When we wrote The Manual, the way of life of the Sodality, the community of priests I belong to, we included this important paragraph:
Sodalists will be at the forefront of those seeking to understand what it means to ordain men and women to all orders of ministry; we will particularly celebrate women saints and integrate the writings of women and men into our experience and understanding of priesthood.
Slightly tongue-in-cheek, in the early days of the Sodality I described us as ‘Extreme Anglo-Catholics in favour of the ordination of women.’ Tongue-in-cheek as it was ( and far too limiting of the breadth of the vision God was calling us to) there was some truth in it. I quite liked it when the bishop of Croydon described us as the Trappists of the catholic stream of Anglicanism “of the Strict Observance.”
Rigour and high demands are important, and were what led to the flourishing of Anglo-Catholicism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They enabled the ministry to the poor and the work for social justice that was the essential outworking of that spirituality. Without outward facing work for justice, spirituality simply strokes the ego and enhances rather than crucifies the ego. Rigour and high demands are not rules to be kept or hoops to be jumped through. Better to think of them as a balloon flying freely into the sky, or a kite carried by the wind.
The Great Tradition (see footnote below) is ‘ever ancient, ever new’ (St Augustine). Drawing deeply from the tradition is vital, and it must bear fruit in the new. My great mantra for the Christian life is : Jesus centred – Spirit filled – bible based.
There is great flowering of creativity in the Sodality: blogs, litanies, such as the one above written by Mother Ayla, Mother Berni, Father Angela, Mother Sally and Father Steven.
The Litany is a great example of ‘ever ancient, ever new’. It is deeply rooted in the tradition and also creative and responsive to the needs of our time. I am deeply grateful for this gift.
Another example of this is the book Prayers for An Inclusive Church. by Fr Steven Shakespeare an aspirant to our Sodality. The title doesn’t quite reflect the content. It is a deeply traditional collection of Collects for the three year cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. Traditional in that each Collect is constructed with the ‘noble simplicity’ of the western Collect form, at which Cranmer was so gifted. Creative and new in the images used, which are truly Jesus-centred and Spirit filled, drawing on the Scriptures in the lectionary it is bible-based.
There is much in the tradition to help us pray this current pandemic. Christians have lived with plague in many circumstances and many times. I often find myself at the moment re-reading Julian of Norwich who experienced plague more destructive than our current afflictions and who saw in the cross a life-giving tree. Ever ancient, ever new.
“Three men, whom CSWG now accounts its joint-founders, not only shared a common experience of ministry among the disadvantaged and marginalised, they also shared the conviction that is was the specifically spiritual dimension in Christian life that was most in need of renewal. A saying attributed to Fr [William] Sirr has been seen as encapsulating their common belief:
“The mission of the church is weak because its prayer is weak.” Only though the renewal of the Church’s mystical and ascetic traditions – that is its vision of God and its tradition of conversion of life – could the life and witness of the the Church be renewed.”
“He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered thus, ‘It is all that is made.’”
Julian of Norwich
Julian scholars seem to cluster into two groups, those who believe her to have been an unlettered peasant with no theological training, and those who perceive in her a rich stream of theological thought whether accessed directly from books, or learnt from others, perhaps taught by Augustinians or Benedictines.
My reading of Julian is of someone with deeply sophisticated theological thought. Her writing on the atonement and on the Trinity show such depth and so carefully avoid heresy that it is impossible to believe that she had not received considerable theological education in some way.
I am particularly interested in the influence of Augustine of Hippo on her. A comparison of her work and that of Augustine (see, for example Soskice) reveals influence and difference. For me, a particular interest not examined by any of the scholarship I have found so far (please feel free to send me any!) is the connection between the hazel not metaphor and Augustine’s conception of time. The post below is an old one of mine examining the Cloud of Unknowing as the source of a technique of prayer, based on this Augustinian concept of time. The Cloud is often mi-read as if it suggests that any prayer phrase is fine. In fact, the Cloud author is determined that the prayer word must be one syllable.
It is almost certain that Julian knew the Cloud. Her reference to the hazel nut, or rather the hazel nut sized ball is tantalisingly brief but matches perfectly the single-pointedness that the author of the Cloud is aiming for.
I continue to teach this single syllable prayer to individuals. ‘Teach’ is probably too strong a word. There is nothing to teach really, just a suggestion of this form of prayer and some people take that up and some don’t. Those who do continue to report its helpfulness. It is the technique I use most often when driving. Starting with a hymn to the Holy Spirit, a Taizé Veni, Sancte Spiritus …, a period of the Jesus Prayer and then the single syllable ‘God’. Interestingly driving is the closest I come to the physical labour that was always a part of the contemplative life. My body and part of my mind is occupied, concentrated even, leaving me free to pray. The desert monks wove baskets. Modern contemplative communities make cheese, bread or beer. Many of the women solitaries I know practise some form of simple craftwork in a similar way.
This famous quote from Julian provides further suggestions for the single syllable:
“The Trinity is our maker,” writes Julian,
“the Trinity is our keeper,
the Trinity is our everlasting lover,
the Trinity is our endless joy and our bliss”
This post is a combination of three previous posts on The Cloud of Unknowing and some additional sections (marked as Updates) on my experience of practising and teaching the technique of prayer proposed by The Cloud.
A common reaction to my posts and talks on The Cloud’s method of prayer, is that ‘I do that already’, or ‘It’s just what I do’ and the speaker goes on to say that they use a prayer phrase or the Jesus Prayer. Those form of phrase prayers are powerful means for praying, however, the author of The Cloud is proposing something DIFFERENT. My personal experience and my experience in teaching this ‘one-syllable’ method is that it leads to a DIFFERENT kind of experience. I am not saying better or worse.
I will continue to teach the Jesus Prayer and use of a phrase of Scripture as part of lectio and other ways of prayer, but I would like to see where this one-syllable prayer leads. It may not (certainly won’t!) work for everyone. But it is not the same as other methods of prayer and I think we should take The Cloudseriously.
The one-syllable is the essential matter of this prayer.
“The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity …”
You will be able to picture, no doubt, the orange robes of the Krishna consciousness devotees who have been a feature of life on London’s Oxford Street and in other cities since the 1960s:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rame
Rama Rama Hare Hare
The George Harrison version of the mantra captures the zeitgeist of the time perfectly.
At the same time, Christians began to look at our own spiritual traditions to discover mantras and other methods of prayer. Some people saw the Orthodox Jesus Prayer as a sort of mantra. Others developed Centering Prayer, and other techniques, suggesting adopting a sacred word or phrase.
