Contemplative clouds: a site of solitude or subjectivity?
The anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing asserts that his work depends on Dionysius “from beginning to end” (ch. 70). The influence is obvious, but perhaps not as complete as the Cloud author suggests. As much as it draws on the patristic tradition of mystical theology, this text already seems to be moving away from it, toward a more proto-modern mode of mysticism and the isolated or buffered subject of modernity which such mysticism foretells.
Not yet at the extreme of Descartes’ methodological doubt or Husserl’s phenomenological epoche, the contemplative prayer advocated by this English mystic nevertheless involves a certain bracketing. On the one hand, God is to be sought exclusively through the ”cloud of unknowing,” which is a barrier to knowledge that is nevertheless permeable by divine love, or grace. On the other hand, there is the ”cloud of forgetting,” which detaches the contemplative from all sensations, images, and thoughts of people or things existing in the created world (ch. 5). Now, clouds are not walls. There is a certain degree of porousness implied by the metaphor. And yet, the image of these clouds does encourage the prayerful soul to cultivate a profound sense of isolation from concrete reality in order to draw nearer to the God who nevertheless remains ever distant, thinkable only as “nothing” or “all,” approachable only from “nowhere” (chs. 68-9). The clouds act like buffers, leaving the self prayerful but abstracted. Soon, the prayers will cease but the abstraction will remain.
That having been said, modern subjectivity having been identified for the problematic and contingent occurrence that it is, an open question remains concerning the potential value of this sort of spiritual practice. The theme of solitude, more positive in connotation, could be developed here. And it could be pointed out that such cloudily enclosed contemplation is meant to attract others to the grace of God, through the change in spiritual and physical appearance which it brings about in the practioner (ch. 54). Ultimately, this contemplative prayer is, in its effects, both social and bodily–two qualities which we postmoderns demand. And yet, ought not these qualities condition prayer itself, and not only its outcomes? Or ought they not (at least not in the heights of contemplation)? This question, to me, seems as important and perplexing today, as ever. Must there be aloneness with the Alone, or is this precisely that which a prayerful encounter with the living God seeks to subvert?