Divine Love and the Cloud of Unknowing, Part Three

In which St. Augustine and a medieval mystic show us how it’s done, and we realize John Lennon was plagiarizing both of them…

I ended the previous part of this meditationSaint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_Champaigne on this note: if we want to be in communion, fully, with God, and know that what we’re communing with is God and not something else that we’re mistaking for God (like Ebenezer Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, or, what is the more common, our own God-concept, our theology of God rather than God), we have to somehow get in touch with that strange inexpressible thing that exists in the gap between what we can understand and symbolize and what God is in all His fullness. It’s not even something we can think; we can only sort of vaguely and inadequately conceive of it as a sort of formless, massless, non-thing-ish thingy, and we can only to that through metaphors that don’t do it justice. But one metaphor might be that of something we can get our mind around that is both formless but undeniably there–like a cloud. A cloud of what? A cloud made up of something we don’t know and can’t symbolize, but yet still sense somehow, so it’s not a cloud of nothing. It’s a cloud of something we can’t know–a Cloud of Unknowing–the title of a fourteenth century treatise on mysticism.

The good news–quite literally–in this case is that God has already made this possible by accomplishing what was discussed in the first part of this meditation  the incarnation, where all that fullness, in a great and mysterious action, became one and the same thing as an embodied human being. That’s why the incarnation is so important. It means human and God can in fact be made one.

At the same time, that gap between what we can know and what God is is still there, so what takes us the rest of the way? It can’t be understanding. It can’t be knowledge. It can’t be human effort under its own steam.

But what might happen if we try to get to the point where we can work through those things: start with what we can sense, move up through what we can understand and symbolize, precisely in order to be so aware of those things that we can come into some kind of contact with that realm beyond it. Get past sense and signification so that we’re stretching our intent entirely toward that “Cloud of unknowing?”

St. Augustine gives us an interesting glimpse into what something like that might be like. The moment happens at a point where Augustine, after his conversion, is sitting in a garden, having a conversation with his mother:

From Confessions, Book Nine (New Advent Trans.):

We then were conversing alone very pleasantly; and, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, Philippians 3:13 we were seeking between ourselves in the presence of the Truth, which You are, of what nature the eternal life of the saints would be, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man. But yet we opened wide the mouth of our heart, after those supernal streams of Your fountain, the fountain of life, which is with You; that being sprinkled with it according to our capacity, we might in some measure weigh so high a mystery.

And when our conversation had arrived at that point, that the very highest pleasure of the carnal senses, and that in the very brightest material light, seemed by reason of the sweetness of that life not only not worthy of comparison, but not even of mention, we, lifting ourselves with a more ardent affection towards the Selfsame, did gradually pass through all corporeal things, and even the heaven itself, whence sun, and moon, and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we soared higher yet by inward musing, and discoursing, and admiring Your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might advance as high as that region of unfailing plenty, where You feed Israel for ever with the food of truth, and where life is that Wisdom by whom all these things are made, both which have been, and which are to come; and she is not made, but is as she has been, and so shall ever be; yea, rather, to have been, and to be hereafter, are not in her, but only to be, seeing she is eternal, for to have been and to be hereafter are not eternal. And while we were thus speaking, and straining after her, we slightly touched her with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and there left bound the first-fruits of the Spirit; Romans 8:23 and returned to the noise of our own mouth, where the word uttered has both beginning and end. And what is like Your Word, our Lord, who remains in Himself without becoming old, and makes all things new? Wisdom 7:27

We were saying, then (my trans):

If the roar of flesh fell silent

silent the phantasms of earth,‭ ‬water,‭ ‬air,

silent the heavens

silent the very soul to itself,

so that it passes beyond itself,

not knowing itself‭;

If dreams quieted‭

‬and imagination,

and all tongues,

every sign,

each transient thing

just stopped–

since,‭ ‬if one hears,‭ ‬all things say this:

‏>“‎not for ourselves were we made

but for he who made us who dwells in eternity‭”‬–

and,‭ ‬having aroused the ear

of Him who made them,

they quieted down,

and He spoke:

Himself only,

so that we heard the Word Himself

not through carnal tongue

nor voice of angels

nor sound of a cloud,

nor cryptic metaphor–

If we heard only Him,

who we love through these things

but without them

(just as now

we strain

and in a lightning thought

touch eternal wisdom

dwelling above all‭)

And if this could continue,

purging all other visions

of far inferior birth,

and this alone ravish and absorb

the spectator,‭ ‬hide him

in inward joys,

so that eternal life was this moment

of understanding:

Isn‭’‬t this,‭ ‬and this alone:

‏“‎Enter into the joy of your Lord‭?”