John Main founded the World Community for Christian Meditation and proposed using the Aramaic word from the end of the book of Revelation, Maranatha, Come Lord!
John Main like many others picked on what had been a somewhat neglected English book of the fourteenth century which seemed to suggest something similar: The Cloud of Unknowing.
We don’t know who wrote The Cloud but most scholars agree it was probably a Carthusian hermit-monk, who was also a priest, and most likely – because of the English he used – lived in the East Midlands, a form of English very similar to Chaucer. Those of us who studied Chaucer at school will well remember:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
The Cloud author, however, does not suggest a multi word mantra or poly-syllabic word like Maranatha. He repeatedly insists on praying with one single, mono-syllabic word. He suggests ‘God’ or ‘Love’ and using that repeatedly to batter the cloud that separates us from God. He suggests that the word be a ‘dart of longing love’, an arrow piercing the cloud. Later he says that it doesn’t really matter what word we choose – ‘sin’ or ‘out’ would do. The most important thing is that the word must be only one syllable.
That is interesting. I think some of those who have referred to The Cloud to support use of a Christian mantra have missed the author’s point about this. The word itself does not matter; that it must be of only one syllable is not optional.
The text of The Cloud also reinforces this, using simple monosyllabic words whenever possible and avoiding complex latinisms and polysyllabic words. I recommend the version by Fr John-Julian recently published by Paraclete Press. But the original Middle English is not difficult and worth persevering with.
Here is the author of The Cloud explaining his technique for the first time:
When you apply yourself to this work, and feel by grace that you are called by God, lift up your heart to God with a humble stirring of love. And mean God who created you, and redeemed you, and who has graciously called you to this work: and admit no other thought of God. And yet not all of these, but only as it pleases you; for a bare intent directed to God is sufficient, without any other object besides himself. And if it pleases you to have this intent wrapped up and folded in a word, so that you might have a better hold on it, take just a little word of one syllable; for such a word is better than one of two syllables, for the shorter it is, the more fitting it is to the work of the spirit. And such a word is this word GOD or this word LOVE. Choose whichever of these two you wish, or another as it pleases you: whichever word you like best that is of one syllable. And fasten this word to your heart, so that it is never separated from it, no matter what happens.
Jordan Kirk is clear that readers have not read The Cloud carefully enough:
“Although readers of the Cloud have regularly (and, to my mind, inexplicably) referred to the “litil worde” as “preferably” or “ideally” monosyllabic, in fact the Cloud-author admits no compromise on this point.
He has only one stipulation: you can choose whatever word you like, as long as it be monosyllabic. To use a multisyllabic word is not to perform the work of unknowing in a less than ideal manner; it is not to perform it at all.”
In another helpful passage Jordan writes:
“The purpose of the Cloud’s technique is to do away with all the thoughts in your mind in order that the intellect may encounter the very absence of thought, the so-called cloud of unknowing. This encounter will be accomplished by means of the “litil worde,” which, according to an improbable figure, you use simultaneously to bludgeon your thoughts and to pound against the cloud. The double operation of unknowing consists in this blow — to which the Cloud-author gives the name “loue put” (love-thrust) — which takes place when you turn the word into an accouterment of battle, at once a sword you bash against the cloud of unknowing and a shield to keep your thoughts at bay. In being wielded in this manner, the word produces “þis lityl blynde loue put, when it is betyng upon þis derke cloude of unknowing, alle oþer þinges put doun and forзeten” (this little blind love-thrust, when it is beating upon this dark cloud of unknowing, all other things having been put down and forgotten; 58).
If the word of one syllable lends itself to this operation, it is because it can be kept whole. The Cloud-author explains that your importunate thoughts will constantly attempt to get you to explain the word, analyze it, that is, break it up into its parts, but this is what you must not do.
зif any þouзt prees apon þee to aske þee what þou woldest haue, answere him wiþ no mo wordes bot wiþ þis o worde. And зif he profre þee of his grete clergie to expoune þee þat worde and to telle þee þe condicions of þat worde, sey him þat þou wilt haue it al hole, and not broken ne undon. (28–9)
If any thought presses upon you to ask you what you are seeking, answer him with no more words than this one word. And if he offers to explicate that word for you, using his impressive learning, and to tell you about its various aspects, tell him that you want to have it entirely whole, and not broken or undone.”
I have been using the Jesus Prayer for over 35 years, since my mid-teens. It is as much a part of me as breathing. But just before Christmas in 2017 I thought I would take the author of The Cloud at his word (so to speak) and use just one word. I didn’t feel quite ready to adopt ‘sin’. ‘Love’ seemed a bit too emotion-laden. I went for ‘God’.
Since then I have been using the word ‘God’, aloud whenever I can (driving, walking, in the bath etc) and silently dropping it into my consciousness at the end of each in and out breath when I can’t. The rhythm, the pace is slow. When I first started I happened to be somewhere where a neighbouring farmer was installing some fence posts. Hammering them deep into the ground with a sledge hammer. The pace is similar to that and it’s an image that has stuck with me, driving the word deep into my heart, the slow swing of the breath, the drawing back of the hammer and the next blow, repeating the cycle over and over again.
I‘ve been amazed at the effect it has had on me and the significance it feels to have had in my prayer life. I still use the Jesus Prayer formally for two or three periods of 15 minutes a day but the remainder of the time it is the word ‘God’ that I use.
The inner experience of this is hard to describe and I am conscious that talking about one’s own prayer life isn’t quite the done thing.
The author of The Cloud writes about ‘naked intent’ repeatedly. How can we have only one intention, closeness to God, piercing the cloud of unknowing and not the multiple, mixed motives that characterise us most of the time?
I don’t want to make any great claims, but using this one word I have experienced something closer to ‘naked intent’ than I have ever experienced before. There are three reasons I think, for this:
1 Firstly, and strangely, because it is deeply unsatisfying. The Jesus Prayer is complete in itself, it names our Saviour and makes a request of him. Job done. The single word leaves me wanting more. The constant repetition renders the word almost meaningless. Yet that emptiness, that nothingness, nonsense-ness also makes it transparent, so that when I come to pray the Office or Mass the liturgy seems to complete the word, and the word seems to continue in and through the liturgy in a way not possible with a more complex phrase. The word can repeat itself throughout the worship in a way that the Jesus Prayer can’t.
