understand Hilduin’s and Erigena’s trans­lations. Therefore his translation is freer and more interpretative. But Sarracenus did not only translate the text, he also latinized it, i.e. he partly changed the thought of the original according to Western religious literature since the Dionysian corpus could be attacked as being too neo-Platonistic and therefore heretical. It seems very probable that The Cloud author used this translation[4] with the paraphrase and commentary of Dionysus’ text by Thomas Gallus (+1246), first abbot of the Victorine[5] house at Vercelli. More than just a translator, Vercellensis was primarily an exegete: his corpus, beside other works, includes an extensive commentary (the Explanatio) on the Dionysian tracts, as well as the influential paraphrase (Extractio) of the treatises, being partly a translation and partly a commentary of Dionysius’ work, which was considered by posteriority just as a translation and attained enormous and rapid popularity[6]. His popularity was especially considerable in England, where in particular English Carthusians showed a special interest in the teaching of Vercel­lensis. His teaching was introduced mainly through the teaching of Hugh of Balma (1298-1340), the thirteenth prior of the Char­terhouse of Meyriat in Bresse, the author of Viae Syon Lugent. Thus by the end of the thirteenth century, a Latin corpus of Dionysian tracts furnished with extensive and sophisticated critical apparatus had been made accessible to scholars in the West. Dionysian theology was widely received into Medieval spiri­tuality, and this was mainly due to the Extractio, the modified translation and interpretation done by Thomas Gallus. Therefore it is not surprising that it is him that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing mentions in his prologue to his translation of Dionysius’ Mystical Theology Deonise Hid Diuinite – the text which was destined, according to The Cloud author, to illuminate to its recipient the theology of The Cloud of Unknowing:

This work is an English translation of a book St Denis wrote to Timothy, called in Latin Mystica Theologia. This is the book referred to in the seventieth chapter of The Cloud of Unknowing (written before this), where it says that Denis’ writing will definitely confirm all that is written in it. So in translating it I have not only followed the strict letter of the text, but in order to explain its difficulties have made much use of the views of the Abbot of St Victor, a distinguished and worthy expositor of the same.[7]

Since Thomas Gallus was a Victorine, i.e. a representative of the Augustinian[8] tradition, The Cloud author added the Western components to the Eastern Dionysian thought – these Western additions can be seen in many different points. One is the emphasis on the importance of love in the mystical quest. According to Gallus, the unitive experience is achieved through the power of love in the apex affectus. The intellectual power, on the other hand, cannot remain operative to the final stage of union. Gallus, and with him also The Cloud author, consistently affirm the cognitive power of love, and hence the impossibility of any intellectual knowledge of God. He is nevertheless accessible to an ever increasing knowledge-in-love which is anticipated in the contemplative experience and fulfilled in the beatific vision of the men and angels.[9] Similarly, also the Carthusian Hugh of Balma[10] claimed that love was autonomous and completely dissociated from the intellect. It is only in a state of intellectual ignorance of unknowing and through love that the soul can achieve immediate experience of the unknowable being of God[11]. Hugh and Gallus also add that the mystical encounter took place in the dark cloud of unknowing, where a contemplative gains knowledge which is the knowledge-in-love.[12]

Turning now to The Cloud of Unknowing, we can see that there are many points of similarity between this work and the works by Gallus and Hugh of Balma. Following their line of thought, the author insists on the primacy of love in contemplative ascent:

Therefore I will leave on one side everything I can think, and choose for my love that thing which I cannot think! Why? Because he may well be loved, but not thought. By love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never.[13]

The Cloud author adopts Gallus’ division of the principal cognitive faculties of the soul into the knowing and loving powers[14], and, in accordance to his thought, emphasizes the primacy of love in bringing about the mystical union above mind, in the sovereign point of the spirit.