What Augustine does, here, is give us a fascinating dual movement: he starts by sort of listing out all of the things through which we can begin to experience some sense of God through his sensible creation: the natural world, through which we have evidence of God’s activity–something that points toward God but is not itself God. Symbols that help us explain our conceptions of God but don’t express God himself. Even God speaking to us in words we can understand as words. Then he asks a really amazing question:

What if, for a single moment, all that stuff just shut up? What if all that fell silent and we just felt pure, unmediated communion with the thing all those symbols point toward but aren’t? What if we didn’t have to understand or experience God through these things (like pesky middlemen), but were right there, being with God as God?

Then he asks: What if that single moment–which he’d just experienced with his mom–wasn’t just a single, beautiful moment? What if it stretched out infinitely, an eternal, un-mediated being-present with the divine?

And the final humdinger: Wouldn’t that be heaven?

Notice that while Augustine didn’t get quite that far–to heaven, that is–he did get to that moment that, if stretched out infinitely, would be heaven. So what he he can achieve in this existence isn’t itself heaven–but it’s a a piece of it.

So how does one actually come to be in such a state? To commune with that part of God we cannot know?

Augustine gives us a glimpse: he and his mother start by being fully present in a moment with one another, and consider all those sense-able and knowable things we most often use to know and relate to God, but are present with them so completely that they are able to move beyond them into that space of what can’t be known.

So how, then might real people (who aren’t, you know, St. Augustine) reach toward this kind of communion? And how do we know that what we’re communing with is really the divine, and not something else?

Another mystic, the anonymous writer of a fourteenth-century Middle English treatise on mysticism called the Cloud of Unkowing perhaps helps us understand this process a little better. The Cloud author recognizes that “Cloud of Unknowing”, and his basic method is not to lament that there are things about God we cannot understand, but rather to stretch our awareness directly and fully to that “Cloud:”

Lette not therfore, bot travayle [work] therin tyl thou fele lyst [motivated, desirous]. For at the first tyme when thou dost it, thou fyndest bot a derknes, and as it were a cloude of unknowyng, thou wost [knows] never what, savyng that thou felist in thi wille a nakid entent unto God. This derknes and this cloude is, howsoever thou dost, bitwix thee and thi God, and letteth [hinders] thee that thou maist not see Him cleerly by light of understonding in thi reson, ne fele Him in swetnes of love in thin affeccion.

The Cloud author’s most basic and brilliant observation is that, while, as I’ve mentioned above, God in all his fullness cannot be known by a human mind, knowledge isn’t the only, or even necessarily the best, tool we have when it comes to relating to God:

For of alle other creatures and theire werkes — ye, and of the werkes of God self — may a man thorou grace have fulheed of knowing, and wel to kon [know] thinke on hem [them]; bot of God Himself can no man thinke. And therfore I wole leve al that thing that I can think, and chese [choose] to my love that thing that I cannot think. For whi He may wel be loved, bot not thought. By love may He be getyn and holden; bot bi thought neither. And therfore, thof al [although] it be good sumtyme to think of the kyndnes and the worthines of God in special, and thof al it be a light and a party of contemplacion, nevertheles in this werk it schal be casten down and keverid with a cloude of forgetyng. And thou schalt step aboven it stalworthly [stalwartly, bravely], bot listely [carefully], with a devoute and a plesing stering [stirring] of love, and fonde for to peerse that derknes aboven thee. And smyte apon that thicke cloude of unknowyng with a scharp darte of longing love, and go not thens for thing that befalleth.

Notice that what the contemplative is doing here is essentially reaching out toward that Cloud with loving intention, to “smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love”. Obviously that’s not going to get one all the way. But it does act as a way of clearing one’s consciousness of all the other matters–sensible and symbolic–that can’t lead toward that full relationship. And the good news–literally once again–is that the incarnation means that we do not need to complete the task under our own steam. What happens when we enter that contemplative state is that we clear the air of things that make us less receptive to the force that works the other direction, God’s own grace and mercy:

And therfore schap [determine] thee to bide in this derknes as longe as thou maist, evermore criing after Him that thou lovest; for yif ever schalt thou fele Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth alweis be in this cloude and in this derknes. And yif thou wilte besily travayle [diligently work] as I bid thee, I triste in His mercy that thou schalt come therto.

By stretching that loving intent and desire for God directly toward that Cloud of Unknowing, we put ourselves as purely as possible in the way of grace, and grace takes it the rest of the way.

A blessed Christmas to all.