2 Secondly, one of the best ways I can think of describing the experience is physical nakedness. Unless we are naturists we so rarely find ourselves naked in another’s presence other than with a marital partner. Even the doctor normally sees only a part of us. The nakedness of the single word of prayer locking each utterance to the present moment is like the nakedness of the first sexual encounter, not the consummation, but preceding it, the exposure. The moment of utter vulnerability, of utter surprise and unknowing, mixed with delight and anticipation. We often think of sexual passion as a metaphor for our relationship with God, we all know that the Song of Songs and other biblical texts point us to that. But I wonder if, in our sex-obsessed culture we make enough of chastity? Desire examined for its own sake, enjoyed and appreciated without the need for consummation. And not just sexual desire. How about allowing ourselves the time to linger in that liminal moment of hunger without eating, or not getting or knowing what the next job will be, of not being in control.
3 Thirdly, another image for how this works is the reason, I think, the author is so insistent on the word being just one syllable. If our prayer is to enable us to experience the eternity of God’s existence/presence, if the opposite of that eternal ‘moment’ is time passing, perhaps one way of experiencing eternity is to be totally present in just one moment, the smallest possible unit of time, the present moment, so our prayer word needs to be the shortest possible duration, one syllable, one moment. If we can focus all our attentiveness, all our own presence in that spilt moment we will experience, we are experiencing eternity. Time splits and opens us to eternity.
This last idea relates particularly to an Augustinian understanding of time and eternity. Two articles have pointed me in this direction and encouraged me to use this technique in praying:
This essay by Jordan D Kirk, has resonated deeply with the effect my reading of The Cloud has had on my own prayer life in recent weeks. Jordan is working on a book length study of mysticism and has re-worked his paper into a chapter which is very good indeed and fills out the paper somewhat. I am grateful for an advance read of the chapter and look forward to the book being published.
Another essay, by Eleanor Johnson, is also important in understanding the prayer method proposed by the author of The Cloud:
The quote from Kierkegaard at the start of this post seems to suggest something similar to Johnson’s ideas on the monosyllabic word as the shortest possible unit of time and therefore as closest to eternity. There is an interesting article on time here, also see here. I am working on this concept and on Augustine’s view of this and hope to write more in the future.
It is early days yet. But this practice does seem to create a softening or expanding of the heart. I have found myself experiencing the gift of tears in prayer and accessing an outpouring of poetry in my writing. I don’t know how these relate to each other. It is not about emotion or angst, quite the opposite, almost the simplest experience I have known. I would be interested in the experience of others. Monastic authors talk of purity of heart / single heartedness – the single syllable can be a way of getting close to that. It is a technique that seems to make living in the present moment possible.
Over this last few months I have used opportunities to introduce this prayer to individuals and groups. I don’t think I have found exactly the right way of teaching the method yet but several individuals have reported extensively on the profound effect this prayer has had on them, here are two extracts quoted with permission:
“When X left me and I was on my own I didn’t think I’d ever be able to pray again. All those words seemed too much, choking and just made me angry. Just using one word has been sort of liberating. I couldn’t use ‘Love’, that word has been ruined for me. But ‘God’ works. I don’t know what it is, but that’s OK.”
“I only came to the Mindfulness course because someone said it would help me deal with stress. The breathing works really well, and it does help. But it’s the use of one word over and over that has, well, sort of changed my life. I use the word ‘Love’, it kind of means all the best moments of my life. When I do this I feel part of something much bigger than me, like I belong, that I’m not one my own. Almost like there’s ‘someone’ there. You’ll be pleased to hear this: I’ve started going to church. Well, the cathedral actually. I just sit at the back on Sunday afternoon while the choir are singing. It’s the best place I know to do this. You haven’t made me a Christian yet, but I certainly want more of this.”
The ‘cloud of unknowing’ is not a cloud that will part in this life, if it did we would be destroyed by the reality of God. The cloud protects us. When RS Thomas writes of the presence of God as the presence that has just left the room, he is describing how we can only cope with seeing God out of the corner of an eye. Like Moses who could only see the backside of God on the mountain and whose face still had to be covered afterwards it shone so brightly.
Thomas in his famous poem The Absence writes:
It is a room I enter
from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism
of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews
at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?
Two other poems can help us here, I think. One The Panther by the poet Rilke, and the other The White Tiger by R S Thomas.
They are about the cloud of unknowing. For Rilke the bars of the panther’s cage only occasionally allow him to see through the bars:
“an image, [that] enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.”
For Thomas, the Tiger:
as God must be beautiful …
It was the colour of moonlight
and as quiet
as moonlight, but breathing
as you can imagine that
God breathes within the confines
of our definition of him, agonising
over immensities that will not return.”
The colour of moonlight on snow. No colour at all. But totally present, totally real.
What is clear from the communications I am receiving from people who trybthis is that there are many people who have found praying with a one syllable word helpful. Some have mentioned contact with Indian Christians through the teaching of Bede Griffiths, Shantinavam and Abhishiktananda (who I will quote from extensively later), most have come to this by their own intuition. A few mention the gift of tongues leading into this, one sound from that forming their word.
Three questions stand out:
– How does this experience relate to praying in tongues?
– How does it relate to Jesus?
– Are there any other places where praying with a monosyllabic word are suggested?
In Relation to Praying in Tongues
In the article cited below, Eleanor Johnson writes about the place of ‘nonsense’ in the technique suggested by the author of The Cloud. This fits with his suggestions that any word of one syllable will do and that the meaning is irrelevant. We all know that when you think about any word too much it becomes nonsense. As children acquire language and particularly young teenagers they find this nonsense quality of words particularly amusing. It seems to be a phase they often go through.
I have my doubts about the usefulness of the nonsense image. Just as children are now taught artificial phonics through made up, but phonetically correct, words, but the author doesn’t suggest that. In fact he chooses two powerful words God and Love to start with. I suspect that most of us need the positive connotations of words like that to sustain us in this sort of prayer. I have only been practising like this for a few months so can’t claim any great expertise but I certainly don’t feel drawn to ‘sin’ one of the author’s other suggestions. I wonder whether for a new-comer the author would always have suggested positive words? Or even how serious he was about the use of the word sin …
Among the words that some of you who have been in touch use are:
This is a good list. I suspect that most of us need a word with a positive vibe. We come to prayer in various states, sometimes tired and weary, sometimes in an even darker place than that, even after appropriate introductory prayers a positive mental state is needed.
Praying in tongues has been a part of my experience since I experienced baptism in the Spirit as a fourteen year old. However, it is not a form of prayer that is, for me, sustained for a long period of time. Using the word ‘God’ in the Cloud’s way of prayer does often lead into or from a time of praying in tongues but the mono-syllable is one way to maintain this prayer in my daily life.
In terms of the inner feeling or sensation I think there is much in common between the way of The Cloud and the gift of tongues; it is a suspension of the rational mind, a stepping out of mind-consciousness into another place and there is a liminal quality to it.
