Or Hurtful Desire

The Cloud of Unknowing: a classic of Christian mysticism which of course I had no idea existed until I stumbled over it in Foyles. The Shambhala Pocket Library translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher was well-recommended, and I was startled at hearing the unmistakable resonance of Zen in Christian pages. The Cloud of Unknowing became the first book I read this year.

Obviously most mystic thinking is clouded not just by unknowing but by superstition. For example, you will learn that when the devil “assumes any human shape, he only has one nostril, and it’s fat and wide. And he’s always willing to flare it up at people so they can get a good look at his brain, which is nothing but the fire of hell.” (Although that’s also how my brain feels most of the time.)

Apart from these tangents the book is tightly focused on what it means to live the contemplative life in order “to unite your soul with God”. This is the God of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whose name sounds like it came straight out of the fifth century equivalent of the Wu-Tang Name Generator), who can only be approached through the via negativa (God, that is, not the Wu-Tang Clan).

In order to make this approach, “you must suppress the sharp intrusions of your thoughts that inevitably come when you sit down to do the blind work of contemplation”, (p32) for “if you leave those thoughts alone there, you might as well be gluing them to your spiritual heart, which is your will, and then the attachment becomes a deadly sin.” (p36)

This attachment sits with Augustine’s definition of sin as “hurtful desire”. We overcome this through practice, described as having three inseparable parts: the lesson, the meditation and the orison; or reading, reflecting and praying. Reading is the receipt of knowledge, which then enables practitioners “to steep their souls in reflection”, only after which can “true prayer” happen. (p88-9)

The nature of contemplative prayer is once again interesting; distinguished from liturgical prayers, it “rise[s] unrehearsed to God, with no go-betweens.” Contemplatives “seldom use words when they pray… they prefer a one-syllable word… not just spoken or thought but [as] an expression of the deepest intentions of your spirit”, (p92-3) a word which is the “naked intent for God”. (p27)

By coincidence (not really!) I was listening to a podcast in which Robert Wright interviewed Father Michael Holleran, a man with a foot in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions of contemplation. Holleran explained that this word is not a mantra in the Buddhist sense, but is used only when thoughts need to be back on track; this seems like a distinction without a difference to me, though.

It’s always seemed clear to me that mystic traditions around the world have been built on similar metaphorical foundations, and talk about religious experience in similar symbolic ways. There is something ineffable which we can access but are unable to describe, which manifests itself in a sense of unity, and which is reached through intense interior practice, usually alone.

While the mystic traditions talk of how the contemplative experience is open to all, in many places they also put up fences which make that experience seem foreign to most believers – and of course to willing unbelievers. The question is whether such practices have an inherent need for gatekeepers – perhaps because they are dangerous? – or whether this is a more political move than they will admit.

The Secular Buddhism movement – of which Wright is a critical part – has worked hard to make meditation accessible to a wider range of people. Father Holleran – in the same tradition as Thomas Merton – also maintains a dual practice which seeks to make both contemplative practices available to a wider public. I’m sure if I look more widely, I’ll find more examples.

The reason I picked up the book – the reason I’m exploring this subject – is because western societies in the twenty-first century have been hollowed out. This has been a slow process, and well-documented; yet it seems that hollowing might create space for a re-formulation of the via negativa, which might allow any of us to recover the ineffable through the process of elimination.