The Cloud author also follows Gallus in claiming that the contemplative ascent is stimulated by the will.[15] He urges his disciple to direct his will into the unitive way of love:

Therefore attend in humility to this unseeing movement of love in your heart. I don’t mean your physical heart, of course, but your spiritual one, that is, your will.[16]

The third similarity between the author of The Cloud and Gallus is that the soul can attain union with God only if God grants the soul His grace, and through it the capacity to apprehend Him through love. This emphasis on the necessity of divine grace is one of the basic additions to the original Dionysius’ thought[17]:

I cannot see that anyone can claim fellowship in this matter with Jesus or his righteous Mother, his angels or his saints, unless he is doing everything in his power, with the help of grace, to attend to each moment of time… [18]

These innovations to the thought of Dionysius Areopagite, many others are not mentioned here for the sake of brevity,[19] are basically due the influence of Gallus and Hugh, that is the influence of the Western interpretation and reformulation of Dionysius’ mystical theology. And this is precisely the point of this rather short presentation of the history of interpretation of the Dionysian corpus in the West, i.e. to show that The Cloud of Unknowing is not just the transposition of the teaching of Dionysius Areopagite to the West, but also the fusion of the two basic mystical traditions in the Middle Ages, the Dionysian, typical of the Christian East, and the Augustinian Western tradition.[20]

The Cloud of Unknowing, thus, is a Dionysian work, but Dionysian as it was accepted and reformulated in the West. The text united two traditions, which often seem to be fundamentally theologically separated.[21] It formed a bridge between two cultures – cultures that seemed in his time as far apart as they appear in our days[22] – he had been able to overcome a deep historical prejudice in his enthusiasm for Greek spirituality and showed that East and West can offer a lot to each other by joining the Eastern philosophico-theological heritage to Western Scholastic precision and stress on the importance of love. This aspect of the work can therefore show also to the twentieth century reader, living in the age of strong ecumenical movement, that, in spite of the great schism and even the war, where people are divided on the basis of their affiliation to respective Churches, the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches are not irreconcilably separated, and can continue to enrich each other.


[1] The Cloud of Unknowing, chap. 70, EETS 218, 125.

[2] For Dionysian influence see also J. P. H. Clark, ‘Sources and Theology in The Cloud of Unknowing,’ Downside Review 98, (1980): 85-107; D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (London: Burns & Oates, 1961), 38-39; D. M. M’Intyre, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing,’ The Expositor 4 (1907): 375.

[3] The Cloud of Unknowing, Penguin Classics, 61.
Lift up thin herte vnto God with a meek steryng of loue; & mene himself, & none of his goodes. & therto loke thee lothe to thenk on ought bot on hymself, so that nought worche in thi witte ne in thi wille bot only himself. & do that in thee is to foghete alle the creatures that euer God maad & the werkes of hem, so that thi thought ne thi desire be not directe ne streche to any of hem, neither in general ne in special. Bot lat hem be, & take no kepe to hem (The Cloud of Unknowing, EETS 218, chap. 3, 16).

[4] Robert Grossetete translated the four principal Dionysian texts between 1239 and 1243. It seems, however, that The Cloud author used Sarracenus’ version. See J. P. H. Clark, ‘Sources and Theology in The Cloud of Unknow­ing,’ Downside Review 98 (1980): 84.

[5] The Abbey of St Victor, home of the Augustinian canons regular (followers of the ‘mixed life’) in Paris, was founded by William of Champeaux, the teacher of Abelard, between 1108 and 1110. The abbey and its several dependencies were suppressed during the French Revolution, and were never restored.
For more see R. C. Petry, chap. 2, ‘The Victorines,’ in Late Medieval Mysticism, Library of Christian Classics (1957), 79; J. Walsh, introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 45-51.

[6] Lees, Negative Language, 188.

[7] Dionysius’ Mystical Teaching in The Cloud of Unknowing, Penguin Classics, 207.
This writyng that next foloweth is the inglische of a book that Seynte Denys wrote vnto Thimothe, the whiche is clepin in Latyn tongue Mystica Theologia. Of the whiche book, for-thi that it is mad minde in the 70 chapter of a book wretin before (the whiche is clepid The Cloude of Vnknowyng) how that Denis sentence wol cleerli afferme al that is wretyn in that same book: therfore, in tranlacioun of it, I haue not onliche folowed the nakid lettre of the text, but for to declare the hardness of it, I haue moche folowed the sentence of the Abbot of Seinte Victore, a noble & worthi expositour of this same book (Deonise Hid Diuinite, Early English Text Society 231, 1955, chapter 2).