A common experience when I meet and talk to Pentecostal and charismatic Christians is conversation about how the practices of the spiritual life often associated with the Catholic stream of Christianity can enable them to sustain prayer on a daily basis. One danger of charismatic spirituality is the need for a ‘high’ every now and again to top up the spiritual feeling. Allowing these intense experiences to lead into contemplative ones can build resilience and sustainability.
The place of Jesus in the Way of the Cloud and another source for the one-syllable prayer
The Jesus Prayer is clearly a Jesus-centred prayer. The way of the monosyllable is less obviously so. I always begin prayer with an invocation of the Trinity and prayer to the Holy Spirit – normally the Orthodox prayer “Heavenly King …” and then a time of singing “Veni Sancte Spiritus.” It is important to remember that The Cloud, like Julian’s Showings assume a normal liturgical and sacramental life within a Bible-based, orthodox, Christian community.
However, the experience of the Way of the Cloud seems to – as it should – relate to Jesus at a more fundamental level. I happened to dip into the writings of Abhishiktananda as I was thinking about this and came across some remarkable passages. Abhishiktananda was a French Christian monk (Henri le Saux) who travelled to India and lived the life of a Hindu renunciate while remaining faithful to his Christian faith and monastic and priestly vocation.
Abhishiktananda stresses that the point of all we do is to enter into the inner silence which …
“Can be summed up in one Hebrew phrase of Psalm 65, which Jerome translates: silentium tibi laus. Silence is praise for you. Silence in prayer, silence in thanksgiving, prayer and adoration, silence in meditation, silence inside and outside as the most essential preparation for this stillness of the soul in which alone the Spirit can work at his pleasure.
In the old tradition of Vedic yajna (sacrifice) four priests had to sit around the Vedi (altar). One of them had the function of performing the rite and meanwhile repeating the mantras … Another was in charge of chanting the hymns … The third invoked the devas … But the fourth one, the brahmana priest par excellence, was to remain silent, whispering as it were without any interruption an almost inarticulate OM. Yet it was that silent OM which was considered as the thread uniting all the different parts of yajna and giving to the whole its definitive value.”
Further Shore, pp 117-118
Om is a meaningless syllable, but it is also the sacred sound, sometimes called the seed syllable. Two more passages stand out for me in Abhishiktananda’s writing, the first:
“God is outside all time. And eternity is present in each moment of time.
‘The smallest abyss.’
We must leap just the right distance,
or else we shall miss our aim and find ourselves further off than ever,
on a ‘further shore’ which is not the true one.
God is too close to us. That is why we constantly fail to find him.
We turn God into an object – and God escapes our grasp.
We turn him into an idea – but ideas pass him by.
So Mary Magdalene was too much taken up with her thoughts about Jesus
to be able to recognise him in the gardener …”
The Further Shore p. 121
This theology of time and eternity is utterly Augustinian and surely that held by the author of The Cloudwhich explains his reliance on the shortest possible prayer? I don’t know where the phrase ‘the smallest abyss’ comes from, it is perfect. As is the description of God being too close to us for us to see him. This is exactly R S Thomas’s presence that has just left the room, or the movement that we can never quite catch, no matter how quickly we turn our heads.
Abhishiktananda embraced the Hindu devotion to the word ‘Om’. I am not advocating that western Christians adopt this practice wholesale. I have only once experienced the use of this word in Christian circles. It was at Park Place, the Pastoral Centre of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth and must have been some time in the late 1990s. Staying there for a conference I happened to wander into the chapel when the sisters, who at that time ran the centre, were praying. They were mostly Indian (I think a Franciscan community) and used many Christian mantras in their prayers, often including the word ‘Om’. I was very interested in this and spoke at length to some of the sisters about it.
The second passage from Abhishiktananda is even more profound and describes, I believe, exactly how Jesus relates to the mono-syllable, the Way of the Cloud:
The OM which our rishis heard resounding in their souls,
when they descended to the greatest depths in themselves,
deeper than their thoughts and deeper than all their desires,
in the existential solitude of being,
the OM which sounds in the rustling leaves shaken by the wind,
the OM which howls in the storm
and murmurs in the gentle breeze,
the OM which roars in the rushing torment
and the gentle murmur of the river flowing peacefully down to the sea,
the OM of the spheres making their way across the sky,
and the OM that throbs at the core of the atom.
That which sings in the song of birds,
that which is heard in the call of beasts in the jungle,
the OM of people laughing and the OM of their sighs,
the OM that vibrates in their thoughts and in all their desires,
the OM of their words of warfare, of love, or trade,
the OM that Time and History utter on their way,
the OM uttered by Space when entering into Time.
This OM suddenly burst out, whole and entire,
in a corner of space and at a point of time,
in its indivisible fullness,
when in Mary’s womb was born as Son of man,
the Word, the Son of God.
Diary pp 189-190
The Word that God uttered in the beginning, the divine logos, the Word that is Jesus. This is the “deep calling to deep” abyssus abyssum invocat, of the soul meeting God. The Spirit groaning within us. The blade slicing into the thinnest fragment of time to open eternity.
When the new edition of the complete works of John of the Cross came out last year (review/note from me here) I began re-reading the prose works (I have read his poetry pretty much constantly over the years) and a number of commentaries and books about his writing. That reading led me back to David Knowles’ The English Mystical Tradition. The chapter in that on The Cloud of Unknowing is particularly strong and makes an excellent comparison between the teaching of The Cloud and that of John of the Cross. It is well worth reading.
This essay by Jordan D Kirk, has resonated deeply with the effect my reading of The Cloud. the prayer method proposed by the author of The Cloud:
The Cloud has been much favoured by the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and given that ‘all translation is treachery’ has not been well served by all its translators. Maggie Ross has written a splendidly frank view of the various versions of The Cloud:
Ross is an Anglican solitary and lives the life, her recent Silence: A User’s Guide (in two volumes) is fundamental reading on the contemplative/solitary life. I preached this sermon recently which picks up on some of the themes in The Cloud, notably the word ‘behold’, and was profoundly influenced by Ross and her earlier books.
The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counselling, Ed Hodgson, Phyllis, Early English Text Society/OUP 1944 (the 1982 edition is the most recent and the one usually used as a reference text. Eg by Gallacher – below).
This is the ‘base text’ for study of The Cloud. reproducing the best available reading of the Middle English text with extensive notes. Given Maggie Ross’s comments and my own experience of the various dodgy translations that are around I am making increased use of this, the Middle English (I studied Chaucer at A’ Level) is not as difficult as it looks at first glance. I also find that the more familiar I become with sections of the original the more dissatisfied I am with the translations available. I wish I could find a recording of the Middle English text being read, let me know if you find one.
