It is an anonymous 14th century English mystical treatise. There has been much inconclusive discussion about the identity of the author. Probably the author was a priest, dedicated to the contemplative life and was perhaps a spiritual director. He was a competent theologian with a great knowledge of patristic and monastic literature. It is simply a treatise of practical, spiritual instruction. It is primarily addressed to an enthusiastic young disciple, who seems to struggle with natural fickleness and laziness in his spiritual life. The author suggests that the sense helplessness in the face of our divine aspirations is natural, and it is quite to be expected. We really have to do only one thing, and that is to leave things in the hands of God, to turn ourselves over to him. “But if you strive to fix your love on him, forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation I have urged you to begin, I am confident that God in His goodness will bring you to a deep experience of Himself.”
The author sees some Christians called primarily to a life of active service, but these must at times lay aside their activity and give time to meditation and communion with God. Others are called primarily to a Christian life centred on prayer and contemplation, but these too must lay aside their primary concern at times to attend to human and social affairs. Thus he speaks of two degrees in each life: a higher and a lower, and keeping a balance between the two is important. Further he says that one must be a person of faith, sufficient faith to believe in the divine presence hidden beyond the cloud of unknowing. One must have turned from his sin toward God in love, a love strong enough to make one seek God in the darkness of his incomprehensibility leaving behind other attractions and desires. The past does not matter. What is important is true repentance. “Some who have been hardened habitual sinners arrive at the perfection of this work sooner than those who have never sinned grievously…It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with His all merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.” He quotes Augustine and says: “The entire life of a good Christian is nothing less than holy desire.” And this way of contemplation is for all Christians, both religious and lay alike. Far from excluding anyone from seeking to develop the contemplative dimensions of life, the author seems to imply that its development is essential for the fulfilment of human life. It is God, and He alone, who can fully satisfy the hunger and longing of our spirit. Only a God-directed and God-filled life lives from the depth of oneself and becomes therefore fully human. For the fulfilment of the human spirit one must have a spiritual life. For the fulfilment of the Christian spirit one must have a full Christian life.
He then points to the objections raised against contemplation, that it is emptiness, experience of nothingness, idleness, quietism etc. These are all objections coming from our superficial self, unaware of the preeminent fruitfulness of contemplation. He calls it the activity that is most pleasing to God, most beneficial to our growth, and most helpful to our friends, living and dead. And the most visible fruit of contemplation is love, which reaches out to all, friend or enemy, stranger or kin. Such persons show genuine goodness, good use of time, and have regard for communal prayer. Thus it enhances the human community. In such persons, there is a bonding, transcending time and place. Finally he offers a way of prayer that helps enhance the contemplative way of life. It is basically the centering prayer, centring all attention and desire on God, by gathering them into one simple word that the mind can easily retain and fixing the word in the mind so that it will remain there, come what may. His advice is clear. The darkness of the cloud of unknowing comes between the contemplator and God but it can be pierced through the light of contemplation. God will in His goodness bring the contemplator to a deep experience of Him, in His time.
(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)