[8] St Augustine formed a mystical theology that was, in contrast to the Eastern objectivity, much more subjective. He mainly fo­cused on the theological themes such as grace, the Church and the sacraments, and stamped subsequent Western theology with a dis­tinctive character. Especially his teaching on grace profoundly influenced the posteriority. He insisted, fighting against Arian heresy, on the power of God’s grace and stressed the inability of man to approach God by help of his own powers only. However, on the basis of his thought, St Thomas Aquinas will later on develop a doctrine of two graces – operative and cooperative, which will also be accepted by the author of The Cloud.
Influenced by Plotinus, Augustine’s mysticism is characterised by the soul’s longing for God, longing to return to the One, who made it. Since the soul is created in the image and likeness of God, the first step in the search of God is to seek to discover one’s self. The second is the return of the true image of man, consisting of memory, understanding and will, to God. This return does not happen in a moment of ecstasy, but in a long process of renewal which will never end in this life, the return character­ised by the soul’s contemplation of the Trinity that is present in the soul through the Holy Spirit.
Another typical feature of Augustine thought that is not in agreement with Dionysius concerns God first name; according to Dionysius God is Goodness, while for the Augustinian West God’s primary Name is His Being – He who is, Quid Est. In this point The Cloud author follows Augustine and not Dionysius.
For more see Louth, Origins, 132-158; J. P. H. Clark, ‘Sources and Theology in The Cloud of Unknowing,’ Downside Review 98 (1980): 87-88; D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition, (London: Burns & Oates, 1961), 34-38; J. Walsh, introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 29-33; M. Glasscoe, English Medieval Mystics: Games of Faith (London, New York: Longman, 1993), 13; J. Gatta, A Pastoral Art: Spiritual Guidance in the English Mystics (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987), 91.

[9] See Lees, Negative Language, 275-288.

[10] Dom David Knowles, on the other hand argued that the influence of Gallus came to The Cloud author through Thomas Aquinas, while Alastair J. Minnis claims that Gallus influenced him directly.
See A. J. Minnis, ‘The Sources of The Cloud of Unknowing: A Reconsideration,’ in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England, ed. M. Glasscoe (Exeter: Exeter University, 1982), 64-72.

[11]3. For more, see Lees, Negative Language, 288-308; J. Walsh, introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 19-23.

[12] There are also some other similarities between these two authors: they both agree that the mystical union involves a kind of enlightenment in the intelligentia (as the pure intelligence), etc. However, Hugh contradicts Gallus’ assignment of a necessary role to the intellect in the mystical ascent – for him, it is only love that is important.

[13] The Cloud of Unknowing, Penguin Classics, 68.
& therfore I wole leue al that thing that I can think, & chese to my loue that thing that I can-not think. For whi he may wel be loued, bot not thought. By loue may he be getyn & holden; bot bi thought neither. (The Cloud of Unknowing, EETS 218, chap. 6, 26.)

[14] The Cloud of Unknowing, Penguin Classics, 63.
Bot sith alle resonable creatures, aungel & man, hath in hem, ilchone by hemself, o principal worching might, the whiche is clepid a knowable might, the whiche is clepid a louyng might: of the whiche two mightes, to the first, the whiche is a knowyng might, God, that is the maker of them, is euermore incomprehens­ible; & to the secound, the whiche is the louyng might, in ilch one diuersly heis al comprehensible at the fulle, in so mochel that o louyng soule oly in itself, by vertewe of loue, schuld comprehende in it hym that is sufficient at the fulle – & mochel more, withoute comparison – to fille alle the soules & aungelles that euer may be. & this is the eendles merueillous miracle of loue, the whiche schal neuer take eende; for euer schal he do it, & neuer schal he seese for to do it (The Cloud of Unknowing, EETS 218, chap. 4, 18-19).

[15] In fact he accepts the Augustinian triad of faculties: memor­ia, intelligentia, voluntas – minde, reson & wille. See The Cloud of Unknowing, chap. 62, EETS 218, 115.

[16] The Cloud of Unknowing, Penguin Classics, 121.
& therfore lene meekly to this blinde steryng of loue in thin herte. I mene not thi bodily herte, bot in thi goostly herte, the whiche is thi wil (The Cloud of Unknowing, EETS 218, chap. 51, 94).

