Cloud of Unknowing: Techniques to get rid of distractions

Extracts from chapters 26 and 32 of the classic mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing. Here our anonymous author explains the work of contemplation and gives some tips on how to focus (and these tips work really well, in my limited experience):

from Chapter 26: God will pierce the cloud of unknowing

“Set to work, therefore, with all possible speed: beat against this high cloud of unknowing – you can rest later! It is extremely hard work for the beginner, make no mistake about that, unless God makes it easier with a special grace or simply because after a while one gets used to it. …

Let me see how you are bearing up. Can’t you see that God is waiting for you? For shame! After just a short, hard period of effort you will find the immense difficulty of the work beginning to ease. It is true that it is hard and repressive at the start, when your devotion is weak, but later when you are more devout what once seemed extremely arduous has become much easier and you can begin to relax. You may only have to make a little effort – or even no effort at all, because sometimes God does everything himself. But this doesn’t always happen and never for very long but whenever he chooses and as he chooses. But you will be more than happy then, so let him do what he likes.

At such a time, God may perhaps send out a beam of spiritual light which pierces this cloud of unknowing between you and him and show you some of his secrets, of which mere men cannot speak. Then you will feel your affection kindled with the fire of his love in a way that I cannot describe to you. I cannot describe it to you at this time. For I dare not describe a work that belongs only to God with my blabbering, earth-bound tongue. Briefly, even if I dared, I would not. But I will gladly tell you about the work that a man must undertake, who is inspired and helped by grace. That is far less dangerous!”

Chapter 32: Techniques to get of distractions

“I can, nevertheless, teach you something about these techniques, I think. By all means try them out and see if you can do better. Do everything in your power to behave as though you were unaware of these distractions, which keep thronging so urgently about you, getting between you and your God. Try to look over their shoulders, as it were, as though you were looking for something else: that ‘Something’ of course is God who is enclosed in the cloud of unknowing. If you do this, I think you will find that your toil quickly becomes easier. If this technique is properly understood, I believe that it is simply a yearning and a desire for God, a longing to experience and to see him as clearly as we can in this life. And this desire is charity, which will always make your task lighter.

Here is another technique for you to try if you wish. When you feel that there is no way that you can suppress these distractions, cower beneath them as though you were a prisoner or a coward defeated in battle. Tell yourself that it is pure stupidity to contend with them any longer: thus you will give yourself up to God, while you are in the hands of your enemies and feel that you have been permanently destroyed. Please give this method your full consideration, because if you try to put it into practice you are bound to fade away completely, and indeed it seems clear to me that if this technique is properly understood it is simply an accurate understanding and experience of yourself as you really are: a filthy wretch who is worse than nothing. This experience and perception is humility, which will always succeed in forcing God himself to come down, as it were, to take revenge on your enemies, to raise you up and to wipe the tears lovingly from the eyes of your soul, just as a father does when his child is about to die in the jaws of wild boars or mad, biting bears.”

Extracted from Karen Armstrong’s translation in The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century.

Next time: Death of the Ego

More from The Cloud of Unknowing



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