The TEAMS Middle English Texts version ed by Patrick Gallacher, it is a version of the ME text using modern orthography which makes reading a little easier. It is also more readily available. Maggie Ross is not keen on the introduction and it certainly is not particularly incisive on the practice of prayer but it is a good overview of the Tradition. The notes are very good and update Hodgson often referring to other modern translations. More importantly it is available online and is interactive which makes looking up notes etc very easy. HERE
The Complete Cloud of Unknowing with the Letter of Privy Counsel, Fr John-Julian OJN, Paraclete Press 2015
This has become my go-to translation. I like the style used and most of all the notes, a facing page for every page of text from The Cloud, are extremely detailed. Even when the reader might disagree with a choice made there is always either an explanation or pointing out of alternatives. The introduction is also very helpful and there is some useful material in appendices.
The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Writings by an English Mystic of the Fourteenth Century with a Commentary on the Cloud by Fr Augustine Baker OSB, Ed. McCann, Justin, Abbot, Burns and Oates 1924 (1960 edition)
See Maggie Ross’s comments on this, which are right:
“Oh dear, there are a number of problems here. First, while he claims to have used an assortment of mss, his version differs from Gallacher/Underhill enough so that one suspects he is privileging the Ampleforth manuscript, which he calls the ‘second recension’, and which is very different from the Hodgson text. Next, he has paraphrased, often quite patronizingly. His filter seems to be an effort to make this radical manuscript acceptable to a highly conservative, anti- ‘modernist’ pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic church. He has kept ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and the -eth endings but there is something deliberately antiquated, a bit kitsch olde worlde about his paraphrases for reasons I haven’t been able to put my finger on—yet. He also censors phrases such as that in chapter 12 about private parts—but we have to cut Underhill and McCann a little slack in this regard as they were working in the 1930s. McCann somehow makes the Cloud author sound precious, which he most certainly is not.”
Pocket and nicely bound versions are regularly available second-hand but I find it so difficult to read that I don’t use them.
A Book of Contemplation the which is called the Cloud of Unknowing, in the which a soul is oned with God, Underhill, Evelyn, Watkins, 1912 (1956 ed.)
Pocket versions of this turn up second-hand regularly and I have one that I carry with me so refer to quite often.
Maggie Ross: “This is the closest of the modernized versions to the Hodgson benchmark but has some curious interpolations about spiritual direction, possibly due to her contact with von Hugel. She has not changed many words and for the modern reader may have not changed enough, but her version hast the advantage of clarity without intruding too many anachronisms. She has kept thee and thou and the -eth endings but somehow these are not intrusive as with McCann. This version is published online at several sites including the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Type ‘Cloud of Unknowing Underhill’ into your search engine. She omits the author’s hyperbolic phrases that would offend genteel sensibilities, such as the mention of cutting off of private parts in chapter 12.”
The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, Wolters, Clifton, Penguin, 1961 (1978)
This is disappointing given that it is the Penguin version. Not a book I refer to.
Maggie Ross: “Wolters’ is an outright translation and he has the same concerns as McCann to make this work acceptable to a very conservative Roman Catholic audience on the cusp of Vatican II. His version has the advantage that he has dropped the ‘thee’, ‘thou’, and ‘-eth’, but sometimes his paraphrases amount to Counter-Reformation glosses, and he seems to leave out or condense sections. He claims to be using Hodgson, but he also says he has consulted McCann, and, like McCann, he leans towards Ampleforth and the Latin (the original text is in English). As I create a parallel text of these versions, there are often times when I wonder if Wolters and McCann are using the same Middle English text as I and some of the others are.”
The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Walsh, James, Paulist Press 1981 (Classics of Western Spirituality)
Maggie Ross is, in my view, unnecessarily harsh. The introductions are good and the notes helpful. I use this volume a lot as a check. It is, as Maggie suggests, clearly written with an orthodox Catholic standpoint, but that is helpful as an antidote to some less than orthodox perspectives that are common.
Maggie Ross: “Walsh tries to make the Cloud-author into a neo-scholastic, which he most certainly is not. His translation is prolix and full of the ‘experience’ problem. He is prone to making absurd and completely unsupportable claims such as: the practice the Cloud teaches cannot be undertaken by non-Christians. His scriptural and other citations are often wildly scattershot, not really seeming to relate to the text properly, as if he had a lot of references on slips of paper and threw them all up in the air and then wrote down whatever came to hand. He did the same with Julian’s texts. However, his text has the advantage that it includes Richard Methley’s comments in the footnotes. To my ear (but maybe this is due to the fact that I dislike his translation so much) he sometimes sounds fatuous.”
The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counselling, Ed, Johnston, William, Doubleday, 1973
Maggie Ross really doesn’t like this version. She is right in what she says. However, it is a useful reference book in terms of understanding the reception and use of The Cloud. It also reads well. I like Johnston and find his drawing on the Eastern/Buddhist tradition very illuminating and helpful, particularly at the level of experience.
Maggie Ross:“This purported translation—only in part; it is really more a platform for Johnston himself—is so strange and has so many modern interpolations that I often wonder if he is using the same text as the rest of this group as a basis for what he is writing. Johnston comes from a humanistic psychology and human potential movement background, and is anachronistically continually looking at the Cloudthrough the lens of the much later John of the Cross. Johnston feels free to move paragraphs around or omit them altogether, to interpolate material that simply isn’t there or even implicit. I’m not quite sure what this book is, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with The Cloud of Unknowing.”
The Cloud of Unknowing With the Book of Privy Counsel, Butcher, Carmen Avecedo, Shambhala, 2009.
Not mentioned by Ross. She wouldn’t like it! This is definitely one for the ‘spiritual but not religious’. It reads well. I have been listening to the Audible version which is very easy to hear. But it is more like using The Message version of the Bible, not a translation but a meditation, Jim Cotter would call it an ‘unfolding’ of the text. Good for lectio, but needing to refer to the original.
The Cloud of Unknowing for Everyone, Obbard, Elizabeth Ruth
Again, not a translation, and it doesn’t pretend to be. A useful book for lectio and prayer. Obbard’s books are deceptively simple, with charming (perhaps rather too charming) cartoon like sketches – think, Good News Bible. In fact the text is rather profound and very helpful, Obbard is always orthodox and accessible.
Commentaries and Notes
The Cloud of Unknowing: An Introduction
John P.H. Clark
Vol 1: Introduction, 1995
Vol 2 Notes on the Cloud, 1996
Vol 3: Notes on the Book of Privy Counselling, 1995
These three slim volumes, if you can get hold of them, are, again, essential reading for anyone studying The Cloud, especially for engaging with Hodgson’s Middle English text. Immensely detailed, wise and sensible I use these all the time.