Divine Love and the Cloud of Unknowing: An Advent Meditation, Part Two

In which we do the Strange Thing of talking about relating to God by means of a burnshead1crazy Scottish love poem.

I have to confess I actually like Advent more than I like Christmas. Christmas itself, at least in my own Midwestern, American, middle-class culture has been so taken over by a combination of commercialism and seemingly obligatory rituals and expectations that, for me, Christmas proper, I fear, has become more of a yearly exercise in stress management techniques (as much about dealing with the stress of others as about dealing with my own) than in commemoration of the incarnation of Christ.

Advent is different: it’s a season rather than an “event,” which gives me time–to prepare, to rest, reflect backwards and imagine forwards. Advent is when I have the time and wherewithal to think about things like the incarnation itself, with a sense of anticipation, as in the first part of this meditation. This second part tries to get to the purpose of that kind of thinking, to the idea of the kind of communion with the Divine that that event of the incarnation makes possible. This will come in two installments, one on Christmas Eve, and the next on Christmas proper.

To begin, try a quick exercise:

  1. Think about something you love deeply: a person, a friend, a spouse, or even an activity or a work of art.
  2. Try to list the things you know about that that thing that you love.

Now consider this question: To what degree do those things that you know seem to account for the love itself?

Now try again, but instead of explaining things you know about that object of your love, start explaining the love itself.

Show of hands: do you feel like your explanation of your love expressed that love in every iota of its fullness?

Yeah, of course not.

Now think about that “gap.” There’s some distance, there, between what you can explain and understand intellectually,, or even symbolically: “my love is like a red, red rose”–kinda, but not all of it, right?

So in a way, that gap is important. That gap between what you can know and whatever it is that accounts for the complete fullness of your experience. In a way, the gap is the thing; that’s what you love. That gap, in a sense, is the most “real” thing about your love; the very thing that makes it more than anything you can symbolize or put into words is its most essential component.

It’s like this:

Your experience of your love in all its fullness.
What you can explain
What you can sense

In a sense it’s that top gap that’s most essential, right? If you were only stuck with what you could explain, your experience of it wouldn’t be love.

So there’s a very real sense in which what we cannot symbolize is precisely the same thing as what we love. The existence of something we cannot symbolize is precisely what makes it as real as it is.

And that thing is really hard to talk about, precisely because it’s not something that can be expressed using any of the tools we humans have–that is, symbols–to express and communicate things.

This is why, for example, even great love poems tend to end in things like failure and negation. Take this one by Robert Burns:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Notice how this poem starts with two really cheesy, cliche similes; then moves to a sort of attempt at equation, which doesn’t quite work for the speaker either, and then the speaker goes on not to positive images but rather to images of dissolution: the seaIn which we do the Strange Thing of talking about relating to God by means of a Scottish love poem.s going dry, rocks melting with the sun. It’s a strange set of images–we’re destroying the world in a Sci-Fi apocalypse and it’s still not right! Then all the speaker can do is say goodbye–twice–and try to imagine placing infinite distance between himself and his love and try to think about an infinite effort to return to that at which he never arrived to begin with.

But that’s the idea: the love, the real love, that which makes it love, begins precisely at the point where the speaker’s ability to symbolize and express it breaks down. That’s what the poem is about.

That’s as good an initial illustration as any, perhaps, of how medieval mystics tend to think about the relationship of human beings to God: knowledge and intellect and human powers of symbolic expression only get us so far in terms of relating to God in all his fullness, because what we can express and understand about God is limited by our fallen humanity.There’s a very real way in which, if we can understand and express it, it must not be God, because we are less than God, so anything that we can actually get our minds around is also less than God. If we can understand it, we’ve already got it wrong.

At the same time, we have a sort of vague sense of that gap between what we can understand and symbolize and something else, and that something else as to be precisely what makes God God (because it can’t be what makes God God if we can explain it in human terms that fit within the finite and fallen human capacity for knowing).

Which means that if we want to be in communion, fully, with God, and know that what we’re communing with is God and not something else that we’re mistaking for God (like Ebenezer Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, or, what is the more common, our own God-concept, our theology of God rather than God), we have to somehow get in touch with that strange inexpressible thing that exists in the gap between what we can understand and symbolize and what God is in all His fullness. It’s not even something we can think; we can only sort of vaguely and inadequately conceive of it as a sort of formless, massless, non-thing-ish thingy, and we can only to that through metaphors that don’t do it justice. But one metaphor might be that of something we can get our mind around that is both formless but undeniably there–like a cloud. A cloud of what? A cloud made up of something we don’t know and can’t symbolize, but yet still sense somehow, so it’s not a cloud of nothing. It’s a cloud of something we can’t know–a Cloud of Unknowing–the title of a fourteenth century treatise on mysticism I’ll talk about on Christmas Day.


