The Cloud of Unknowing is a fourteenth-century work of Christian mysticism written by an anonymous author. It is a spiritual guide to contemplative prayer—the art of surrendering ego, mind, and expectations so that God may pierce the barrier, or cloud, that separates him from us.
Since this book’s entrance into religious circles more than 500 years ago, the question of authorship has been asked by many, including the Anglo-Catholic writer and mystic Evelyn Underhill, who penned the introduction to this important version of The Cloud. The writer’s identity may be a mystery, but the value of his writing is plain to all. Underhill praises the unidentified author’s vivid humor, robust common sense, and simple style, which helps readers share in the deeply spiritual experiences he has enjoyed. According to Underhill’s introduction, “So actual, and so much a part of his normal existence are his apprehensions of spiritual reality, that he can give them to us in the plain words of daily life: and thus he is one of the most realistic of mystical writers.”
Drawing upon Christian Neoplatonism, this matchless guide encourages readers to seek God truly and glimpse his divine beauty, wisdom, and love—to remove all thought, and work within the realm of the heart. Attempting to describe the indescribable, The Cloud of Unknowing is a key text for understanding contemplative prayer and the practices of Christian mysticism.
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The Cloud of Unknowing, a masterpiece of simplicity that distills a complex mystical epistemology and discipline into engagingly readable prose, embodies a paradox. It offers a method by which the suitably disposed reader may practice an advanced and even austere form of contemplation—the divesting of the mind of all images and concepts through an encounter with a ‘nothing and a nowhere’ that leads to the mysterious and unfathomable being of God himself. Yet as the account of this exercise unfolds, the genial and hospitable tone of the author humanizes the austerity of the method and persuasively draws the reader into what Evelyn Underhill calls, ‘the loving discernment of Reality.’
—Patrick J. Gallacher, professor emeritus, University of New Mexico
The author truly believes that the contemplation he teaches is of the highest value. He presents a book of true counseling, more direct than is the accepted practice of today, but written with the conviction that comes from lifelong practice.
Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) was born in Wolverhampton, England, to a London barrister. An only child, Underhill received her early education at home and then studied history and botany at King’s College London. Though Underhill was an agnostic for some time, mystical experiences she had as a child motivated her to continue exploring theology and religion. Underhill developed an interest in Neoplatonism, which eventually led her to Catholic mystical thought. This spiritual journey led back to the Anglican Church, where Underhill became a devout Anglo-Catholic.
Underhill’s spiritual father was the Austrian Roman Catholic mystic Baron Friedrich von Hugel. He mentored her from 1921 until his death in 1925. Following his death, Underhill began leading spiritual retreats for the Church of England. Underhill was the first woman to officially lead such retreats for the Church as well as the first woman to lecture to Church of England clergy and to teach theology in British colleges and universities. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Aberdeen University and became a fellow of King’s College London. Underhill was also the editor of the conservative magazine The Spectator.