The Cloud of the Unknowing, Cafeteria Catholics and Pope Francis

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene--OlsenOne of my favorite spiritual works–I haven’t read it in its entirety but as I do with most of my God books I read bits and pieces and skip around—is The Cloud of the Unknowing.

The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the 14th century. It is a spiritual guide on Catholic contemplative prayer. It proposes the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of “unknowingness,” at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God.

With the election of Pope Francis it seems a new era has swarmed into the Church. I am careful not to say a “better” era. I felt Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was a brilliant pope who left us beautiful epistles, wonderful homilies and made great strides in uniting certain facets of Christians with the Church.  Also, he held fast to supporting the Church’s moral truths which are under attack in the secular world, therefore our very Catholic selves are under attack.  I loved him, looked at him as a true shepherd of our Church, guided by God to shepherd the whole Church.

What I mean by this new era is how Pope Francis is able to appeal to the other Catholics, ex-Catholics and the ones who might be more cafeteria-style in their Catholic morality but who nonetheless want to know, love and serve God. Unable to grasp the importance of God’s moral truths in following Him, they still want to follow Him.

And Francis opens that door, without compromising on the Church’s moral truths. By his humility, his meekness, his imperative and primary call to serve the poor, these Catholics fall silent–in a good way, silent. They stop attacking temporarily. They perceive a pope they might actually be able to relate to. This is the God they know and love, the God who serves the poor and the God who loves all of us, even those of us who can’t—-by nature of our ignorance and pride, which we all have to some extent in different capacities—come to accept moral truths.

I’ve listened to the commentary and have been impressed with comments like “breath of fresh air in the Church,” and “guarded hopefulness.”  As for me, it’s funny because the Church has ALWAYS been about social justice–at least in my lifetime. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were tremendous champions of the poor and the vulnerable.  So why couldn’t these other Catholics see it? And why do they see Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air?

I can only guess it’s because these types of Catholics abhor authority, hierarchy, pomp, Catholic morality?  I don’t have a problem with authority, hierarchy, pomp (beauty!) and theological morality. So, I saw the Church’s grand social justice network as part of a whole, not a separate thing.

Anyways, for those cafeteria and ex-Catholics who might entertain coming back to the fold because of Pope Francis, welcome! And yay! You don’t have to have a perfect understanding (I say “understanding” because if these Catholics truly understood Catholic morality they would embrace it) of morality in order to be welcomed in the Church.  Just come back. Your understanding of the necessity of her moral teachings will come more readily once you’re here for a while.  So come back and let the Church and the Holy Spirit transform you.

The most important moral teaching, the foundation of it all, is the Church teaching on the dignity of the human person. Thank God for her stubborn insistence on condemning abortion. Pro-life in all circumstances, it is my prayer that Catholics who support a “woman’s right to choose abortion” will come to understand the love behind the Church’s teaching on this.

I’ve been thinking about the things that appeal to more liberal Catholics–and in addition to social justice, to me they seem to be more existential in nature. I’m making a big generalization here but it’s also an invitation.

where-only-love-can-go-30-days-with-john-kirvan-paperback-cover-artCheck out the Cloud of the Unknowing. A contemplative myself, this is a great entry point for those looking for the softer side of the Faith. Softer as in—it’s all about “love”— and not morality.  But this spiritual classic is not for beginners who wish to dabble in spirituality and new ageness. This spirituality is deeply rooted in Jesus, in forgetting everything about the world and getting to know God without distraction.

The Cloud of the Unknowing is written in middle English and for me is very difficult to read. I have to read every sentence three times to get it. So books like the one by John Kirvan, “Where Only Love Can Go,” are excellent tools for me to embrace this spiritual classic.  Where Only Love Can Go is a thirty day trip through The Cloud of the Unknowing, in modern language.  Here is an excerpt:

My dear friend in the Spirit, up until now you have lived a good but ordinary Christian life, not very different from your friends. But apparently God is calling you to something more. Because of the love in his heart, which he has had for you from the moment of your creation, he is not going to leave you alone, not about to let you off so easily. You are beginning to experience in  a special way God’s everlasting love, which you were brought out of nothingness and redeemed at the price of his blood. You can no longer be content to live at a distance from God. In his great grace he has kindled a desire in your heart to be more closely united to him.”