This series will lead the reader to the Augustine Baker tradition of the English Benedictine Congregation which is such an important part of the reception of The Cloud.
The English Mystical Tradition, Knowles, David, Harper 1961
As already mentioned Knowles’ chapter on The Cloud is excellent. The whole book is important to read and has worn remarkably well given when it was written.
English Spirituality, Mursell, Gordon, SPCK, 2001 (2 volumes).
A brilliant overview of spirituality. Mursell has a superb writing style and makes excellent connections across spirituality, literature, theology and the different spiritualities described. The section on The Cloud is relatively short but a must read. Another for the essential reading list.
UPDATED CONCLUSION 3/10/18
Teaching Mindfulness it is clear to me that this is a pathway for faith, a way that doesn’t do violence to people and allows them, very gently, to experience the presence of God as the Other who is as close to us as our breathing. Use of the one-syllable method is a helpful next step. There is a tenderising, softening effect that cuts through negative attitudes to religion as well as the hardened crust that life creates on our hearts. The suspension of the intellect, the rational mind is especially important in inoculating the mind against the poison that so much of our anti-religion, anti-mystical training plants there.
fabfininbarEditMaggie Ross is pretty brutal! Any thoughts on the new Penguin Translation by AC Spearing? I like the Carmen Butcher translation, it reads really well. I have the TEAMS but I haven’t ventured to try yet! Just found this site yesterday looking for articles on the Cloud, thanks for this all the best.LikeReply
Father Richard PeersEditShe certainly doesn’t mince her words! Butcher is a paraphrase not a translation in my view, good read and the Audible version is easy to listen to, Penguin not at all bad … Thanks for the Feedback! Blessings.Liked by 1 personReply
Neil WorkEditThank you so much for this blog, Ive only just come across it. The Cloud writer’s insistence on one syllable has interested me for years. I once came across Fr. Augustine Baker’s commentary on the Cloud. It may have been the Underhill version,(it was in a relative’s library). I looked up what he said about the single syllable. If I remember correctly, he appeared to say this was not to be taken too literally, that, for example, a phrase was o.k. or something else short. He gives the example of one of St. Francis’ brothers, whose prayer was to simply run. (I had to think of Forest Gump running across America!) . I once put this apparent puzzle to an Augustinian monk. He said continuous prayer will start off with many words (like this, he said, praying quickly ) which over time will distill & concentrate until there are no words. I notice that in ‘Privy Counsel’ the author emphasises that everything we can think about God is contained in the word ‘ is’. I feel very cautious about the ‘Centering Prayer’ movement, not least because the CDF letter from then Cardinal Ratzinger in the 1990’s so obviously referred to some of what it was doing. The introduction to the Cloud is so clear about the need to be orthodox, not to pick bits & leave others. In this vein , I like what the writer says later about people who do not submit to church teaching – they have some vice they want to continue with.. There aint no short cuts.LikeReply
Father Richard PeersEditInteresting, lots of people say one syllable or a few it doesn’t matter, that may be true but that is not what the Cloud says. I am not do cautious about the CP stuff, they at least try and address what original sin/falleness might be instead of just ignoring it. I don’t think I was ready for The Cloud 30 years ago. CP really helped me then.LikeReply
Please let me know your experience of this prayer, I am keen to develop ways of introducing and teaching it.Advertisements
In the form of Mindfulness of Breathing that I was taught thirty or more years ago, and still teach myself, there is a shift in stages between noticing the in-breath and noticing the out-breath. It’s a subtle shift but most people sense a change of energy and perception. I feel the same way about changing my practice of praying the Daily Office. Having used the Divine Office for many years and then Common Worship Daily Prayer I have now moved to the Book of Common Prayer. (Originally described here). The shift is subtle. It is still, after all, just an arrangement for daily praying of Scripture but there is a different energy, the shape is different. I like it. Now I have started singing the Office hymns at the traditional place (before the gospel canticles) the front-loading of lengthy psalmody gives the whole thing a still, contemplative feel. The lack of variety adds to this. Novelty is stimulating, the very opposite of contemplative.
Several readers and friends have asked how I am getting on with my use of the BCP Office (and 1928 lectionary) this liturgical year. The changes since my first version of the booklet will show some of the ways in which I am adjusting to this.
I began using antiphons for the psalms but actually the Office is rich enough without those so I just sing them to plainsong tones without antiphons.
The 1928 lectionary is a joy. Just one OT book across Morning and Evening Prayer makes use of commentaries much more feasible alongside the gospel and other NT reading. The monthly BCP cycle of psalms makes following commentaries through with the psalter so much easier.
This is the second time in my life I have made long term use of the BCP (the other when Mother Victoria and I prayed the Office at St Andrew, Earlsfield). So nothing is unfamiliar. And, of course, a lifetime of cathedral Evensongs.
I am using the Mirfield 1949 Office Book (as rare as hen’s teeth on Abebooks etc) which provides all the Office hymns, responses and Mag and Ben antiphons as well as the lectionary readings set out. This is very helpful. It also includes Compline and the Little Hours. Since I travel so much having all this in one book is very useful.
I am just beginning trying the Office hymns (melodies in the English Hymnal) in the place traditionally assigned them before the gospel canticles which seems less strange than I thought it would. At Compline the hymn after the psalms. The CR book suggests Psalm 51 daily in Lent as the first Canticle at Matins and this works well. I use that with modern four part tones as I often do for the Gospel and other canticles, so traditional plainsong tones always for the psalms, including Venite. This gives the psalmody a different flavour too. Not sure I can describe it but I am not missing the slightly over rhythmic quality of modern psalm tones on all the psalms and canticles.
Four substantial readings is enough in a day so I am using the traditional one-year cycle of readings at Mass daily, repeated on ferias unless there is daily provision (Series 1 lectionary) and alternating the additional OT readings with the Epistle. The repetition is really sustaining and the range of patristic and later commentaries enormously enriching.
People occasionally join me for Morning or Evening Prayer or for Mass, especially at weekends, and this has worked well. I use an NEB lectionary at Mass with a CW Order of Mass (described here), and an RSV Bible for the readings when praying with others. There is a familiarity with the shape and texts that seems to make this very accessible for visitors.
This form of Office is very manageable, accessible and, also, very Anglican. A good place to feel at home in.
For a while now I have been saying that the essential elements of Christian prayer are Psalmody and Eucharist. Not claiming any particular arrangement, frequency or style of doing either of those two things (well, psalmody almost certainly needs to be daily at least) but the universality of them among those of deep prayer and spirituality in Christian history.
