from works by the author of
The Cloud of Unknowing

This page:

The Cloud of Unknowing
The Epistle of Privy Counsel
The Epistle of Prayer




index pages:

Although the author’s name is unknown, these works are credited to a single source. The originals are in Middle (late 14th-century) English.

The Cloud of Unknowing

translated into modern English by Clifton Wolters

Copyright © 1961 by Clifton Wolters


He cannot be comprehended by our intellect or any man’s – or any angel’s for that matter. For both we and they are created beings. But only to our intellect is he incomprehensible: not to our love.

All rational beings, angels and men, possess two faculties, the power of knowing and the power of loving. To the first, to the intellect, God who made them is forever unknowable, but to the second, to love, he is completely knowable, and that by every separate individual.



 5 For the act of remembering or thinking about what a thing is or does has a spiritual effect. Your soul’s eye concentrates upon it, just as the marksman fixes his eye on his target. Let me say this: everything you think about, all the time you think about it, is ‘above’ you, between you and God. And you are that much farther from God if anything but God is in your mind.
 6 For though we through the grace of God can know fully about all other matters, and think about them – yes, even the very works of God himself – yet of God himself can no man think. Therefore I will leave on one side everything I can think, and choose for my love that thing which I cannot think! Why? Because he may well be loved, but not thought. By love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never.
 8 One is the active, the other is the contemplative life. Active is the lower, contemplative the higher. The active life has two parts, a higher and a lower, and likewise the contemplative has two parts too, a lower and a higher. These two ways of life are linked, and though they are different, each is dependent on the other. For what we call the higher part of the active life is the same as the lower part of the contemplative. A man cannot be fully active except he be partly contemplative, nor fully contemplative (at least on earth) without being partly active.

The lower part of the active life consists of good, straightforward acts of mercy and charity. The higher part (which is the lower part of contemplative living) is made up of various things, for example, spiritual meditation, an awareness of one’s own wretched state, sorrow and contrition, a sympathetic and understanding consideration of Christ’s passion and that of his servants, a gratitude which praises God for his wonderful gifts, his kindness and works in all parts of his creation, physical and spiritual. But the higher part of contemplation – at least as we know it in this life – is wholly caught up in darkness, and in this cloud of unknowing, with an outreaching love and a blind groping for the naked being of God, himself and him only.

13 In itself, humility is nothing else but a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is. For surely whoever truly saw and felt himself as he is, would truly be humble.



23 They say that ‘God helps them that help themselves’. But, in fact, they malign him, as they well know. For you can be absolutely confident of this, whoever you are that has truly left the world for God, that God will send you one of two things, independently of your own efforts: either an abundant supply of goods, or else the physical strength and spiritual patience to endure want. So what does it matter which a man has? It is all one to the true contemplative.




We said of humility that it was mysteriously and perfectly summed up in this little, blind loving of God, beating away at this dark cloud of unknowing, all else buried and forgotten. We may say this, however, of all the virtues, and in particular of charity. For charity is nothing else than loving God for himself, above all created things, and loving men in God just as we love ourselves.



32 When you feel that you are completely powerless to put these thoughts away, cower down before them like some cringing captive overcome in battle, and reckon that it is ridiculous to fight against them any longer. In this way you surrender yourself to God while you are in the hands of your enemies, and feeling that you have been overcome for ever. Please pay special heed to this suggestion, for I think that if you try it out it will dissolve every opposition. I am quite sure that if this dodge, too, can be looked at in the right way, it will be recognized to be none other than the true knowledge and experience of the self you are; wretched, filthy, and far worse than nothing. Such knowledge and experience is humility. And this humility causes God himself to come down in his might, and avenge you of your enemies, and take you up, and fondly dry your spiritual eyes – just as a father would act towards his child, who had been about to die in the jaws of wild boar, or mad, devouring bears!

And yet, maybe, they imagine it to be the fire of love, lighted and fanned by the grace and goodness of the Holy Ghost. [...] For hot on the heels of false experience comes false knowledge in the school of the fiend, just as true experience is followed by true knowledge in the school of God. For I tell you truly that the devil has his contemplatives as God has his.


The Devil

46 So beware of behaving wildly like some animal, and learn to love God with quiet, eager joy, at rest in body as in soul. Remember your manners, and wait humbly upon our Lord’s will. Do not snatch at it, like some famished dog, however much you hunger for it.
54 They are more anxious to seem holy in the sight of men than in the sight of God and his angels. Why, these people will worry and grieve more over unorthodox ritual, or the speaking of an unseemly or unsuitable word, than they will for a thousand vain thoughts or nauseating and sinful impulses, which they have deliberately gathered to themselves, or recklessly indulged in in the sight of God, and the saints and angels in heaven. Ah, Lord God! where there are so many humble bleats without, there must be pride within.
If a man who has naturally a loud and powerful voice, speaks in a pathetic and high pitched voice (assuming he is not ill, or is not talking with God or his confessor!) then it is a plain token of hypocrisy in young or old alike.




The fiend will deceive some men in this way; in a most remarkable fashion he will set them on fire to maintain the law of God and to destroy sin in all other men. He will never tempt them with anything that is openly evil. He makes them like those busy eccesiastics who watch over every condition of our Christian life, as an abbot does over his monks. For they do not hesitate to reprove us all for our faults, just as if they had the cure of souls. For the sake of God they think they dare not do otherwise than declare the faults they see. They say they have been moved to do so by fervent charity, and by the love of God that is in their hearts. But they lie. It is the fire of hell which is welling up in their minds and imaginations.




Note (Hal’s):
Here (through 66) follows a catalogue of the faculties of the mind.