Kirwan notes that the anonymous author of The Cloud of the Unknowing instructs its reader that this is a book and a journey, which requires serious attention. He goes on to say, “The Cloud of the Unknowing is not for those who are tempted to “dip into” spirituality, to play around the edges of contemplation, presuming that the journey to God is a trip into warm fuzziness and uninterrupted serenity.”

So, in conclusion here I’m excited that ex-Catholics and “cafeteria” Catholics are looking at Pope Francis fondly and therefore looking more fondly at our Church. If only they would stop criticizing her for a minute and simply experience her in all her beauty and complexity, they will come to love her as I do. The Cloud of the Unknowing, a very Catholic spiritual work, might be a good place to start. And eventually, their understanding of God’s moral truths will come—and they will see the moral truths are there not to punish or condemn us but to free us and perfect us to closer union with our Creator.

11 thoughts on “The Cloud of the Unknowing, Cafeteria Catholics and Pope Francis

  1. “The Cloud of Unknowing” has been on my to-read list for a while now anyway. I just need to find where I’ve put the noviciate copy! (It’s on one of the bookcases, I just don’t know which one.)

    • I first came across it is essays within Magnificat where I get my daily Mass readings. The real thing is a tough read. But in bits and pieces it always seems to motivate me to have a better relationship with God.

      • I’ll probably team it with something else to use for my spiritual reading, and read a little of The Cloud each day rather than trying to read through it in one go. Some books are hard to read because you really have to think about what you’re reading. Like Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. That takes much brain.

  2. Hi, Number 9– I’m holding Heather King’s “Shirt of Flame: A Year With Saint Thérese of Lisieux” in my lap as I write this, and think you’d like it, too, for its intimate expressions of personal faith. Also Kathleen Norris’ “Cloister Walk” is generous, rich. How I’d love to sit with Nborris an hour and just absorb. Thanks for coming by my blog, too. I”ll be here often. Blessings—M.

    • Thank you Melissa, I am a fan of Heather Kings, but hadn’t gotten her book so I need to go buy it! I have read her essays in the Magnificat and loved them. I’ve never heard of Cloister Walk so thank you. I like to post about great books for Catholic alcoholics so ill put both of those on my list.

  3. I Certainly Like this, it finds a direct target in my Mind and Soul!:

    ” It proposes the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of “unknowingness,” at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God.”

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful read! I have heard a lot about the “The Cloud of Unknowing” from both my friends and co-workers and I have been planning to read it for a while now. I want to strengthen my relationship with God and I want to start doing that by reading this book.

  5. The author explicitly asked the readers to read the book in its entirety, study it, and re-read it as many times as they need to embark on the journey of contemplation. So, it is important to read it, not in bits and pieces, but in its entirety – front to back.

    “this is a great entry point for those looking for the softer side of the Faith. Softer as in—it’s all about “love”— and not morality.”

    This is why the author insisted on reading it entirely. The author placed an important emphasis on morality, but he showed a way of deriving it from meekness and charity, with the grace of God, rather than occupying our being with it (morality) in and of itself. I am sure you meant it that way, but I wanted to clarify it for the uninitiated reader – he supported the Catholic doctrine vocally and wholeheartedly.

    The Cloud of Unknowing is much more than an entry point. I regard it as the most important work of Christianity, next to the Bible, of course. It is a guide to the reconstruction of consciousness to the time before the Original Sin. Hence the name, The Cloud of “Unknowing” – it is a call to giving up on knowledge received by Adam’s and Eve’s actions and being One with God again, beneath Him but in Him.

    The Cloud of Unknowing is not for everyone, as stated in the Prologue. If you read the Prologue carefully, you will see that he explicitly warns that the book is not intended for inherently immoral people, set on staying that way. I presume the author would not be happy to find out about its wide availability today.

    • Not knowing the authors intentions we can both speculate. I speculate the author would be thrilled to have wide appeal. I will continue to read it in bits and pieces as this helps me in my Catholic Fairh and life.

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