On Monday morning, before the retreat began, I hiked part way up Beech Mountain on the west side of Mount Desert Island. The smooth valley trail and neat stone steps turned to ice, snow and cold as I turned up the South Summit trail. When I turned back in order to make it to the retreat on time, I paused to look down over Long Pond below and Mansell Mountain masked in cloud and fog. Here, even before the retreat begins, I’d already seen the “Cloud of Unknowing” and ascended into its wet cold embrace.
Evelyn Underhill called this Medieval book of spiritual direction by an anonymous author, a “loving discernment of reality.” You might read the book. You might meditate on a cushion. You might ascend a trail into damp fog but any way you do it, you can’t help discerning reality. However you do it, the key seems to make of that discerning a loving one, to look within and without with a gaze of curiosity, compassion, and love.
The news on Monday is hard to receive with loving attention. The headlines all about the new variant of the coronavirus, ominously called omicron. As the email threads tell it, “We don’t know what this mutation means to our lives. Is it more deadly? Is it more contagious? More severe? Is it resistant to vaccines? Is it in the US?….”
There are realities we delight in facing and there are those we avoid. It doesn’t take a headline for us to know that we are tired of new restrictions, weary of anxiety over yet another variant, angry and impatient for things to return to how they used to be which feels a long way from how things are now.
Headlines further down the thread have more hard news, “This Friday the government is set to run out of money”… “A changing climate is buckling concrete and flooding roads. States are moving slowly to guard the nation’s infrastructure.”
Anxiety, fear, a lot of unknowing.
There is so much more we don’t know about the author of The Cloud of Unknowing than what we do. We learn on Monday that the little book was written in the late 14th century in the Midlands in England in a time of endless war, pandemic, social and political change and a divided religious world.
The context and names have changed but it all feels terribly familiar. From The 100 Years War to The War on Terror. From The Black Plague to COVID-19. From social change brought about by The Peasant’s Revolt to #MeToo and #BLM. A divided papacy then and a divided country now.
We know almost nothing about the author but their success at remaining anonymous for all these centuries fits well for someone who taught self-forgetfulness and putting aside in the “Cloud of Forgetting” all our memories, thoughts and considerations.
After the first few days of the retreat, I take away that it is not that “unknowing” separates us from God; instead, the “unknowing” is the way to God. But to find our way to this place of unknowing we must put down in the Cloud of Forgetting all our preconceived notions and well formulated ideas, quiet our endless internal spin of noise. To place ourselves in the highly uncomfortable place of not-knowing and make room for wonder and what is beyond ours to do and only God’s to reveal.
It’s the kind of stripping away that it feels to me would serve us all well today. In times like ours that remind us that our previous ways of working and being aren’t working anymore for ourselves, our communities, for creation, we’d do well to follow the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and place ourselves in a place of listening, waiting, wondering and making room for God. Such non-rational ways of being are called mystical and the turmoil of the 14th century led to a flowering of the mystical – and ways of knowing beyond all our thinking, figuring, words and reason, a way known in bodies, in intuition, in awe.
On Monday I climbed the mountain with care as far as I could ascending and descending into fog.
Today, I climbed the mountain again on a sky-blue, clear crisp day.
This afternoon, with everything so apparently clear, I got off the trail three, four times on the way down. I thought I could see but actually I couldn’t. Instead of walking with the kind of care and attention I needed to on Monday when I was out on an unfamiliar trail and couldn’t see far ahead, today I bounded off looking not for the blue trail markers but for where I remembered the trail went and what I assumed looked like the way. When I strapped on my microspikes at the top, it only made matters worse. I got down the icy rocks fine but it also made me all the more overconfident as I strode off the trail and had to find my way back to it again and again. My memory, confidence, the supposed clarity of sight, the sense of “knowing” which way to go actually didn’t help me get down the mountain.
In Monday’s fog and cloud on an unknown trail, I had to slow and listen, pay attention more carefully, found a better way through the cloud beyond all my knowing.