God Becomes Meat: Mary and Medieval Incarnational Imagination

Image[Note: When I sat down to write this morning, I had intended to produce a posting about recent disturbing developments in the world of Christian universities, such as the recent departures of several universities from the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities over issues of sexuality, the suspension of a Wheaton professor for statements about the relationship between concepts of God in Christianity and Islam, and statements about mechanized violence from the President of Liberty University. While I still indent to get to those subjects, it felt “off” to me to wax so political and so critical so near my own commemoration of the birth of Christ. At the same time, I realized that, at the heart of my own critique of those events is a conviction that Christian Universities are so concerned with policing the borders of their own orthodoxies that they’re forgetting what lies at their core: a mystery; specifically, the mystery of incarnation. So, in order to both respect what remains of the season of advent and to set up some forthcoming comments–which will wait until after Christmas–about those political issues, I offer two reflections. Today, this one, on the incarnation itself; tomorrow, on what one medieval writer aptly described as the “cloud of unknowing.”]

I had the delightful task, close to this time last year, to speak–along with two of my colleagues, Carrie Peffley (Philosophy) and Chris Armstrong (Church History) to speak to the Bethel University faculty–on medieval approaches to the idea of the incarnation. My particular job, as the literature scholar in the group, was to offer a literary example. Since there’s no figure–aside from Christ himself–more closely associated with the concept of incarnation in the Middle Ages than Mary, I shared one well-known example of an entire genre of medieval poems and songs, often referred to as “Marian lyrics.” They exist in Latin as well as in most medieval European vernaculars. Like the Mystery Plays and other popular medieval works, such lyrics often involve what one might call an “incarnational logic”: the idea is to go for the most relatable kind of human factor in biblical stories and theological ideas, to find an opening whereby our experiences as flesh-and-blood, everyday human beings can, properly directed, become points of access to more transcendent truths.

It is important to remember, speaking of the incarnation, that the root word of the term “incarnation” is the Latin carnis. Meat. So to be incarnated is not only to be “made man” in later humanistic sense of Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man,” much less in the sense of a Cartesian cogito, but rather to be made meat: real flesh and bone and sinew and organ. Real human experience, one that includes as much transcendent reason as it does stubbed toes and post-nasal drip. Just as God had to become incarnate–en-meat-ed–in order to become reconciled with humankind, the medieval mind recognized that those of us who start out as meat and walk around as sacks of it, to understand that very act, have to work the other direction, and try to understand the divine through our own embodiedness.

Mary provided a strong instance of that kind of embodied access-point to the incarnation through her very special relationship to it: while medieval Christians believed that all have access, by grace, to the incarnate God, they also strenuously acknowledged that she was the only one who literally gave birth to him (and if you don’t think that creates a special relationship, ask anyone who’s gone through labor). They were also acutely aware that she was the only one who, having given that birth, had to look on as her child was mercilessly tortured, her knowledge of the spiritual significance of what was happening in no way diminishing her shock and grief at the agonizing death of her son.

I sometimes hear present-day, protestant Christians speak uneasily about the medieval veneration on Mary, as though too much attention to her might amount to giving her a kind of worship that should only be given to God. But as the lyric I’m about to share shows, the medieval interest in Mary–and the kind of interest that I think it might be illuminating and helpful for modern Protestants to recover–stems from precisely her lack of divinity, and her unique participation in the event of the incarnation as a fully human, and in no way divine, being. It is precisely her humanity that makes her a point of access to the more difficult concept of the incarnate Christ. For medieval she thus becomes not an object of worship in herself, but a special access point to an understanding of the sacrifice of her son.

The poem I’d like to share to demonstrate this concept is a 13th century Latin lyric, most commonly known as the Stabat Mater.[1] It’s part of a whole sub-genre of Marian lyrics that dwell on the image of Mary at the foot of the cross. This is a kind of move very typical of a popular medieval theological imagination: That imagination, as I’ve said, looks for the most human element in Biblical story, the one an audience of regular people can best relate to.

Most of the translations I’ve encountered online seem to be geared primarily toward creating texts for singing, and for that reason concentrate on preserving the meter and rhyme of the Latin original. While I by no means consider myself an expert Latinist, the text below is my own attempt at a translation that focuses on preserving, specifically, the very embodied sense of Mary’s experience that the poem channels.

Here’s the first part:

The anguished mother stood,

full of tears

beside the cross

while her son hung down.