— end note

Your soul has within itself, as part of the natural order, these faculties: the three major ones of Mind (which includes Memory), Reason, and Will, and two minor ones, Imagination and Sensuality.


Reason is the faculty by which we distinguish evil from good, bad from worse, good from better, worse from worst, better from best. Before man sinned his reason presumably would have done all this by light of nature. But now it is so blinded by original sin that it cannot do so unless it is enlightened by grace.


Original Sin

Will is the faculty by which we choose good after it has been approved by reason, and by which we love God, desire God, and, ultimately, with complete satisfaction and consent, dwell in God. Before man sinned his will could not go wrong in its choice, its love or any the of the things it did, because, then, it was able by nature to understand each thing as it really was. But it cannot do this now unless it is anointed with grace.


Imagination is the faculty by which we can picture anything, past as well as present. Both it, and the means by which it works, are contained in the mind. Before man sinned, imagination was so obedient to its master, reason, that it never pictured anything that was perverted or fantastic, physically or spiritually; but not so now. For if it is not restrained by the light of grace in the reason, it will never cease, waking or sleeping, to suggest diverse and perverted ideas about the world around us, or some hallucination, which, after all, is only a spiritual idea conceived in material terms, or a material one conceived in spiritual. And this is always counterfeit and false, and akin to error.


Sensuality is the faculty of our soul which affects and controls all our bodily reactions, and through which we know and experience the physical creation, both pleasant and unpleasant. It has two functions, one which looks after our physical needs, and one which provides for our physical appetites.

Before man sinned, sensuality was so obedient to will, its master as it were, that it never led it into perverted physical pleasure or pain, or any pretended spiritual pleasure or pain, induced by the enemy of souls into our earthly minds. But it is not so now. Unless it is ruled by grace in the will, so that it is prepared to suffer humbly and wholly the consequences of original sin (which it feels when it is deprived of its wonted pleasures, and can only have those irritating things that are so good for it!), and unless it will control both its strong desires when it has its wonted pleasures, and its greedy delight when the improving irritations are gone, it will wallow, like some pig in the mire, so wretchedly and wildly in all the wealth of the world, and the filth of the flesh, that the whole of its life will be animal and physical rather than human and spiritual.


Whenever your mind is occupied with anything physical, however praiseworthy, you can be said to be ‘beneath’ yourself, and ‘outside’ your soul. And whenever you feel your mind engaged in the subtleties of the soul’s faculties, and the way they work spiritually (such as vices or virtues, in yourself or in any other spiritual creature, and on the same natural level as yourself), in order that you might get to know yourself better, and to further your perfection, then you can be said to be ‘within’ yourself, and to have found your proper level. But whenever you feel your mind engaged, not in any physical or spiritual matter, but solely with God as he is (as the working out of the teaching of this book would prove) then you can be said to be ‘above’ yourself, and ‘beneath’ God.

text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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The Epistle of Privy Counsel

translated into modern English by Clifton Wolters

Copyright © 1978 by Clifton Wolters


Look up cheerfully and tell your Lord, either aloud or in your heart, ‘What I am, Lord, I offer you, for it is yourself’. And keep in mind, simply, plainly, and unashamedly, that you are as you are, and that there is no need to inquire more closely.

So you must get down to the basic essentials of thought (some people, remember, consider it the most sophisticated!) and think of yourself in the simplest way (again, some think it is the wisest), not what you are, but that you are.

4 Therefore be as ‘blind’ in your loving contemplation of God’s being as you are in the naked contemplation of your own, and don’t go searching after special qualities peculiar to him – or to you. Put speculation firmly aside, and worship God with all you have got. All-that-you-are-as-you-are worshipping all-that-he-is-as-he-is. For only he, and he completely, is his own blessed being – and yours too.

text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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The Epistle of Prayer

translated into modern English by Clifton Wolters

Copyright © 1978 by Clifton Wolters


What I would say is this: I think what is going to help you most when you start your prayer – and it doesn’t matter whether it is long or short or what – is to make quite sure that you are certain that you will die by the time it is ended, that you will finish before your prayer does!




But dread is no good as a foundation for anything unless it is for even more dread, the kind that sinks down into deep depression. So you must link your original idea with this further thought: you are to believe that if through the grace of God you can clearly speak the words of your prayer and bring it to its conclusion, or if you do die before you reach the end having done what you could, then God will accept it as full payment for all your neglect from the time your life began up to that very moment.

vi For reverence is nothing but dread and love blended together by the staff of a sure hope.

All this business of reverent dread which I spoke of earlier, when it has been caused by these two thoughts of dread and hope, can well be likened to a tree full of fruit. Of this tree dread is the part that is in the earth, the root, and hope is the part above, the tree and the branches. When hope is steadfast and sure it is the trunk: when it moves men to deeds of love, it is the branches. But always the fruit is this reverent affection. Too, as long as the fruit is attached to the tree it always shares in the fresh smell of the tree. But after a while, when it has been picked and is fully ripe, it loses its tree smell, and is food fit for a king. [...] So get ready to pick this fruit from its tree and to offer it up to the King of Heaven on high. Then you will be called God’s own child, who loves him with a pure love, for his own sake, and not for what he gives.

xii Love is pure when you ask God neither for release from suffering, nor for increase of joy, nor for the sweetness of his love here below – except when you need sweetness to freshen up your spiritual forces lest they should fail – but when you ask from God only himself. Then you neither care nor consider whether you are in pain or bliss, so long as you have him whom you love. This is pure love; this is perfect love. So get ready to separate the fruit from the tree; in other words, your reverent affection from your earlier thoughts of dread and hope.

text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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Background graphic copyright © 2003 by Hal Keen