The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. by Evelyn Underhill, , at sacred-texts.com
Of the shortness of this word, and how it may not be come to by curiosity of wit, nor by imagination.
BUT for this, that thou shalt not err in this working and ween that it be otherwise than it is, I shall tell thee a little more thereof, as me thinketh.
This work asketh no long time or it be once truly done, as some men ween; for it is the shortest work of all that man may imagine. It is never longer, nor shorter, than is an atom: the which atom, by the definition of true philosophers in the science of astronomy, is the least part of time. And it is so little that for the littleness of it, it is indivisible and nearly incomprehensible. This is that time of the which it is written: All time that is p. 75 given to thee, it shall be asked of thee, how thou hast dispended it. And reasonable thing it is that thou give account of it: for it is neither longer nor shorter, but even according to one only stirring that is within the principal working might of thy soul, the which is thy will. For even so many willings or desirings, and no more nor no fewer, may be and are in one hour in thy will, as are atoms in one hour. And if thou wert reformed by grace to the first state of man’s soul, as it was before sin, then thou shouldest evermore by help of that grace be lord of that stirring or of those stirrings. So that none went forby, but all they should stretch into the sovereign desirable, and into the highest willable thing: the which is God. For He is even meet to our soul by measuring of His Godhead; and our soul even meet unto Him by worthiness of our creation to His image and to His likeness. And He by Himself without more, and none but He, is sufficient to the full and p. 76 much more to fulfil the will and the desire of our soul. And our soul by virtue of this reforming grace is made sufficient to the full to comprehend all Him by love, the which is incomprehensible to all created knowledgeable powers, as is angel, or man’s soul; I mean, by their knowing, and not by their loving. And therefore I call them in this case knowledgeable powers. But yet all reasonable creatures, angel and man, have in them each one by himself, one principal working power, the which is called a knowledgeable power, and another principal working power, the which is called a loving power. Of the which two powers, to the first, the which is a knowledgeable power, God that is the maker of them is evermore incomprehensible; and to the second, the which is the loving power, in each one diversely He is all comprehensible to the full. Insomuch that a loving soul alone in itself, by virtue of love should comprehend in itself Him that is sufficient p. 77 to the full—and much more, without comparison—to fill all the souls and angels that ever may be. And this is the endless marvellous miracle of love; the working of which shall never take end, for ever shall He do it, and never shall He cease for to do it. See who by grace see may, for the feeling of this is endless bliss, and the contrary is endless pain.
And therefore whoso were reformed by grace thus to continue in keeping of the stirrings of his will, should never be in this life—as he may not be without these stirrings in nature—without some taste of the endless sweetness, and in the bliss of heaven without the full food. And therefore have no wonder though I stir thee to this work. For this is the work, as thou shalt hear afterward, in the which man should have continued if he never had sinned: and to the which working man was made, and all things for man, to help him and further him thereto, and by the which working a p. 78 man shall be repaired again. And for the defailing of this working, a man falleth evermore deeper and deeper in sin, and further and further from God. And by keeping and continual working in this work only without more, a man evermore riseth higher and higher from sin, and nearer and nearer unto God.
And therefore take good heed unto time, how that thou dispendest it: for nothing is more precious than time. In one little time, as little as it is, may heaven be won and lost. A token it is that time is precious: for God, that is given of time, giveth never two times together, but each one after other. And this He doth, for He will not reverse the order or the ordinal course in the cause of His creation. For time is made for man, and not man for time. And therefore God, that is the ruler of nature, will not in His giving of time go before the stirring of nature in man’s soul; the which is even according to one time only. So that man p. 79 shall have none excusation against God in the Doom, and at the giving of account of dispending of time, saying, “Thou givest two times at once, and I have but one stirring at once.”