Alongside them, the practice of silence, sitting still, simple awareness of the presence of God seems almost as universally important.
So why not put all three together?
I am not suggesting that the form of celebration of the Eucharist suggested here would be appropriate as the normal Sunday diet for a worshipping community. I have used this form on a number of retreats, Quiet Days and parish weekends, where it has always seemed to go down well. I also tried it at a staff meeting where it didn’t work so well. It probably needs to be in the context of teaching about all three elements, particularly mindfulness, and in a situation where people are able to let go of their discursive-critical mind. Perhaps, too, my ‘persona/role’ in the meeting context did not fit quite so well as when I am ‘retreat leader’.
Three forms are proposed here each with a different psalm. They are linked above in PDF format, I create them in Pages and am happy to send Pages or Word exports from Pages (which may lose formatting) if you email me but WordPress will not link to these files.
The versions for Psalm 23 and 119 are for sung/metrical settings. The Lord’s My Shepherd is the popular setting usually sung to Crimond but I have only ever used it at these mindful Eucharists with the tune usually used for Amazing Grace – New Britain -which has, I think, a bit more energy. The same tune is used for the metrical version of Psalm 119 which is from Adam Carlill’s brilliant metrical version Psalms for the Common Era, where he provides this extraordinary alphabetic translation of the psalm. In both cases the text is sung in full at the beginning and end, and various verses are then interpolated into the Eucharistic liturgy.
I have always used this format sitting in a circle around an altar; I just place a stole over my clothes. I extemporise the Collect and post-Communion prayer; the readings are read without announcement or conclusion. Standing for everything except the homily and first reading.
During the Eucharistic Prayer I use manual acts, raising the host (I prefer a single host big enough for everyone, usually a ‘concelebration host’ and cup at appropriate points and holding them aloft throughout the bell that follows the words of Jesus. I genuflect after these elevations, and hold my hands over the gifts at the epiclesis. The Eucharistic Prayer is a slightly adapted form of Prayer H in Common Worship. Another voice for the intercessions (within the EP) works best.
Communion is passed around the circle, concluding with the celebrant. On some occasions the host is passed around the circle and everyone holds it in their hand and consume together with the celebrant. I rather like this, that moment of holding the host is deeply intimate with the Lord and one of my favourite moments when concelebrating.
I would guess that 30 or so people would be the maximum this form of celebration could work with. As the last communicant I consume anything that is left and place the vessels at the side of the altar to be cleansed later. At the start of the celebration the hosts are ready and the chalice pre-charged.
I originally included a sign of peace but find that is disruptive so have removed it. The tropes at the kyries are either from the psalm chosen or a suitably linked text.
The bell/gong ringer needs a practice before hand and the gong should be allowed to ring its full length before any further action or words.
Repetition is key to learning and a key element of this form of Eucharist; at a recent retreat I gave people white cards now which to write a phrase which stood out for them at the end of the celebration and to use that phrase as prayer throughout the day, several participants commented on how useful this was.
I quite often celebrate the Eucharist in informal situations, Headteachers’ offices, school staff rooms, friends dining rooms, and so forth. That form of celebration is described here. I will usually use a small gong before and after that but not during the celebration.
I am not making any great claims for this form of the Eucharist. It has proved fruitful partly because it is both unfamiliar to people and repetitive so they feel safe, I normally do some explanation in advance, ideally not immediately before hand. Let me know if you try this at all and how it goes.
How to Sit With God – A Practical Guide to Silent Prayer
Tr Kieran J. O’ Mahony
Jack is twenty-nine, he has been married for seven years and has two children under five. He and his wife both graduated with very good degrees from one of the UK’s best universities. They married that same year and moved to the northern town where they now live and work in full-time ministry for a ‘non-denominational church’.
Jack and his wife are fictionalised versions of many individuals and couples I have come to know in recent years. Their friends have high powered jobs in the City, Civil service or industry. But they became involved in large evangelical churches while at university, took part in summer activities and placements in various parts of the country. They have heard and responded to God calling them to ministry in places they would never have been to otherwise.
I am almost overwhelmed with awe when I see the sacrifice that couples and individuals like this have made. This is taking the option for the poor seriously.
It is not easy in so many ways. The energy and enthusiasm of a large church full of committed young people makes it easy to sustain faith, to feel confident and buoyed up. But the realities of life in places where there are no or few young people at church; where the levels of neediness, mental health issues and all the associated factors of poverty are the dominant reality can eat away at that.
Conferences, visits to and from friends, inspiring podcasts can all help. However, moments of spiritual renewal and refreshment can sometimes make the thirst seem greater at other times.
That’s the question Jack came to me with having followed me on Twitter. How can I sustain my prayer, my relationship with Jesus in the daily grind, the relentless cycle of family, children, pastoral work, ministry?
Like many others, Jack’s family are experimenting with forms of daily prayer. They bought Northumbria Community Office books, and tried other online materials – but found them unsatisfying.
Jack feels a need for silence – not just as an escape from family life! – but in his prayer.
I made two suggestions. For daily prayer just reading Scripture as it is. Beginning with psalmody, as much or as little as wanted at each sitting, and then readings from a ‘bible in a year’ plan.
My other suggestion was around finding some time every day for contemplative practice. Sitting still with God.
I wish I had found Jean-Marie Gueullette’s book How To Sit With God, when I first met Jack. Gueullette is a French Dominican priest teaching at the University of Lyon. I know nothing more about him. His book is an excellent introduction to Christian contemplative prayer. It is wise, unpretentious and practical. I have already bought multiple copies to share.
As I read How To Sit With God, I marked with a pencil important passages and quotations. My copy is very heavily underlined throughout. This is a rich source of teaching. Gueullette begins by showing how the prayer he is suggesting is the simplest possible form of prayer. This simplicity will have a strong appeal to those who are looking for an un-churchy, un-adorned gospel. Jesus in the raw.
Perhaps even more attractive to those formed by conservative evangelicalism will be Gueullette’s emphasis on faith as the fundamental requirement for contemplative prayer. In this short (176 page) book he goes on to describe how to do this prayer and places it within the context of struggle and discipline There is no pretence that this will be easy. He shows how it is one way of praying among others and finally gives an overview of the place of this prayer in Christian history.
