The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works

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There are a number of different translations of this, surprisingly perhaps, very English Medieval text, on the market. What it shares with Julian of Norwich, is in fact a kind of Englishness of spirit that is rarely acknowledged; you have to perhaps go back through the beautiful ‘Piers Ploughman’ to the Anglo Saxon ‘Dream of the Rood’, to recover that flavor. In fact it was Denys Turner’s brilliant book on Julian that prompted me to try it: and part of the power is in the language. Language in fact forms a key issue in the very readable and illuminating introduction, but it raises a perennial question: to what extent can a modern translator both access and replicate, the ‘sound’ of the original, and the language of Chaucer’s time is neither strange nor incomprehensible, it is just that it is unfamiliar.

So what have we got? It opens a translation from Dionys the Aperogite, or ‘The Mystical Theology of St. Dennis,’ which establishes the basic conceptual foundation stone for the ‘Cloud.’ There are two approaches to understanding God: one is to take the kataphatic approach that the knowledge of God is revealed by what he has created, an approach adopted beautifully by many of the Psalms; the other approach, the apophatic approach, is that God is so totally unknowable that we cannot say anything about him; the former is affirmative, the latter, reductive. The approach of the latter is also found in Plotinus, and is perhaps exemplified in the approach of St. John of the Cross, with the Via Negato, which is not to suggest that they are mutually exclusive, and in fact the contrast has been likened to the Mary or Martha debate. ‘The Cloud’ which to describe over-simply, is a manual for the practice of contemplation, is followed by a text on perhaps more general advice. One has to bear in mind that what the religious - the author is believed to have been a Carthusian Priest, writing in English – and that raises questions, who remained anon, is that for the Medieval religious, the boundary between what we would call prayer and what we might call contemplation, did not exist; and they were only the guidelines established by the earlier Desert Fathers.

One of the interesting things about ‘The Cloud’ is that in a way, it continues with a Platonic thread: from Plato, to Plotinus, to Proclus, to Denys – a Christian student of Proclus. Aquinas, concerned as he was about the purity of doctrine, was concerned about the Greek element he discerned in the writings of Denys, but that concern is no different from the concern of the early Islamic Theologians, as to the influence coming from outside of the prophetic tradition, which in their view really began with Adam. That is in a way, a by the way. This is a lovely translation that is as illuminating as it is perhaps practical, and its in a Penguin!

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