A sword pierced

her groaning,

darkened, raw soul.

How desolate,

how shattered,

was that blessed mother

of the only-begotten,

who mourned, ached,

and shook while she watched

the agony of her glorious child.

Who is the one who could not shed tears

if he saw the mother of Christ

in such torment?

For the sins of her people

she saw Jesus

given to tortures,

to whips.

She saw her sweet baby dying,

forsaken, while he gave up

his spirit.

Notice that what the poem already begins to do, here, is access the event of the crucifixion not from the perspective of the mystery of the God/Man, but through something to which we regular humans might have a much easier time relating. After all, none of us can claim to know what it might feel like to die as the incarnate Christ–but we know what it’s like to grieve. We know what it feels like in the pits of our stomachs to lose someone, to watch a loved one suffer. The poem leads us into that impossible experience of the suffering Christ through the more familiar experience of the grieving parent. The image of Mary at the foot of the cross brings readers to experience the incarnation by means of the most broken parts of our own souls, the parts that still ache from our own losses of husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, and friends.

The idea, in the second stanza, of Mary’s heart being pierced would be an especially familiar and theologically important one in Middle Ages, one that also speaks to Mary’s importance as a human with a unique relationship to the incarnation. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Abbot, explained it this way:

Truly, O blessed Mother, a sword has pierced your heart. For only by passing through your heart could the sword enter the flesh of your son. Indeed, after your Jesus, who belongs to everyone–but is especially yours–gave up his life, the cruel spear, which was not withheld from his lifeless body, tore open his side. Clearly it did not touch his soul and could not harm him, but it did pierce your heart. For surely his soul was no longer there, but yours could not be torn away. This the violence of sorrow has cut through your heart, and we rightly call you more than martyr, since the effect of compassion in you has gone beyond the endurance of physical suffering.[2]

Bernard here makes an incredible observation about Mary’s relationship to this moment in the crucifixion: when the sword pierced Christ’s side, he was past the point of being hurt by it. But Mary wasn’t. So the sword that gives proof of his bodily humanity, in that sense, passed through her–the mom who had to watch it happen–before it passed through him. She felt the pain of it in a way he did not. Notice that for Bernard, too, Mary is not simply special because of her personal grief, but because of her compassion, and the compassion of which he speaks is not her compassion for her suffering son, although that’s there, but rather her compassion for us: she, more than any other human being, gave up the most to allow the reconciliation of God and humankind to happen. She watched her son die horribly, suffering even past his physical pain, sacrificing her own grief for her son to the knowledge of what his death would mean for the rest of humanity.

The poet continues from here, not worshipping Mary, but rather asking for the privilege of joining with her in her suffering in order to more properly reverence the suffering Christ:

Oh mother, source of love,

make me feel your sorrow,

that I may mourn with you.

Make my heart flame

in loving my Lord Christ,

so I might be pleasing to Him.

Holy mother, do this:

Drive the wounds of the crucified one

powerfully into my heart.

Share with me

the pain of your wounded son,

who deigned to suffer for me.

Make me weep with you in truth,

suffer the crucifixion with you,

for as long as I live;

Make me stand by the cross with you,

I want to share, freely,

in your wailing grief.

Bright virgin of virgins,

do not be bitter toward me,

but let me weep with you

Grant that I might bear

the death of Christ,

the fate of his passion,

to remember his gashes,

Make me be wounded with his wounds,

make me drunk with the cross

out of love for your son,

May I be inflammed, set on fire

through you, O Virgin,

and defended through you

on the day of judgment.

Let me be guarded by the cross,

defended by the death of Christ,

cherished by grace.

I find it fascinating that the poet, here, asks to suffer the crucifixion not with Christ, but with Mary. This is not Mary-worship, as some modern protestants might fear, but precisely the opposite: an acknowledgement that the suffering of Christ himself–of the God-Man taking on the sins of humankind–is not something we poor meat-sacks can share in. What we can do is stand at the foot of the cross with Mary and share in her all-too-human suffering, suffering that she endures precisely because she understands its importance; the depth of her suffering as the one who gave birth to Christ equal to the depth of her compassion for the rest of us. To quote Bernard once again, “He died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since his.”

P.S. If you find this interesting, be sure to check out the much more complete thoughts on the medieval concept of the incarnation by the redoubtable Chris Armstrong, at his blog Grateful to the Dead.

[1] For a convenient Latin text, see http://www.stabatmater.info/latin.html

[2] See http://www.catholic.org/clife/lent/story.php?id=34430 for a text of Bernard’s complete homily.