[17] Similarly the author of The Cloud in his translation of Diony­sius De Mystica Theologia inserts a phrase “in this grace”, thus altering the original Dionysius’ thought: “loke that thou rise with me in this grace, in a maner that is thou woste neuer how, to be onid with hym that is abouen alle substaunces and al maner knowyng…” (Deonise Hid Diuinite, EETS 231; quoted in R.-A. Lees, 343.)

[18] The Cloud of Unknowing, Penguin Classics, 65.
I cannot see who may trewliche calenge comunite thus with Ihesu & his iust Moder, his highe aungelles & also with his seyntes, bot yif it be soche one that doth that in hym is, with helping of grace, in kepyng of tyme… (The Cloud of Unknowing, EETS 218, chap. 4, 21-22).

[19] Thomas Gallus was not the only Victorine who influ­enced the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Besides him, there are also two other authors worth mentioning – Hugh (+1141) and Richard (+1173) of St. Victor. The Cloud author rarely indulges in the minute analysis of contemplative psychology typical of Victorine theology as a whole, though, as chapters 62 to 66 of The Cloud illustrate, he did use in his theology the formal definitions assembled by the Victorines[19]. Moreover, he used some elements of Dionysian termi­nology as interpreted by the Victorines. For example, the central image of the cloud and the distinction between the cloud of unknowing and the cloud of forgetting, which we can find in The Cloud of Unknowing belongs to Richard’s interpretation of the Dionysian concept.
However, there remains the basic distinction between The Cloud author’s emphasis on the negative way and the unknowing and the Victorine stress on light and knowledge which predominates the Augustine mysticism of Hugh and Richard of St Victor. Moreover, The Cloud author’s concept of union in the highest point of the spirit differs from that expounded in Richard of St Victor.[19] Richard followed the mystical theology as developed by St. Augus­tine in claiming that God may be known, and must be sought by prayer, humility and love on earth, and therefore used sensible images as analogies for spiritual things, which Dionysius and with him also the author of The Cloud found dangerous. Richard does not ascent to God by the way of negation. His ‘darkness’ occurs at the end of a progressive affirmative system of experi­mental and acquired spiritual knowledge.
Other differences are the markedly Christocentric Victorine and The Cloud’s more theocentric orientation; The Cloud’s focus on the importance of love only, and Victorine stress on intel­lectual apprehension which is extended and perfected in the beatific vision; the role of imagination in contemplation; the efficacy of meditation, etc.
(For more see Lees, Negative Language, 495.)
A more detailed study of parallels between the thought of The Cloud and those by Hugh of Balma and Thomas Gallus is to be found in much quoted R.-A. Lees’ work The Negative Language of the Dionysian School of Mystical Language: An Approach to The Cloud of Unknowing, Analecta Cartusiana 107 (Salzburg: Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universitat Salzburg, 1983), 308-378.
Ms Lees analyses in detail the borrowings of terms and stylistic devices of The Cloud author from Hugh, then the notions of wisdom in mystical theology, ejaculatory prayer, the evaluation of meditation in contemplation, the distinction between the intel­lectual and affective cognition – which were also most probably taken from Hugh of Balma’s work.

[20] For example The Cloud author’s division of the religious life enumerated in chap. 8 of The Cloud of Unknowing derives from the conflated traditions of Augustinian and Dionysian theologies, though the concept of the highest stage and the terminology which describes it are wholly Dionysian. That is why the work is con­sidered basically an apophatic text with Western influences.

[21] This difference between the two is usually found in the con­trast between Eastern synergism – the idea that at every point the soul works together with God – and a radical Augustinian doctrine of grace – the doctrine according to which the soul only responds to God’s grace and basically remains passive.
This difference, however, may be considered only as a difference of style and emphasis. Since if God is, according to Augustine, interior intimo meo, a contemplative may in making him/herself passive, find eventually true freedom and thus become a fellow-worker (synergos) with God. (See A. Louth, The Origins, 188-190.)

[22] The division between the Eastern and Western Empire led to ever increasing estrangement within the Church (iconoclast contro­versy, filioque clause, problem of the two emperors, question of primacy) and finally to the Eastern Schism in 1054. The Crusades, especially the senseless fourth Crusade and the establishment of the Latin Empire in Constantinople (1204-61), widened the gulf still more with the result that no union ever materialised again (For more see Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi, ed. K. Rahner, 1975 ed., s. v. “Church History”).