But sorrowfully thou sayest now, “How shall I do? and sith this is thus that thou sayest, how shall I give account of each time severally; I that have unto this day, now of four and twenty years age, never took heed of time? If I would now amend it, thou wottest well, by very reason of thy words written before, it may not be after the course of nature, nor of common grace, that I should now heed or else make satisfaction, for any more times than for those that be for to come. Yea, and moreover well I wot by very proof, that of those that be to come I shall on no wise, for abundance of frailty and slowness of spirits, be able to observe one of an hundred. So that I am verily concluded in these reasons. Help me now for the love of JESUS!” p. 80
Right well hast thou said, for the love of JESUS. For in the love of JESUS; there shall be thine help. Love is such a power, that it maketh all thing common. Love therefore JESUS; and all thing that He hath, it is thine. He by His Godhead is maker and giver of time. He by His manhood is the very keeper of time. And He by His Godhead and His manhood together, is the truest Doomsman, and the asker of account of dispensing of time. Knit thee therefore to Him, by love and by belief, and then by virtue of that knot thou shalt be common perceiver with Him, and with all that by love so be knitted unto Him: that is to say, with our Lady Saint Mary that full was of all grace in keeping of time, with all the angels of heaven that never may lose time, and with all the saints in heaven and in earth, that by the grace of JESUS heed time full justly in virtue of love. Lo! here lieth comfort; construe thou clearly, and pick thee some profit. p. 81 But of one thing I warn thee amongst all other. I cannot see who may truly challenge community thus with JESUS and His just Mother, His high angels and also with His saints; but if he be such an one, that doth that in him is with helping of grace in keeping of time. So that he be seen to be a profiter on his part, so little as is, unto the community; as each one of them doth on his.
And therefore take heed to this work, and to the marvellous manner of it within in thy soul. For if it be truly conceived, it is but a sudden stirring, and as it were unadvised, speedily springing unto God as a sparkle from the coal. And it is marvellous to number the stirrings that may be in one hour wrought in a soul that is disposed to this work. And yet in one stirring of all these, he may have suddenly and perfectly forgotten all created thing. But fast after each stirring, for corruption of the flesh, it falleth down again to some thought p. 82 or to some done or undone deed. But what thereof? For fast after, it riseth again as suddenly as it did before.
And here may men shortly conceive the manner of this working, and clearly know that it is far from any fantasy, or any false imagination or quaint opinion: the which be brought in, not by such a devout and a meek blind stirring of love, but by a proud, curious, and an imaginative wit. Such a proud, curious wit behoveth always be borne down and stiffly trodden down under foot, if this work shall truly be conceived in purity of spirit. For whoso heareth this work either be read or spoken of, and weeneth that it may, or should, be come to by travail in their wits, and therefore they sit and seek in their wits how that it may be, and in this curiosity they travail their imagination peradventure against the course of nature, and they feign a manner of working the which is neither bodily nor ghostly—truly this man, whatsoever he be, is perilously p. 83 deceived. Insomuch, that unless God of His great goodness shew His merciful miracle, and make him soon to leave work, and meek him to counsel of proved workers, he shall fall either into frenzies, or else into other great mischiefs of ghostly sins and devils’ deceits; through the which he may lightly be lost, both life and soul, without any end. And therefore for God’s love be wary in this work, and travail not in thy wits nor in thy imagination on nowise: for I tell thee truly, it may not be come to by travail in them, and therefore leave them and work not with them.
And ween not, for I call it a darkness or a cloud, that it be any cloud congealed of the humours that flee in the air, nor yet any darkness such as is in thine house on nights when the candle is out. For such a darkness and such a cloud mayest thou imagine with curiosity of wit, for to bear before thine eyes in the lightest day of summer: and also contrariwise in the p. 84 darkest night of winter, thou mayest imagine a clear shining light. Let be such falsehood. I mean not thus. For when I say darkness, I mean a lacking of knowing: as all that thing that thou knowest not, or else that thou hast forgotten, it is dark to thee; for thou seest it not with thy ghostly eye. And for this reason it is not called a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing, that is betwixt thee and thy God. p. 85