It is this final section of the book that is weakest for the purposes for which I want to use it. here, Gueullette is writing very much from his tradition and nation. After the early centuries of Christian history is exclusively Roman Catholic and heavily weighted to France, with sections on Francis de Sales and the seventeenth century French spiritual tradition. That said the English mystics get surprisingly strong treatment in the main text of the book. In particular the Cloud of Unknowing; the source of English Benedictine spirituality (in the English Benedictine Congregation), Augustine Baker, and in its twentieth century flowering in the spiritual letters of Dom John Chapman of Downside. Although as Gueullette points out Baker lived in northern France for significant parts of his adult life and so might well be said to represent, partially at least, French spirituality.
My only other criticism of this book is Gueullette’s reference point in those Christians who have sought, and discovered, a practice of silence and stillness in the traditions of the Far East. I agree with everything he says about the need to be aware of the religious beliefs that underpin some of the practices, making them unsuitable for Christians. However, he never refers to the secular practices of mindfulness that are not rooted in an alien metaphysic. It may be simply a refection of his context in French Catholicism. Again, for my purposes this material is not useful. Most of the people I work with have not investigated Far Eastern traditions but come from evangelical Protestant traditions.
Gueullette presents the method of prayer he is describing simply and beautifully. Quite simply:
It consists of saying a word inwardly while sitting calmly.
Gueullette suggests words such as: Father, Abba, Jesus, Lord, God, Kyrie Eleison, Adonai. Fundamental to his teaching is that the word
… must be a name for God, not an idea about God or a description of God such as ‘love’ or ‘goodness’.
Throughout the book Gueullette stresses that this is a practice for a lifetime, and will bear fruit over many years. He distinguishes the practice from that of repeating a phrase or verse of the psalms or other parts of Scripture through the course of the day (as suggested by John Cassian).
Twenty five minutes a day is the time suggested for silence. Interestingly Gueullette suggests staying faithful to that amount of prayer even when the desire to sit for longer comes. For him it is important to be free of ‘feelings’ as the driver of prayer.
To those who think rules like this rob us of spontaneity he is clear that this practice is principally about faithfulness and discipline:
Faithfulness calls for a certain discipline, which today can appear contrary to authenticity or spontaneity. yet we are ready to accept it when it comes to dieting or keeping fit! In the case of physical exercise, as in the spiritual life, one can only progress at the cost of daily effort. It is not the extraordinary experience that make the life of prayer, but the humble fidelity to it every day, lived over many years.
Very few books on prayer are helpful on posture. This is extremely unfortunate because it is so important. When I began my first degree, in World Religions, I remember arriving at Buddhist monasteries, Mosques, Hindu Mandirs, Sikh temples and almost the first thing were told was how to sit, what posture to adopt. More than that, detailed instruction would be given on prayer and meditation at the very outset.
Gueullette knows what he is talking about when it comes to posture. He is clear on the role of the spine and pelvis and in using the abdomen (the diaphragm) for breathing.
It is mainly the spine that helps us stay awake: without being tense or stiff it stands, resting on the pelvis, supported by our breathing.
There are good descriptions of using prayer stools and meditation cushions with the lotus, half-lotus or sitting positions. Whatever posture is adopted the author is clear that it is sitting that is essential, and he quotes another English mystic, Richard Rolle:
It is the quiet sitting that makes the soul wise.
At the heart of sitting still is an activity we are engaged in as long as we are alive. Breathing. In this fascinating lecture at St Vladimir’s Seminary Bishop Alexander of the Orthodox Church in America shows how the roots of using the breath in prayer have textual evidence as early as the 5th to the 6th centuries. Again How To Sit With God gets this exactly right. Breath is not something for the author, that requires too much attention, but is significant. The ‘letting go’ that is the end of the out breath is particularly significant. If we think at all about breathing we tend to think of it as something that requires equal effort on the out and in breath but in fact once the contraction of the ribs that is the out-breath has reached its limit the air naturally fills the lungs again:
We do not need to look for air, we just have to empty the air inside us. … You just have to let go, to stop exhaling so that breathing in takes place spontaneously.
Theology of Sitting Still
Gueullette carefully addresses the apparent contradiction between faith and works in his explanation of this method of prayer. For him God’s action is paramount. His key conversation partner is, not surprisingly Augustine. Fundamental to his view is that:
The methods under discussion here act upon us and not upon God.
The one who prays does not seek to feel the presence of God, but rather is called upon to believe it.
One of the key issues facing anybody who tries to sit still and be with God, or even follow the breath in Mindfulness practice is thoughts. What are often called ‘distractions’. Gueullette helpfully quotes Abbot Chapman at length:
We want to use our will to ‘want God’, and not to keep our thoughts in order. We want to be ‘wanting God’, and detached from everything else. hence we want to let our thoughts run about by themselves … and not to control them; in order that our will may turn wholly to God. the result is naturally that, while our will is making its intense (but also imperceptible) act of love, our imagination is running about by itself, just a sir does in a dream; so that we seem to be full of distractions, and not praying at all. But this is contrary of the fact. The distractions, which are so vivid to us, are not voluntary actions, and have no importance; whereas the voluntary action we are performing is the wanting God …
(quoted on page 60)
For busy people
If you lead a very active lifestyle and feel there are never enough hours in the day, you are the ideal candidate for silent prayer.
Gueullette is clear that like breathing, thinking is what we do when we are alive, it is:
the signs of cerebral activity and it is not really helpful to dream of a time when the brain would no longer function.
Gueullette suggests ways in which this form of prayer will change our lives. Getting up earlier. Watching less television. Creating a place for prayer at home. Silent prayer will have ethical consequences in our lives.
Silent prayer is then a fight at every moment, where, each time the name is repeated, it is necessary to take oneself again in hand and to bring oneself back in the presence of God.
I understand the author’s (or translator’s) use of ‘struggle’ to describe this prayer, however, I am not entirely sure it is the most helpful image. “while the struggle is real, it is at the same time delightful” he says. Which seems to capture the balance better. I prefer to think of this as a serious business, a work. And like all hard work it is deeply satisfying; often most when most difficult.
It is always different after silence
Some time in 2013 a large group of headteachers came to visit Trinity, the school where I was Head in Lewisham. We had been practising Mindfulness as a school for three years. One of the places we used silence most effectively was in the Restorative Meetings that replaced sanctions on poor behaviour. One Year 11 (15-16 year old) pupils was describing this to the group and how when things became stuck in those meetings often someone suggests a time of Mindfulness using a five minute sand timer: “It is always,” she said, “different after the silence.”
Silence changes things. More importantly silence changes us. It make us more loving, more able to be attentive to others, to children, partners, those we minister to and with. As Gueullette so clearly shows silence isn’t the only way of prayer. It need not replace other forms of prayer and worship but take place alongside them in our lives.
Jack has been practising silent prayer in this way for almost 18 months now, “It has changed my life,” he says. It is always different after silence.